Sermon: The worship of John's Community
Preached on 15th April 2007
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Does the form of the Gospel Reading from St John Chapter 20 echo the worship of the Johannine community towards the end of the first century? Many commentators think that it does, and for a number of reasons.
First, there is the reference to ‘the first day of the week', Sunday. Here we find the disciples, the community of Jesus, gathered. The first reference is to the evening of Easter Sunday when Thomas was absent; we then find them gathered together again a week later, when Thomas was with them. ‘The first day of the week' was an ordinary working day in the Graeco-Roman world; Jews, of course, observed the Sabbath Day, the seventh day of the week. But it seems that at a very, very early date, in fact, so early we can't trace it, Christians began to keep the first day of the week for their assembly because of the resurrection of Jesus. So St Luke, in Acts 20, states that on the first day of the week the disciples at Troas met together to break bread. St Paul uses a previously unknown title Kyriakos, Lord's, found only in 1 Corinthians 11 for the ‘Lord's Supper'; it appears again Revelation 1 where it is used for the ‘Lord's Day', or Sunday. There is a suggestion that Kyriakos had eucharistic associations; the name, ‘Lord's Day', the first distinctively Christian name for Sunday, was so named precisely because the early Christians met on the Lord's Day, Sunday, in order to celebrate the Lord's Supper, because it was the day of the resurrection. Sunday and the eucharist belong together.
Which leads me on to Presence. It was, in John 20, on the first day of the week, that Jesus appeared. In other words his resurrection Presence was revealed to the disciples as they met together. In particular, there is in John 20, the references to Jesus showing his hands and his side. This happens twice, first on Easter Sunday and then, more intensely, a week later in the presence of Thomas. While John seems to suggest that Jesus' risen body was in some sense beyond the physical - he appeared when the doors were locked for fear of the Jews, yet Jesus stood in the midst of them - there is also a complementary stress on the physical. The hands and the side are shown to the disciples on Easter Sunday; more intensely, in the Thomas story a week later, the invitation to Thomas is to place his finger into the holes of the nails and to place his hand into the wound in Jesus' side. The focus here is on the wounds, the crucified One, who is also risen. And while there is no reference to bread and wine, the allusion appears to be to what the bread and wine signify; the body of Jesus given for the life of the world symbolised by the nail prints; the blood that was shed, which in John's imagery is particularly associated with the piercing of the side, from which flowed blood and water. The implication is that as the community of Jesus gathers for eucharistic worship - including the sharing of the word as well as the breaking of the bread - the Presence of the crucified and risen Christ is manifested.
Then there is the Greeting: ‘Peace be with you'. This is repeated twice on Easter Sunday evening, and again eight days later in the Thomas story. It picks up the promise of the Maundy Thursday Johannine discourses: ‘Peace, I give to you, my own peace I leave with you'. It is the gracious response to the disciples' fear - ‘the doors were locked for fear of the Jews', and of the terrifying presence of the One who was crucified - a terror all the more fulsome because the disciples had deserted him and fled. For John, the form of the greeting ‘Peace be with you', while itself echoing the common Jewish greeting Shalom, nevertheless seems to be distinctive and characteristic. It was Jesus' first Easter word to his Church; it is a gift to be embraced and received - it is emphatically not a pious wish or merely a sincere hope, but a concrete fruit of Jesus' victory over the grave itself. It is the harbinger of the new creation: enmity has been put aside; now there is peace, peace with God and peace from God.
There is also the gift of the Spirit: ‘He breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit"'. In John's theology, the Spirit remained on Jesus alone before the Cross. More than once, John states or implies that the Spirit could not be given until Jesus was glorified. This glorification was not so much the resurrection, but the Cross - the place where in the context of the greatest pain and most explicit shame, the true glory of God was revealed. And so, in his Passion narrative, having constituted a new community as he gave the care of his Mother over to the beloved disciple, both standing at the foot of the cross, John's language is precise: ‘he bowed his head and' - not as most English translations say, ‘he gave up his spirit', or ‘he gave up the ghost' - but rather, ‘he handed over the Spirit' - at the moment of his glorification, the new creating Spirit is handed over, so that, the first action of the risen Christ is to breathe on his disciples and say: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'. The verb he breathed, is of course, so resonant; in the first garden, ‘the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being'. In Ezekiel 37, the dry bones were-constituted into flesh covered bodies, but there was no breath in them; only when the breath of God was invoked did the dead bodies arise and live. So, the breath of the new creations fills the community of Jesus - enlisting them to continue his mission and ministry, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you': the community of Jesus sent out from his presence to do his work.
And then there is the absolution. ‘Receive the Holy Spirit: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.' Of course, forgiveness is a primary fruit of the passion: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world'. Belief in Christ, and so union with Christ, brings the gift of forgiveness. In John's theology, of course, there is this strong sense of division:
Children of God children of the devil
The terrible word about retaining sins seems bound up with stubborn unbelief in Jesus - so the Thomas story becomes the illustration: Thomas, by an act of will, will not belief. The issue is not so much doubt - a word never mentioned in this narrative, but unbelief - the text would be rendered more accurately in English: ‘do not be disbelieving, but believe'. Wilful unbelief results in the retention of sins, while belief leads to forgiveness. It is important that we do not try to lessen or minimise such hard texts: they are to spur us, in the power of the Spirit, in our continuing of the ministry of Jesus: ‘As the Father has sent me, so have I sent you' - and as the teaching and invitation to life of Jesus was rejected and spurned, so too our testimony will be rejected and spurned. But we continue to live and witness in hope that, as we present Christ in his love and truth, those who have not seen, will believe - indeed, this things have been written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Preaching the Gospel is in this sense an awful responsibility: some will respond; some may be hardened in their sins. What God requires is our faithfulness, the rest we must leave to his justice and mercy. But we celebrate forgiveness.
And then, finally, we have response: ‘The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord' - from fear to joy is their experience. Interestingly, if this echoes the situation of John's community towards the end of the first century, it is clear that it is under threat of persecution. For John 16 says, ‘they will expel you from their synagogues' - if someone kills you he will think that by doing so he is doing God service - so, locked doors for fear of the Jews has an understandable setting - but even in that fear, the joy of knowing the presence of Christ is tangible. And then Thomas' response - the greatest response - the human articulation of the whole meaning of the Gospel: ‘My Lord and my God'. Thomas' unbelief leads him, through encountering Christ's presence to the fullness of belief, and so the Gospel ends with the human ‘yes' to the testimony ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'.
A setting of John 20 in Christian worship?
The Christian community gathered together on the first day of the week.
The Presence of the crucified and risen Christ, who shows his hands and his side, with allusion to word and eucharist.
The greeting: Peace be with you; the bestowing of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The commission to continue Christ's apostolic mission, to declare the absolution, forgiveness of sins.
The community's response: acclaiming with joy Christ's presence and worshipping him as God.
If it's true, and I think it is, then we must allow it to inform this gathering of Christ's disciples, this first day of the week, within these walls, and at this eucharist. For while, last Sunday, having been through the liturgical rigours of holy week and being well prepared for the celebration of ‘our triumphant holy day', its just a bit harder on low Sunday with no choir, with the Easter holidays over, and the routines of ordinary life to take up once again. Even coming to Church can be just one more part of the routine, more of a duty than a joy.
We must open our eyes to the presence of the risen Christ on this the day of resurrection, the first day of the week. And behold again, the hands and the side so injured for the life of the world, flesh and blood, the very life of Christ himself given to us in sacramental signs. To hear again his word of Peace - Peace be with you - a gift to receive and to share as we shall do later in this service - an Easter gift that has such power to transform. To allow the breath of the Spirit of life to enter us - for what is dead in us must be transformed into life if we are to continue Christ's mission - and to declare and receive absolution. To allow that sense of joy - a joy that the world cannot give to be our centre - no matter what burdens and sorrows we carry for ourselves and for our still tragic, hurting and uneasy world. And to fall down in deep worship and adoration and acclaim ‘My Lord and my God'. For only as we are transformed, can the world be transformed.
Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed.