Sermon for Easter 2 – High Mass Sunday 23 April 2017
2 Easter, 2017 High Mass, Sermon preached by the Vicar
‘When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’
In the year 304, during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian, Roman officials in North Africa raided a house church on a Sunday and arrested the priest, the owner of the house and fifty or so worshippers.
The transcript of their interrogations has survived.
The proconsul said to the priest, Saturninus, “You have been acting against the orders of the emperor.”
The priest responded, “Unconcerned about that we have been celebrating what is the Lord’s.”
“What is the Lord’s” refers to: the Lord’s Day and what happens on it; the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, the sacrament of the Eucharist and his presence in it.
“Why?” Asked the proconsul.
“We have done this because that which is the Lord’s cannot cease.” The Lord of heaven and earth stands above the lords of this world.
Saturninus the priest drew assurance from that even when the church seemed at its most insecure.
The owner of the house where the church met was called Emeritus. He was asked: “Why have you allowed this forbidden gathering to take place in your house?”
He replied, firstly, that all those present were his brothers and sisters. “I could not show them the door.”
When the pro-consul said, “You had to forbid them entry,” he replied,
“I could not, for without the day of the Lord, the mystery of the Lord, we cannot exist.”
This was far more than an external and onerous obedience to Church law. It was a deeply felt inner need and desire for what was the sustaining centre of their existence, of their entire being.
It was something so important, so vital, that it had to be done, even at the risk of one’s life and liberty. It provided a security, a peace which this world could not give. For Christians it meant a choice between either the meaning that sustains life or a life without meaning.
Listening to today’s Gospel with its two appearances of the risen Jesus on successive Sundays: “The first day of the week,” and “the eighth day”; hearing of that North African Church almost three centuries later; and being here at this one in central London two thousand years later, we can trace across that expanse of time and place a common thread.
A number of features in today’s Gospel suggest the worship of the early Church. The gospels were not written in a vacuum. Each of them reflected on the story of Jesus, his life and work and teaching, his passion, death and resurrection, in the context of the life of the Church then and this colours and shapes their accounts. At the heart of that context was the worship of those early Christian communities. So, we can see significant resemblances between the early Church’s gatherings for worship and the resurrection appearances of Jesus, and of course, with our own.
Jesus’ last word to Thomas and the other disciples is about future believers who will not have the direct experience they have had; who will not have seen the wounds on his risen body: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Then, in what was almost certainly the original ending of the Gospel, before an epilogue was added, the gospel writer adds:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so 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.”
How are those future disciples to come to believe? How are they to experience the risen Lord?
There are occasions where the risen Christ appears to an individual:
- to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb;
- to Paul on the road to Damascus.
But both are sent immediately to the Church:
- one to tell the news of the resurrection
- the other to have his sight restored and to be told what he is to do, to be instructed in the faith of which he is to be a messenger.
But most of the appearances of the risen Christ are with gatherings of disciples, and that says something to us about how we are to experience the risen Lord. Jesus does not take Thomas aside for a private view. He responds to his request in the midst of the other disciples.
These Sunday encounters with the risen Jesus in today’s Gospel are not just a record of past events. They are models for the future church. They show how Jesus communicates to his people in worship, how he is present to us in it.
1. Jesus is with us through the Peace of his spoken Word – through the grace of his spoken forgiveness, which ever since is the Word passed on through Jesus’ ministers and disciples when they pass on his gracious speech.
The two disciples who encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel, speak of how “our hearts burned within us as he opened to us the scriptures,” and when they return to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, Jesus appears again, and opens the scriptures to them.
Jesus stands in the midst of the disciples on the first Easter, and again on the eighth day. This is the place that Jesus should occupy in our worship and in our lives. That is why the Church appoints a Gospel for each Sunday Mass and for every Eucharist: to keep us Christ-centred; focused on the person of the Crucified-Risen Lord and on his words and deeds. When the Gospel Book is carried into the midst of the congregation, we turn to face it; and when the Gospel is announced, we respond “Glory be to thee, O Lord,” “Praise be to thee, O Christ:” speaking to the Lord who speaks to us.
The disciples respond with joy when they see and hear the risen Lord. Thomas responds with his profession of faith in the divinity of Jesus: “My Lord and my God.”
We respond by making our profession of faith in the creed.
2. Jesus is physically with us in the sacraments of his crucified and risen person: in the sacramental life passed on ever since by Jesus’ ministers and disciples; in baptism (John 3.3-5) and in the Eucharist (6.51-8). Just as Jesus had reached out to Thomas, so now he reaches out to all believing and seeking readers and hearers and embraces them. We have not seen Jesus; we have not been offered the sight of touch of his wounds. John’s is the Gospel of the Word made flesh – the incarnation is not set aside for belief as a purely rational exercise. The Word who took flesh when he came among us and glorified matter in his ascension, still takes the material – bread and wine, water and oil – to be present to us.
Disciples who were not present at the crucifixion are shown signs of it when Jesus reveals his hands and his side. When Jesus tells Thomas to “put out your hand, and place it in my side” he is not just being given physical proof; he is being invited to become a participant in Jesus’ death and thereby in the new temple raised up in his death.
We later disciples are able to participate in the meaning of Jesus’ passion when we too “stretch out our hands” to receive the eucharistic bread, which for us is the sign of Jesus’ flesh and blood given in death “for the life of the world.” (6.51)
3. The risen Lord is present to incorporate us in his continuing mission and to empower us for our share in it: ‘“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”; of being empowered with the Holy Spirit – ‘When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The gift of his Spirit is to continue his work of mercy, of forgiveness; in its preaching and practice: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; of you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The Church is given the power to forgive sins, but it is also given the responsibility to name sin for what it is when the world calls evil good and good evil.
We need to recognize, too, that just as Jesus is recognized by the marks of the cross, so our witness to the risen Christ is authenticated by the marks of love. Unless people see those marks on our hands and see our hearts opened, they are unlikely to believe.
Unlike the disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion, we do not gather in fear behind locked doors. The Metropolitan Police are not likely to burst in and arrest us this morning as those North African Christians were rounded up long ago. Yet such threats and worse are a present reality for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
No penalty is attached to not turning up at church on a Sunday morning – as some may have done this morning – thinking, “it’s only Low Sunday, let’s have a lie in to recover from Easter”– or “the Marathon is on today and it might be a bit difficult getting to church; there’s always next Sunday ….or the one after. The Vicar will still be there. The Lord will still be there.”
And so they will – but we may have missed the opportunity to hear words of mercy and peace addressed directly to us, the truth that sets us free, words to give meaning and purpose to our lives; his call to share God’s mission to the world; passed up on the opportunity to receive his gift of heavenly food which gives us life in his name.
Should we not rather take the words of Emeritus, that North African householder, and make them our own and say:
“We could not, for without the day of the Lord, the mystery of the Lord, we could not exist”?