Our Gospel story today begins with these words which set the scene for us: On the evening of that day, the first day of the week…
All throughout John’s Gospel there are echoes of the creation story in the Book of Genesis, where we read that God created the world in six days and rested the seventh.
In this passage, John tells us that the story he’s reporting took place on the evening of Easter Sunday, which he calls the first day of the week. So John is suggesting that there’s new creation going on here: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead brings about a new creation. The old order, the old creation that was in the grip of death and decay, has now been overcome.
The fact we’re told this story takes place in the evening is also significant. Again back to Genesis: after Adam and Eve sinned and were hiding from the LORD’s presence in shame, God came looking for them in the garden in the cool of the day, that is, the evening.
And John wants us to see that much the same thing going on here: just three days earlier when Jesus was crucified, the disciples had abandoned Jesus - and in Peter’s case, he had denied Jesus. Now we meet the disciples hiding in a locked room in fear, just as Adam and Eve hid themselves among the trees in the garden.
And just as the LORD sought out Adam and Eve, here the risen Jesus comes and stands among His disciples. The very one they had abandoned and denied and assumed to be dead was no standing in their very midst. Imagine their shock and their shame, their fear and trembling.
And Jesus speaks to them these remarkable words: ‘Peace be with you.’ Now if that were me, I would probably have said, ‘I’m back to get my revenge! You’re in trouble!’ And yet Jesus speaks a word of forgiveness and mercy.
When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side, the wounds of His crucifixion out of which His blood had flowed on the cross. Now friends, the significance of these wounds is unfathomable and you’ll hear more about them next Sunday in the story of the risen Jesus and Thomas. But for our purposes today, I’ll just draw out two point about what these wounds represent: At the most basic level, the hands and side of the risen Jesus proved to the disciples that it was really Him and no other. This hard evidence of the crucifixion also served as a stark reminder of that to which the disciples’ abandonment and denial had contributed.
And friends, there is an important lesson here for us: when we do wrong or another does wrong to us, if there is to be forgiveness and contrition and repentance – and if these are to be true and transformative - the offense cannot be glossed over. You cannot pretend the transgression never happened. That would be amnesia or denial, not true forgiveness and reconciliation.
Back to our Gospel: Then the disciples were glad when the saw the Lord. They had received true mercy and were truly reconciled to Jesus. Their beloved friend and leader was alive again, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5.19).
Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you – and this time He commissions them, He empowers them to be sent out with a new and glorious purpose: to be His ambassadors in the world, entrusting to them the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5.19-20). As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. The disciples were to take the mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation they themselves had received and extend that gracious offer to all people for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22.2). And friends, as the heirs of the Apostles, this is now our mission.
And when He had said this He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ Again we hear a clear echo of the creation story. Just as God formed man from the dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living creature (Gen. 2.7), here Christ breathes His Spirit into His disciples to make them a new creation (2 Cor. 5.17).
The risen Lord Jesus Christ has accomplished the defeat of death and begins the work of the new creation on this first day of the week. Our task is to extend and implement this achievement in our Spirit-inspired mission to the world, to renew the face of the earth (Ps. 104.30).
That brings us to today’s reading from the First Letter of John where we learn more about what it means for us to be a new creation in Christ. John uses the language of new birth: everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.
This is one of the central themes of John’s first letter and this new birth is bound up together with belief in Jesus, obedience to His commands and love: love for God and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. So how then, do we know that we born of God? If we believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
Friends, what we believe about Jesus, who we say that He is, really matters. It’s not enough to say He was merely a great teacher or an inspiring figure. John insists that Jesus is nothing less than the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, who died and rose again and is now alive forevermore. [see Footnote #1] Only thus can He be the One through whom we are brought into a living relationship with God and made members of God’s family. Only thus can He be the One who empowers us to be His ambassadors of reconciliation in the world.
Friends, our beliefs are not merely abstract, intellectual thoughts, but are part of who we are, and so have real-life implications. Our faith in Christ is bound up inextricably with our love for God, our love for others who are born of Him, and our obedience to God’s commandments, the most important of which is love. So you see, there’s a circular feedback loop here. For John, to be born of God, to be a new creation in Christ, is a dynamic interplay of faith, obedience and love.
And again, this has real-life implications, it transforms our daily lives. John says that those who are born of God overcome the world. That is, together with the risen Christ, they overcome the old order of creation, with all its false allurements and fleeting pleasures, its tumultuous ups and downs, its trials and tribulations, its crimes and injustices, its bondage to the fear of death, its anxieties and uncertainties (such as this present pandemic).
So friends, let me ask you: how has the world been treating you lately (in this past year)? How are you feeling about the current state of the world? Has the world given you any fears and struggles that you need to overcome?
The only way to overcome is to live into the reality that you have been made a new creation in Christ. Friends, in this Easter season, I invite you to receive from the risen Christ a renewed faith, a steadfast obedience and a more fervent love for God and one another.
And friends, the most fundamental way to do this is to keep doing what you’re doing here this morning: worship and fellowship.
How can we be filled with the Spirit – the same Spirit that Jesus breathed on His disciples on that first Easter?
To be filled with the Spirt, the glorified breath of God, the Bible teaches us to address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (Ephesians 5:18–21 ESV) In other words, through music in worship.
That brings us to our Psalm, Psalm 81, which we sang together this morning. The Psalm begins with a rousing summons to worship – and specifically, to worship musically: Sing aloud to God our strength. In just those first three verses, there are five or six calls to worship – and all of them with music, both voices and instruments. Again I take this opportunity to remind you that singing is a biblical command…, so chant the Psalms and sing your favourite Easter hymns. That’s how you can keep the feast of Easter for the full 40 days.
Speaking of feasts, it’s quite clear that Psalm 81 was intended for use at the feasts and festivals of ancient Israel, quite likely the major Feasts of Passover and Tabernacles. And for us as Christians, Easter is our most significant feast, so this Psalm teaches us a lot about what it means to keep Easter.
We know that Psalm 81 is about Passover and Tabernacles because of its references to the Exodus. At Passover Israel remembers their deliverance from Egypt; at Tabernacles they remember God’s subsequent provision for them in the wilderness. The key here is remembrance of God’s mighty deeds in the past and how God provided for His people when times were tough and in times of testing.
So friends, how can we put this into practice? How should we remember during this Easter season? I would encourage you to read the stories of Christ’s resurrection from the end of the four Gospels (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21). They’re all quite short. Start a new family tradition of reading a passage from one of these chapters over the dinner table.
Reading and hearing God’s Word is a major emphasis in the latter part of Psalm 81. Both in v. 8 and v.13, the voice of God bursts in and calls the people to hear and listen.
In the first case, in. v.9, the people are admonished to listen to the Law, specifically the first two of the Ten Commandments: There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. This is another way of saying what we heard from John earlier about overcoming the world. There are any number of things in this world that would try to take the place of God in our lives: money, health, comfort, pleasure, etc. These are good thing in their rightful place, but they can’t bear the full weight of our trust and expectation, and they are fragile and fleeting (as this pandemic has demonstrated).
In the words of the Psalm, only God is our strength – and not a vague, generic god, but specifically the God of Jacob, the God who keeps covenant with His people Israel, the God of the Exodus who heard the cries of His people when they were in slavery and delivered them that they might serve Him in perfect freedom; the God who brought about a new and greater Exodus through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Practically speaking, for us, this means that we can come to know God personally, that God has an identity and a history and a character of steadfast love. This gives us assurance in our prayer life, that He will not abandon us, that when we bring our concerns and needs to God, He hears us.
It’s clear from our Psalm – this festival Psalm 81 – that the feasts and festivals God commands us to celebrate are given that we might know God more clearly, love Him more dearly and follow Him more nearly all the days of our lives. Psalm 81 reminds us that this Easter festival is a time to recommit ourselves to our faith in Christ and our obedience to His commandments, the most important of which is love. Thus shall we be made a new creation, born of God and overcome the trials and tribulations of the world.
 In his first letter, John was challenging heretics at the time who denied that Jesus was the incarnate Son/Word of God the Father, instead believing that He was only possessed by the eternal Word for a time, starting at His baptism. Against this, John argues that Jesus did indeed come by the water (at His baptism, when the Spirit descended upon Him and the Father declared Him to be the Son of God), but also by the blood, His life poured out on the cross. The Spirit, water and blood that testified to Jesus all continue to bear enduring witness in the life of the Church. The Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism and on the Church at Pentecost. The same Spirit has borne witness to Christ throughout the history of the Church. Christ commissioned His Church to make disciples of all nations, who confess Christ when they are baptized in water for the forgiveness of sins. When the Church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, the testimony of the blood of Christ is borne to us again, proclaiming that through Christ’s life poured out, He has entered into the heavenly places as our intercessor and mediator, opening a new and living way for us, ensuring us access to God.