Every spring millions of people around the world acknowledge, in some fashion or another, that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead some twenty centuries ago. Modern society calls it Easter! This Easter story is at the heart of Christianity. What significance does the Easter story hold for you?
Holy Week gives us, as Christians, the opportunity to reflect upon Jesus fulfillment of scripture by His betrayal; denial three times by Peter; His trial and conviction as a King without an earthly kingdom; His crucifixion and death upon the cross; His resurrection and His appearances to Mary Magdalene and His disciples. Parts of the story are almost beyond comprehension! But His actions affirm that He has died in our stead - He has given His life for us.
Can anyone think of a similar story? Occasionally we hear about people who sacrifice their life for someone else by taking them out of harm’s way. But I know of no other example of one person sacrificing his life to save thousands, perhaps even millions, by dying on a cross for them! Only Jesus has done that!
Our gospel reading this morning from John speaks specifically to Jesus’ appearance to His disciples following His resurrection. The Oxford dictionary defines resurrection as “the act or an instance of rising from the dead as in Christ’s rising from the dead”. Seldom, if ever, do we hear about someone rising from their coffin or urn! I know no other example of anyone rising from the dead. It is a difficult concept to understand. Not everyone accepts this concept. I’ll say more about that in a few minutes!
John 20:19 tells us that the disciples are meeting behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews”. Fear of what the authorities may yet do to obliterate the memory of Jesus still dominates them. They are afraid of the Jewish leaders who were behind the plot to kill Jesus. They are likely afraid for their own lives, afraid of their uncertain futures. They have locked the doors in self-protection.
One writer posits that maybe the disciples were also afraid of Jesus. After all, they had failed him miserably! Peter had denied him three times and the others had “abandoned” him. Perhaps the last person the disciples wanted to meet that evening was Jesus – risen from the dead to confront them with their failures! But Jesus appears to His disciples not to confront them with their failures but to grant them peace! He stood among them and said:
“Peace be with you”
He shows them his hands and his side to prove that He is, in fact, the same Jesus who was crucified? The scars of his passion are the marks by which they can know who He is and rejoice that he is with them again. He is the victorious and ascended Lord. His promise is fulfilled!
The disciples rejoiced when they saw him. They can begin a new relationship with their Master! Jesus says again - “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. He had assured them earlier in John 17:12-13 that he would bring them comfort and joy. He would give them an advocate, “the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father” (John 15:26) and with that Spirit he would send them into the world to continue the work and spread the message “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). Jesus then breathes on them, filling them with the Holy Spirit so that they would become messengers of the good news of what God had done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They were to proclaim God’s LOVE for the entire World!
The story of Jesus appearing to His disciples would not be complete without some acknowledgement of “Doubting Thomas”. For some reason (we are not told why) Thomas was absent from this first Sunday evening encounter with the risen Jesus. The other disciples told him that they had seen the risen Lord but he says 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!” In other works, “I’ll believe it when I see it for myself!” He needed more evidence!
Thomas is not a doubter – he just wants proof! To him, belief is about a relationship! When Jesus died on the cross, so did his relationship with Thomas, or so Thomas thought. Thomas wanted proof that his relationship with Jesus lived beyond the grave! We all have doubts from time to time, that’s a normal part of living the life of faith!
Jesus appeared again to the disciples, including Thomas, a week later. Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you”. He then said to Thomas “Put your fingers here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” He needed some reassurance. Thomas said, “My Lord and my God”. Jesus had given him the proof he needed to continue their relationship. He no longer doubted!
Jesus then said to Thomas in John 20:29, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. This was not a rebuke of Thomas but rather a blessing for you and me – those who believe without having had the benefit of a flesh - and - blood encounter with Jesus! We can take Jesus at his word and receive the blessing of believing while not seeing. We have enough evidence to receive the gift of the Resurrection.
During Lent, Tim preached about what it means to be disciples of Jesus. He reminded us that the word “disciple” is far and away the most common word for “Christian” in the New Testament. The word means “learners” or “students” or even “apprentices”. He advised us that to be a Christian is to be a disciple. Jesus told his followers to go out and invite more people to follow Him. He said in Matthew 28:19-20:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Hold Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.
John 20:30-31 states that the purpose of this gospel is to help readers to develop the confidence that the revelation of God through Jesus is trustworthy; to believe in the revelation thereby experiencing “life” in Jesus’ further signs and actions. How can we do that in our own personal way?
During the 40 days of Lent we prepare ourselves for the Easter story in many ways – abstaining from something like chocolate; self- examination of our faith or our lifestyle and other sacrifices. For the 50 days from the resurrection to the day of Pentecost we should come to believe unequivocally, if we don’t already, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31). Eternal life that is!
How do we accomplish this? Through belief in the resurrection story? Through strengthening our faith? Perhaps you have your own answers about how you can accomplish this.
Let me suggest 3 ways you might approach affirming your role as a disciple of Jesus!
1. Sharing our personal understanding of today’s gospel reading (John 20: 19-31)
With one another just as I have already shared mine with you. As an example, research for my talk this morning has given me a different perspective on Thomas. I have come to realize that, like many of us, he did not totally doubt that Jesus had risen from the dead. He was not present when Jesus first appeared to the disciples so he wanted more proof of His Resurrection. He got that proof when Jesus appeared the second time and Thomas was able to verify that his Lord and Master had indeed arisen.
2. Walking together in the light:
Our reading from 1 John 1:1 – 2:2 talks about “walk in the light as He (God) is in the light”. Jesus resurrection makes the possibility of a relationship with God a certainty! Because Christ lives, we can relate to Him, not as a hero from the past we might admire, but as one who is available to us here and now! We can share in the resurrection life of Christ as suggested above.
3. Living together in Unity:
Psalm 133 paints a picture of brethren living together in unity. In ancient Israel, extended families lived together in small communities and shared responsibilities that were common to their communities. Although we live in a big city our faith community here at St. Margaret’s is our example of brothers living together in unity. Everyone must do their part to help with our parish life! Some minister, some care, while others give of their time, talents and treasures. Each one is a disciple in their own way!
This morning, I have tried to use the resurrection story as a basis for how we can come together to use the lessons flowing from our readings as a basis for our faith and belief. Jesus has risen from the dead. He has given us a renewed faith and a renewed sense of Christian purpose and a renewed sense of joy!
Everything about our spiritual lives depends on our personal faith in God and our personal relationship with Him. We can enjoy that relationship because Jesus death and resurrection give us free, unhindered access to our heavenly Father! And our faith makes it possible for us to have an intimate, dynamic relationship with Him.
Thankfully, we as ordinary human beings have free access to God at any time through prayer. God loves you and wants a personal relationship with you – how awesome is that! Personal belief and faith in God opens the door to unlimited help from Him!