Text: John 20:19-31
These last Advent and Lenten seasons we continued our normal practice of midweek services. During those times in the Church year, we pause to focus on the mercy and love of our God toward us. In both seasons we used a service called “Evening Prayer.” It’s a beautiful service, as most would agree. In it, we sing a canticle after the sermon. After that, come the prayers. These include the Litany, the Lord’s Prayer and, sometimes, the Collect of the Day or other intercessions. Included among all this is what traditionally was always the last prayer of the service: the Collect for Peace. I’d like to invite you to open to page 251, and we’ll take a look at it.
The Collect for Peace is a very old prayer. It comes from a prayer book dating back to the fifth century. It has survived this long and is used frequently not just by us, but by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches as well, because of its wisdom. The prayer begins, “O God, from whom come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works.” This is called the address. After the address to God the Father comes the petition, the part where we ask for something, “give to us, Your servants, that peace which the world cannot give.” (Both citations from Lutheran Service Book, pg. 251) This is the phrase that comes to mind this week, “peace which the world cannot give.” By rising from the dead, Christ won for us a peace the world cannot give – the peace of sins forgiven – and He gives it in a different way than the world does, too.
Our text this week takes place on Easter Evening, the same day that Jesus rose from the dead. The Holy Spirit tells us by St. John that, although the women were initially alarmed at the absence of Jesus, they did eventually tell the disciples what they saw – including that Mary Magdalene had seen the Lord. But, when they told this to Jesus’ disciples, it all seemed to them to be idle tales. “Foolishness,” St. Luke wrote (Lk. 24:11) Instead of joyously believing what the women told because it matched with what Jesus had said to them before, the disciples were locked away, St. John wrote. They locked themselves up for fear of the Jews. They were afraid that the wrath poured out on their master would overflow onto them. In addition, think of the shame they must have felt. They had all vowed never to fall away from Jesus. Sure, Peter denied Jesus with his words, but they all ran when the soldiers came for the Lord. Think, also, of the despair and loneliness they felt over His death.
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” (Jn. 20:19, English Standard Version) Then, He showed them His hands and side. Remember how Jesus rode into Jerusalem not on a warhorse, but on a donkey? By that, He demonstrated His great humility and love for us. Here, Jesus came and stood in the midst of His cowering disciples and His first words to them weren’t, “I told you so,” but, “Peace be with you.” He didn’t speak to them a word of condemnation, a word of Law, but Gospel. “Peace be with you.” And, with this, Jesus spoke of peace the world cannot give.
That peace, which the world cannot give, is the forgiveness of sins. This is the whole reason Jesus died, the reason why He became flesh – to win for us the forgiveness of sins. When He said, “peace,” to the disciples, it’s as if He said to them, “you are forgiven.” He did what He came to do. They are forgiven. They need not fear, not fear neither sin, death, nor hell. Instead, they can be at peace. Their Lord, and our Lord, has risen from the dead. As proof, He showed them His hands and side. He is the same Jesus they saw crucified, not a ghost or other such thing. Then, having received the peace the world can’t give, St. John writes, “the disciples were glad.” (Jn. 20:20)
The peace that the world can’t give, which God alone gives through Christ, is the assurance and confidence that our sins are forgiven. Every sin that we have committed – and which we have yet to commit – finds its atonement in Christ’s passion. By His wounds we are healed. By His wounds, and by His rising again, we have peace. And that’s something the world can’t give us. We have the glad confidence of the forgiveness of sins and the joyful hope of the resurrection to eternal life. And, not only does Christ give us a peace which the world cannot, He also gives it in a different way than the world gives its sort of peace.
St. John writes,
“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”John 20:21-23
With these words Jesus instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry and entrusted to it the responsibility of speaking publicly, in His stead, the forgiveness of sins. The Apostles and our pastors today, who follow in their train, speak forth the forgiveness of Christ. When they speak within their office, such as in the Divine Service or in private confession and absolution, that our sins are forgiven and that we may depart in peace – they truly are, and we truly can. This is totally different than how the world works. In the world, if we want peace, we have to make it. Christ won us a peace the world can’t and He gives it in a way the world won’t: freely. He gives forgiveness to us freely through His Sacraments, through the Means of Grace, and He constantly reassures us by sending us pastors to speak His forgiveness in His stead.
This authority to forgive sins in the stead of Christ, what we know from the Catechism as the Office of the Keys, isn’t the sole property of the pastoral office, but it is given by Christ to His Church. Jesus teaches us this in Matthew 18, where the authority to bind and loose sins is given to the congregation as a whole. The pastor is called to speak publicly in the stead of Christ and on behalf of the congregation. In our personal lives, however, when our neighbor sins against us – or we, them – and the words of Christ’s forgiveness are spoken, in that moment sins are truly forgiven. When we forgive our Christian friend because Christ forgives us or they assure us that we are forgiven because of Christ, that is true and valid in heaven. And, that gives us peace, too. This means that God is not up in the sky looking to smite us, but looks down upon us in love and smiles upon us.
When Martin Luther preached on this text he made a good observation. He said the Lord gives us peace, not by taking away danger or sadness but by soothing our hearts, calming us and making us unafraid. This is true. By His resurrection, Christ brings us peace the world cannot give. In Him, the sins which formerly would’ve seen us eternally condemned in hell are forgiven. By Him our bodies will be raised anew and we will live in eternal joy – and that is something the world can’t give.