Sunday 19 April 2009

Something Happened!

An address given on Sunday 19th April 2009, Easter 2, Low Sunday, at Templederry and St Mary's Nenagh.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Jesus Christ is that we’ve all heard of him!

So claims John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest who is also an eminent particle physicist and Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, in an article he wrote for the Times of London this Easter.

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, speaking such wisdom about the Kingdom of God, and acting with great compassion toward the poor, the sick and the needy. But then it all seemed to fall apart. He got on the wrong side of the religious leaders and the state; he got himself 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! If the story had ended there, none of us would ever have heard of him!

But we do all know the name of Jesus. He has been a powerfully influential figure for 2000 years. It is why we are here today. What is the reason for this? The answer is that something happened to continue the story.

The writers of the NT describe this something as the Resurrection. They all believe and witness for us that Jesus rose from the dead. This counter-intuitive belief emboldened 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 the 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, as I might meet you. The gospel writers do not attempt to explain it – for them the fact of it is all that is important. The fact of the resurrection which they experienced is all that matters. 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 what it is like to be disciples of the risen Christ.

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 meeting the risen Christ makes his disciples feel. 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 good: as we say today, they feel centred. And this enables them to rejoice, no matter how difficult the situation may be – and 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.

A second thing that strikes me is this: as the risen Christ sends his disciples out, he also gives them the strength to continue his mission of self-sacrificing love and service. He breathes his Holy Spirit on them, just as the Father gave him the strength and the Spirit to begin it. I believe Jesus does so in every age.

It was no easier for ordinary men and women of Jesus’s time than it is for us today to believe in the counter-intuitive idea of resurrection. Even Thomas, one of the original twelve, resisted this interpretation of what had happened. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails … I will not believe’, he says. But when a week later he too meets the risen Christ he is able to say, ‘My Lord and my God!’

Some Christians meet the risen Christ in a personal conversion experience, as St Paul and St Francis did, and as some have done in our own day - but many of us don’t. If you haven’t, don’t worry - remember what Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

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’. Following St Paul, we usually think of grace theologically as ‘unearned favour received from God’, but here surely the word has the plain meaning of the original Greek 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 people see this passage as a scriptural endorsement of Communism, but I think that would be a mistake and an anachronism. Communism as a political philosophy developed only in the 19th Century in response to the injustices of industrial capitalism. The circumstances of the tiny group trying to live a life of Christian witness in an obscure province within the classical Roman Empire were quite different.

But what we should notice, I think, is this: 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. That is a lesson that we should all learn from them, I think.

So to finish

  • Let us all share in Shalom, the peace of the risen Christ – as the first disciples did.
  • Let us go out to continue Christ’s mission of loving service in the world, strengthened by the Holy Spirit he breathes into us – as the first disciples did.
  • And let us care intensely for one another, and be generous with what God has given us, let us share what we have so that no one is in need – as the first disciples did.