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A Sermon from Sherborne
Alleluia! Christ is risen – the raising up of Jesus into the Community of Faith
A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Easter Day, 21 April 2019 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest
‘Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ In a sense, this is all that needs to be said in the Church today. I have heard of one occasion on Easter Day, when the preacher, who was a well-known and highly respected Parish Priest, entered the pulpit, proclaimed these wonderful words and then left!
I will not try to emulate him, and will probe a little deeper into the Gospel narrative of this evening’s Second Lesson [John 20.19-23]. The scene is set, in the Fourth Gospel, on the evening of Easter Day. Notice that the words are ‘on that day, the first day of the week.’ Whenever we hear of ‘the first day’ our minds are drawn to the beginnings of Creation. In the Book of Genesis, it is on ‘the first day’ that God created heaven and earth. Just two verses later in the text, Jesus breathed on his disciples – the same word used when life began at the Creation. We are talking here of a new beginning – a new possibility of human life, which Jesus brings.
Then comes a seeming conundrum: Jesus came and stood among his disciples in a room where entrance doors had been locked. Commentators and readers of the Gospel have been puzzled over what is described here. I think that the difficulty arises when we focus continually on the physical body of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel tells the beautiful story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Garden [Jn.20.1-18]. When Mary realises that the person talking to her is Jesus, she longs to touch her dear friend and teacher. But she must not. The same challenge comes when Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus is alive. Jesus invites Thomas to touch him – he does not. If, on either of these occasions, Jesus were to be touched – then the whole claim of the Easter Faith would collapse in ruins. No. The Jesus who is the focus of Mary and Thomas’s attention is the glorified Jesus – who always appears from heaven.
The best commentary that I’ve read on the appearance of Jesus to his disciples comes from Sandra Schneiders, an American Roman Catholic scholar [“The Raising of the New Temple” in S. Schneiders, New Test. Stud. 52, pp. 337–355]. She talks of the Risen Christ now being present in the Christian community, which becomes his body in this world. The glorified Christ is ‘raised up’ in the community of the first Christians to become present in the world.
there is a subtle but significant distinction between the glorification, that is, what happened to Jesus on the cross, and the resurrection, which is the communication of the effects and significance of Jesus’ glorification to his disciples.
In Chapter 2 of John’s Gospel, we hear of Jesus being asked to show a sign to establish his relationship with the Temple – the place where God was present within the Jewish community. Jesus replies, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’ (John 2.19). The Jewish authorities were confused by this claim, and the evangelist explains that ‘he was speaking of the temple of his body’ (Jn.2.21). The disciples would understand the connection of the temple with Jesus’ own body after he was raised from the dead.
Sandra Schneiders encapsulates her view of the resurrection by stating: ‘Jesus, bodily risen, is the New Temple raised up in the midst of the community which will constitute the New Israel.’
It is in this scene, where Jesus is raised up within the Christian community, that he shares his peace. The disciples had been terrified of being arrested by the Jewish authorities. They had lost their great teacher, whom they had followed so closely. They were bereft, alone and full of fear. The presence of Jesus changed everything. The first sharing of the peace calmed the disciples and, indeed, filled them with joy. The evangelist says, ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ All was well.
The second sharing of the peace was different. Now that the disciples were confident of the presence of Jesus in their midst, Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ As we hear this passage of the Fourth Gospel, we don’t just stand by and listen as a dislocated audience; we are drawn into the text ourselves. The word ‘disciples’ does not refer to the eleven disciples who were closest to Jesus in his earthly ministry. The word refers to all of his followers. We are included in this mighty gathering. It is we who recognise the presence of Jesus in the Church, which is now his earthly body. It is we who share Christ’s peace, and it is we who are commissioned ‘to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last’. (John 15.16).
Then comes the allusion to the ‘first day’. Jesus breathes on his disciples and they are bidden to receive the Holy Spirit. This action of breathing echoes the creating action of God, which I mentioned just now. Only now, we don’t have life as given to us through creation, we have the life of the Holy Spirit who enables us to live lives to the full, in accordance with God’s unending and all-encompassing love. We are commissioned by the Risen Jesus, we are filled with his life-giving Spirit. What then? The Fourth Gospel continues by claiming our relationship with the world in which the Church is set.
We are confronted by the mysterious statement: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
I think that it is important for us to remember that when Jesus talks about ‘sin’ in the Fourth Gospel, he is not referring to moral failings in daily life. Sin is seen as being unbelief in the claim that God shows himself to be active and effective in the life and activities of Jesus. A biblical commentator has said recently, ‘To have sin abide, therefore, is to remain estranged from God. The consequence of such a condition is ongoing resistance.’ (M. Skinner, workingpreacher.org)
As I said earlier, the people to whom the Risen Christ was speaking were all of his followers, including us. Therefore we have the authority and the responsibility to enable others to recognise the divine in Jesus and to be filled with his life. This, I believe, is the essence of our Baptismal Commission, and the part which we play in the bringing in of God’s Kingdom. The hard and unpalatable consequence of not bearing witness in this way prevents others from experiencing the fullness of God’s love. The Fourth Gospel makes it a clear case of acceptance or rejection – both on the actions of those who proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection, and those who receive it.
I conclude with two quotes. The first is from Matt Skinner, whom I quoted a few moments ago. He says, ‘Jesus lives, yes–not apart from us, but in and through us .… this same Jesus is already present, dwelling within us and eager to enlist us to carry on his work of setting people free.’
The second quote is the famous prayer from St Teresa of Ávila on the work of the Risen Christ in the world:
Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.