God's deliverance, an invitation to us all
Sermon by Hilary Belden
Based on readings: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
May the risen Lord Jesus bless us. May he watch over us and renew us as he renews the whole of creation. May our hearts and lives echo his love. Amen
( Evening prayer for this Easter period.)
A famous play includes a speech that starts ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen…’ the second line is: ‘I am no orator as Brutus is….’
Three escape stories for Low Sunday. The Israelites escape from the pursuing Egyptians; the friends of Jesus are beginning to believe he has escaped in some extraordinary way from death; in Acts, there is a literal escape from prison by the group who have been hauled up in front of the authorities.
Our gospel reading is following on from last Sunday in real time – it begins on the evening of Easter Day - the Resurrection and moves on to a week later - Thomas’s story. This Sunday is sometimes called Low Sunday. So how do you feel? Low, maybe. It’s all done - Lent, through to Good Friday and then the pleasure of family meetings, roast lamb, Easter eggs, Easter Sunday - all over for another year…the school term has begun again and we’re back in work routines.
We may even feel a sneaking sympathy for those moaning Israelites faced with the Red Sea in front and the Egyptian military behind. They protest to Moses, ‘ Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’?
I have a watch with these words on the face: Dreams don’t work unless you do. Moses would have understood that. Because, in our first escape story,
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lordwill accomplish for you today;
And that is exactly what happened.
When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt's land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go
In fact, these worried, unhappy people created the founding story of Israel as they followed Moses towards the Promised Land. Thousands of years later, their story inspired that great Spiritual, first recorded in the 1850s shortly before the American Civil War, as a spiritual song, yes and also as a code, an anthem, for enslaved African Americans. ‘Let my people go.’
Remember Martin Luther King’s great last speech, in 1968 ‘I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
If we go back from now 2000 years, still centuries after the Exodus, that escape from Egypt was commemorated by Jesus and his friends, at Passover. Jesus radically altered the ritual. By the time they began building Notre Dame in around 1163, Jesus’ way of celebrating with bread and wine was already 1100 years old and it lives today, as Brutus has reminded us through Holy Week, all over the world : the old story of deliverance and freedom transformed into the new: the sacrifice of a lamb in the old ritual becoming Jesus’ sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross.
So we are in real time in this second escape story: on the evening of the Resurrection day – Easter Day - the friends of Jesus are together, behind locked doors – not unlike the fearful Israelites before the exodus from Egypt - but beginning to glimpse a greater hope. And Jesus appears. Locked doors are no barrier to him. In Acts, when Peter and John are imprisoned – and later Paul – an angel is needed to free them – perhaps a sympathiser among the guards? But Jesus, (with a new kind of physics operating?), needs no angel or friendly guard.
He is the man they know and love. But he has not been magically healed: his wounds are there. There is no escaping the pain or the suffering. The Easterhope is not based on a neat, fairy tale ending, where all the mess and horror is tidied up and we’re back, whole and unaffected, in some previous world. The Israelites could not go back to their old lives – and neither could Jesus or his followers – and nor can we.
We all have friends – or it may be ourselves – for whom there is a strongand lasting sense of Good Friday, even in the hope and joy of Easter Day. The families and friends of those who died in the Sri Lanka bombings, and those who died in the mosque in Christchurch. One of my honorary nephews turned up last night, ostensibly to say hello, but actually to share a little of his grief: the young couple killed in Greece in that buggy accident had been special friends of him and their group of Christian friends in Durham. The pain does not easily clear away for them or us or for the countless refugees and victims of disaster. Nor does it here.
John tells us: ‘But Thomas… was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’
Thomas is often labelled ‘Doubting’ but we can hear he is overwhelmed and distraught with pain and loss. Someone we can readily identify with.
The poet John Clare wrote in the 18C how he felt his life had tipped him
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither hope of love or joys
but the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems
He could have been writing Thomas’ thoughts. Why should Thomas believe – he had seen Jesus die. And what should he believe – some unlikely tale of reappearances? Thomas is easily held up as not quite as insightful as we like to think we might have been. It’s quite easy to sound patronising about these friends of Jesus – they fall asleep, they deny him, they run away. But of course, they are us – we can do all these things at crucial moments - sometimes just to avoid trouble, sometimes because we are almost destroyed by pain of heart and body.
And then, this Sunday, without opening any doors, Jesus appears among his friends in front of Thomas, and says, ‘Peace be with you.’
Thomas is completely overwhelmed. It doesn’t seem that he actually does what he said he wanted to do – put his hands on the wounds. What he does is to say, ‘My Lord and my God!’He is the first person to give Jesus that name, to identify him with God himself. And Jesus – I think we have to recognise that he’s smiling – ‘said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
And, of course, those people are the generations that follow, and they are us.
This is an extraordinary story – an escape into an entirely new world, a new life with the power of death broken.
The Exodus story is a powerful image for times of immense, terrible difficulty and suffering. The sea was parted, the Israelites were saved, their enemies were utterly destroyed.
There’s a literal way of seeing this which should horrify us. There are plenty of stories in the Old Testament which are bloodthirsty and cruel. They tell us uncomfortable truths about what human beings can be like: wars and slavery, murder, adultery and treachery. And stories about the absolutely undeserved tragedies – famine, war, deportations into captivity - that befall ordinary people. It’s all there. And it is important to know that. Because through the centuries whose stories and meditations make up the Old Testament, we also see how such a different understanding of the ways and will – the love and mercy - of God developed and led to the moment when God sent his son Jesus. Jesus and his friends knew the writings which form what we call the Old Testament – they often refer to the prophets and psalms.
Think back to that violent Old Testament story which literally frees the Israelites and starts them on the journey to the promised land. And then see Jesus – who said, ‘Ask and it will be given to you’ – he’s the man who feeds people with actual fishes and bread at the end of a long day. Who welcomes children…. who stops the stoning of a woman taken in adultery. He asks Zacchaeus, the despised servant of the Roman authorities, to have him to dinner, rather than giving him a moral lecture or avoiding him. Jesus says ‘Forgive your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’
This Jesus recognises Thomas’ longing – and promises us who come after that we too will believe. We are a long way from the Red Sea. God has kept his promises and his children have come to understand his power, his mercy and forgiveness in a very different way.
And what happened to Thomas? Well – the story goes that he went to India – in fact to Chennai in South India and brought Jesus’ message there. Chennai where the Kunnam church is that we have a link with in this present day. He brought the message of Jesus to another country and continent. And he may well have been martyred.
Martyrdoms and losses happen as we saw so hideously last Sunday. Justin Welby preached on Easter Sunday just after he had spoken to the Anglican Bishop of Columbo. The whole sermon is well worth reading but here are a few sentences:
The will to power leads to the murder of innocents in Sri Lanka, the utterly despicable destruction that, on this holiest of days, seeks to challenge the reality of the risen Christ, to say that darkness will conquer, that our choice is surrender or death.
Jesus chose to defy this darkness and he is risen indeed, so that death and evil know that their end is marked, promised and assured. Yet still evil rises in these times between the resurrection and the judgement….
And today, we say the Easter acclamation, Christ is risen, with bittersweet joy, knowing that our sisters and brothers, and many others of other faiths, suffer and mourn.
In another part of the world – Louisiana in the American Deep South – in the last few weeks, three historic, mainly Black, Baptist churches have been torched in one small parish. The Episcopalian Bishop of Western Louisiana wrote a pastoral letter to all his churches about two weeks ago in which he said,….
This is the way that Jesus taught – meeting violence with forgiveness and love – completely foreign to so much of any culture. His followers did not and do not call down curses on their enemies’ heads. We find the strength in Jesus to pray for them and forgive them.
Since the fire at Notre Dame, on Tuesday, the fundraising effort for these three churches has jumped from $100,000 to nearly $2 million.
After that Sunday meeting with Thomas, there is a huge change. Acts is the third escape story: read Acts this week and find out what happened – an amazing story.
These stories of God’s deliverance are an invitation to us all. We are in touch with a very great mystery when we look at the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus and share the bread and wine. It is an extraordinary outpouring of forgiving love. How we live in response to that is our journey in faith and in our lives.
For Thomas it was enough to see Jesus face to face, risen and recognisably himself: he knew him then - ‘my Lord and my God’.