Narratives of Resurrection
Second Sunday of Easter: 27 April, 2014
Fr Samuel Dow
Assistant Curate, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Today, as we gather on this second Sunday of Easter we hear further accounts of our great resurrection story. This day, which is often referred to as 'Low Sunday' in contrast to Easter day, the great climax of the Easter triduum, seems to me to be a rather inappropriate title for any Sunday after Easter, despite its original intentions. In some older traditions, in order to maintain congregation numbers like that of Easter Day, this low Sunday would see congregations doing all sorts of absurd things, such as playing practical jokes on one another in church. On one priest's blog he noted that he had substituted the whole sermon space for a session on telling religious jokes! I don't intend to do that this morning.
This week, and in the coming weeks until the Ascension, we will be living out the great narratives of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. I think that any or indeed all of these Sundays could be considered 'High Days' as the new life that Christ Jesus gives to us, and shows to us, should be something worthy of celebrating over and over as if it were Easter Day.
John's gospel this morning opens up for us a number of aspects of Christ's resurrection, granting us immense blessings in considering the message of God's grace towards us. I would like to make note of three particular aspects of John's gospel as we continue to celebrate the Easter mysteries.
The first thing we read of in this resurrection story is what Jesus actually does. In a locked room Jesus appears to his disciples and says 'peace be with you'. A statement of peace declared by Christ in a time of absolute terror and confusion. This message of peace speaks of the centrality of non-violence in God's kingdom. Here is a man that was the most pure form of love and yet most of his friends denied and rejected him at the hour of his passion and death. The religious leaders of Judaism cry out for his death yet Jesus, a Jew himself, receives no mercy. The whole crucifixion can be summed up as a violent killing of an innocent man. But in Jesus' resurrection from the dead there is no sign of retribution. Jesus, in our standards of doing things, could quite justifiably have come back and 'got even' with those who killed and denied him. But instead Jesus shows the way of peace as he declares 'peace be with you'.
This profound message in such a circumstance subverts what French philanthropist René Girard considers the 'victimisation process'. It exposes to us one of humanity's worst traits and one in which we are quite well rehearsed. We see it in all human communities and an excellent example of this can be found in the school playground where a group of children will pick on one particular child, as this will spare the group exposing all of their own weaknesses and downfalls to others. It is much more easy to work as a pack and drive out a 'scapegoat' than to let our own failings be found out. And so it was for Jesus Christ, who James Alison, employing the theories of Girard, states was the scapegoat of the crowds - a sacrifice of societies own making. Instead of continuing on in this system of violence Jesus proclaims peace and thereby subverts this unjust structure of the world. Jesus shows to us a new way of living.
The second point that I think is important in this text is the emphasis by St. John on the physicality of Jesus resurrected body. We read in this narrative two accounts where Jesus shows his marked body, his hands and his side, to the disciples. The first to the group of his disciples and the second time to Thomas, as he wasn't in the room the first time. This is obviously an important point for John who emphasizes that this isn't just an apparition, a ghost, or even a dream of the disciples, but that this is real matter, flesh and bones. Jesus presenting himself in a real way that tells us his resurrection is about a fully redeemed creation where God cares about the material make up of the world. If we are to take the creation narratives in the book of Genesis seriously then we need to hear not only that God created the earth and all living things but that he also called them good. John, at the beginning of his gospel account reaffirms this position of creation when he writes, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being". St John brings us right back around in a full circle toward this theme of a restored world. Creation is therefore restored and redeemed through this physical resurrection of Jesus. The early church knew this only too well and declared it in their formulation of the ancient creeds, as in the creed which we declare each week: "We believe in the resurrection of the dead".
In an article written for the ABC during Easter 2012, Ben Myers describes the then archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams' position on the resurrection. He writes:
Redemption is therefore never a matter of private — much less "spiritual" — salvation, nor is it a vaguely edifying symbol of human striving for life and justice. It is, rather, an embodied occurrence within our world, something that changes what is possible for all human lives.
It is for just this reason that Williams insists, rather unfashionably, on the importance of the empty tomb, the physical embodiment of the risen Christ. If Christ is not raised in bodily form, then he would remain foreign to embodied human experience, to all those awkward joys and sorrows of social life. It is bodily resurrection that secures Christ's relevance to our lives here and now.
The last point that I want to consider in this morning's gospel passage is the doubting of Thomas. I would have to admit that each time I hear this story I can't help but be moved to empathise with Thomas. As people who are of a post-modern world and are still under the many influences of rationalism, we often tend to fall back to our old default saying, "well show me how this happens and how this works". Thomas, I believe, is perhaps ahead of his time in being a rationalist "unless I can see I cannot believe". But the issue with Thomas is more around his doubt, not in the risen Christ, but in the witness of the disciples, his close friends. But even here Thomas doesn't stand alone as the doubter. The first story we have of Jesus' resurrection in John's gospel is when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb to find it empty with the stone rolled away. After she goes to collect the disciples to look for the body of Jesus, she sits by herself outside the tomb crying, when Jesus appears to her and calls her by name. After recognizing Jesus he commands her to go to the disciples and tell them about his resurrection and his imminent ascension. So she goes and says, "I have seen The Lord". Mary, appropriately titled the apostle to the apostles, proclaims the risen Christ to the disciples, yet by their fearful conduct in that room it would appear that they haven't really credited Mary's report at all. So, perhaps it shouldn't be just remembered as the story of the doubting Thomas but perhaps the doubting disciples!
However, despite Thomas' doubt and questions about the resurrected Christ we discover that a community of faith can and does indeed grow under this disciple's leadership, perhaps showing us the pattern of God — life from brokenness.
So, as God sends his son Jesus Christ into the world to draw together in relationship creation and creator, Jesus sends us, the Church, into the world to proclaim the good news of the new creation. But as we go I don't think we should be nervous and discouraged by our doubts and our deep questioning, for questioning and doubting lead us deeper into our faith, deeper into our proclamation: "My Lord and my God".
Let me close with some words from St Therese of Avila, which we can perhaps offer up as our prayer that we might be the embodiment of Christ in our time and in our place.
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.