A sermon preached on the second Sunday of Easter by Graham Low – 16th April 2023
When Jesus appears through a door locked for fear of Jews, he is hardly greeted with any kind fervent faith or joy. Instead, despair is in the air. It is only after Jesus has shown his hands and side that the disciples realise who he is and began to rejoice. This is a rather muted reaction compared with the noisy announcements of “Christ is risen”, with lively singing, drumming, sounding of gongs and blowing horns, which are characteristic features of worship in many churches on Easter day. In some places even football rattles are allowed, though in Iffley we are perhaps a bit more restrained and rather English. Nevertheless, our joy is heartfelt.
But it seems that the joy for the disciples takes some time to sink in. Their horror at seeing the empty tomb has shaken them to the core. The gospels are filled with accounts of terror, of sheer perplexity, of alarm, of not understanding, of amazement, and of going home alone utterly dejected. We are familiar with much of the story, whereas the disciples are of course completely unfamiliar with this utterly astonishing story. They are physically, mentally and, most importantly, spiritually shattered by what they have seen and heard in the last few days. The resurrection is not an immediate and total relief for the disciples. Even today, a week later, the doors are still firmly shut.
So we may try and imagine what the days between the crucifixion and today have been like. Jesus does not seem to have been in a particular hurry. He has already imparted the Holy Spirit to the disciples. They have been given an immense commission. But they have failed to convince the first people they meet about the reality of the resurrection. And in particular Thomas is yet to believe. There is always a temptation when we try to persuade, or reassure someone of the surprising truth of something, for us to be impatient. In such situations we need to hold back for the truth to find its way in. There may be a need to let doubt run its course and to have patience, sometimes quite a lot of it, before God’s presence becomes apparent and breaks through. Though Thomas has not seen Jesus, we are not to conclude that God is absent.
John remarks that these signs, as well as many others, are for us to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Furthermore, we are given life in and through them. The author of John’s gospel gives an answer to our doubts. If we have doubts, we are to immerse ourselves in the story of Christ and to be open to the possibility that we shall come to believe.
The process of coming to believe, or of deepening a new and perhaps still vulnerable belief, can be quite short, or it may take years. In the case of the disciples the turning point has been a trauma. And that may be the case for us as well. Over the years of my ministry I have asked people about how and why they either came to faith, or returned to faith. About a third said that either their faith was renewed, or it began, through encouragement by a person of faith, after such events as death, loss of job, or ending of a relationship. This reminds us all to be very attentive to those we meet in times of difficulty or bereavement. In such situations, listening is a great gift.
There is a danger in thinking of the resurrection appearances as something purely historical. But salvation history is both past and present: just a week ago on Easter Day those of us who came to the dawn eucharist here will have heard the great song called the Exsultet. In that sone we hear of the deliverance of God’s people. We hear “this is the night” of that deliverance, “not that was the night”. And later in the service we pray that the bread and wine “may be to us”, not just “may remind us” of the body and blood of our Lord. The Resurrection story is in the present tense as well as in the past tense. We are part of it tonight, and always.
In a few weeks we shall celebrate Pentecost, when we are reminded of the gift of the Holy Spirit. But for the writer of today’s passage from John’s gospel, this is already his Pentecost story. We have just heard about the Holy Spirit being breathed onto the disciples, apparently on the day of the resurrection, followed by their being sent out. John uses the word “sent” about 40 times to describe what God did to Jesus and into which Jesus drew the disciples. John also writes several times about light shining in darkness. John’s resurrection stories usually occur at night or in the early morning. God sent his son into a world full of economic, social and political darkness, into a world which desperately needed light to shine, for forgiveness of sins and for turning to receive and to rejoice in the love of God, and of Jesus, risen from the dead. The locked door was opened. From then on people have come to believe. That is what today’s chaotic, dark, and traumatised world cries out for. May we have the grace and the courage to help God to bring that world about. Amen.