Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Second Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter on April 19, 2020.

The Second Sunday of Easter


Acts 2.14a,22-32
1 Peter 1.3-9
John 20.19-31

Today’s Gospel reading is in two parts.  The first part takes place on Easter Sunday.  It is the evening after the disciples have discovered that the tomb where Jesus was buried is empty.  Mary Magdalene has reported to the disciples that she has seen the Risen Lord.  The disciples are now meeting behind closed doors.  They are in a lockdown of their own for ‘fear of the Jews’.

This should not be taken as a criticism of the disciples.  The disciples had every reason to be fearful.  Their leader had just been crucified as a rebel against Rome and the authorities had made known their views of Jesus and his movement.  Not only were the disciples fearful, they were confused.  What were they to make of the events of the past three days?

Jesus himself answers their question by appearing to them.

It is worth noting that Jesus has to convince them that it really is him who is appearing to them by showing them the marks of his crucifixion on his hands and side.  He is now the Risen Lord, but he is still the Crucified Christ.  As the hymn puts it: ‘those wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified’.  Even though raised from the dead, he bears the marks of the crucifixion to remind us of who he is and of the importance of the Cross and of what he has suffered.

His words to them are simple and to the point:

‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21)

Jesus has accomplished all that he came to do, now it is time for them to do the work he has chosen them to do.  As the Father sent him so now he sends them.  But, before they can go, something has to happen.  He breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.  He had told them much about the Holy Spirit on the night before he was betrayed and handed over to be crucified.  The Holy Spirit so far had been ‘with them’, but he is now to be ‘in them’.  The Holy Spirit will both direct and empower them as Jesus sends them out.

Jesus sends them out, but to do what?

Knowing as we do what Jesus tells the disciples in the other Gospels, what happens in the Book of Acts, and what takes place in the years ahead, we naturally assume that they are sent out to preach the Gospel and establish the Church, which is to be his body on earth in the time before he returns.  That, however, is not what the Risen Lord says here.  He tells them specifically:

‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20:23)

These words have caused trouble for those who have bothered to try to understand them and take them seriously.  For Roman Catholics, they are understood as the basis for ‘sacramental confession’ and the establishment of the priesthood.  The apostles and their successors are authorised to hear people’s confession and to pronounce absolution, that is, the forgiveness of sins.  Whether this understanding of priesthood is right or wrong, it doesn’t seem to be quite what Jesus has in mind here.  And what does it mean to have the authority to retain sins?

Protestants understand the words in a broader sense to mean that Jesus is giving the Church in general authority to forgive sins through the preaching of the Gospel.  Again, whether this understanding of Jesus’ words is right or wrong, it doesn’t seem to be quite what Jesus has in mind here.  And it still doesn’t answer the question of what Jesus means by giving authority to ‘retain sins’.

A full consideration of what Jesus means must be a question for another day, but for today it is important for us to see that Jesus puts individual human sin at the centre of what the disciples are empowered to do as he sends them out.

I have been involved in many discussions as to what the mission of the Church today should be.  I have listened and taken part as churches have discussed their mission statements.  Some place an emphasis on preaching the Gospel and making converts.  Others, on caring for people in their need and providing support and social welfare.  Nowadays, there is major emphasis in the Church on working for peace and ‘social justice’ in our world.  Whatever we think of these as legitimate concerns, here the Risen Lord establishes at the heart of the mission of the apostles the need to address individual human sin.

This is important.  Whatever else we may do as a Church and as followers of Christ, unless we are focusing on sin and every person’s need for forgiveness, we are not fulfilling the commission that Jesus gave to the Church through the apostles.  If we don’t address people’s sin and their need for forgiveness, we are failing to understand why the Father sent the Son and why he, in turn, is sending us.

What people need is not simply to become members of the Church, not simply to receive physical and material help, nor even to be given the chance to live in a more just and fair society, what they most need is forgiveness for their sins.  Until they find that, they remain lost and in darkness.

When the paralytic was lowered by his friends through the roof of the house to get him to Jesus, the first thing Jesus said was: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  (Mark 2:5)  Only then did Jesus go on to heal him.

This may not be what people want to hear.  It may challenge their belief in themselves and their illusion that they have the power to help themselves and do whatever they set their minds to do, but that is the message and mission that the Risen Lord has given us.

Yes, Jesus promises ‘abundant life’.  Yes, his triumph over death offers us hope as we face our own death.  But there can be no life, before or after death, unless we find forgiveness of our sins.  And the Church’s responsibility is to tell a self-satisfied world, which puts self-fulfilment before everything else, that they are sinners who need to experience that which only the Crucified Christ can offer.

This is why Christ died.  It is at the heart of our worship as we eat his body that was given for us and drink his blood that was shed for us.  And if people will not accept that message and turn to Christ, we have a further responsibility to tell them that their sins are retained with all the consequences of what that means.

Believing in Christ is not simply a way of making our life here better and more fulfilling.  It is not an optional extra.  Believing in Christ is something that God requires of people, and he has given us the task of telling that to people.

St Paul says in his speech to the pagans at Athens:

‘While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent …’ (Acts 17:30)

The first words that St Marks records our Lord as having said are, ‘Repent and believe the Gospel.’ (Mark 1:14)

Which brings us to the second part of the Gospel reading for this morning.

One person was missing when Jesus appeared to the disciples: Thomas.  This is the Thomas who, when Jesus said they would return to Jerusalem to help their friend Lazarus, said, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11:16)

When told by the other disciples that Jesus has appeared to them and has shown them his hands and his side, Thomas says:

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ (John 20:25)

For this response, he has been given the label, ‘Doubting Thomas’ as if he had been wrong to doubt what they told him.  But Thomas was no more wrong to doubt than the disciples had been to be afraid.  Would you believe anyone who had told you that someone you had seen crucified and stabbed with a spear, was now alive and had mysteriously appeared in a room, even though there was no way for them to get in?  Of course, you wouldn’t!  You would say, as Thomas says, ‘Unless I see for myself, I will not believe.’

St Thomas has become the patron saint of many today.  His doubt gives comfort to us in our own doubts.  But it is a bit more complicated than that.

Doubt can take many different forms.  For most people today doubt tends to centre on doubts about the whole Gospel story including doubts about the very existence of God himself.  Our doubts are of a factual and intellectual nature.  Is there a God?  If there is a God, how can he allow human suffering?  Are the Gospels true?  Was Jesus really born of a virgin?  Did he work miracles, rise from the dead, appear to the disciples, and ascend to heaven?  Can we really know God for ourselves, experience the Spirit, and be sure he answers prayer?  Or are we just indulging in wishful thinking?  Is it all a fairy tale?  Is it a nice story, but one we now know not be true, at least not in the sense that any of it is real?  It is one we can perhaps learn from, but not actually believe in.

Apart, however, from what we can describe as intellectual doubt, doubt can take other forms.  It can also be of a more personal nature and to do with whether we, individually, are acceptable to God.  In the past, Christians tended to have less doubts about the facts of the Gospel.  They believed in God and in the Gospel story without too many problems.  The doubts they had were instead about whether they personally were loved by God, whether Jesus died for them as individuals, and whether they were acceptable to God and could be forgiven for their sins.  Such doubts often caused great internal distress and anguish.

How then are we to respond to and deal with doubt both intellectual and personal?

When it comes to the second type of doubt, that is, personal doubt, some still feel this intensely.  They find it hard to believe anyone, let alone God, could love them.  They indeed need reassuring, but most of us don’t.  Our understanding of Jesus the man - the prophet and teacher, if not the Son of God - tells us that God, if there is a God, must be a very nice sort of God.  One who accepts us just as we are without making too much of a fuss about it, or about anything we may or may not have done.  After all, how could an intelligent being not love us?

The first type of doubt, intellectual doubt, is inevitable just as the disciples’ fear was inevitable.  We live in a world in which, from the moment we are born, we are encouraged to see faith as something optional and not central to our lives.  The existence of God, we are constantly informed, is something that we cannot be sure of.  And if we can’t be sure of it, we shouldn’t make it something we build our lives on.  By all means take it into account, even believe in it as a possibility, but realize, we are told, that there is no room for certainty.

This, for example, is how our education system functions.  It doesn’t have to explicitly tell children there isn’t a God, it just proceeds as if there isn’t or that it doesn’t matter if there is.  The existence of God is simply ignored and implicitly denied or at best assumed to be unimportant for them as they grow up and live their lives.

So, naturally, we are going to find it hard to believe; everything in the world in which we live explicitly and implicitly works against it.

Christians have responded to the fact of doubt by making a virtue out of a necessity.  In the Church, St Thomas has become something of a hero.

We should, Church leaders and teachers assure us, be suspicious of certainty and dogma and ask questions, even fundamental questions, about what the Church has traditionally taught as truths.  We are told that it is more important to seek than it is to find.  And that God (assuming he does exist) understands and welcomes our questioning.  The enemy today is not doubt, but certainty.  What God wants, we are told, is not people who know what they should believe, but people who know how they should live, and anyone who tries to live a good life will be alright in the end.

If those who say this are right, it makes our Lord’s response to Thomas somewhat puzzling.  For Jesus did not say to Thomas, ‘Well done you for asking the right questions,’ he said, ‘Do NOT doubt but believe.’  Then, when Thomas realizes that Jesus is alive, Jesus says:

‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’  (John 20:30)

Our Gospel reading concludes by St John telling us the reason why he has written his Gospel.  After pointing out that Jesus did many other things than those he has recorded in his Gospel, he explains:

‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31)

St John has not written his Gospel as a basis for further discussion or to provoke us to ask questions.  He has written it so we might believe and through believing have life in Jesus’ name, which rather suggests that if we don’t believe, we won’t have life.

So, we have a problem: everything about our life and upbringing makes it difficult for us to believe, and yet, St John tells us, unless we believe, we won’t have life.  How to solve the problem?  Should we just pretend?

The way forward is to ask what the Bible means by ‘believe’.

Part of the problem is that for us when we talk about ‘belief’ and ‘believing’ the focus is on what we personally think to be true.  We normally come to the conclusion that something is true either because intellectually we are convinced that it is or because we feel that is.

So, for example, I believe that the earth orbits the sun because I have confidence in those who tell me it does, and I am convinced by the evidence I have seen to support that belief.

Believing in something will involve our minds and how we think, and this applies especially to questions of fact.  But, in life, what we believe is not only about issues of a factual nature.  When it comes, for example, to where we believe we should live; what job we believe we should do; whom we believe we should marry; and in a whole host of other areas of our lives, while what we believe involves our minds and what we think, it does not only involve our minds.

People make important choices in their lives not only because of what intellectually they think to be true, but also because of what emotionally they feel to be right.  Most of us marry, for example, not simply because of an intellectual decision we have made about someone, but because we also ‘feel’ a person is the one for us.

Relying solely on how we feel can be dangerous.  It is all too easy for our emotions to let us down or for them to be manipulated in the way they often are by advertisers and politicians, for example.  But then so too can how we think.  We have seen many examples in history of whole nations being manipulated into believing ideologies that turned out to be not only wrong, but destructive.  Even a scientific ‘fact’ in one generation can turn out to be an outdated theory in another.

The English word ‘believe’ is how we translate a verb in the New Testament, which is in Greek, into English.  It is part of the Greek word also translated ‘faith’.  The connection between the various ways the Greek word group is translated is maintained if instead of translating the Greek word into English as ‘believe’, we translate it as ‘have faith’.

Faith in the Bible is not about what we think to be true nor about we feel to be right, but about a decision we make and what we do as a consequence.  Faith is about making a decision to trust Christ and what the Bible tells us about him.   We marry someone, for example, because we think and feel they are the right one for us.  It is a decision we make to trust and to act accordingly

We make important life decisions based both on how we think, considering all the evidence, and also on how we feel having done so.  But, however, we make it, we have, in all the important areas of our lives, to make a decision.  Faith is not primarily about what we think or feel, but what we decide.  It is about the will.  So, Jesus says to Thomas, stop doubting and believe.  It is Jesus saying to him, ‘You’ve seen the evidence, you know how you feel about me, now decide if you are going to trust me and live for me.

For many people, faith is a ‘leap in the dark’, doing something without knowing whether it is true or not but hoping that it will turn out to be OK in the end.  That is not how the Bible sees it.  Faith is the decision and commitment we make after considering how we think and feel having heard the Gospel of Jesus.  Are we going to believe in him or not?  Are we going to have faith in him or not?  Are we going to trust him or not?

St Anselm famously said:

‘I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe, I shall not understand’ (Isaiah 7:9).’

The reality is that we are not able to see, that is, to understand, precisely because we are sinners, blinded by our sin, who need our sin forgiving.  None of us deserve to receive the life that Christ offers, quite simply because we are sinners.  If we want to understand and if we want to be able to stop feeling bad about ourselves, then we need to make a decision of faith.  It is a decision to trust in the Risen Lord standing before us with hands outstretched, hands that bear the marks of the nails from when he was crucified, not only because of our sin, but for our sin; so our sin could be forgiven.

By the authority of the Risen Christ, I can say confidently to you now that, if you are willing to trust Christ, your sins will be forgiven and you will be on the way to life.  If you are not, then your sins are retained and you do not have his life within you.

We all come to Christ with fears, doubts, guilt, hang ups, problems, and questions.  What matters is not how we come to him or what state we are in when we come to him.  What matters is that we do come to him.

Jesus said, ‘Anyone who comes to me I will never turn away.’ (John 6:37)

The hymn writer Charlotte Elliott wrote:

‘Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come.’

Today, may we come to Christ just as we are and may we be amongst those of whom Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ (John 20:29)


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