Address given at Templederry & Nenagh, and from memory at Killodiernan, on Sunday 12th April 2015, the 2nd of Easter Year B.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Jesus Christ is that we've all heard of him!
That first Good Friday it must have seemed that the whole life and ministry of Jesus was a complete and abject failure. He started out so well, proclaiming the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, on the side of the marginalised and needy. But then it all seemed to fall apart. He got on the wrong side of the temple and the state; he was arrested; he was deserted by his disillusioned followers; and he was painfully and shamefully executed. Just another 1st Century messianic pretender, destined to be forgotten like so many others – so it must have seemed!
If the story had ended there, none of us would ever have heard of him. But we have all heard of Jesus – that’s why we are here today. Something happened to continue the story. The writers of the NT describe this something as Resurrection. They all believe and give witness that Jesus rose from the dead. This belief emboldens them to continue his mission, now strengthened by the sense of God’s Holy Spirit working in and through them. The followers of Jesus multiply. Less then 3 centuries later they take over mighty Roman Empire. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Resurrection is a mystery. No one is recorded as witnessing the event itself, just the empty tomb. Many disciples, we are told, met the risen Jesus, but there is something strange about the accounts – even his best friends find it hard to recognise him, and he comes suddenly, even through locked doors. These aren’t ordinary meetings. The gospel writers do not attempt to explain it – for them the fact of the resurrection is all that is important. I suggest the same should be true for us. We can’t go back in time to study it with our 21st century science. But something happened – something happened which we might as well call what the NT writers called it: Jesus Christ rose from the dead!
Let us look more closely at today’s readings, and reflect on what they tell us about how the earliest disciples responded to Christ’s Resurrection.
In the gospel reading John (20:19-31) gives an account of the disciples meeting the risen Christ.
On the first day of the week, though the doors were locked, ‘Jesus came and stood among them.’ He shows them his wounds and the disciples rejoice. He tells them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then, ‘he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”’.
One thing that strikes me about this passage is how his disciples feel when they meet the risen Christ. Jesus would have used the Hebrew word Shalom, which has a rather wider meaning than the English word peace – it also signifies wholeness, wellbeing. When his disciples sense that Jesus stands among them, they feel his peace, they feel whole, they feel well: as we say today, they feel centred. This is what enables them to rejoice, no matter how difficult the situation is – it’s hard to imagine a situation more desperate than the one they faced after the crucifixion, isn’t it? Huddled together in a locked room in fear of their lives.
Another thing that strikes me is this: as he sends them out, the risen Christ gives his disciples the strength to continue his mission of self-sacrificing love and service - he breathes his Holy Spirit on them - just as the Father gave Jesus the strength to begin it. I believe Christ does so in every age.
The 1st reading from Acts (4:32-35) tells us about the common life of the earliest Christians.
Time has moved on. Many new believers have joined the small frightened band of disciples who had met the risen Christ behind locked doors. The apostles testify ‘to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power’. All the believers, new and old, are ‘of one heart and soul’, and ‘great grace (is) upon them all’. The word translated here as ‘grace’ is the Greek word charis (χαρις) – ‘that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness’. It is ‘shalom’. It is how the disciples felt when they heard the risen Christ say ‘peace be with you’.
These earliest Christians were living as a community sharing everything. ‘No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common’, we are told, and ‘there was not a needy person among them’.
Some suggest this is a scriptural endorsement of Communism, but that would be a mistake, an anachronism, I think. Communism as a political philosophy is a 19th Century idea, a response to the injustices of industrial capitalism. The circumstances of the tiny group of disciples trying to live a life of Christian witness within the Roman Empire were quite different.
But what we should notice, I think, is that the disciples of Jesus cared intensely for each other. They were generous; they never forgot that when some do not have enough, everyone must help; they wanted to share what they had, because they loved one another, as Jesus commanded them to do.
So to sum up, as 21st century Christians here are three things we can learn from the response of the earliest Christians to the fact of Resurrection
1st, the risen Christ blesses us with his ‘shalom’, the gift of his peace – just as he did the first disciples.
2nd, the risen Christ breathes his Holy Spirit into us to give us strength to continue his mission of loving service in the world – just as he did the first disciples.
And 3rd, in response to Christ’s peace and the Holy Spirit we should care intensely for one another - love one another. Let us share what God has given us so that no one is in need – just as the first disciples did.