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Faith >

This Sunday's readings: 2nd Sunday of Easter

by Martin Warner

2nd Sunday of Easter

Acts 5.27-32;
Revelation 1.4-8;
John 20.19-end

YOU can understand why St Thomas is the patron saint of architects. He wants to fiddle with the detail of how things work. “We need to take all the plaster off this wall and look at the materials used underneath.” Add two grand to the bill!

Thomas also speaks for our generation, with its obsession for detail and proof. How symbolic that Thomas had missed out on the earlier revelation of Jesus. Like us, Thomas brings to the party the arrogance of his own demands for verification. “Unless I see. . .” The witness of other people to incredible truth is unreliable. Only his own experience will do, or so he thinks.

But God knows Thomas better than he knows himself. The desire for faith is hidden deep within him. His demands are minor, surface skirmishes in the much more serious exploration for truth that is authentic and boundless. After all, he had responded to the initial call of Jesus. He had walked the walk with the twelve, through Galilee, into Jerusalem, confrontation with the law, and death.

Thomas was a realist about the future of life with Jesus: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11.16). That was the nature of the contract of discipleship: martyrdom as something specific, not resurrection and something speculative. The ignominious death of Jesus, Thomas’s bewilderment at it and his own part in the betrayal and dereliction, left him bereft of a hope he once trusted. He was now a “post-something” person, as we are people who are post-Enlightenment, post-modern, post-Christian, or simply past caring.

But the things that challenged his bewilderment also challenge ours. The disciples are in the room together one week after the day of resurrection — when Thomas was missing. We know from texts slightly later than the Gospel of St John that the “eighth day”, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, was enormously important for the Early Church. It was the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection, the day of the new creation, the day of worship and the breaking of bread. “This eighth day therefore signifies the new life at the end of the world,” observes St Augustine of Hippo, in a sermon preached on this Sunday

Thomas joins the nascent Church at worship. That seems to be the context of his conversion and of the manifestation of Jesus. This account of Sunday worship is so familiar to us that we hardly think it worth noting. But, in fact, to those who are “post-everything”, it is new and startling. Yes, Christians do still meet on this day to celebrate the return of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead in physical, bodily form, believing that he is God and man, that he is alive, and is substantially encountered in bread and wine.

Words alone cannot convey this: worship draws on other essential media. Enactment in the drama of liturgy is one of them: images in visual art — stained glass, statues, and icons — are another. Words and music are perhaps the most haunting.

Among the words and music that are most evocative for today, we have some devotional texts from the 13th century in our armoury of media, traditionally attributed to St Bernard. Their Latin title is Membra Jesu Nostri, a literal reference to the body parts of Jesus our redeemer.

This collection of seven texts focuses on the feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face of Jesus. It has an anatomical detail that one imagines would appeal to Thomas. The text remained popular among Catholic and Reformed Christians alike, and was set to music in the late 17th century by Dietrich Buxtehude.

The words and music for the fifth body part, the side, on which Thomas sets his attention, are particularly graphic. Buxtehude’s music moves in a slow and distinctive rhythm that is repeated with a graceful echo. It is like the inhaling and exhaling of breath, a point made in the devotional text: “At the hour of my death let my breath enter thy side, O Jesus”.

Rather in the way that Thomas throws down the challenge, “Unless . . . I put . . . my hand in his side,” this ancient text seeks contact with the body of Jesus. The desire for identification with him is an expression of our fundamental hope in God and reality beyond the grave.

Thomas wants to recover, in the only way he knows how, the trust he experienced before the death of the man he loved. After a millennium-and-a-half of the collective recovery of that trust in Christian witness and worship, the words and music of the Church still express its longing. Here is the desire to breathe in tandem with the lover of the human race: to expire into his body, in order to draw fresh inspiration, resurrection breath, from it.

The numerical calculation of 7×7, which Thomas would have loved, turned St Augustine’s attention on this Sunday to Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit on the 50th day of Eastertide. Let us pray that the Spirit will breathe upon us the inspiration of resurrection life from the side of Jesus, adding a postscript to secularism’s obituary of Christian faith.

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Whitby.

Acts 5.27-32
27Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28"We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood." 29Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men! 30The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. 32We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."

Revelation 1.4-8
4John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits[a] before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. 7Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. 8"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."

John 20:19 to end
19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." 24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." 26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." 28Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!" 29Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." 30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may[a] believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

 

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