Keeping promises seems to be less and less a priority in our society. Promises are broken so frequently that I think we’ve come to expect that they won’t be kept and are surprised when they are. “Brides” magazine warns that 15-20% of people who RSVP won’t show up at a wedding. In the U.S., 2% of married heterosexual couples will divorce each year. (1% of same-sex married couples will.) The most common reason is “lack of commitment.” From the promises of politicians to work for all citizens to the promises of doctors who don’t call when they say they will, to our promises to do that errand, make that phone call, or attend that committee meeting, promises seem made to be broken.
Making and keeping promises builds trust, whether it’s something as small as a promise to take out the trash or as important as a marriage vow. When someone makes and keeps a promise to us, it tells us that we are important to them. It tells us that we take priority over other competing claims and interests. We learn to trust the one who makes and keeps their promises. A broken promise says that the person the promise was made to isn’t that important to the promise-maker. Trust is eroded, if not destroyed.
Jesus made a lot of promises to his disciples—a lot of promises. He promised to prepare a place in his Father’s house and to put the necessary words in their mouths when they were called on to testify to their faith in him (Lk 21:15). He promised a limitless supply of living water and his own body as the bread of life. He promised to give them work to do as fishers of people. He promised rest to the heavy laden, a peace unlike any peace they have ever known, and the gift of his own Spirit. He promised his unending love, his unending presence, and a resurrection to match his own.
But, on that evening in a locked room in Jerusalem, the disciples must have been wondering about those promises. The promise of fishing for people looked less likely than going back to fishing for fish. There certainly was none of the promised peace; all they felt was the fear and dread that the same people who got rid of Jesus would come looking for them, too.
Where was the promised presence? Jesus had been crucified, and now they’re facing another night without him. Sure, that very morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb and found it empty. Peter and another disciple had gone to the tomb and confirmed what she’d seen—or, rather, what she hadn’t seen. Later, Mary told of how she’d stayed behind and had seen Jesus. But no one else had seen him.
Remember that old song by Dionne Warwick, “Promises, Promises”? “Oh, promises, promises; this is where those promises, promises end,” she sang. If that song had been a 1st-century pop music hit, the disciples might have been ready to make it their theme song, because it sure must have seemed like this was where Jesus’ promises would end.
But then, Jesus suddenly appears among them. He offers them the most common-place greeting: “Peace be with you,” as though it’s just another ordinary encounter. But it’s certainly not ordinary to the disciples. John doesn’t describe them as astonished or amazed or terrified, but it does appear that didn’t recognize Jesus at all. They must have been standing there in dumb-founded silence until Jesus showed them his very human hands and side, complete with the marks of the nails and the spear. Then, John tells us, they rejoiced and recognized him as their Lord.
Jesus isn’t there to make a purely social call—a check-in to see how the disciples are doing. He is there for a purpose, and the purpose is to deliver on some of the promises he had made. His first is the promise he made in the upper room on the night when he was betrayed. He had warned the gathered disciples that soon the world would no longer see him. But, in the same breath, he assured them that they would see him. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he said that night, “I am coming to you.” Sure enough, Mary was the first disciple to see him, and now he has appeared before the rest of them—well, most of them, but that’s a story for next week. Put a checkmark by Jesus’ promise to come to them: promise kept.
His next act is to fulfill his promise of peace. In Matthew, we read Jesus’ promise of rest. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” he said to all who were listening. “Rest” for Jesus is not just a break from hard work, or even a degree of leniency from strict law-keeping. When Jesus promises rest, he is promising the gift of a quiet spirit. He offers a mind and heart free from worry and anxiety. He doesn’t promise a life free of challenges, and those challenges can weigh heavily on the soul. But the rest he offers enables us to face the challenges calmly. It instills an ability to wait for the future with patient expectation, whatever that future might hold.
On the night when he was betrayed, Jesus had spoken at length to the disciples in the upper room. That’s when he promised them the peace that Paul would later describe as the peace that passes all understanding. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he had said. This is peace that is akin to shalom—wholeness and harmony, within yourself and with God and with the world around us. This peace offers freedom from fear of what the world can throw at us. But it extends beyond that. This peace is a tranquility that comes from the assurance of salvation in Christ.
The disciples sorely needed this promised peace. Their world was a mess. They had given up everything for Jesus—homes and families, businesses and livelihoods, security. Their association with Jesus had estranged them from their faith communities. The crowds whose support seemed assured just a week before had morphed into a bloodthirsty mob. And now Jesus was dead—executed as a criminal, in the most shameful way ever, at the hands of both the religious authorities and the Roman government. No wonder the disciples had hidden behind locked doors.
But Jesus is there to offer the remedy: his peace. His first “peace be with you” was simply a greeting. His second “peace be with you” was the fulfillment of his promise. It is his assurance that, as threatening as the world is, his promised rest and peace are now theirs. They can face whatever is outside their doors with confidence, with assurance, and with hope. Jesus is preparing to send them into the world in the same way that his father sent him—with a calm and expectant serenity that comes with the knowledge that nothing can separate them from the love of God. Put another checkmark by Jesus’ promise of peace: promise kept.
What moves this peace from a “promise made” to a “promise realized” is Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit. He had promised this gift in that same conversation in the upper room. In preparation for the time when he would no longer be in the world, Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth, who will abide with you and be in you…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, who will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
What a promise to make! And now it is a promise that has been kept. Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This breath is so much more than a simple exhalation. It is the gift of the very breath of God. It is the Spirit-filled breath that swept over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation. It is the same breath that God breathed into Adam, giving him life. In the same way, Jesus’ breath gives new life to the disciples. They breathe in the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit becomes part of them, dwelling in them. Put a checkmark next to Jesus’ promise of the abiding Spirit: promise kept.
The last promise that Jesus will fulfill during this visit is the promise that his disciples will join him in his work—to become fishers of people. The fulfillment of this promise is a little less obvious than the others, but we find it in the final words of our passage: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
These words are a little more cryptic, and they’ve caused some controversy through the ages. Some have used them to invest Christians, and especially clergy, with a lot more power than we deserve. Some have used them to justify judgement and condemnation against people whose morals and behavior we disagree with or disapprove of. Some have used them to argue that people can forgive sins, if they’re the right people, that is.
But, if we read this passage with John’s frame of reference in mind, we find that the sins Jesus is talking about are not ones of behavior or morals. Sin, in John, is a failure to recognize who Jesus is. It is a failure to recognize Jesus as the Son of God. It’s the failure to accept Jesus as Lord of the universe and Lord of our lives. It’s the failure to believe in him and the forgiveness he alone offers.
The only way to escape this kind of sin is to accept Jesus. As Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But, as Paul went on to ask, “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”
The disciples’ proclamation of Jesus is the means by which their hearers can make a decision to accept or reject Christ—to accept or reject his forgiveness and the new life it makes possible. Only Christ can do the actual forgiving, but his disciples can offer the assurance that, in him, sin is forgiven. We offer this assurance to each other every time we celebrate Communion. Whenever someone accepts the grace Jesus offers, their sins are indeed forgiven. But, sadly, where the assurance of Christ’s forgiveness is withheld, the burden sin places on the soul remains.
Jesus promised that his disciples would join him in his mission to reconcile the world to himself and, in him, to God. From that locked room, he sent the disciples out, filled and empowered by the Spirit, to proclaim his love and forgiveness. Put a checkmark next to Jesus’ promise that his disciples would continue his mission in the world—to become fishers of people: promise kept.
Jesus didn’t stop keeping his promises during that visit to the disciples on Easter evening. He is still keeping his promises—to us. We may not see him physically present among us. But we see evidence of his presence everywhere. We see it wherever strangers show compassion for one another. We see it when people are willing to reach across vast philosophical, political, or religious differences to be the body of Christ. Jesus promised to be with us, and he continues to keep that promise.
We may not feel his breath blown across our faces, but we know that the breath of his Spirit fills us. We know that his Spirit abides in us when we are comforted by God’s presence in the loneliest of places and situations. We know that the Spirit dwells in us when we find the strength or courage to do what we thought we couldn’t do. We know that the Spirit is in us when we are shown a path forward where no path seemed to exist, or when we are guided by an insight that seems to come out of the blue. Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to abide in us, guide us, and teach us, and he continues to keep that promise.
With the presence of the indwelling Spirit, we experience the peace and rest of Jesus. It’s that peace we feel whenever we’re able to face the challenges of life with a patience or serenity we can’t explain. It’s the rest we have from worries about being loved or about being accepted. It’s the peace that comes from knowing that in Christ, our sins are forgiven and that Jesus has prepared a place for us with him, not only after our earthly deaths but now, as members of his family. Jesus promised peace and rest, and he continues to keep that promise.
Finally, we are among the disciples that Jesus sends in to the world so that the world may be saved through him. God sent Jesus into the world so that “everyone who believes in him may be saved,” and as God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us. That locked room was inhabited by many more disciples than just the eleven remaining apostles, and we have now joined their number. We’ve been given the same awesome privilege and responsibility as those original disciples: to assure everyone we can that they can know Jesus and that, by accepting him, can be forgiven their sin and enjoy eternal life with him.
In the context of John’s gospel, Jesus’ words about sin and forgiveness are about the forgiveness he offers. But, if we are to be authentic messengers of that good news, we have to be examples of it in our lives. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are empowered to forgive. We aren’t given the right to forgive what we deem to be sins against God by others. But, we are given the power to forgive those who trespass against us. When we refuse to forgive, sin is retained, Jesus says. Everyone involved remains burdened with it—including us. Maybe, especially us. Our testimony to Christ’s forgiveness will be seen as just empty words. But, when we forgive those who have hurt us, both they and we are freed. The forgiveness we offer is a testimony to the forgiveness of Christ—the forgiveness we ourselves have experienced and are sent out by Jesus to proclaim.
In 2012, a man named Alex Sheen gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral, after his father died of cancer. Mr. Sheen talked about how his dad was not a famous man. He didn’t have any spectacular successes to his credit. But, Mr. Sheen said, there was one thing his dad did exceptionally well. He kept his promises.
At the end of the eulogy, Mr. Sheen handed out something he called “Promise Cards”—a simple card for writing down a promise made as a reminder of the importance of our commitments. He offered to send ten Promise Cards anywhere in the world to anyone who requested them at no cost.
This offer set off a chain of events that grew into an organization dedicated to the bettering humanity through promises made and kept. It’s called “Because I Said I Would.” Since its founding, Because I Said I Would has responded to requests for more than 13 million Promise Cards from 178 countries. Their web site offers stories about what happens when promises are kept—dozens and dozens of stories: of potential is realized and understanding deepened, where trust has grown and relationships have blossomed.
We all have stories about what has happened in our lives because Jesus has kept, and continues to keep, his promises to us. We have stories about how our trust in him has grown, how our understanding of who he is has deepened, and how our relationship with him has blossomed, As we live out of the promises he kept, and live out our promise to follow him, we become the disciples he calls us to be.
Promise-keeping is at the heart of our relationship with Jesus, and it’s at the heart of our shared mission to bring souls to a saving relationship with him. Jesus promised that his disciples would be the means by which the world would know him, and he continues to keep that promise. As Jesus keeps his promises to us, we are empowered to share the good news of his promises with others. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young