Vicar’s sermon 16.4.23: Acts 2.14a,22-32 & John 20.19-31

A few days away in Scarborough and a couple of books read. Both of them give me a hook into the regular Gospel reading for ‘Low Sunday’ : Thomas and his doubting, Jesus and His appearance to the disciples.

The first book is a wonderful novel (hopefully soon to be a film) by Amor Towles, entitled ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. In the book 13 year old Nina and her friend Boris attempt to test ‘Newton’s calculation of the speed of gravity’ and ‘Galileo’s principle that objects with different mass fall at an equivalent rate’ by dropping a kopek, an egg, a billiard ball, a pineapple, a dictionary and a tea cup from the balustrade surrounding a hotel ballroom. Needless to say, the result is something of a mess on the ballroom floor. My teacher said ‘these hypotheses have been tested repeatedly over time’ said Nina. ‘Perhaps they have’ replied her friend ‘but you were perfectly right to test them again’.

Secondly, a book called Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper. This is by a young woman who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church in the US – a church renowned for picketing the funerals of gay people, for declaring God’s judgement upon America for its decadence and proclaiming its belief that this judgment was being meted out on 9/11 and through the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Megan was on the Westboro picket line from the age of 5. She believed absolutely that God’s word was one of judgement on her country and her neighbours and went through school and college convinced that speaking the Trust (as her church understood it) was the only way to show real love for those she believed were on the way to Hell. Megan’s grandfather was the Pastor of the church. Her huge extended family made up the congregation. Her grandfather had been a leading Civil Rights lawyer in the 1960s/70s defending Black people against the Jim Crow Laws of the southern US – he was no fool. Most of her family are exceptionally well educated (lawyers and the like) – certainly not US ‘red necks’. She left the church when she was 26, is totally estranged from most of her family because there came a point when something punctured her absolute belief that her world view was correct.

‘Unless I see the marks 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.’ With Thomas we have someone who needs proof. It is not enough for him to take others’ words for the resurrection: he must see for himself. And with Jesus’ appearances we have something that punctures the ways that all the disciples, not just Thomas, thought and believed about the world, God’s world (for they were all people of faith).

Let me park those few thoughts for a moment and offer a comment or two about both our New Testament reading from Acts and the Gospel reading. One of the common denominators between them is that they are incredibly ‘physical’ in their description of the resurrection. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, stands up and gives a sermon (that we will take three or more weeks to hear in this Easter time). In today’s passage he references the Psalms and how King David spoke of ‘the Holy One’ not seeing corruption. Peter’s argument is that this ‘Holy One’ cannot possibly be David himself – David’s tomb is just down the road he states in verse 29. No, this person is not abandoned to death but experiences life through God’s presence. Now, it is absolutely true that Peter’s way of reading or understanding the scripture here is somewhat ‘free and easy’ but (putting that to one side) the whole thrust of what Peter has to say about the risen Lord Jesus (who he claims that God has raised) is that Jesus’ resurrection was (at least) ‘physical’.

Now note that little ‘rider’ that I put in that sentence: ‘Jesus resurrection was ‘at least’ physical’. It was more than this: Yes. But it wasn’t less. You find this in many of what are called the ‘resurrection appearances’ and certainly in the story of Doubting Thomas: ‘Put your finger in my hands…come see my side’ – this story goes out of its way to link the Risen Christ with the crucified Jesus. There is a continuity between Jesus the man, crucified on Good Friday and the Risen Christ on Easter Day. Jesus is ’embodied’. We are not allowed to imagine the disciples engaged in some mass hallucination (which would imply that ‘the resurrection’ is something that takes place in their minds or hearts but doesn’t come to them ‘from outside’ of themselves). No, that won’t do. Something happened. There was a ‘first cause’. Despite having been forewarned that Jesus would die and rise, the disciples didn’t ‘come up with the idea’ of his being raised themselves.

This is the connection to Megan Phelps- Roper. Of herself she knew something wasn’t right about how her community of faith was acting but she had no mental scaffolding or support to allow her to see another way. It was the gentle, questioning support of someone she began to trust online that enabled her to see the world differently. Someone speaking from beyond her own frame of reference, someone from outside that gave her a whole host more questions but opened up a new world to her. Jesus does that in these Easter stories. He does it with the disciples and with Thomas too ( a week later).

The ’risen Christ’ is embodied, the disciple’s experience of Him is that He comes to them from outside their own hearts, minds and imaginations. They couldn’t have made this up in a month of Sundays! They, like you and I knew full well that dead men don’t rise…and yet, here He is.

Or at least, ‘there He was’, back there in the Upper Room. Thomas, like Nina in the novel, wasn’t prepared to believe other’s accounts. He needed proof, his own proof – and Jesus granted it, recreating the circumstances that had been in place on the first day of the week 7 days previous.  But that leaves us with a problem because we quite naturally might ask why Thomas gets ‘proof’ of this kind when we don’t? The gospel’s first ending here in chapter 20 offers a blessing to those who believe and ‘have not seen’, verses 30 and 31 round everything off by telling us that we have John’s word for things and this should be enough.

How do we understand this, how do we get round this? Whether it is with the appearance to Thomas or the other appearances recorded in the New Testament the one thing we know for sure about them is that they came to an end. These ‘at least physical’ appearances came to a close. Where does that leave us?

How about this for a suggestion? The presence of Christ, the risen Christ is an ‘embodied’ presence: that’s what our readings have taught us. When we Christians speak of the ‘risen Jesus’ we are speaking of His presence as connecting back to the Jesus we know through the gospels, to His forgiveness and grace, His mercy and radical hospitality or welcome to those on the margins of life. These things are of God as we know God in Jesus but they can only be realised or expressed by actions, things that are done, ways of being: they aren’t disembodied ‘ideas’ they are seen and heard and touched. Forgiveness must be offered. ‘Mercy’ granted, felt and received. Hospitality and welcome made real.

Yes, the resurrection of Jesus gives us that ‘first cause’ that kick starts the Christian community into existence, that punctures their unbelief, shows the first disciples a new way, opens the doors of the Kingdom (if that phrase helps us to understand things). But we no longer need that ‘first cause’ to be present in the same way. As the community of Jesus’ followers ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ (his life, his way of forgiving and releasing and being, His way of bringing people into relationship with God)…as Jesus’ followers embody His life in each and every age (as they live it) the Risen Lord Jesus is present to others, a new way of being human becomes possible that is no longer bound by death and corruption (to quote the psalm) but set free for Life in God’s presence.

I hope this wander through our readings has been some help towards you coming to an understanding (for yourself) of what ‘resurrection might mean and be (both Jesus’ resurrection and ours too). But where does it leave us? I think it leaves us with the importance of Jesus’ words to the disciples in the upper room ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. …or to be more precise (because there is no ‘the’ in the Greek of this sentence) ‘Receive Holy Spirit’. This is not so much an invitation to receive the third person of the Trinity as an invitation to receive God’s life and energy, the same life and energy that filled and empowered (or a better word, ‘enabled’) Jesus into our lives. ‘Be open’ to that gift seems to be the message. Be prepared to make room for its presence. Receive my Spirit into your life and let it direct your ways for then you will live as I have lived – ‘as the Father sent me, so I send you’ and my presence will be known in and through you.


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