“Don’t be afraid.” This is repeated many times in the Bible: for from the beginning of time (Adam after sinning, telling God, “I heard You in the Garden and I was afraid…” Genesis 3:10) – FEAR of PUNISHMENT because of GUILT and SIN; to the revelation God gave to John, in Revelation 1 (the last book of the Bible) John writes: “When I saw Him (the exalted Jesus), I fell at His feet as though dead. Then He placed His right hand on me and said, ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead and behold I am alive forever and ever!…” (v.17-18) – FEAR of the UNKNOWN, of the PRESENCE of GOD.
This is also in the Easter Gospel accounts – the women coming to the tomb early because the disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews; the Roman guards when the angel came down from heaven and rolled back the stone and sat on it, “… were so afraid that they shook and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28:4); the women who came to the tomb; when they saw and heard the angel, Mark records for us, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) In today’s Gospel reading, Easter evening, “the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…” John 20:19, and a week later, when Thomas was with them, “the doors were (still) locked…” (v.26) There are hundreds of examples in the Scriptures where an angel of God, and even God Himself, says, “Don’t be afraid.”
AMIDST all the FEARS that assail us, the Easter message is repeated: “Peace be with you.” On the evening of that first Easter, the disciples were together behind locked doors full of fear. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!'” (John 20:19) Notice that this was both an absolution and a promise. These are words of absolution because these were the very guilty disciples who had forsaken Jesus during His arrest, trial and death. Knowing this, these words, “Peace be with you!” are a great blessing in that only Jesus can give; the real peace that drives out fear. He had said to His disciples already on Maundy Thursday, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you. Not as the world gives, do I give unto you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:1)
Note that Jesus’ gift of peace did not immediately change their circumstances. Their situation had not changed but Jesus gave them PEACE and FAITH to overcome their FEARS.
The true peace of the Christian life is not the absence of troubles (we won’t have that until we are in heaven!) Jesus tells us, “These things I have spoken to you that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have troubles, but take heart, I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)
On that first Easter evening, the fear-full disciples, having received from Jesus the absolution and blessing of peace, “were over-joyed when they saw the Lord.” (v.20) Because of Jesus’ presence with them, they had moved from FEAR to PEACE and FAITH!
“Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! [Jesus repeated it a second time!] As the Father has sent Me [Jesus sent to “seek and to save that which was lost” – lost in sin, lost in fear, lost in hopelessness] As the Father has sent Me; I am sending you.” (v.21) And then He equipped them with everything necessary to carry out this ACTION: “And with that He breathed on them (sounds like Creation doesn’t it? and the breath/wind of Pentecost – soon to come!) and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'” (v.22-23)
The message of Easter is that Jesus conquered sin, death and the devil (the causes of FEAR in our lives) and through His death and resurrection we have the forgiveness of sins. The ongoing message of Easter is: “Don’t be Afraid” – You are freed from sin and fear – “your sins are forgiven.”
We also read that Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared on Easter evening. And when the disciples told Thomas about seeing Jesus, Thomas doubted; missing out on the joy and blessings of Easter! From this we see that another important part of “Jesus sending us” is to speak to those who are absent when Jesus comes to bring His peace and blessings. Every Sunday is an Easter celebration. But there are those who, like Thomas, for many different reasons are absent from corporate worship; who are not present for the PEACE of the confession of sins and the Absolution; who are not regular at the Sacrament of the Altar. Jesus also wants to give them PEACE to calm their FEARS.
Jesus said to Thomas, “do not be faithless (doubting) but faithful (believe).” (v.27) The condition of being “faithless” is most often NOT recognized by the person involved. I think of it to be something like the condition of freezing to death. At first a person feels the deadly cold and the body senses the need to be warmed up. But there comes a dangerous point where the warning signs are no longer present; when there is no longer any feeling and the false and deadly sensation is that everything is alright. There is no longer any “warning” to protect the body from the deadly cold, and without someone to rescue, death follows soon afterwards. Regularly being absent from worship; absent from the gathering to receive God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper is a very serious matter. That is why Jesus “sends us,” who ARE in worship – filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered by His Word and Sacraments – to invite and encourage those who are absent to return. So that they too, like Thomas, when they return to “faithfully” worship and commune, will look to Jesus with the bold confession of true faith: “My Lord and My God.” (John 20:28)
The Easter message is: Don’t be afraid – Jesus promises: “Peace be with you.” And so, may “the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds centered in Christ Jesus, until life everlasting.” (Philippians 4:7)