A sermon preached by David Barton at St Mary’s on 11 April 2021.
Peace be with you, Jesus says – three times in that reading. We can only presume that Peace was the abiding memory of the extraordinary experience the disciples had on this day after the sabbath, when their whole world was turned upside down. Peace be with you. And there are so many overtones to this phrase. Its peace to the disciples in the face of their failure to stand by Jesus at his arrest. Peace in the face of their shame. But far far more than that. It’s Peace of heart for every individual who hears and believes… its an agenda of peace for a warring world. And its everything that goes with that. The old Hebrew word shalom speaks of a whole quality of life, in which we live at peace with our neighbours and at peace with the whole created order. Its the state where God’s generous creation can burst into flower.
One of the things we should remember about this, the fourth Gospel, is that it was the last gospel to be written. Its late. It begins to reflect the faith of the second generation of Christians in Palestine – people whose faith had been tested and had remained true. In that sense it’s the most deeply pondered of the Gospels. I sometime think that the writer gives us a headline – Peace be with you – and then the kinds of experiences that have led him and his fellow Christians to such an understanding. Here the Gospel is trying to convey something of the startling, surprising, life-changing experience of the Resurrection, which resulted in this awareness of real peace.
And it gives us two types of resurrection appearance. In the first Jesus is unrecognised: Before Mary in the Garden (previous chapter) and before the disciples on the banks of lake Galilee (in the next chapter,) Jesus is not recognised – not even his voice. Jesus is a stranger.
And here its in the other guise: the man who has been on the cross, who actually shows them his wounds. And when you think about it, there is a link between those two experiences. People badly wounded and disfigured are sometimes unrecognisable – and that must have been true for the kind of disfigurement that crucifixion brought about. And this Gospel writer does not want us to miss that aspect of the resurrection: Jesus carries the wounds of the cross. This second appearance to Thomas is making sure we don’t miss the point. Here are the wounds, don’t forget them. Jesus comes as a wounded stranger who offers us peace.
And its not a particularly comfortable image. Not one we like to look at. Images of wounded people on the television are always preceded by a warning to look away if we don’t want to be troubled. And strangers are disconcerting too – the fear of refugees is easily played on by politicians. All of this in a world of appalling conflicts, where many people – innocent people – are injured; and there are, as a result some 65 million refugees world wide. And Jesus in this gospel says “Don’t look away.” Here is resurrection.
John wasn’t us to understand that the Resurrection is unsettling; its like an earthquake – something that forces a disconcerting reshaping of the inner landscape.
But also the paradox here: that the disciples experience this as utterly glorious. The wounded stranger brings us joy.
A number of years ago I talked with a young man whose relatively new wife had contracted a sudden devastating cancer, and he had nursed her through to the end. It was a hard, hard time for him. But, he said, that he didn’t ever want to forget it because he had learned and discovered so much. It was as if it had made him as a person. It had deepened his faith. He was hugely grateful. And there was, paradoxically, a sense of Joy….and peace.
Resurrection teaches us that there is nothing to fear, not from the stranger, not even from the blackness of the cross. There is nowhere God is not. New Life comes out of the darkest of places. The face of God in Christ shines back to us in the disfigured and in the face of the stranger. Which means that behind all the chaos and cruelty and fear we see in our world, lies a truer world where everything for human flourishing remains in place, waiting for those of us who are prepared to commit ourselves to its truth – the Peace Jesus brings. What it asks of us is the compassion to look, and to be there. The rest is the gift of God.
After he had showed them his hands and his side he breathed on them. That breath is the breath of life itself: the breath God breathed into creation at the beginning. The breath of life God breathed into Adam. That’s God’s gift to each of us. And we who hear this Gospel, who know this, are asked to trust it, and share its joy and peace with others, and make a world fit for human flourishing.
So here, as a little summary, is my understanding of what Resurrection faith means for us in practice:
We are to live, day by day, as much as we can, with the love and compassion Jesus taught us. And when we fail, as we do, we are to trust God’s forgiveness and begin again.
We are to remember that every face we see, whether of friend or stranger, reflects back to us the face of Christ – and to remember at the same time that this is true of us too. We too carry the face of Christ. We should not forget that we too are strangers to others.
And there is nothing we need fear – because there is no place, not even the darkest place of death, where God is absent.
And learning to live in this way, we, and those we are with, begin to share in the creative life and peace of God. And each of us has a part to play in spreading that peace to places where it is not.