St Mary Magdalene Easter Sunday 2013. Choral Evensong.
Isaiah 43 v 1-21
John 20 v 19-23
‘I am He’
In our Old testament reading Isaiah the prophet tells us that God is with us in the waters and storms of life, in the deserts, in the desolation of the wilderness….and then goes on to say how , in the future, God will make rivers of life through that wilderness. The prophet clearly acclaims ‘I am He’.
As we gather this evening, and as the light outside fades, we have our New Testament reading which also gives us an account of events on that first evening. Jesus was also trying to clearly show his disciples ‘I am He’, bringing to mind Isaiah’s earlier words confirming and affirming God at work.
Yet we know now what the disciples did not know then; that Jesus really has arisen. During the last few days as we have walked with Jesus, we have seen for ourselves the high emotions as the people welcomed him on what we celebrate as Palm Sunday, followed by the desperate prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane after what would be his last Passover meal with his closest friends. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we know that his disciples were quite unaware of impending disaster- we e can presume they were sufficiently untroubled, to be able to nod off. Consequently they were enormously shocked at the rapid descent into arrest, torture and public execution which followed within hours. Highs and lows, light and darkness
Johns Gospel makes much of light and darkness; today early this morning some of us gathered to see the light rising on a new day; yet the disciples initially disbelieved Mary when she rushed to tell them that she had seen the Lord. Now dusk on the first day descends, and Jesus chooses to come amongst them.
Today’s Gospel reading from John actually starts in a climate of fear. You can sense the charged emotions and tense atmosphere from the very first words
When therefore it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…..
Jesus first words are to offer Peace.
‘Peace is unto you’. He then showed them his broken hands and his stabbed side, and said again
It is therefore no wonder that it was with real joy and gladness that the disciples responded when Jesus came, because might they have felt some guilt that they had, even unwittingly, contributed to that gruesome death and were feeling guilty?
So when he said again
‘Peace is with you’ forgiveness was at hand. The language of this passage does not refer to an appearance, rather like a ghost, but that Jesus came. And that it was truly Jesus comes from the clear wounds that He shows them. ‘I am He’.
Today, of all days, as we shout Christ is Risen, what can this particular account of the day of the Resurrection mean for us?
Firstly, that God, through Jesus, suffers with us in this life. Jesus’ body is not perfect, it is wounded, and it still shows those wounds. Yet these wounds have not prevented Jesus from fulfilling His earthly ministry; they are an integral part of the story. For us, the highs and lows of our own lives are integral parts of our story- the extremes of heat and floods and wilderness that Isaiah speaks of; and God suffers with us when we suffer, celebrates with us when we celebrate- because God has known suffering as well as triumph, through Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor eventually executed for his part in trying to destroy Hitler, wrote from Prison
‘Sorrow and Joy Striking suddenly on our startled senses…Even as frost and heat at the first keen contact Burn us alike.’
He goes on to say
‘The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythical hope …is that the Christian has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but like Christ himself, [we] must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in [our] r doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with [us] and [we], crucified and risen with him.
Secondly, there is the business of Peace. Peace in our hearts is most treasured when we know what it is to experience and then overcome fear, anxiety and stress. Next week, in this country a new regime is introduced which will make the most sweeping changes to the benefits system that this country has known for 60 years. Our Government will expect needy people to depend on food banks for urgent needs, crisis loans will no longer be available, food will be provided by volunteers not the State, and whatever our personal political allegiances, all recognise that this will cause real hardship . More than at any time since the Second World War will we depend on the generosity and goodness of our communities to support some of the most vulnerable. The fears, stress and anxiety for poor families with children will be particularly challenging. Johns Gospel more than any other focusses on the importance of a personal relationship with God and we must pray for peace not only in our own hearts as we face our own fears, stresses and anxieties but for those who do not share the Joy of our faith in Christ resurrected, and so cannot therefore reach out to experience what it means when Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’.
Thirdly, Forgiveness is the springboard of growth and of service to others. Just as the disciples received forgiveness for their many failings so do we and this enable us to reach out and grow? Here our passage from Johns Gospel immediately rushes on like the rivers of life from the prophet Isaiah to foreshadow the gift of the Holy Spirit to further Jesus’ ministry through his disciples;
Jesus said to them again
‘Peace is unto you; as the Father hath sent me, even so send you I. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost…’
If we can commit ourselves to allowing God to work through us, to recognise that we are the new Creation, then we can be part of the work to bring Gods kingdom on earth. Only yesterday a former Archbishop Lord Carey, attacked David Cameron for forcing Christians to be on the back foot as a persecuted minority but we need to see our own lives as an opportunity to show Christianity on the front foot, facing forward; today a yougov poll reported that two thirds of people in our country think the church is out of touch, but still one third believe in the Resurrection.
This means that today of all days Our Joy is great but Johns Gospel also makes clear that our responsibility is also great;
The challenge to us can be illustrated from this excerpt from Charles Causley’s poem, a more modern take on Jesus life, death and resurrection aimed particularly at young people, called the Ballad of the Bread Man
…He went round to all the people, A paper crown on his head
‘Here is some bread from my father, Take, eat,’ he said
Nobody seemed very hungry, Nobody seemed to care,
Nobody saw the God in himself Quietly standing there.
He finished up in the papers, he came to a very bad end
He was charged with bringing the living to life, no man was that prisoners friend
There is only one kind of punishment to fit that kind of crime
They rigged a trial and shot him dead, they were only just in time.
They stored him safe as water, under seven rocks
On Sunday morning he burst out, just like a jack-in-the box-
Through the town he went walking, he showed them the holes in his head
‘Now do you want any loaves he cried,’ Not today they said’.
So let us live the Easter story of Christ resurrected. Christ is Risen.
Further reading; Bonhoeffer, D (scm press, 2001 edition ); Letters and Papers from Prison
Causley, C (Macmillan 1992) Collected Poems