Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Rejoice in His Holy Comfort” (John 20:19-23)
June 4, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
On this Pentecost Sunday we thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon the church to empower us to love God and love others in response to the immeasurable love of God for us. Scripture tells us it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to say, “Jesus is Lord” (and mean it), who fills our hearts with the love of God, who leads us into truth, who reminds us that we are not alone.
Today’s gospel lesson takes place on Easter evening. John tells us the disciples had gathered in a place where they had locked the doors because they were afraid. But their fear and their locked doors could not keep away the Risen Jesus, who “came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” The Risen Jesus then showed them his scars, and “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19).
The One the disciples had followed for three years, the One they had heard preach a gospel of love and forgiveness, the One they had seen heal the sick and walk on water, the One who had given their lives meaning and purpose, the One they thought was dead and gone, was back. Yes, Jesus had died—he showed them the very scars from that—but Jesus had risen, and despite the locked doors, despite their fear, Jesus had come to see them.
And in case the disciples missed it the first time, Jesus repeated, “Peace be with you.” Jesus was not angry at them for fleeing when he was arrested and betrayed, for leaving him alone at his darkest hour. Jesus had already forgiven them, and their relationship with him was marked not by guilt, but peace.
Maybe some of you here today, even though you are at church, when it actually comes to you and God, are afraid—and out of that fear have locked the doors of your heart. If that includes you, be encouraged, because the Risen Jesus’ words to his disciples are his words to you: “Peace be with you.” Scripture assures you that you “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
Along these lines, in the collect for today we prayed for God by the Holy Spirit to “Grant us…evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort” (The Book of Common Prayer 227). One of the primary works of the Holy Spirit in your life is to comfort you.
As I have shared before, when I was in seminary, a homiletics professor taught that “a good preacher comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” I studiously scribbled it down in my notebook. But the longer I am in parish ministry the more aware I am that nobody is truly comfortable, that the reality is everyone needs comfort from the Holy Spirit, comfort from the Holy Comforter.
In her song, “Chasing What’s Already Gone” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings:
You grow up tall and you grow up tough
Trying to never admit not feeling good enough
They tell you “Find your passion and you’ll find your way”
Just trying to make it unscathed through every day
(On her 2012 album Ashes and Roses)
Despite how hard you may try to “make it unscathed through every day,” the reality is some days you do not make it unscathed. And sometimes in the midst of that hurt is when you feel the most alone—as the iconic band R.E.M., which got its start in Athens, Georgia, sings in their hope-filled anthem “Everybody Hurts”:
When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life
Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes
Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it’s time to sing along
When your day is night alone
If you feel like letting go
When you think you’ve had too much of this life
Well, everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Don’t throw your hand
Oh, no, don’t throw your hand
If you feel like you’re alone
No, no, no, you’re not alone
(On their 1992 album Automatic for the People)
If you cannot relate to Mary Chapin Carpenter or R.E.M., perhaps you can relate to the great American writer Jack London, who wrote the following in his 1899 short story about life in the Arctic entitled, “The White Silence”:
Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity—the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven’s artillery—but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice…And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him—the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence—it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God (London: Novels and Stories 301).
Maybe you have experienced this ominous “White Silence,” but even if you have not, you have had days in which you did not make it through unscathed. Yes, “everybody hurts” which means everybody needs comfort from the Holy Spirit, comfort from the Holy Comforter.
Jesus knew this. Listen to what he told his disciples at the Last Supper (in the King James Version which, as you know, is the version Jesus used):
The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:26-27, KJV).
And the Apostle Paul knew this too, as he wrote to the Corinthians (also in the King James Version, because, well, you know…):
Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, KJV).
One of the main roles of the Holy Spirit is to comfort you, and as we just heard from scripture, to enable you in turn to comfort others.
As many of you know, my family and I are officially “crazy cat people,” who have always had multiple cats living in our house, the vast majority of them rescue cats. One of them was named Toby, an orange tabby we took in nearly ten years ago, when he was already over ten years old. Toby never argued with us. Toby never had issues with us. Toby never gave us a problem to solve, or tension to diffuse, or drama to navigate, or bills to pay. Toby just sat in our laps and purred and slept, and thus gave all of us comfort. Any of you who have pets know that a pet is not “just a pet.”
So when Toby died, we were really sad, and we really hurt. And yet that was when we received real comfort when your retired rector, Peter Ingeman and his wife, Happy, sent us flowers (yes, flowers for a pet who had died—how kind is that?)—and not just any flowers, but orange lilies that matched Toby our beloved orange tabby. That comfort went right to our hearts. That is what it looks like to comfort one another with the comfort we have been given by the Holy Spirit.
After Jesus spoke comfort to his disciples, “Peace be with you,” he continued by telling them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21-22).
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said. The Holy Spirit is a gift that God readily gives to you if you ask. In fact, earlier Jesus had proclaimed, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). Like any other gift, you do not earn the Holy Spirit, you simply receive the Holy Spirit. God wants to pour the Holy Spirit, the Holy Comforter upon you to comfort you in the places where you hurt, where you have been scathed, where you feel alone in the “White Silence.”
And after breathing on his disciples and commanding them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus concluded, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). There have been many arguments in church history about who has the authority to forgive or not forgive, or about what it means to retain or not retain someone else’s sins. But such arguments entirely miss the heart of the gospel because the heart of the gospel is that Jesus did not die to retain your sins but to forgive your sins.
Jesus, on Good Friday, a day through which he most certainly did not make it through unscathed, walked alone to the cross, where his first words were words of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus’ words were about forgiving sins, not retaining them.
And this goes right back to where we started today. The reason the disciples were hiding in fear behind locked doors was because they were afraid God would not forgive them for fleeing from Jesus at his darkest hour. But God had already forgiven them. God had already taken care of it. “Peace be with you,” Jesus gently told them—words of comfort for his hurting disciples.
And the reason many people are afraid of God and lock the doors of their heart is because they too are afraid God will not forgive them—and perhaps “them” includes you. But God has already forgiven you—“Peace be with you,” are God’s comforting words to you.
The Holy Spirit will never lead you to retain the sins of others, or to hold grudges toward others, or to resent others; rather, the Holy Spirit will always lead you to forgive others, and by doing so, to comfort them (and yourself) with the same comfort with which the Holy Spirit has comforted you.
So on this Pentecost Sunday may you receive anew the Gift of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Comforter, to comfort you where you hurt, to enable you to comfort others, and “evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort.”