Sermon at All Saints on Low Sunday 2016
Acts 5.27-32; John 20.19-31
One Easter Day, sitting in the congregation where I usually worshipped, I watched in astonishment as a senior colleague climbed into the pulpit carrying a solitary daffodil which he proceeded to eat. I was not only astonished but worried as well. I have only a slight grasp of organic chemistry, but I was pretty sure that there are some very toxic alkaloids in the stems and flowers of many garden plants. I’d eat nasturtium flowers or courgette flowers only because I know generations of people have done so and showed no ill effects. But daffodils? My colleague’s point on that Easter Day is that people would go home and say to their family and friends “you’ll never believe what I saw in church this morning – I saw so-and-so eating a daffodil – it’s incredible,” and, in so doing, they would have a hint of the scene on that first Easter Day. Women came back from Jesus’ tomb telling the men “you’ll never guess what I’ve seen today – it’s incredible.”
I’m glad to say that, after a brief admission to hospital for treatment for his poisoning, my colleague was discharged to rest his digestive system for a couple of days and was none the worse thereafter. But there the parallels with the first Easter Day ended. The cowed, broken, grief-stricken male disciples of Jesus were incredulous when the women reported what they had seen – or had not seen, that is, a dead body. Over a period of hours they had to accept – each person for him or her self – that the utterly impossible was real – a new reality which somehow they had to integrate into the ordinary, sensible, everyday logic which we all share.
To be sure, people two thousand years ago did not think exactly as we do. Their cultures were very unlike our own. The technologies, and the everyday assumptions we share nowadays would confuse and bewilder those people. And, by the same token, I believe we would be utterly lost if we found ourselves in their cultures and faced with their challenges: we lack some of the wisdom they had, and we lack the emotional, social and psychological resources they took for granted. However, I believe we do share with those people a very clear understanding that, once you have been tortured to death, you are dead and not to be seen walking into locked rooms or cooking fish on a beach. That would stretch anyone’s credulity to breaking point.
Which brings us to the point of the gospel bearing John’s name. What we heard this morning is the ending – actually, the first ending – of that gospel. There is another ending (chapter 21), probably added within a few decades of the one we heard read. Our ending (chapter 20) has a special value, in that the author tells us very clearly why he put together this astonishing account. He collected his stories from a number of sources, committing them to writing in an age when few people could read, because he wanted them to be transmitted to all those Christian people he believed would come after him. His whole work, with its stories of miraculous happenings and healings, and its memorable lines of teaching, all point towards the so-called high-priestly prayer where Jesus reflects on God, himself and his followers; and then the account points forward again to the passion narrative where Jesus is portrayed as God’s anointed, virtually presiding over his own earthly demise. Christus Victor, the Christ who vanquishes evil. The post-resurrection stories in John’s gospel are of a piece with the earthly teaching and healing ministry of Jesus: here he is, composed, in charge of himself, utterly confident of his standing as a child of God and as God’s anointed. He is entering into his eternal, cosmic and divine status, that status which had been announced at the opening of the gospel: “in the beginning was the Word…..”
But the story would have ended there unless there were to be Christian people smitten with the same vision that Jesus’ first disciples had on that first Easter Day. God had entered human existence, had taken into Godself our humanity, and had offered us humans to take into ourselves Godself. Humanity and divinity conjoined. The reading this morning tells us how those ordinary women and men – women first, please note – who were witnesses, eye witnesses, to the incredible but real action of God, who entered into the way of theosis, to themselves becoming divine. We are the successors of Mary and Peter and the disciple John and the rest. Except that we were not there in that garden, nor in that locked upstairs room. Thomas Didymus – Thomas the Twin – (we know nothing about his twin, though perhaps we are invited to imagine ourselves as his twin) represents us. “I need to see him and touch him.” Understandable, says our gospel author, but that is not how it’s going to be. If everyone had to have their personal interview with the risen Jesus and physically to touch his risen body, that would not be a life of faith. That would be micromanagement by God: we would be psychologically and spiritually overwhelmed and become virtual puppets. However, we do have access to the risen Jesus. When we are told that Jesus breathed on his disciples, he gave them his spirit. You have to remember here that the word for breath in Hebrew is ruach, and the Greek is pneuma, and that both words are translated in English as ‘spirit’ as well as ‘breath’. The breath of Jesus is the spirit of Jesus, and is the spirit of a living – I have to use the word because I have no other – a living person. It is not the dusty memory of a dead person. That driving spirit was let loose in Jesus’ disciples and began to transform them into the extraordinary company of saints that we revere today. That same spirit inspired their followers and disciples, whose lives were transformed to found the church groups spread across the then known world. It is that same spirit that seeks to transform us, Jesus’ disciples of the 21st century. We are a group of people drawn together not because we are all morally perfect or because we have a natural affinity for each other and obviously belong together, but because, different as we are from each other, together we have some glimpse of how humanity can be glorious rather than ghastly; how love and compassion can overcome greed or hatred or indifference; how God can use even me, even you to make the world more like God’s domain, more fit to show God’s glory in the flourishing of all God’s creatures and in the flourishing of our planet.