Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 8th April 2018
Acts 4.32-35 & John 20.19-31
This past week, I visited a friend in Belfast for a few days. Apart from the stunning views at the Giant’s Causeway somewhat further north, we had a tour of the city. It has been twenty years since the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998, but still there are walls up in the city, and gates that close at night to make it impossible to go from one side of the fence to the other, even for emergency services.
It has been estimated during those thirty years of the Troubles that over 3,500 people were killed. That number made me realise that the scale of the recent violence in London is not very different, with already over fifty murders in the first three months of this year. Whereas in Northern Ireland, the conflict has been very much associated with Christianity, the violence in London seems to be of a different nature. This, I suspect, is not unrelated to the fact that Christianity in Ireland is still much more prominent than it is in our capital city nowadays.
However, I would like to suggest, that this doesn’t make much difference in how we as Christians, both individually and as a Church, should see our part in society. Whether we live in a predominantly Christian or secular context, how we live our lives is rooted in our identity as children of God; it is rooted in our encounter with the risen Christ. That is where I would like to start from this morning, before thinking what that may look like in practice. We are faced with the same question as Christians throughout time: how are we to respond? What does it mean to be a Christian, to be a Church in a time like ours? Looking at our readings this morning, I would like to suggest four virtues we need: peace, forgiveness, welcome and sharing.
Our Gospel reading this morning follows directly the encounter between Mary and the risen Jesus. Although the disciples have concluded that Christ is risen, this morning we hear how also they encounter Jesus himself.
We hear that the disciples have locked themselves into the house, out of fear of the Jews. But Jesus can’t be stopped by locked doors, and so breaks through the disciples’ fear to stand among them and to say ‘Peace be with you’. And when he has shown them the wounds on his hands and his side, again he says ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. So, one could say that the first thing we are sent to do is to bring and share peace. Peace is not just everyone getting on, but with Good Friday and Easter Day still fresh in mind, peace can come at a great cost to those who offer it.
Thinking back about Northern Ireland briefly, some of you may have seen the BBC documentary last week, in which the comedian Patrick Kielty explains at which personal cost the Good Friday peace agreement came to him. His father was one of those 3,500 people killed during the Troubles, and one of the conditions of the Good Friday agreement was that all those who were in prison for these killings would be released. But, as Kielty explained, if that was what it took for there to be peace for generations to come, so be it.
That brings us back to the Gospel reading, as after the disciples have received the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells them ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. Offering forgiveness is even a step further than offering peace. It is one thing to accept that the release of prisoners is part of the price that needs to be paid for a peaceful future, but that doesn’t mean that they are also forgiven.
Indeed, our Gospel reading seems to imply that there is the possibility not to forgive, but to retain the sins of some. These words in John’s Gospel resonate with a similar teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Here Jesus teaches that if a member church refuses to listen, ‘let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector’.
At first these words seem to imply the possibility that some people are written off for life, that some people are beyond redemption. However, the challenge lies in the fact that the Gentiles and tax-collectors were precisely the people Jesus came to save. This brings us from peace and forgiveness to the third strand that is required to live our lives in the light of the Resurrection, and that is offering an unconditional welcome. As we know, offering a welcome, just like offering peace and forgiveness, is not easy.
I would like to suggest that what it means to welcome people is not to see how they might fit in, or what we may have to offer them, but to turn it around. To see how we may need to change to affirm their identity as members of the body of Christ, and to fully appreciate the gifts they have to offer, as well as accepting their flaws. Being welcome is embracing and affirming the gift that we are the body of Christ, and that in one body we are all members.
Peace, forgiveness and welcome. I would like to add one more to this, and that is sharing. Looking at our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are faced with a challenge again: ‘everything they owned was held in common’. What does that mean for us today? ‘For as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold’.
Yes, I know, there is a good case to be made for building up our pension and owning a house, so that we won’t burden the state and each other. But I also think at times that this attitude reveals our lack of trust and our need to control our own destiny. And so I would urge us all to think how we share and how we can share even more.
Welcome, forgiveness, peace and sharing. When you think about it, they are all elements of our worship week after week. And so, maybe one way of looking what this may mean in practice is asking ourselves how we can transform our daily lives into worship.
This may sound very churchy, but it has huge practical implications. At the root of our worship is our thanksgiving, so also at the root of our lives needs to be gratitude and thanks for not only what we have, but also for who we are. Children of God, send by Jesus, and recipients of the Holy Spirit.
And so I would like to leave us with a question this morning. How do we become ‘we’? How can we live lives of peace, forgiveness, welcome and sharing that have the ability to change our society? That is a question for us as individuals, but also for us as a Church. A church here in Marlborough, a church here in England, but also a Church as the body of Christ and His presence here on earth.
To finish, next week not only marks twenty years of Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, but also this week it was fifty years since Martin Luther King was killed whilst campaigning for the oppressed. His famous words ‘I have a dream’, I think, are still true for many of us today. We have a dream and we have a promise. A promise in the Resurrection of Christ.
A dream and a promise: how will that help us transform reality? How will that enable us to become ‘we’ and bring light to a broken world?