Easter 2: 28 April 2019

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Acts 5:27-32

Psalm 118:14-29

Revelation 1:4-9

John 20:19-31

To think that I missed Him! Some of us had not eaten for three days so I slipped out to get some bread and wine. When I got back I could feel the change in the others – it was palpable. They were so excited and all trying to tell me at once so that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Eventually they quieted down and Peter told me the story. “Just after you had left, and with the door still securely locked He appeared. Don’t ask me how he got in, I can’t tell you. But it was Him – no doubt about that. We stood there liked stunned mullets. Actually, we were terrified. And then he spoke – it was that same calm reassuring voice he always used. ‘Peace be with you.’ He lifted his hands and we saw the wounds – and the one in his side. He went on about forgiving sins and receiving the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, I didn’t believe a word they said. How could I? I had seen Jesus die on the cross. It was the worst day of my life. I’d been told that Nicodemus and Joseph had taken the body to the tomb. Yes I’d heard Mary Magdalene come in that morning with a story of having seen Him. But we all know Mary and took what she said with a pinch of salt – quite a large one. No – unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side – that’s what I told them. And I can tell you it was a mean sort of a trick to play on me. My nerves had had it. It was the same for all of them.

And then, a week later we were all together again and He came – just like that. One moment we were alone, the next He was there. How I have no idea. I do know that he spoke directly to me. Invited me to do what I’d asked – put my finger in the holes, my hand in his side. But I didn’t need to. I knew. I fell at his feet. “My Lord and my God,” I said. And I meant it. It was Him. It really was.

So began the most extraordinary journey ever. We stayed in Jerusalem for quite some time – telling everyone we could what had happened. Later we would call it the time of proclamation. And boy, did we have something to proclaim! Nowadays you call it the Gospel, Good News. And it was. The most wonderful good news ever. We couldn’t keep quiet about it. We wanted to tell everyone that Jesus, our leader, the one who called us His friends, was alive. Much later one of our number, John, would write from his exile on the Island of Patmos. He had a lot more to say – as he should have done living to such an old age. He spoke of Jesus as the ‘faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth.’

That sort of talk got us into trouble right from the start. The religious authorities were the first to object. They tried to intimidate us by throwing us into prison. But the doors somehow opened and we walked free. I remember Peter standing up to the high priest one day and telling him that we must obey God rather than any human authority. I tell you, there was no stopping us. We were on fire, filled with the Holy Spirit.

When King Herod began hunting us down we fled and found ourselves going in all sorts of different directions. Our brother Stephen was the first to die, to witness to his faith in Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, with his life. And do you know, that man Saul was there. Now he has an interesting story. The Lord appeared to him too and he changed completely – became one of the greatest of all preachers, wrote lots of letters – some of encouragement, others quite stern and trying to bring peace and harmony to the brethren. Why is it that such Good News always seems to divide?

I travelled north and then east – eventually getting right down into southern India – what you know as Kerala today. There’s still a church that goes by my name – the Mar Thoma Church. Some say that I travelled much further – to Sri Lanka (what sadness there is today – how my heart bleeds for those who died last week), to China and even to Paraguay. While I’d love to be able to say I did all that, it wasn’t me but people who, generations later, traced their turning to faith in Jesus Christ to my preaching and teaching.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr but he was by no means the last. Peter and Paul were killed in Rome in the time of the Emperor Nero. I myself was killed and was buried near Chennai. Dear old Polycarp, surely one of the bravest Christians ever, was called on to denounce his Lord and Saviour. Do you know what he said? “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” The role of martyrs grew through those first three centuries as wave after wave of persecution was unleashed on the Christians. It seems we became the scapegoat for the mismanagement of many Roman Emperors and incompetent leaders.

One of those who died was George. He was a soldier, a member of the Praetorian Guard itself. Not even he was safe when the persecutions began again. Refusing to denounce his Lord in favour of Caesar, he quickly became something of a hero after his death. The stories spread as people seemed to enjoy the fact that even one of the emperor’s closest soldiers should be a Christian. Do you know, George has a most wonderful legend told about him – how he slew a dragon and rescued a young girl. Personally I think whoever made up that story had been reading my colleague John’s writing – you remember, that strange piece he did in which he told about the archangel Michael driving Lucifer out of heaven. No matter really, George became very popular as the centuries went by and many countries claimed him as theirs, and said that he had spent time in their country. His is a very distinctive flag too – a red Greek cross on a white background.

Well my friends, I could go on all day. There is so much to tell you. But you can read it for yourself. John wrote it all down, as did Luke. John was very careful in what he chose to write – including particularly those incidents in Jesus’s life which would lead people to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour. Of course, I have never forgotten my early doubts, my initial skepticism of what the other disciples told me. And I admire tremendously those who, without seeing the Lord in the flesh, without being able to poke their fingers into His wounds, nevertheless believe.  And to think it all began in that upper room in Jerusalem – a dozen or so fearful people who saw the Lord and went out and told their story.

I’ve been watching people do that for two thousand years now. It doesn’t get any less thrilling when I see people worshipping God; singing the great hymns of praise; being God’s people in their own towns and cities, teaching their children. And it causes me just as much pain to see God’s people dying as it did when Stephen died as the first martyr.

So will you keep up the good work? Will you move beyond your doubts and go and tell someone else about Jesus? Will you live a life of service to others, loving your neighbour even as you love yourself? That’s what He would want.