EASTER 2, YEAR B SUNDAY 8th APRIL 2018 Fairacres Convent & St John’s Home Cowley (seriously abbreviated and adapted for the latter context).
ACTS 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
1 JOHN 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
JOHN 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, 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.’ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
One of the things that happens when Oxford United are playing away games has been the opportunity to revisit former parishes. Walsall Football Club is in the parish where I was a curate. We lost when we went back. Sheffield United Football Club play at Bramall Lane, at the bottom of the hill where our church, St Aidan’s, was at the top. Once, during a wedding, with perfect timing, after I had asked the congregation whether anyone knew ‘any reason or impediment why these persons may not be lawfully married to declare it now’, Sheffield United scored and large roar from the crowd filled the church as if thousands were objecting. When we went back with Oxford to play in Sheffield, we lost. When Oxford played at Scunthorpe, we went back to Tickhill, had a really horrible pizza, and we lost. The excitement I felt at going back was disillusioned not only because we kept losing, but also disappointing because the world I was seeking, of up to 30 years ago, had gone: and going back did not result in my meeting people who knew me; neither was perhaps my deepest desire fulfilled: I didn’t become 23 again! But there are many key moments in our lives which have significance that we recognize only retrospectively. I think of pastoral encounters – particularly when beginning public ministry – which have lived on, long after the event, and indeed accumulated meaning. So, although the desire to be youthful again is thwarted, the significance and the meaning of the relationships all those years ago is something alive, beautiful, and still enriching.
One of these things happened after a funeral I had conducted. I got to know the deceased person’s widow rather well. One day, she admitted, almost with a sense of guilt, that what she really missed was her husband’s physical presence. With some embarrassment, she admitted that there was an agonizing absence when she reached out her arm in bed to find just cold space. Or that, if she saw something funny in the street or amusing on the bus, she would still anticipate telling him when she got home over a cup of tea. It was his body, his physical presence, his whole life that she had married, and with whom she had shared her life for 50 years. And that had gone. His body had died; he had died; much of her had died.
That honesty and painful love was inspiring, and remains moving, though now she, too, has died. And that is a world which our readings address today, they counter a residual belief that really we are only a spiritual being, rather than being a creature, wonderfully made, organically, in a multi-dimensional way. We’re not just a soul lodging in a body, but whole. An image of today’s gospel by the artist Caravaggio (above) has the risen Jesus grasping the hand of Thomas firmly, and guiding his fingers into his side. It’s quite an explicit painting, but it shows that Jesus is eager to share signs of continuity in these wounds of love with us. He steers the so-called ‘doubting Thomas’ into the place where healing can happen. The one who breathed his last on the Cross, binding together the Beloved Disciple and his Mother, breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles: the Love which binds the Father and the Son draws all into his life. The disciples are taken into this intimate relationship. And although the Church is entrusted with bearing witness to the risen Lord, those around us know our capacity to delude and to be self-deluded! Thomas knew the Apostles, could he really be expected to simply accept their word at face value? Nevertheless, they (like us) have a delight and duty to ‘show and tell’, to connect people with the living Jesus, and to let him guide their hands and their lives into his body. But it is Jesus who reaches out, through our service. It is he who speaks, through our inadequate words. Then as now, it is not our words, but his Presence which inspires the affirmation of faith ‘my Lord and my God.’ Our mission goes wrong when we start to calibrate it in all manner of executive and managerial speak. We are getting in the way. Our task, the churches mission on behalf of the risen Lord, is to do what St Andrew did: go and find our brother, our sister, and take them to Jesus.
Today’s Epistle, from 1 John, insists that what the church speaks of is simply a declaration of what has been seen, and heard, and touched. The Father’s eternal life is manifest in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, and, now, even in our fellowship. It is a scandal, but we could see, touch, listen to, lean upon, paint the real God incarnate who was never a ghost or soul just dressed-up in a dispensable body. God’s love is sealed in flesh and blood, and his powerful forgiveness is unthwarted, come what may. The writer urges people not to sin, but reassures them that even if they do, Jesus is the atoning sacrifice: still efficacious even to the lapsed, as St Seraphim insisted.
The experience of the real Resurrection, where our bodies are shown their true and eternal value, helps us to see that Christian fellowship in every age is not to be confused with Christendom or ‘Churchianity’. It is, rather, that wonderful communion of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what inspired the early Christians, as recorded in our first reading from Acts, to live in real community, sharing all things. This gracefully testifies to the Resurrection with great power: the Resurrection turns around life’s priorities. Life is not just about me, not even just about us and ours, but about you, and about the whole creation. This is the impact of being taken by the hand and being placed, by Jesus, in his still, unfestering, life-giving, and healing wounds. There is power in these wounds to bring extraordinary peace: so often, in spite of all our efforts to be still before God, our minds race and ‘thoughts continue to move restlessly and aimlessly through our head, like the buzzing of flies [Bishop Theophan], or the capricious leaping of monkeys from branch to branch’ in the tree of our minds [Ramakrishna]. Those unfestering wounds, bring healing to our injuries; the mark of the crown of thorns stills our minds; his pierced hands and feet stay our violence or our stumbling or running into danger; his risen eternal life in communion with the Father and the all-Holy Spirit holds us, and our loved ones who have died, in his vibrant eternal life.
But only an encounter with the living Jesus can enable us to forget self, ambition, status and to live a life of inviting Love which does not get in the way; that doesn’t go on nostalgic or sentimental self-obsessed journeys (where we, like Oxford United only ever seem to lose!). Our encounter with the Risen Lord energizes us to delight in introducing each and every wounded person, and each strong, lively, promising life, each and every disillusioned, diminished, failing soul, soiled and smeared by sin and grief, to him, the loving Lord of life, who makes all things new.
 John 19:26
 St. Seraphim of Sarov, On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
 Kallistos of Diokleia, The Power of the Name. The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality. Oxford: Fairacres Publications, SLG Press, Thirteenth impression, 2013, p.14.