Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter: Convincing Thomas – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 24 April 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Acts Ch 5: v 27 – 32; John Ch 20: v 19 – 31)
Colour Television became widely available in this country towards the end of the ‘60s so in the 70’s as my children were growing up there was a mix of programmes in black and white and grey as well as colour. Naturally It was the older material which tended to be in the old grey format and contemporary programmes which were in glorious Technicolor! I once asked my children if they thought that the world of the past was black and white while their world was in colour and much to my surprise they did – and you can understand why, for programmes which depicted the past were in black and white while colour was reserved for those made in the present of that time. It was logical to reckon that colour or the lack of colour related to how things actually were even if that was the wrong conclusion. We ourselves place our own interpretations on the past and tend to think that it was a simpler time and even assume that people were more credulous.
As a result, we imagine that it must have been much easier for the early Christians to accept and to rejoice in the Resurrection. But of course it was not. Jesus was seen by only a few of his followers during a limited period of time so that even in those early days faith was based on what others said and the record of eyewitness accounts. It was also based on the living presence of Jesus, felt and experienced by those who came to know and love him and follow him even though they had not seen him. As for the disciples who actually saw the risen Christ (some 500 according to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15) even for them it was not straightforward. They were not stupid or gullible or easily persuaded just because they lived 2000 years ago. They knew as well as we do that dead people stay dead. Even though Jesus had spoken to them during his earthly life about resurrection, as the gospels tell us, and even though the idea, the concept of resurrection was accepted by some Jewish groups nevertheless they were not expecting to see Jesus as a physical entity.
Doubts about the reality of the resurrection find their focus in poor old Thomas, known to us simply as doubting Thomas. He was a gruff, outspoken man rather like St. Peter. He didn’t wrap up what he thought in polite evasion. He said what he thought even though it might be uncomfortable or unfashionable. Just as it was St. Peter who blurted out the conviction of the disciples that Jesus was the expected Messiah, so it was St. Thomas who was equally blunt in his ideas. When Jesus is heading back to Judaea despite the threats to his life it is St. Thomas who says “Let us go too and die with him”. At the Last Supper when Jesus says “You know the way”, it is St. Thomas who says “No we don’t”.
And it was the same when the disciples tell him that they have seen Jesus alive again after his crucifixion. St. Thomas could not believe his ears. It all sounded too incredible. The dead do not come back to life. It must be an imposter or an illusion. Only the reality of the nail and spear wounds could ever convince Thomas. In the event St. Thomas didn’t need these physical signs after all for when Jesus was there with them a week later St. Thomas knew for certain that this was Jesus raised from the dead. Before his change of heart, when Thomas was still doubting, he had not realised that he had only grasped half of the truth – the death of Jesus. Some Christians who cannot accept the resurrection are in the same boat, as are atheists and agnostics. Jesus’ death pointed to the defeat of evil and the triumph of love; it was proof of the forgiveness of God and the reconciliation of humanity. And yet it wasn’t enough on its own. St. Paul writes: “If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, then we of all people are most to be pitied.”
But many people today think that this life is all there is and that life after death is a pious if comforting delusion. They reckon that if Jesus has anything to say then it is about improving this world and that it is the here and now that we have to concentrate on. If that were really so, then Jesus would not take us any further than many great religious thinkers before him and for 2000 years people would have struggled in vain. The achievements of Good Friday just do not come about without Easter. Without resurrection the water of life trickles into the sand and is lost. Easter gives the final seal to everything. Without it we are lost – and as St. Paul says “If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing in it and you are still in your old state of sin.” In other words the message of forgiveness cannot really sound forth without the resurrection. If this life is all there is, then our sins stay with us. Good Friday without Easter has no point; it does not achieve anything. But the two together make all the difference in the world. The resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin for the gospel. It was that which changed the disciples from fearful men into confident proclaimers of the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ. Before they saw him again they were desolate, their great plans demolished, their leader killed. They were afraid for their own lives and hid in locked rooms.
But after that first Easter they knew beyond doubt that Jesus was alive and part of their company. They did not fear death anymore and this gave them a confidence that no threats could take away. So Easter is the most important festival for Christians and so we celebrated it last Sunday. But Orthodox Christians have a different calendar and many Ukrainians are members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and their Easter day is today. But whichever day is traditional, all Christians know that the resurrection of Jesus was not just something which affected him. He was pledge, a guarantee of their own resurrection. He was the first fruits of the harvest of souls. When St. Paul is writing on this subject he struggles for images and illustrations to give his readers to describe the wonderful gift that had been given and this idea of first fruits would have meant much to them. The first fruits were the first and best part of the harvest which was offered to God in thanksgiving and gratitude. Jesus had offered himself in sacrifice and he was the first to enter the new risen life – the first and the best. But he was the first of many, for the harvest was only just beginning.
We too are part of the harvest and our faith gives us confidence that death is not the end of everything. Death is only the end of this earthly life and we trust in God’s love and power to raise us to that new life so that where Christ is, there we shall be. It is this stupendous promise which is at the heart of Easter and which inspires our faith. It leads us to three great truths.
First of all we see the death of Jesus as giving us faith and hope for it shows us God’s great love and forgiveness.
Secondly, we have faith in the resurrection of Jesus himself. This vindicates him, showing us that he was right to trust God and also revealing more of God’s love and creative power in raising Jesus from the dead.
Thirdly, we are given by this a promise which directly affects us for we too will share that risen life by God’s love and power.
Easter changes crucifixion Friday and makes it Good Friday.
Good Friday changes Easter and makes the resurrection available not just to Jesus, but to us all.