Easter II

I have something of a confession to make: I’m a bit of a fan of St Thomas the Apostle, probably because it is my middle name, but I’ve always felt something of an affinity towards him. He is somewhat hard done by, and on the basis of this morning’s Gospel reading he is generally known as ‘Doubting Thomas’ which is something of a misnomer. If anything he should really be understood as ‘Believing Thomas’ but more about that in a minute.

None of us likes to feel left out, it crushes the soul. We’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives, and it is painful. Imagine the joy the disciples felt when Jesus appears to them on that first Easter Day. He gives them peace, and commissions them, sends them out, to be apostles, to proclaim the Good News to the world. When Jesus begins his public ministry He calls on people to repent from their sins, to turn away from them. Now that He has died for us and been raised from the dead, He commissions his apostles to forgive or retain sin. The Church exists to deal with the mess we make as human beings, through what Jesus has done for us, in the power of His Holy Spirit.

Thomas feels somewhat left out of it all. He wants to believe, but he needs to see with his own eyes, he doesn’t yet have Faith. So, a week later Jesus comes again and shows Thomas His hands and His side, the wounds of love, which take away our sin. He commands ‘Do not doubt, but believe’ and Thomas does. He says, ‘My Lord and my God!’ He confesses his belief in Jesus as Lord and God. He makes a radical statement of belief in WHO and WHAT Jesus is. He is our Lord and our God, our allegiance to Him is more important than anything else. It was this fact which caused the death of thousands of Christians over the next few hundred years. We are all used to seeing pictures of Queen Elizabeth, in homes, schools, and public buildings. Imagine for a second that had to kneel down in front of them and worship the Head of State as a god, offering prayer and incense. To us as Christians it is unthinkable — worship is something we give to God alone ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods beside me.’ (Exodus 20:1-2). We worship Jesus because He is God. Like St Thomas we kneel before him, and confess that He is Our Lord and our God, our Saviour, who LOVES us. The world around us may find this strange, that we make such a declaration, and we are not going to compromise over it.

The Cross had asked the questions; the Resurrection had answered them…. The Cross had asked ‘Why does God permit evil and sin to nail Justice to a tree?’ The Resurrection answered: ‘That sin, having done its worst, might exhaust itself and thus be overcome by Love that is stronger than either sin or death.’

Thus there emerges the Easter lesson that the power of evil and the chaos of the moment can be defied and conquered, for the basis of our hope is not in any construct of human power but in the power of God, who has given to the evil of this earth its one mortal wound—an open tomb, a gaping sepulchre, an empty grave.

Fulton J. Sheen Cross-Ways

This morning as we rejoice in the joy of the Risen Lord, as we are filled with joy, with hope and with love, we can reflect on what the Resurrection does: when Jesus comes and stands among the disciples he says ‘Peace be with you’ Christ’s gift to the world in His Death and Resurrection is Peace, the Peace ‘which passes all understanding’. He shows the disciples His hands and side so that they can see the wounds of love, through which God’s Mercy is poured out on the world to heal it and restore it. In this peace Christ can say to them ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’ as the baptised people of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church is to be a missionary community — one sent to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, that it may share the joy and life of the Risen Lord.

As well as giving the Apostles the Holy Spirit, ordaining them as the first bishops of the Church, we see that the power of the Cross to bring peace to the world is also the power to absolve sins — priests and bishops can absolve the people of God in God’s name, and by God’s power — this is what the Cross achieves — reconciling us to God and each other. The Church, then, is to be a community of reconciliation, where we are forgiven and we, in turn, forgive, where we are freed from sin, its power and its effects.

When Christ breathes on the disciples and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ it is this gift of God’s Holy Spirit which transforms them from frightened people sat in a locked room in fear into the confident, joyous proclaimers of the Gospel, such as Peter in his sermon to the people of Jerusalem. In Peter’s sermon we see that all that Christ is and does is confirmed by Scripture — it is the fulfilment of prophesy, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6-9:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’

As the Church we know that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who gives freedom to Israel, a freedom from sin — a bringing to completion of what God started in the Exodus, in the crossing of the Red Sea — we too are free, freed by the waters of baptism, sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Thomas was not present with the disciples, he cannot believe in the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection unless he sees with his own eyes, and feels with his own hands — such is his grief, such is his love for Jesus. Our Lord says to him, ‘Doubt no longer but believe’ which leads to his confession, ‘My Lord and my God’. Blessed are we who have not seen and yet have come to believe, and through this belief we have live in Christ’s name, we have the hope of eternal life and joy with him forever.

The disciples go from being scared and stuck in an upper room to missionaries, evangelists, spreading the Good News around the world, regardless of the cost, even of sacrificing their own lives to bear witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he rose again, on this day for us, that God loves us and tells us to love Him and to love one another. It is a simple and effective message which people still want to hear — we need to tell it to them, in our thoughts, our words and our actions.

The heart of our faith and the Gospel is forgiveness — no matter how many times we mess things up, we are forgiven. It is this reckless generosity of spirit which people find hard 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. That God’s Grace will in the end not abolish our nature, but perfect it, that being fed by Christ, with Christ: so that we too may become what He is. That faced with the sad emptiness of the world, and its selfishness, its greed, we can be filled with joy, and life, and hope. That like the first apostles we too can spread the Gospel: that the world may believe.

It’s a tall order, perhaps, but one which God promises us. That is what the reality of the Resurrection is all about, it’s either nothing, in which case we are the most pitiable of deluded fools — idiots who are more to be pitied than blamed, or it is the single most important thing in the world. It should affect all of us, every part of our life, every minute of every day, all that we do, all that we say, all that we are. This may not fit in with a reserved British mentality, we think we’re supposed to be polite and not force our views on others. But this simply will not do. We are, after all, dealing with people’s souls, their eternal salvation, it’s a serious matter. And what we offer people is entirely free, can change their lives for the better, and make life worth living.

So let us be filled with the joy of the Resurrection this Easter, let us share that joy with others, may it fill our lives and those of whom we meet with the joy and love of God, who has triumphed and who offers us all new life in Him, that all that we do, all that we are, all that we say or think may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and forever.

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St Bartholomew

St Bartholomew is usually identified with the apostle Nathaniel, best known from his appearance in the first chapter of John’s Gospel when he asks, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ and to whom Our Lord says, ‘Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile.’ After Pentecost tradition holds that he went East; taking the Good News to Armenia or even India, and was martyred by being flayed alive.  He told people about Jesus and suffered a painful death for the sake of the Kingdom. He bore witness to the truth of Jesus’ life and resurrection, and lit a flame which burns to this day. We would not be here, doing what we do, believing what we do, and encouraging others so to do if it were not for the example and witness of people like St Bartholomew who preferred nothing to Christ, who was the very centre of their lives, who gave them meaning and purpose, and who told others so that they might believe and encourage others so to do.
In this morning’s Gospel we are presented with a challenging scene: it’s during the Last Supper, where Jesus takes bread and wine to feed his disciples with his Body and Blood, to explain what is about to happen, that he who was without sin might become sin so that we might have life, and life in all its fullness. In the midst of this we see the disciples arguing about who is the greatest. During the most momentous events of human history Our Lord’s closest friends are engaged in a squabble which seems childish and stupid, ‘I’m better than you’ ‘No I’m better than you’. Rather than being close to their Lord they’re involved in petty one-upmanship, thinking about themselves, about honour and position. It’s remarkably human, we can well imagine ourselves saying and doing exactly the same – we know it’s wrong, and we need to turn away from it.
      Rather than explode with anger, Our Lord makes a simple point ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’ In Christianity we have a different paradigm of leadership, that of the servant – here worldly values are turned on their head – the Kingdom offers an entirely different way of life, diametrically opposed to the ways of the world, something radical, something transformative, something which offers the world an entirely new way of living, where the service of others is seen as the most important thing. This is not power in worldly terms, the Creator and Redeemer of all humanity takes on a servile role – the greatest becomes the least, and encourages others to do likewise.
      Thus, rather than worrying about worldly power the disciples become servants, looking and acting like Jesus, they become transparent so that the light of Christ may shine through them in the world, so that their acts of loving service proclaim the truth, the beauty, and the goodness of the Kingdom. They go from worrying about power and position, the things of this world, to being concerned wholly with the Kingdom of God.
We need to do the same, nothing more, nothing less. In our baptism we put on Christ, we were clothed with Him, we shared in His Death and Resurrection, and were filled with grace and the Holy Spirit, so that we might follow Him, and encourage others so to do. We have everything we need to follow in the footsteps of the Apostles. We too are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ so that we might have life in Him, so that we can give our lives to proclaim Him to the world.

As Christians we need to live lives of service, the service of others and of the God who loves us and who saves us. We need to live out a radical alternative in the world, and for the world, to embody an alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, and helping others to enter into the joy of the Lord. We need to do this together, serving and loving each other, forgiving each other, bearing witness in the world, not conformed to it, so that it may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

The Parable of the Sower

I’ll let you into a secret – I’m really fond of church buildings, especially when they’re beautiful. There’s just something about them – built for the glory of God and as a foretaste of heaven, and a celebration of human creativity, they can lift the spirit. But at one level we can do without them. It would be sad if these stones which have echoed with the praise of Almighty God for nearly one thousand years were not here, and I’m certainly not advocating that we should simply knock down old buildings, and worship God in a garage or a front room. However a church is not a building, rather it is a gathering of the baptised, it always has been and always will be a group of people, people who are in Christ, whose nature and identity is bound up with and conformed to their Lord and Saviour.
        In this morning’s Gospel Jesus speaks of spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God. He uses an image to tell His story. Whether we have a garden or farm, if it’s only a window-box, then we will at some point have sowed seeds. There’s something quite miraculous about it. The seed grows; it becomes a plant, which in turn produces seeds, which can grow into plants, and so on. Without this we could not live, we would have no food, the earth would be a desert, our life wouldn’t just be miserable; there wouldn’t be any life at all.
        As the people of God we are both the sower and the seed – it’s up to each and every one of us to deepen our faith and understanding – to get the roots which will nourish us so that we can grow and flourish in our Christian lives, but we also need to scatter seed, to invite other people into the Kingdom. Christians do not appear by magic, rather they have been made through their baptism, through being taught the faith, through coming to know and love Jesus. If we want, as I suspect that we all do, to see the Kingdom advanced, if we want to see the Church grow, then each and every one of us has to tell people about Jesus, in our thoughts, in our words and in our actions, so that people can be invited to share in the joy of the Kingdom.
        One of the saddest parts of the parable has to be the plants which are choked by weeds. I speak as someone who tries to garden – in the beds outside my home I’ve planted various things, lots of roses, which both look and smell lovely, but the soil is so fertile and there’s so much bindweed and chickweed, that if I didn’t weed the soil then, very quickly, the beds would become overgrown – I wouldn’t have lovely plants to look at, or smell, I’d have a patch of weeds. This would be sad, regardless of the cost of the plants, and the effort of nurturing them, I would be deprived of the joy of a garden. The world around us has changed and developed in ways which we scarcely thought imaginable, but the thing which concerns me is that nowadays the cares of the world, the variety of things which one is able to do on a Sunday morning mean that people no longer necessarily gather together week by week, as Christians, as the Church, to be fed with Word and Sacrament, so that their souls can be fed, so that they can be nourished to live the Christian life. ‘Oh we need to go shopping’, ‘Tommy’s got rugby’, ‘Jane wants to ride her pony’ – we can make any excuse we wish, I should know, I have myself. It’s sad to see such potential go to waste, choked by the cares and concerns of the world, where people do not grow and develop as Christians because other things get in the way. When the plants grow as they are supposed to they bear fruit, they bear a wonderful harvest. Can we help to keep the weeds down, so that people can grow and develop into fully-grown mature Christians, nourished and helped to flourish.
        Our faith matters, we need to help people to come to understand that just as a garden needs work and effort for it bear fruit, so likewise Christians are made rather than born: we need to do all that we can to come together day by day and week by week to be nourished by Word and Sacrament so that we can have life in Christ, and life in all its fullness, helped to grow and develop into spiritual maturity, to be given a foretaste of heaven, and to grow more and more into the likeness of Our Lord and Saviour, who gives himself for love of us, to heal and restore us, to take away our sin.

        So let us come to Him, and encourage others so to do, that they may believe and may bear fruit and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.