This Sermon was delivered at St Mary the Virgin’s, Diss at the 10:30 Sung Eucharist on the 28th April 2019. Readings: John 20:19-end, Acts 5:27-32.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and working our way through the events of each day as Jesus approaches the Cross and resurrection, there’s a sense in which our remembrance runs almost concurrently to the actual events. That is to say that although we are separated from the passion of Christ by the centuries we can still somehow align ourselves with those moments and through devotions and reflections appreciate them in such a way as to allow them to have a profound impact upon our hearts and lives.
During Holy Week, we move step by step with Jesus as if we are in sync with him. This can seem overwhelming. So much happens in a single week. Each thing which occurs has multiple PhD theses and endless books written about them. Jesus riding on a donkey to Crowds shouting Hosanna, to cursing a fig tree, driving market traders out of the temple and suddenly over here is Judas preparing to betray him. We have the last supper, the garden of Gethsemane, the betrayers kiss. First Pilate, then Herod, then Pilate again. Always the scribes and priests accusing and insulting. A cock crows, shame grows as the crowd bay for blood. A guilty man is set free, Jesus is beaten, his cross carried by Simon and suddenly this flurry of events leaves Jesus’ mother, Mary, and a few others standing horrified before her son, hanging from the cross.
Time seems to slow.
It certainly does for us on Good Friday as we ponder the man-who-is-God dying. There’s a significance here which is hard to grasp, and even this horrible scene passes swiftly. A loud cry, then silence. Just the wind rippling through his hair before they can bring him down and bury him. We wait, but even waiting only takes a couple of days and then we’re into Easter with Joy and celebration. Quite rightly too, for the God-who-is-man has endured the tragedy of sin and death and shown that the Love of God the Father for not just Jesus but for each of us is greater than the death which we all must pass through. Raised by the Father’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus stands before us as the Lord of the eternal promises of forgiveness, love and life.
Having hurtled through Holy Week, there’s now a distinct slowing. This Sunday, a week on from Easter, instead of finding ourselves continuing to hurtle through the life and times of the New Testament Church we find ourselves on Easter Afternoon.
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week”, today’s gospel began. Easter may have been last week, but in truth there is no escaping or moving on from Easter. Even throughout the rest of the year when we may seem to be focusing on Ascension, or Pentecost, Trinity, Corpus Christi, St Michael and All Angels or even Advent and Christmas; in truth we are simply continuing our pilgrim way deeper into the resurrection reality of Easter.
In our portion of scripture, the disciples had not yet understood the truth of this resurrection reality. They were not joyful, but rather perplexed by a missing body and some strange story from Mary Magdalene claiming to have seen Jesus. More than this, they were afraid of the Jews and so were hiding in a locked room. It was here that Jesus joins them.
Some have suggested that he was only an apparition, or a kind of ghost. Indeed, Thomas who was not there claimed that he would need to put his fingers in the mark of the nails to believe it was really Jesus.
But what if, rather than Jesus being ghostly and floating through walls, what if having been resurrected he is no longer a part of the sin stained, crumbling creation but is the redeemed creation. He now lives a life which will never die or pass away. In a very real sense he has become the most real and enduring thing in all of creation. What if rather than being faint and ghost-like he is now so real that the rest of creation compared to him is lacklustre and faint; that he can pass through walls and locked doors precisely because they, like death, cannot contain or restrain him.
And so he appears to the disciples. They see him. They know that this is undeniably Jesus and so they rejoice! Jesus then says “As my Father has sent me, so I send you” Receive the Holy Spirit.
What happens here forms the pattern for how the disciples will live their lives.
It starts with God. Every resurrection appearance of Jesus begins with God. No one walks around a corner and goes “Oh look, I’ve found Jesus!” No, Mary thought he was a gardener, the disciples originally failed to find him and were then in a locked room.
The initiative belongs with God, but it’s an initiative he takes. He chose to create the world, he decided to make us in his image, he called Abraham and began the history of covenant promises of commitment. He stepped into the world in the baby Jesus and set his face like flint towards Jerusalem and the cross. He embraced the power of death and he rose to life victorious. The initiative is God’s prerogative, and he calls each of us by name.
It doesn’t matter what locked room we have found ourselves in, where we have become trapped in our own life stories, whether by our own choice or not. Jesus can always enter into our lives.
And he does so as himself. There is no other God for us to meet, no other God by which our lives can derive true meaning or hope, than the God whose face we look upon when we look upon the face of Jesus; crucifixion scars and all. When Moses spoke face to face with God his face shined. When we encounter Jesus we should rejoice, and our lives should shine with the light of Christ as a witness to those around us.
This happens in two ways.
First, encountering Jesus should help us to relax our self-righteousness and to repent of not just our sinfulness before God but our sins against one another. More than this, to seek, even when it’s frustrating and difficult, to forgive those who have offended us.
Second, we are to receive the Holy Spirit; to allow the presence of God to dwell within us as both the power of life and as a continual sharing in resurrection reality of Christ. Living with the Holy Spirit, we are sent to our friends, neighbours and strangers just as Jesus was sent to us; to testify to what God has done in Jesus, and, through Jesus, in us.
Encountering Jesus cannot and must not leave us unchanged. Stepping into the Easter Reality leads us down a path which permeates far more than our Sunday gatherings. This was the case for the disciples in our portion of Acts. They had been given strict orders, strict orders!, not to teach in Jesus’ name, and when they persisted they were arrested and questioned.
Peter’s answer should be our answer:
“We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
This wonderful encounter with Jesus can change our lives, yet this change places a certain obligation upon us to testify to who Jesus is. We, like the disciples, are witnesses to the resurrection. Though sometimes, this witnessing, like the Cross itself, carries a heavy cost.
Last week a Sri Lankan Sunday school teacher said: “Today at Zion Church we asked the children how many of you are willing to die for Christ? Everyone raised their hands.
Minutes later they went to the main service and the blast happened. Half of them died on the spot.”
Estimates vary, but at least 250 people died in Sri Lanka, killed while rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. I’ve got a friend whose parents are leaders of a church in Pakistan where members of the congregation of periodically murdered for their faith. I’ll never forget praying with a man who had just heard the news that a good friend of his, a missionary, had been beaten and burned alive for their faith. Open Doors, a charity which works with persecuted Christians, says the number of Christians killed for their faith in 2018 was double that of 2017.
We are truly blessed to not be confronted with these dangers to our lives here in Diss. But I wonder, would we be more resolved in our faith if we were? Do we allow ourselves to be paralysed by social awkwardness? To keep quiet about our faith so as not to be accused of shoving it down people’s throats?
We hear a lot of talk about the church declining in numbers. Yet each of us are still here. Presumably we’re here because we want to be, because in a sense we are compelled to draw near in faith to the presence of Christ, to hear the scriptures, to pray and to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist – which itself means thanksgiving; rejoicing!
As long as we are here, we should desire to invite others to join us in our rejoicing.
You might have noticed the media tried to call us Easter Worshippers, as if we gather once a year to celebrate a solstice or ritualised tradition. Let us instead be Easter Pilgrims; those who, having encountered the resurrected Jesus, go on, like the disciples, to be witnesses to him so that others might also rejoice and be forgiven.
After all, this is why the Gospel of John was written: “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”. Amen.