John 20 19- end; Acts 4 32-35
Today is sometimes referred to as Low Sunday in the church calendar – which always sounds a bit depressing to my mind!
It suggests that just a week after the joy of Easter when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, things have gone a bit flat – a bit like those strange in-between days after Christmas and before the New Year.
Some claim that the word “low” is a derivative of Laudes which features in the Latin liturgy for the day.
In the Roman Catholic Church this Sunday is sometime referred to as Quasimodo Sunday as these are the first two words, again in Latin, of the Introit for the second Sunday after Easter. Those of you who are familiar with Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, or indeed the Disney cartoon of the same name, may be aware that the protagonist is given the name “Quasimodo” by his adoptive father as it was on that day that he was found.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church the day is sometimes referred to as Thomas Sunday in view of the fact that the Gospel reading from John focusses in part on Thomas’s reaction to hearing the news that Jesus has risen from the dead and then witnessing this for himself.
In the Western Church Thomas is often referred to in somewhat derogatory terms as ” doubting Thomas” but in the Eastern Church he is celebrated as the first person to publicly acknowledge both Jesus’s humanity and His divinity when he speaks the words of verse 28 “My Lord and My God”
I sometimes think that Thomas gets a bit of a bad press – by refusing to believe the accounts of the other disciples there is an assumption that his faith is of a lesser quality. Yet would any of us not have reacted in the same way? “Seeing is believing” as the saying goes and given the events that Thomas has been part of, it is hardly surprising that he needs perhaps a little more convincing that Jesus is indeed once more moving amongst his followers.
Maybe Thomas didn’t want to build his hopes up in case this was just another rumour. Maybe he couldn’t bear to think how he would feel if his friends accounts weren’t true after all and he did have to accept that Jesus really was dead.
I have been reading a book written by the Reverend Richard Coles following the death of his partner, entitled The Madness of Grief. In it Father Richard describes the feelings of disbelief that his beloved was actually dead and how his grief was intensified each day when he woke from sleep only to relive the pain of his loss.
Perhaps Thomas has experienced similar feelings and wasn’t able to bring himself to believe that he would indeed see Jesus again in case these hopes were cruelly dashed.
It’s easy for us to criticise Thomas because we have the gift of scripture. We know that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead and that as a result we have the hope and promise of everlasting life.
We know that through Jesus’s supreme act of sacrifice our sins are forgiven and the new covenant with God has been established.
So that makes it easy for us to dismiss Thomas’s doubts and accuse him of a lack of faith.
Yet we live in a world where proof is constantly demanded, where people want to see hard evidence before they believe anything, where what is true can be distorted by just a few clicks of a mouse. We live in a world that has appears to be dominated by cynicism and scepticism.
However over this past year I wonder if we have begun to see a shift in people’s perceptions of the world, a move towards a greater orientation of community.
In some ways our world has diminished as we have heeded advice to stay home, stay local, minimise travel, mix with only a very small number of people.
I know that this has been the cause of isolation and pain for many and I certainly don’t underestimate the impact of that but I also have noticed an increased concern for the most vulnerable, an outpouring of acts of kindness and generosity.
If we consider the words of Acts in the passage that Julia/Frances has just read to us, we see how the emerging Christian community strives to build upon the new commandments that Jesus gave to his disciples. There is a desire to share possessions and money so that everyone benefits, regardless of what they bring – there were no needy people among them. There was a unity of purpose – all believers were one in heart and mind.
Are we now witnessing a renewal of a desire to live more generously, not just in terms of money and possessions but perhaps more importantly with respect to the way in which we spend our time, the concern we show for others.
Some recent research reports that volunteering had increased over the past year and many of those who had volunteered as a result of the pandemic expressed a desire to continue finding ways to serve their communities.
In the main people have been united in the way in which they have abided by the restrictions in place to combat the ravages of the pandemic. The majority of people have taken the principle of acting for the common good seriously rather than prioritising their own needs.
Yesterday as the nation learned of the death of Prince Philip there was a commonality in the way in which people expressed their respect, regardless of their political persuasion or view of the monarchy.
There was an expression of sympathy for a family who have lost a much loved member and especially for the Queen, as she comes to terms with the loss of the love of her life and constant companion.
All of this feels like a step along the way to building a more loving and cohesive society, just as those first followers of the Way began to do in the weeks and months after Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Or am I being too idealistic? Will the world revert to its old ways in the aftermath of this season? Will the memory of the challenges of the past year rapidly diminish as we eagerly embrace the normality of pre-pandemic life?
As Christians we endeavour to build God’s kingdom on earth. Are we able to further this mission as we slowly emerge from lockdown? In amongst the understandable lament of all that has been lost, are there signs of hope that the world can be a better place, that we will never take for granted the importance of human connection and that we will cherish each other more than we ever have before?
In our Gospel passage we find the disciples experiencing their own version of lockdown as they hide in fear of reprisals following Jesus’s crucifixion.
And then from nowhere their beloved teacher appears and commissions them to take on the mantel of the work he has begun – as my Father has sent me so I am sending you. Jesus is passing the continuing work of the new creation to those who have followed him throughout his earthly ministry, those who have heard his teaching, who have witnessed the miracles that he has performed.
In an echo from the first creation he breathes on them. In Genesis God breathed the breath of life into Adam so that he could be the steward of the world that he has created. Now Jesus breathes new life, the Holy Spirit, into the disciples so that they are empowered to take on the work of the new creation, to be stewards of the Gospel message.
Jesus enables them to forgive the sins of others and equally to recognise when there is no desire for forgiveness, no longing for reconciliation with either God or those who have suffered as a result of being sinned against.
In these few verses Jesus changes the whole outlook of the disciples from being scared and insecure about lies ahead to being intentionally focussed on continuing the work that Jesus started. He changes what must have felt like a hopeless situation into one overflowing not only with hope but with clear purpose.
There have been times over the last year when I am sure we have all felt that we were in a hopeless situation, where we could not see any light at the end of a very long tunnel.
Now we begin to see glimmers of light, we grasp the chance to emerge from the darkness that has engulfed us, tentatively perhaps, a bit like Thomas not wanting to fully believe that there is a new way of life ahead, which will be so very much better than that which went before.
Tomorrow we embark on the next stage of the roadmap that the government have put in place. I am sure many of us feel great trepidation as we do so, just like the disciples felt as they slowly emerged into a world where they knew would be so much better than the one they had known, yet would still hold challenge and even danger.
The disciples believed in the promises of God, made flesh through the person of Jesus. They had seen him put to death in the most cruel of ways and now they saw him standing before them, having defeated death, risen again.
The issue of belief is vital to John’s Gospel – the word believe appears 99 times which is more than in all three of the other Gospels put together or indeed in all of Paul’s letters. Yet the word faith does not appear at all. For John, to believe in the resurrection is the key to new life. Belief enables rebirth, through belief we enter into a new covenant with God.
The final verse of this chapter sums it up for us perfectly – that by believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, we may have life in his name. John has presented us all with all the evidence of Jesus’s ministry, his teachings and the miracles he has performed. He has recounted the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s now down to us to believe – and by believing we are blessed as Jesus Himself says – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”
And through that belief we are changed. We become part of the body of Christ and in doing so we find ourselves in community with all those who share that belief. We become part of God’s mission for creation and despite all the changes the world has seen over the past 2,000 plus years that mission remains the same – to build the kingdom of God here on earth
So let us aspire to be like those first followers of Jesus who were of one heart and mind. Let us embrace the hope and joy of Easter and go forth, firm in our belief that there is new life through the indisputable good news that Jesus Christ is risen, He is risen indeed. Alleluia!