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Readings: 2nd Sunday of Easter

17 April 2014

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[Exodus 14.10-end, 15.20-21;] Acts 2.14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-end 

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

IT WAS hardly a hotbed of faith which Jesus invaded when he bypassed the locked door that expressed the disciples' fear. No wonder his first words were the Jewish greeting of peace. Only when he showed them his hands and side did the disciples rejoice at seeing him.

It was all a more muted reaction than the joyful and raucous ringing of bells and blowing of hooters that greets the announcement "Christ is risen!" at the dawn eucharist in Durham Cathedral: the choristers love it because it is not often that you can bring a football rattle to the cathedral.

We rejoice, and rightly so. But, for the disciples, it took time for the message to sink in. The tomb was terrifyingly empty, and the Gospels vividly describe people's reactions: perplexity, terror, hiding their faces in fear, weeping, shaking, not understanding, alarm, disbelief, amazement, and going home alone.

Our familiarity with the story blinds us to its unfamiliarity and terror at the time, and to the disciples' sheer exhaustion - mental, physical, and spiritual. The resurrection was not an instant panacea for their fears. So, a week later, the doors were still firmly shut.

What must the intervening days have been like? Jesus stretched them, being in no hurry to make it easy. He had imparted the Holy Spirit to the disciples, giving them a commission, and they had failed signally to convince the first person they told about the resurrection, their friend Thomas.

It is tempting, when we are with someone who has genuine difficulty in believing, to rush in with reassurance rather than let doubt run its sometimes necessary course of opening us up in greater depth to God's presence. That Thomas had not seen Jesus did not mean that Jesus was not risen. When we are not aware of God's presence, this does not mean that God is absent.

John recorded these signs, among many others, so that we can come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and have life in him. The Gospel-writer's answer to doubts and unbelief is to immerse ourselves in the Christian story, and to be open to coming to believe.

Studies suggest that coming to believe can take years. Like the disciples, our turning point may be a trauma, when life is turned horrifically upside down. In one church I know, the vicar asked during a sermon how members of the congregation had come to, or returned to, faith.

Several people said that it had been through the church's presence with them during feelings of bereavement arising from death, job-loss, or divorce. An impromptu show of hands indicated that it had been like that for about one third of the congregation; that they were in church that day because someone had helped them come to believe during a time of loss. Stories such as this remind us to be attentive in caring patiently for our friends and neighbours in times of difficulty.

It is easy to consign the stories of resurrection appearances to history. But salvation history involves a time warp: past and present meet, catching us up in it all. In the Exultet, which is sung at Easter, and recalls the deliverance recounted in the Exodus reading, we sing: "This is the night" when you delivered us - not "That was the night." In the eucharist, we pray that the bread and wine "may be to us", not just "remind us of", the body and blood of our Lord. The resurrection story is in the present tense. We are in it.

This is also John's Pentecost story, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit and Jesus sent them. John uses "sent" about 40 times in the Gospel to describe what God did with Jesus, and what Jesus drew the disciples into.

Another Gospel theme is that light is shining in darkness; and John's resurrection stories mostly take place at night or in the early morning. God sent his Son, who sends his disciples - us - into the thick of the world, where light needs to shine and sins need to be forgiven, to help people to come to believe in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

The early chapters of Acts, which we read at Easter, give vignettes of what happened when the disciples did get out and preach the gospel. The locked door was flung open. People came to believe.

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