Peace be with you.

Easter 2: 23 April 2017

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Acts 2: 14a, 22 – 32, Psalm 16, 1Peter 1: 1 – 12, John 20: 19 – 31

I loved the way Canon Jenny introduced her Easter Day sermon – giving us a picture of the angel sitting on the rolled-away stone, nonchalantly swinging his/her/its legs; and the idea of the risen Jesus somewhat casually greeting the disciples with, in Australian, a “Hi” or perhaps “G’day”! It makes it all seem so ordinary, and, at least in God’s sight, perhaps it is. After all, if we are to believe St Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, part of which we read from Acts 2 this morning, there was nothing unexpected about either the crucifixion or the resurrection, all was part of God’s plan.

Of course, there was, and is, nothing at all ordinary or everyday about a crucifixion and resurrection. Perhaps that is why the process of moving from unbelief to belief is so often referred to as involving new birth, being reborn. It doesn’t have to be a literal rebirth (as Nicodemus in John 3 seemed to think) but this total reorientation of life towards the risen Christ is as radical as being born again. I had the privilege of being there last week at the rebirth, the baptism, of Lissi and Suzannah. I saw their excitement, trepidation, expectation, tears even; and their joy as water was poured over their heads, the sign of the cross made on their foreheads, a candle, lit from the Paschal Candle given them, and the words of welcome from the congregation enveloping them in warmth and well-being.

And now, far from being over, Easter is just beginning. Someone told me during the week about one parish church where Easter eggs are given out every Sunday for the next six weeks – a lovely reminder that Easter is celebrated right through until Pentecost on 4 June. Reminders in this Cathedral include the use of our white vestments and the Paschal Candle burning proudly in front of the pulpit. You don’t need to keep on eating Easter eggs, but we do need to keep enjoying, exploring, revelling in the ordinary and extraordinary statement of faith: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The timing that our Christian calendar is built around comes from St Luke’s writings in both the Gospel and the Book of Acts. The resurrection of Jesus happens on Easter Day with a number of appearances by Jesus to his disciples over the next few days and weeks. Forty days after Easter comes the Ascension – Jesus is taken up into heaven and the angel asks the disciples why they are gazing into heaven? (Acts 1: 11) Ten days later, with the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, comes the Feast of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church as people respond to Peter’s preaching and turn to Christ in baptism.

This timing is not followed by St John. Quite contrary to Luke, John brings Easter, Ascension and Pentecost together in one day. In John’s Gospel it is Mary Magdalene who meets Jesus in the Garden. To her is given a particular message, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20: 17) Later that same day, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus appears to the disciples, huddled behind locked doors. “Peace be with you… as the Father sent had sent me, so I send you… receive the Holy Spirit…” (John 20: 19ff) Easter, Ascension and Pentecost are all wrapped up in the same day.

Why does John do this? I think it is to do with the church. Let me take you back to Good Friday and the crucifixion. John alone of the Gospel writers tells us that, from the cross, Jesus looked down at his mother and the beloved disciple. Do you remember his words? “Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.” (John 19: 26 & 27) From the cross itself the beginnings of that community of believers which came to be called the church was born. We could of course go back even earlier, into the night before when Jesus, armed with towel and basin washed the feet of his disciples and gave them a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. (John 13)

In John’s thinking there is no break between Jesus gathered with his disciples, teaching, laughing, eating, washing feet, and the church of believers gathered in the name of Jesus. They too must teach, laugh and eat together, love each other in such a way that sins are forgiven, sent out by the Son even as the Son was sent out by the Father. There is no need in John’s Gospel for the forty day break between Easter Day and Ascension Day, or the fifty day break between Easter Day and Pentecost when, according to Luke, the Spirit is given and the church begins. No – for John it all happens with the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day. Having descended into the depths of hell, Jesus is raised to life by God, ascends to the Father and, true to his earlier promise, sends the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The church is rooted in, and continues, the ministry of Jesus.

Back to last Sunday’s baptisms and the question put to those about to be baptised. “Will you, by God’s grace, strive to live as a disciple of Christ, loving God with your whole heart, and your neighbour as yourself?” (APBA pg 75) The church is not a club, a society of like-minded people but a divinely inspired family called and commissioned to go into the world with a very simple message – God’s loves the world, God loves you, God loves me – and calls us to love each other with that love of God.

What then of the second half of today’s Gospel reading, the story built around Thomas? I have frequently found great comfort in Thomas the Doubter. How well I recall, about half way through my time at theological college, going to the principal and saying that I had real doubts about this whole faith in Jesus Christ thing. He looked at me for a long time and then began to chuckle. “Oh Frank”, he said, “I’ve been waiting for you to have this conversation with me. Until you are able to recognise and express your doubt, you cannot really have faith!” Not quite what I had expected – but it has proved true over and over again. Doubt is a part of faith. It is normal, necessary even.

Thomas of course was given the opportunity to see the risen Jesus, to see the mark of the nails, put his finger and his hand into the wounds. In the end he didn’t need to, instead answering Jesus with those words that all who come to Christ eventually have to say, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20: 28) Ironically perhaps, it is doubting Thomas and the wayward Mary Magdalene whose names have become most closely associated with the spread of the Gospel in the first instance. Perhaps because there is something of each of them in each of us.

But the Gospel narrative set for today is not quite finished. There is an implied admonishment to Thomas as Jesus continues, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20: 29b)

John finishes this section of his Gospel by telling us that Jesus did in fact do many other things, signs, in the presence of his disciples which he has not recorded. But the signs that John has recorded have been carefully chosen for one purpose only, that those who read them may “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have eternal life.”

And if you read again those lovely opening words of the First Epistle of Peter you will see that Peter too is concerned for those who have faith, even though they have not seen Jesus. It is glorious writing, well worth pondering on. If you can find a recording, listen to the anthem written for Cathedral choirs by SS Wesley. (For those interested you can find a youtube clip from Hereford Cathedral for which it was written in 1834)

Since Palm Sunday I have found myself praying for the Coptic Christians of Egypt, and other Christians in the world presently suffering simply because they are Christians. On them, as on us all, Jesus breathes his Holy Spirit and says, “Peace be with you.” May that be our constant prayer this Eastertide, a peace lived in our love for God and our neighbour, forgiving the sins of each other and being sent out in peace to love and serve the Lord.