Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter - Simon Oliver

Sunday 7 April 2024

Acts 4: 32-35, John 20: 19-end

The first disciples who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus thought they knew what to expect in the days and weeks that were to follow. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early on the first day of the week; according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, she is accompanied by Mary the Mother of James and other women. They think they are going to grieve and, if they can find someone to roll back the stone, they are ready to anoint the corpse of a beaten and crucified man. They know what to expect. In Luke’s gospel, we read about two disciples leaving the city of Jerusalem to walk to the village of Emmaus. They are discussing the drama of the rabbi Jesus’ life and death. “We had hoped”, they say. But it was over. That morning there had been some crazy rumours that he might be alive, but this was surely the wishful thinking of grieving and frightened people. The two friends walking to Emmaus knew what to expect. In the account from St. John’s gospel that we’ve just heard, the disciples meet behind locked doors because they are afraid of the Jewish authorities. How can they escape the city and an inevitable attempt to round up the remaining followers of the preacher from Nazareth? They knew what to expect. It was over.

As they stand behind locked doors, the doors of the disciples’ hearts and minds are also locked by fear. A few of them have been to the tomb and found it empty. Surely the Roman or religious authorities have removed Jesus’ body so that it can’t attract the reverence of his followers. Mary claims to have seen the Lord, but this must be the imaginings of a distraught and grieving woman.

Behind the locked doors, Jesus appears. This is no ghost, but neither is this a resuscitated corpse. The risen Jesus bears the marks of crucifixion, but he now reveals to the disciples a life that is wholly new, unimaginable, and unforeseen. They encounter something that utterly transforms their sense of reality, of what life might be, and who God is. They thought they knew what to expect, but the risen Jesus appears behind the locked doors of the disciples’ hearts and minds and says “this is my new life and your new life, my peace and your peace.”

Thomas, called the Twin, was not behind those locked doors on the first day. Despite being told by the other disciples of an encounter with Jesus, Thomas would not believe until he had seen for himself. Although he has become known as Thomas the Doubter, the other gospels mention disciples who doubted and struggled to come to terms with this new experience of Jesus. A full week passed before the risen Jesus appeared before Thomas, and we hear from the lips of the doubter the Church’s first great profession of who Jesus is: “My Lord and my God”. The resurrection appearances are centrally concerned with who Jesus is: the man who was crucified is now risen and revealed as Lord and God.

Like the disciples, we know what to expect. We know the limits of reality and we know that people do not rise from the dead. There’s always a nagging sense that the resurrection of Jesus is wishful thinking or a nice metaphor for regeneration and rebirth in the natural order. Maybe it’s like all the other myths and dramatic legends of our history, from Homer to Harry Potter: a way of seeking hope and inspiration within the human condition. That’s what we’d expect. But here’s a thought that I’d like to offer you this morning. All the myths and philosophies of the ancient world, the dramas and the tragedies, from Roman and Greek mythology to the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, from pagan religious cults to the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, none of them produced anything remotely like the Church. By ‘the Church’, I mean something quite simple: people like you and me gathered week by week in collective worship with shared scriptures, a common baptism, a liturgy and sacraments, all testifying before the world, with Thomas the Apostle, that Jesus Christ, the crucified one, is risen as Lord and God. None of the myths or philosophies of the ancient or modern worlds generate anything like the Church. The Church is the people of God gathered by the Holy Spirit around the risen Christ to testify that his life is not confined to history, memory, myth, or metaphor, but is a present reality and our eternal hope.

Both readings today tell us about the earliest life of the Church, the people gathered by the Holy Spirit around the risen Christ. We are told by St. John in the gospel reading that the women and men who had once walked with Jesus received the Holy Spirit, breathed by the risen Christ. Breathing: this is the sign of life, a new life, an unimaginable and glorious life. This is the same Spirit that we receive at our baptism and that is daily renewed in us. St. John also tells us that the first disciples received, and have passed on to us, the authority to forgive sins and the power to be reconciled to one another, despite the pain, anguish, and despair we visit on each other every day. That’s how we share in the peace of the risen Christ, by daily turning back to God and each other. These gifts of grace enabled the first disciples and enable us, the Church, to stand before the world and proclaim “Christ is risen!”

And let’s not forget this morning’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke the gospel writer’s account of the early Church: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” They held all things in common, including faith in the resurrection of Christ. For the first disciples, for us, his life is a present reality that we meet through the breathing of the Holy Spirit in prayer, in scripture and sacrament, in our common suffering and shared hope.

As we are gathered by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s body, the Church, we are sometimes like Thomas: we come with our doubts and hesitations. At the same time, as the Church gathers in common witness, Jesus appears behind the locked doors of our hearts, sometimes in unexpected moments, sometimes in dark moments, and we glimpse the fulness of life which God wills for all of us.

The twentieth century Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas puts it this way in his poem The Answer:

There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

As Christ enters behind the locked doors of our hearts and minds, we sometimes glimpse a life and truth that exceeds all our expectations and imaginings. The stone is rolled away. The light gets in. We can proclaim together the deepest mystery, our most profound joy, and our eternal hope: “Christ is risen!”.

The Revd Canon Prof Simon Oliver