Easter II

The first Easter Day must have been very strange indeed. Before the sun had even risen, Mary Magdalen comes and says that the tomb is empty. Peter and John go and look at Jesus’ burial place, and then Mary comes back again having seen the Risen Lord. And while all of these earth-shattering discoveries are begin to sink in, we are faced with this morning’s Gospel passage. It is evening and the disciples are afraid that they will face retribution for supporting a false Messiah. They are scared, and can hardly believe what people have told them, let alone make sense of it all. And then suddenly, without warning, Jesus is in their midst, there in the room with them. Our Lord greets them and says, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19) words which we still use in worship today. Jesus’ first words to the disciples are, ‘Shalom alechem’, ‘Tangnefedd i chwi’. Christ’s greeting is one of peace and reconciliation, which dissipates their fear and anxiety. Then Christ shows the disciples His hands and side, the wounds which have brought about this peace and reconciliation.

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds of love, God’s love for humanity, and repeats His greeting of Peace. He then commissions them:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (Jn 20:21)

God the Father sends Christ to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repentance, and to reconcile God and humanity. As blood and water flowed from Christ’s side at Calvary, so through Baptism and the Eucharist, the Church gives life to the people of God. Then the commissioning and ordaining of the apostles continues:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20:22-23)

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is active in the world. Christ gives the apostles the power to forgive sin. In Jewish understanding, this is something only God can do. Jesus forgives sins, and empowers His disciples to do so. This forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s love and reconciliation, which can and does heal our wounded human nature. This is what Jesus came to do, and He commits the Church to continue His mission and His saving work. This is the reality which we inhabit as Christians. It is God’s free gift to His people, a sign of generous love. The role of the Church is to deal with the mess we make as human beings. By the power of His Holy Spirit, the Church is to be a community of reconciliation, where we are forgiven and we, in turn, forgive. It is to be a place where we are freed from sin, its power, and its effects.

St Thomas is not there with the other disciples when The Resurrected Jesus appears on that first Easter Day. Thomas feels somewhat left out. He knows he has missed the opportunity to experience something truly wonderful and life-changing. This is a perfectly normal human reaction to an extraordinary situation. Which of us would not feel the same? We too would want to experience the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, and to be sure of it. Thus, we empathise with Thomas when he says,

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (Jn 20:25)

These are the words of someone who longs to experience the reality of the Resurrection. Like the other disciples, Thomas has been on something of an emotional rollercoaster. It is understandable that Thomas wants to be certain, to know with his own eyes and hands that Jesus is alive. 

A week later, Jesus comes to them again, and said, 

“Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (Jn 20:26-27)

Jesus gives Thomas what he wants, the opportunity to experience the reality of the Resurrection and to touch the wounds of love and mercy. This leads Thomas to reply:

“My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28)

Thomas confesses Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is God, and the Lord of Thomas’ life. It is a profound and concise statement of faith in who Jesus is and what He has done. Thomas has journeyed from doubt and despair to true faith. Doubt is the starting point, but not the end of the journey. It is the beginning rather than the goal. St Thomas should really be known as ‘Believing Thomas’ rather than ‘Doubting Thomas’, as this is what he becomes. Thomas’ belief changes his life, and leads him to take the Gospel to be proclaimed far and wide. He travels to India, founding Christian communities which have endured for two thousand years. Such faith is our inheritance, and in it we are blessed as those who have not seen, yet believe.

The heart of our faith and the Gospel is forgiveness and mercy. No matter how many times we mess things up, we are forgiven by God. It is this reckless generosity of spirit which people find hard to believe. Many struggle to believe that they too can be forgiven, by a loving God, and by their fellow Christians. That we can, despite our manifold shortcomings, be a people of love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation. God’s Grace does not abolish our nature, it perfects it. Being fed by Christ, with Christ, we too may become what He is. Despite the sad emptiness of the world, and its selfishness, and greed, we can be filled with joy, and life, and hope. Like the first apostles we too can spread the Gospel: that the world may believe. And that all may have life in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen

Caravaggio The Incredulity of St Thomas

Easter 2021

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, something strange and wonderful happened, which has changed the world. It can be hard to imagine quite how disconcerting Jesus’ Resurrection must have been for the Disciples and all who were close to Jesus. Nearly two thousand years later, we are perhaps too familiar with the story of Our Lord’s Resurrection. But, only for a moment, I would like us to try to imagine that we were witnesses to events, as they unfolded. We saw Christ enter Jerusalem, hailed as the Messiah. But, after spending time with His Disciples, and telling them to, ‘Do This in memory of Him’, (something we have come here to do), He was arrested, condemned, and killed. The disciples’ emotions must have been strong: fear, disbelief, questioning: will we be next? Jesus talked about dying, and rising again, but He couldn’t have meant like this, could He? 

Mary of Magdala went to the tomb, either to anoint the body properly (there wasn’t time on Friday afternoon), or just spend time at the grave of someone she loved. She sees the stone rolled away, and returns to tell Peter and John,

They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:2)

Mary is concerned with the dead body of Jesus. When Peter and John run to the tomb, John gets there first, he sees the cloths, but doesn’t go into the tomb. Peter goes in and sees everything. Then John goes in, sees and believes. 

Mary stays by the tomb, filled with grief. Not only is Jesus dead, but his body has disappeared. Even when angels speak to Mary, all she can say is,

They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:13)

She sees Jesus, who asks Mary why she is weeping, and who she is looking for. We then have an interesting detail:

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (Jn 20:15)

Mary still thinks Jesus is dead. She loves Him, and all she wants to do is to take care of His body. She is a paragon of love, devotion, and service. But it is only when Jesus calls her by name that she recognises Him. 

One detail which I find intriguing is that Mary Magdalen supposes that Jesus is the gardener. Gardens and cemeteries had people looking after them, even in 1st century Palestine. But mention of gardens and gardeners makes me think of another passage in the Bible concerned with matters horticultural. In Genesis, God makes a garden, Eden, puts Adam in it, and commands him to look after it (Gen 2:15). The first man is a gardener. The Risen Christ, the New Adam, is seen as a gardener. Whilst the first Adam brought death to humanity by a tree, the Second Adam has brought life to the world, by the tree of the Cross. Humanity falls because of a tree, and because of a tree we are offered eternal life in Christ. 

It is the first day of the week, when Creation began, and now on the first day of the week we see a New Creation, as Christ has risen from the dead, conquering death and Hell. Christ is a gardener, and the plants he tends are human. We believe in a God who loves us, who cares for us, and who longs to see us experience the fullness of life. That sounds like the description of a gardener to me: someone who nurtures, who longs to see growth. In His Passion, Christ has overcome the bitter fruit of human disobedience with His own obedience. We are here today, because Christ’s fruit, His Body and Blood has nourished the Church through the centuries, and will continue to do so until He comes in glory. 

Over the last year we have experienced the same fear, disbelief and questioning that the Disciples felt. Now we yearn to be filled with the joy, hope, and peace of the Risen Lord. The Resurrection of Jesus is a time for celebration. A time to enjoy all the good fruits of the earth. We rejoice that we can once again gather in each others’ gardens and give thanks for the good weather we have been blessed with this week. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘Pasg hapus i chi gyd!’ ‘A Happy Easter to you all!’ May you, and those you love, be filled with Resurrection joy and strength, now and always. Amen.

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), “Noli me tangere,” 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/angelico/index.html

Good Friday

Today we focus on the Cross, not as an instrument of torture, or as a means of inflicting a lingering painful death, but as something wonderful. In being raised upon the cross, Our Lord is not dying the death of a slave, but rather He is reigning in glory. This is God’s glory: the glory of selfless love, poured out on the world to heal it and reconcile it to God. Christ’s hands and feet and side are pierced, as wounds of love, to pour out God’s healing love upon the world. In his obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus puts to an end the disobedience of humanity’s first parent, Adam. Christ is a willing victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Silent lamb led to his slaughter, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep that have gone astray.

On the Cross, just before Christ dies, something wonderful happens. The following scene takes place:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.’ (Jn 19:26-27)

At one level it looks straightforward enough. Jesus is creating a new family unit with Mary and John adopting each other. The use of the word ‘woman’ reminds us of the Wedding in Cana, at the start of His ministry,  when Jesus addresses his mother in this way. At Cana, Mary tells the servants to ‘Do whatever He tells you’, demonstrating her obedience and love for God. It is this love and obedience which sees her at the foot of the Cross, as a faithful witness to God’s plan of salvation for the world. Mary is faithful, she loves her Son. Both Mary and John, the beloved disciple, are united in a common love for Jesus. A common bond unites them, and allows them to become a new family, which we call the Church, and which we join in our Baptism. The Church is born out of the pierced side of the New Adam, Jesus Christ, and allows us all to become brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing in a new family relationship which unites those who believe in Him, washed in the water of Baptism, and sharing in the Eucharist. 

John is the beloved disciple, who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper. He received the First Eucharist, and was set apart as a priest of the New Covenant, which is now inaugurated with the Blood of his Lord. He is close to Jesus, and has experienced and understands the Mystery of God’s Love. This is why he writes about it so profoundly in the Gospel and the Letters which bear his name. 

Mary and John do not desert Jesus, they remain with Him, as faithful witnesses to the Sacrifice of the New Covenant, which gives us peace and reconciles us to God and each other. The veil of the Temple is torn in two: the barrier between the Divine and the human has been brought down, and reconciliation can take place. 

Christ is our great High Priest. As both priest and victim, He offers Himself upon the altar of the Cross to bleed and die for us, to bear our sins, and to reconcile us with God the Father. Jesus dies that we might live. This is something that people find difficult and uncomfortable. And that’s the point! Christ’s death should make us feel uncomfortable because it reminds us that our actions have put Him there. Christ bears our burden, and that of all humanity, past, present, and future, and through His wounds we are healed. It is the clearest possible demonstration that God loves us, and will go to any length to reconcile the world to Himself, even giving His Only Son to die, so that we might live in and through Him. 

Thus, despite the pain and the desolation, today is a day to rejoice. In Christ’s Death, humanity is saved, freed from Sin and Death, and restored to a relationship with God and each other, which continues through the Church. We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection. Through Jesus we are saved and made free. Amen.

Maundy Thursday

The events described tonight and over the next few days are best described as mysterious and disconcerting. For some time now Jesus has told His Disciples that He must suffer and die, but tonight He will make His Sacrifice real for them, before He dies. It must have been perplexing for them. Jesus, their Teacher takes on the position of a household servant and washes their feet, to demonstrate how theirs is to be a life of love and service of others. Everything they are used to is about to change. Jesus, who on Palm Sunday was greeted as the Messiah will soon be arrested, tried and condemned. Love will turn to hatred. Crowds that cried, ‘Hosanna!’ will soon cry, ‘Crucify Him!’. The disciples’ world will be turned upside down, and they will panic and flee. The events of the last twelve months have brought home to us just how traumatic it is when your world is tuned upside down.  

We humans are social creatures, and one of the great joys we have been deprived of over the last year is the sharing of food and drink. Eating and drinking together is a sign of love and hospitality, which helps us to bond together as friends, family, and community. We miss it deeply, and rightly so, because it is a fundamental aspect of our common life and our shared humanity. Food is more than just fuel for living, it is a sign of love and care, that we are welcome. 

Before Jesus gives His Body and Blood to His Disciples He takes the bread and wine, and blesses them, giving thanks to God for them. This was perfectly normal, it was expected, and it is something which Jews and Christians continue to do to this day. In the church we continue the practice of thanking God for the bread and wine we offer, because it reminds us that everything is a gift from God, for which we should be grateful. We say the words, ‘Blessed be God forever’It is important, and helps to create an attitude of thankfulness which helps to form us as loving generous people. If you do not already do so, you might like to try saying Grace before you eat a meal at home. I have included an example below for you, at the end of this sermon. 

As we prepare for the re-opening of church for the celebration of Easter, Our Lord’s Resurrection, we look forward to being able to share the Eucharist together. We celebrate the Mystery of our Redemption by doing what Christ taught His Disciples to do on the night He was betrayed. For nearly two thousand years the Church has faithfully followed Jesus’ command to ‘Do this in memory of me’. We do this because Christ told us to do it, to feed the people of God with the Body and Blood of Christ.

There are times when it is not possible to celebrate publicly, such as the current pandemic. At such times we long for spiritual nourishment, and to be united with Jesus in Communion. Spiritual Communion is a prayer of longing, a prayer of the human heart, that God would satisfy our longing, and give us our heart’s desire in faith, through grace. God, out of love for us, hears our prayer and answers it. God fills us with His love, and unites us to Him, and each other. God would not leave us bereft, as Jesus promises His disciples, ‘I will not leave you comfortless’ (Jn 14:8). 

So may we be encouraged in a God who keeps His promises, and that soon we will be able to celebrate as Jesus commanded us to, together, as a family of faith, gathered around the Table of the Lord, confident that we can do so safely. May we  be nourished in Body and Soul in Physical or Spiritual Communion by the God who loves us, and who gives Himself for us so that we may have life, even life everlasting. Amen.

O Dad, yn deulu dedwydd – y deuwn
 diolch o newydd,
Cans o’th law y daw bob dydd
Ein lluniaeth a’n llawenydd
O Father, as a happy family – we come
With thanks anew,
For from thy hand we receive each day
Our sustenance and our joy. Amen
Tissot The Last Supper