Sermon at St James
John 20: 19-end
To listen to a recording of most of the sermon as you read: There is an omission in the first paragraph, which in a way reinforces Ken's message.
I have a very fond memory of Sunday the 8th of April. Fifty-one years ago in the early hours of Sunday 8th April our daughter Hannah was born in our vicarage in Swindon. At getting up time Helen, who was nearly two, came into our bedroom and her first words were, “Hello, baby.” After that it was rather a hectic day as I had services at 8 and 10 and 6.30. That was all much in my mind when I saw that I was down to preach today. But later I thought I’d better check. I knew the date was right, but what about the day? And blow me, I found it wasn’t a Sunday, but a Saturday. As the years pass, memory can be incomplete and indeed can play us false.
And this helps us to understand the many discrepancies there are in the accounts of the resurrection in the four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all differ - in which women and how many there were who went to the tomb, and whether the stone had already been rolled away or not. They differ in the number of angels there were, and in when the women first saw Jesus and what he said to them, and whether they touched him or were forbidden to do so. Then there’s the story of the walk to Emmaus told only by Luke, and John’s account, quite different from the other three and adding the appearances we heard of in today’s Gospel, and later the barbeque with Jesus on the beach. These differing accounts just cannot be reconciled.
Well, the gospels were far from contemporary reports: they were written at least 30 years after the event. In the meantime some of the witnesses would have died and others’ memories could well have been unwittingly distorted as the decades passed and as they pondered the significance of all that had taken place. And of course we know what happens to stories passed down just by word of mouth.
Yet the discrepancies do not diminish the authenticity of the account: they enhance it. They show that this was no collaborative, stitched-up story, making sure their evidence all agreed. And they do at least all agree on three things: the tomb was empty; Jesus, who had died upon the cross, was alive again; and that his disciples, women and men, became aware of his living presence with them. Some people do worry about the differences, even to the extent of saying that they show that the story cannot be true, but in a way, I think, we can be glad of them. Because as well as giving the story credence, they enrich it, and they reflect the fact that we all experience the living Jesus in our own personal way.
But let’s turn to today’s Gospel. It was the evening of the Day of Resurrection, and Jesus’ disciples had gathered together behind locked doors, in a safe house. They were scared, afraid of what the Jewish authorities might do to them if they saw them and arrested them.
And all at once, without any knock on the door or the door being opened, there was Jesus standing among them. “Good evening,” he said. Well, of course he didn’t say that, but that’s our equivalent of their “Peace be with you”, their normal greeting – a bit like our “Goodbye” which was originally “God be with you”.
But this time “Peace be with you” had more meaning than usual. They were frightened men, and disturbed by all that had happened. They were in need of some calming, some peace. And the memory of that greeting late on the first Easter Day led to “Peace” becoming the characteristic Christian greeting, a part of early Christian worship and in the last few decades a part of ours too. “Peace be with you.” We said it to each other just a few minutes ago, the very words that Jesus used.
As Jesus greeted the disciples, dumbfounded as they must have been, he showed them his wounded hands and side. This really was, undoubtedly was, the one who had been crucified. We can imagine how their deeply troubled faces were then transformed to show, not only astonishment, but also ecstatic joy.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus said again, and then, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus had a mission from the Father; now he passes that mission on to them.
When Jesus died on the cross, they thought that that was the end of all that he had been striving for, the end of all that they together with him had been doing over the past three or so years. They’d been made redundant. But now he’s saying that he wants them to continue his work: he reinstates them. They are commissioned, as he was, to preach the Good News, to heal the sick and to pronounce God’s forgiveness. And there and then Jesus empowered them for this by granting them the Holy Spirit of God. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said, and he breathed on them, an Old Testament symbol they’d have understood, with breath and spirit in their language being one and the same word.
Well, as we heard, Thomas missed all this, and when the others told him, “We have seen the Lord,” he just couldn’t believe it. He needed to inspect the evidence for himself. Actually, I preached about Doubting Thomas and about doubting in general, including our own honest doubts, not so long ago on St Thomas’ Day last year. So if you like, you could read or even listen to what I said on the church website. Of course, you don’t have to.
Suffice it to say, I have great sympathy for Thomas: he had an honest and entirely justified doubt. But it wasn’t a hostile doubt: he wanted to be able to believe. There’s nothing sinful about doubting: in fact to my mind it’s an important element of faith. Faith that admits no difficulties in believing and that has to be kept in a sealed compartment which safeguards it from real life and the discoveries of science and archaeology is not faith as it should be.
When the following Sunday Jesus appeared to the disciples again, it seems as though he came specially for Thomas’ sake. He invited Thomas to touch his wounds, but Thomas didn’t need to, and his staggering response was, “My Lord and my God.” And this, I think, is the crowning moment of St John’s Gospel. The crucified and risen Jesus is not only our Lord, but also our God.
“Thomas,” said Jesus, “have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.” That of course includes us. How blessed we are!
But we can’t simply bask in that state of Easter blessedness. Jesus commissioned his disciples to do a job of work. We are his disciples today, and he commissions us too. We are to preach the Good News - not necessarily standing on a soapbox, but by the manner of our conversation and the way we behave towards others. We are to heal the sick - not by medical means, but by conveying compassion and encouragement and, if needs be, practical help to those whose lives lack the wholeness they should have. And we are to pronounce God’s forgiveness. It’s not just ordained women and men who can do that. Remembering our Forgiveness Project, we can all, again by our words and our attitudes, help others to be released from a burden of guilt and so receive the forgiveness of God.
Yes, while we’re still rejoicing in the Easter Good News and singing our Alleluias let remember that as the Father sent Jesus, even so the risen Jesus sends us.