Keep watching for the resurrection

a sermon on Acts 2:14, 22-32 and John 20:19-31

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lleluia! Christ is risen! This is the season of Eastertide, which means that we’re going to be using Easter liturgical texts and reading resurrection-themed scriptures right through until June 5. As is typical when following the liturgical calendar, it can place us strangely at odds with the calendar of the wider culture. Easter? Wasn’t that April 24? Well yes, last Sunday was the Sunday of the Resurrection, but you really do need a few more days in which to unpack the significance of the event… forty-nine days to be exact, with the Feast of Pentecost being the fiftieth day.

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So just as through the first three weeks of December we keep saying that it is still Advent and not yet Christmas, over these coming weeks we’re going to keep talking about how this is still very much Easter. Think of it as a minor act of resistance in a culture that has reduced Easter to little more than a long weekend of chocolate bunnies and ham dinners.

Each year on the second Sunday in Easter, the lectionary cycle has us read the gospel story of doubting Thomas. I think that it is actually quite a brilliant placement of the story, in that it addresses head on the challenge of belief and the reality of doubt. After all, if one of the original twelve disciples could find it hard to believe unless he was given solid proof, should we be surprised that many of us struggle to make sense of it all? What is it that Thomas 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.’ How many of us have come to that place of praying or wishing something like this: “Hey Lord, just give me a sign—even a little one—and I’ll put aside my doubts.” It is kind of nice to have Thomas along as a fellow traveler.

Although John gives us this picture of Thomas as being filled with doubt, he also indicates that the disciple has not simply disappeared back home to Galilee. “A week later the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them,” John writes.

“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”

You just know that that last sentence is written for us, who are called to believe even if we didn’t stand with the disciples in that room.  And as Frederick Buechner writes, “Even though he said the greater blessing is for those who can believe without seeing, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a believer anywhere who wouldn’t have traded places with Thomas, given the chance, and seen that face and heard that voice and touched those ruined hands.” (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures).

And who here wouldn’t trade places with Thomas, if only for that few minutes? Those who would stand in the presence of the risen Christ now find that we have to do that in other ways. But maybe these other ways are in at least some sense no less concrete than it was for Thomas.

Before we heard the story of doubting Thomas, we read a brief passage from the Book of Acts—an excerpt from an impromptu sermon preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost, just fifty days after the resurrection. “Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.’” From here he goes on to set out the story of Jesus, setting it against the backdrop of hope and expectation as proclaimed in the Old Testament, and the force of that is basically to say to his Jewish audience that everything they have believed and held dear is brought to its completion in Jesus of Nazareth. To this Jerusalem audience, Peter says that the man they’d seen put to death as a criminal fifty-two days earlier was the hope of humanity, the desire of the nations, and the messiah of God. And his death had not been his end, but rather a new beginning for all and forever.

These things that Peter has to say—which he speaks boldly and right in the midst of the public square—would have been anything but uncontested or uncontroversial. A little further into the narrative, we’re told that “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’” (Acts 2:37), to which Peter called them to belief, repentance and new life. We’re also told that three thousand came to believe on that day, which also means that in the background the bearers of the institutional religion and the shapers of political alliances would have begun to get very nervous. Mass movements that upset religious and cultural orthodoxy are never much welcomed.

What we need to hear on this second Sunday in Eastertide is less the content of Peter’s message and more the fact that he stood and preached at all. Peter, the disciple who on the night of the arrest had denied even knowing Jesus, and who along with others had gone into hiding for fear that they’d be the next ones to be arrested and executed, is preaching. Publically, in Jerusalem and apparently without fear, Peter is preaching. And as the Book of Acts continues, Peter never looks back.

You know why? Because he has stood in the presence of the risen Christ. He has talked with Jesus, and shared food with him, and been reconciled to him after that terrible series of denials. And yes, on that day of Pentecost he has been immersed in the presence of the Spirit of God, but that too is tied to the risen Jesus. What happens to Peter—going from frightened rabbit to solid rock—is an amazing demonstration of the power of the resurrection.

But that all took place so long ago, right? These bible stories are one thing, but Lord give me one a bit closer to my life, my time, my context. Thing is, they are all around us.

Last night I was at a banquet, honoring the Sisters of the Good Shepherd for 100 years of ministry and service in our city. This order of sisters first arrived in Winnipeg in 1911 to work with young women and girls, and a big part of that work has been running Marymound, a residential treatment resource for adolescents and children. I was there because I worked for Marymound for eight years, six of them as the chaplain. The sister who first hired me as a youth care worker back in 1981 was there last night, and part of what was acknowledged over the course of the evening was just how much she had given over the years to make that place happen. She first arrived there in 1956, and for the first fifteen or so years worked pretty much around the clock seven days a week, serving as a mom to those kids. Even when they began to hire lay staff to take on other roles, Sr Brigid was still pretty much a seven day a week person, and remained active as part of the running of things up until just a few years ago. Even now it doesn’t take much to get her eyes to light up as she tells her stories about all those girls—and all those staff—whose lives she impacted over the years.

Now, Brigid might be a bit embarrassed to think that I was talking about her in a sermon, but I think it is important to acknowledge that it is in real people like this that we see resurrection life and power made manifest. Not a proof, of the kind Thomas so desperately wanted, but a demonstration that the power and imaginative passion of the risen Christ is at work all around us. You just need to keep watching for it.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Jamie Howison

Amen.

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