Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter – High Mass and Holy Baptism Sunday 27 April 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
At least two events of great significance are happening in the Christian world today.
In the grand setting of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, with a congregation of over a million and countless more watching on television, two new saints are being canonised: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.
Here in the more modest setting of All Saints, Margaret Street, we too are creating a new saint.
The two popes are being recognised as “Saints” with a capital “S”; as exemplary figures, models of holiness, in the life of the Church.
Hugo Konrad is being made a “saint” with a small ‘s’. At his baptism, he will be made a child of God, a brother of Jesus Christ, admitted to the fellowship of Christ’s religion, welcomed into the household of God.
The Gospel today takes us to church, but at first sight, not quite as we know it. The upper room, with doors barred, seems far-removed from either a great basilica in Rome, built over the tomb of one of the people in that room, or even from a parish church like this one.
And yet, on closer examination, there is a real and direct connection between that room and those other places and all places where Christians gather to celebrate on the first day of the week.
John writes out of the experience of his church and to meet its concerns. A number of features suggest the worship experience of the early church. We cannot know for sure how much the gospel formed later worship, or liturgy shaped the gospel, but the parallels between the two suggest a relationship, a development out of a common tradition and spiritual experience.
The two sections of our gospel are almost a mirror image in the repetition of words and actions. Both begin with the naming of the day, the Sunday, which can be called both the first day and the eighth day. The disciples are gathered inside with the doors shut. Both times Jesus comes and stands among them saying, “Peace be with you.”’ In both, Jesus shows his hands and his side and this leads to a response of faith:
- “the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (20);
- “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God’” (28)
Both sections conclude with the words of Jesus: first of commission and then of blessing.
The repetition is deliberate. They are not just bare “facts.” They have a symbolic and enduring meaning. We can recognise these features in our own worship:
- We gather on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection;
- The priest greets us and we greet each other in the peace of the risen Christ;
- We hear the testimony of the apostles;
- We listen as he speaks to us and we see and touch the signs of his passion;
- We respond in faith in creed;
- We are sent to share in his mission.
The repeated drama of the two scenes points us to the links between what happens there and what is happening here and in Rome and countless other places this morning, and on countless Sundays between when Christians gather in the presence of the risen Lord.
John’s could have ended his Gospel after the first scene, with the disciples gathered around the risen Jesus and commissioned to continue the ministry the Father gave him. This is how Matthew concludes his gospel with the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
So why does he give us more? What is the point of the Thomas episode? Where does he fit into all this, with his stubborn refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow-disciples? If we recall his earlier appearances, we get some guidance for there he is linked with two themes in the Easter ones: the resurrection and the household of God.
Thomas features in the story of the raising of Lazarus. When Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus is dead and says: “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so you may believe. But let us go to him,” it is Thomas who knows that such a journey takes Jesus into the heartland of his enemies, says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He had expected only death, and even though he had witnessed the raising of Lazarus, he cannot now bring himself to believe in Jesus’s words,
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
At the last supper, when Jesus says, “In my Father’s household there are many dwellings…I go to prepare a place for you. And you know the way to the place where I am going,” he fails to understand. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”’ (14.2, 4-5) Yet Jesus had said earlier, “I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me.” (7.33), so Thomas, even if he does not know the “way,” should at least know where Jesus is going: “to him who sent me.”
In these resurrection appearances Jesus is beginning the process of establishing the household of God. Thomas had been absent from the first gathering. We are not told why, but for John, separation from the body of believers is a significant matter. Being outside the household of disciples has placed Thomas outside the experience of Jesus’ presence and outside their Easter faith. But now he is gathered back into the household on the first day of the week. He is in the place which has been prepared for him. And it is there that Jesus reveals his presence and addresses him.
Jesus does not just say, “Open your eyes and see,” but “put your finger here and see.” Thomas is given an opportunity to “see” with his sense of touch. He is challenged to come to faith by stretching out his hand and, literally, “throwing” it into the side of Jesus. Faith for Thomas is to be first a physical placing and touching. It brings him to believe not just in the resurrection but to utter the fullest statement of faith in Jesus Christ made by anyone in the New Testament: “My Lord and my God.”
This second episode is linked to the first and extends it into the future. It is about future believers: those who have not known the historical Jesus or seen his resurrection appearances; those who will come to believe through the mission of the disciples. John is answering the question which must have faced his contemporaries as it faces us: how can such people come to believe, how can they become members of the household of God, without that direct knowledge?
He points us first to the testimony of the disciples. Just as Hugo Konrad is brought to the font this morning by his parents and godparents, all of us are dependent on the witness of others for our faith. Even the most individualistic of Protestants who might say he was converted by reading the Gideon Bible in a hotel room, needed the people who placed that bible there, and they in turn received the bible for Church whose book it is.
There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. We can only be Christians as part of the household, he family of God’s children, Christ’s brothers and sisters. We cannot baptise ourselves – someone has to do it for us.
In these two scenes John invites us to see that the risen Lord does provide occasions and ways of experiencing his risen presence in the worship of the household of God. This is not a glimpse back into an increasingly remote past, a nostalgic longing for what might have been, but an invitation to participate in a new reality, in a future which is already breaking into the present in the Holy Spirit who makes our gatherings a continuation of the disciples’ experience.
He moves us from the time of those first Easter gatherings around the Risen One into our own experience of gathering in the household of God around the Eucharist. Where the original disciples could hear the voice of Jesus see and touch him in the flesh, later disciples can, through the Holy Spirit breathed on us, both hear him speak in the gospel, and can see, touch, and be nourished by his sacramental body.
Those who believe the witness of the disciples find that testimony confirmed by their experience of Christ’s risen presence in the sacrament of his body and blood.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”