Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Gift of Faith on the 2nd Sunday of Easter

An address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, 27th April 2014, year A

There is a common theme running through all 3 of today’s readings.
That theme is belief; belief that God raised Jesus from the dead; belief that his resurrection reveals Jesus to be the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one.

This belief is a hard call, isn’t it? In our common human experience, people who are dead - really dead, not just in a coma - stay dead. They don’t come back to life, walk about and talk to us. But that is what the Gospels tell us Jesus did. It seems impossible. Yet this belief is the very heart and centre of the faith that brings us all together here today.

Can we really believe it? Let’s look a little more closely at the readings to explore the question.

First we turn to the reading from John’s Gospel (John 20:19-31) about the apostle Thomas.
Thomas is nobody’s fool, he doesn’t take anything on somebody else’s say so, he thinks for himself. I like that! He is one of my heroes.

Thomas isn’t there when Jesus appears to the other disciples on the day of his resurrection, so when they tell him their extraordinary news “We have seen the Lord!” he doesn’t believe them. He 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.”  But a week later Thomas is there when Jesus appears again. Jesus talks directly to him, and invites him to touch his wounds. Thomas responds immediately, saying “My Lord and my God!”  For all his initial scepticism, Thomas is convinced by his own senses that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Yet there is something odd about John’s story - as there is about all the stories of Jesus after the resurrection. The risen Jesus is not the same as he was before. Neither Mary Magdalen nor the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognise him at first. And in today’s reading Jesus seems to appear out of nowhere, even though the doors are locked. It is clear to me that we can’t imagine the risen Jesus as just the re-animated corpse of the man Jesus who died on the cross. There’s more to it than that!

So what are we to make of it all? If there is any truth in the Gospel accounts, the disciples experienced something mysterious but quite extraordinary. They described it as meeting Jesus the risen Christ: “We have seen the Lord” they say. It would be futile to try to explain what they experienced scientifically – there just isn’t enough evidence. But that doesn’t mean that whatever it was contradicts what we have learned through science about the way God’s creation works.

The first point I hope you will take away today is this:
We can believe both in the truth of science and in the disciples’ experience. We can believe both and accept the mystery. And we can choose to call their experience what they called it – meeting Jesus the risen Christ.

Now let’s turn to the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:14a, 22-32).
The scene is set at 9 am on the day of Pentecost; 6 weeks after Thomas declared his belief, and 7 weeks after the resurrection. The twelve have just received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and begun to speak in all manner of foreign tongues, attracting a crowd. Peter, acting as spokesman, starts to make a speech.

For the first time in public, Peter boldly declares his belief, and that of the other disciples, that God has raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” he says. And he quotes Psalm 16 to show his Jewish listeners that King David had prophesied the resurrection of the Messiah:
"He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption."

These days we can’t argue convincingly from biblical prophecy, because it doesn’t fit in with how our scientific culture understands the way the universe works. But people did then, and his words were very persuasive - we are told he persuaded 3000 new disciples to be baptised that day!

What really impresses me is the change that has come over Peter - he has become a different man. This is the man that only seven weeks ago denied that he knew Jesus three times and ran away, because he was afraid of what might happen to him. Yet now this ordinary fisherman is inspired to stand up in public and preach to a crowd, testifying to his belief that God raised Jesus from the dead. Peter is completely changed. He kick-starts the process that has led to countless people sharing his belief.

And Peter isn’t the only one changed. As we read on in the book of Acts, we see how the disciples pass on their belief to others; how they start to organise themselves into a Church; how they seem to be propelled by some irresistible force to go out and make disciples of all nations, just as Jesus asked them to do.
The 2nd point I want you to take away is this:
The experience of meeting the risen Christ, and receiving the Spirit he promised, utterly transforms his disciples. What a powerful force for change it is!

Finally we turn to the 1st Letter of Peter (1Peter 1:3-9)
The author gives us a glimpse of how Peter and Thomas and the other apostles passed on their belief to new generations. “Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him”. Notice how this echoes what Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Those who heard the Apostles testify to their belief accepted it on faith, AS their faith. And that faith has been passed on from generation to generation, until we ourselves received it. And we in turn will pass it on to our own children and grandchildren, by the grace of God.

The 3rd point to take away is tis
We should see our faith in Jesus the risen Christ, and our capacity to believe it, as like a magnificent gift from God - a gift which will utterly transform us if we let it, just as it did the first disciples. I think it is what allows us to be truly human. We are blessed by it.

Let us thank God for the gift of faith, handed down to us from Thomas and Peter and the first disciples!

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