Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Today is traditionally known as Low Sunday, in contrast no doubt with the high feast of Easter Day. Indeed there are several reasons why today might aptly be described as Low Sunday. The arrival of Easter Day after the liturgical austerities of Lent and Holy Week makes for an outpouring of joyous energy. We have gone through the solemnity of Good Friday and emerge the other side with the resurrection glow of Easter morning. But spiritual highlights are often followed by something that brings us down to earth. This was certainly so for Jesus – after the glorious ratification that he was the Son of God at his baptism, the Spirit then led him into the wilderness where he experienced severe temptations that were an attempt to undermine his true identity. As for Jesus, so for us. When some great celebration occurs, such as Easter Day, or a family celebration of some kind, not long afterwards all too often something happens that somehow takes the shine off things. It can be an effort to sustain the mood of Easter Day for very long – hence “Low” Sunday today. Today can also be a day when church attendance is “low” in numbers as many people are still away enjoying their well-earned holidays.
Eastertide, however, lasts no less than fifty days – right up to Pentecost. So even if we find ourselves assailed by “Low Sunday syndrome”, we need to take care that it doesn’t take hold of us for too long. What we are about as Christians throughout these fifty days – as members of the body of Christ on earth – is to proclaim the joy of the risen Christ. As the Church, that is what we are here for – whether we do it quietly and unostentatiously, or whether we do it boldly and with style (and partly this will depend on our temperament) we are here – as the body of Christ – to make evident the miraculous mystery of the resurrection. Jesus – God in the flesh – who died on a cross around 2,000 years ago, rose from the dead and is alive for evermore. And it is this bold truth at the very centre of our faith that changes everything. Much of the world is in chaos, millions are starving, evil such as the ISIL regime is rampant, but – although starkly real – these evils are not the last word. It is our responsibility to alleviate suffering as much as we can, and to overcome injustice and evil when we encounter them, but such struggles we do not experience alone. We have Jesus as our model, who overcame the worst that man could do to him, and he emerged victorious, vindicated. And in this lies our hope, both for us and for the world.
Today’s gospel reading from John tells us a lot about human nature. It is all about doubting Thomas. Thomas is a disciple that many can identify with easily. He does not have the bravado of Peter. Instead – he doubts. Doubts are natural – who of us at some point in our lives does not have doubts, whether about ourselves, others or even God? It is the evening of Easter Day, the disciples are together and the doors are locked. Why are the doors locked? For fear of burglars? No, for fear of the religious leaders of the day who, if they found this band of followers of Jesus, might mete out the same fate to them as they had meted out to Jesus a couple of days earlier, when they handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities who condemned him to death by crucifixion. It is not much more than 48 hours after the crucifixion, and the disciples are frightened out of their wits. Their leader in whom they had trusted is dead. Or is he? And then the miracle happens. Suddenly, Jesus appears, and he says to the astounded disciples,
“Peace be with you.”
The disciples are shown the scars in Jesus’ hands and side. And they believe – and believing, they rejoice. Jesus is alive. Unfortunately for Thomas, he was absent. Perhaps he was too frightened to meet with the others that night, despite the locked doors. So when Thomas does show up a week later, naturally he feels excluded when the others tell him what had happened in his absence. He can’t believe it. He won’t believe it. He is full of doubts. Thomas claims he won’t believe unless he touches Jesus’ scars for himself. And then he gets a second chance. And that is the great thing about God – always keen to give us a second chance, when at first we just don’t get it. It is a week later, and this time Thomas is present. And once again, Jesus turns up. Jesus knows Thomas’ needs, and he invites Thomas to reach out and touch him. But of course there is no such need. The risen presence of Jesus is incontrovertible. Thomas at last lets go of his fears, lets go of his doubts, and yields to the risen Christ –
“My Lord and my God!”
God will use anything to stretch out to us in love. God meets us where we are. And so God will use our fears, our doubts, to make that divine presence known in our lives. Indeed doubts can be useful, because they make us ask questions, and as long as we ask questions, our minds are open, rather than closed – open rather than like those closed doors on the evening of Easter Day.
Many of the stories of the great saints show people resistant to God, whether through doubt, or even sheer defiance, before God’s light breaks through. Look at St Paul – on the road to Damascus to throw Christians into prison, and then converted en route to become one of the greatest evangelists the Church has ever known. Or look at St Augustine – who kept a mistress and was seriously influenced by heresy, when one day in a friend’s garden he picked up a Bible when he heard a child’s voice sing “take and read” – and on reading a passage from Romans all his resistance to Christianity melted away and he went on to become one of the greatest theologians of the Western Church. Or look at Jesus’ mother Mary – the scene of the annunciation. It was all too much for her to take in and at first she doubted – “How can this be?”
But then her perplexity, her fears, her doubts all gave way to her obedient “yes” to God – her “fiat” –
“Let it be to me according to your word.”
And she gave her consent to be the mother of the Son of God.
A lot of the time, we perhaps muddle along with our fears and our doubts and our misgivings. And that’s ok – it’s human. But what matters is that beneath all those mixed emotions and muddled thought processes is our simple faith – that God in Christ came into this world as one of us, died on a cross, and rose again victorious and vindicated. Believing this, our own struggles and difficulties and temptations can be put into perspective. Life may be hard, and difficulties and challenges abound, but we can be confident that the risen Jesus knows all about it and sustains us – and loves us, forgives our mistakes, and cares for us. So this Eastertide, although there may be a number of “Low Sunday” moments, let’s endeavour to keep that Eastertide spirit of joy uppermost in our hearts and minds. Let’s be encouraged by people like Thomas and the saints who were real human beings, with real weaknesses and failings, but who knew that the risen Jesus would enable them to endure and who had promised them abundance of life in him. Above all, let’s put our heartfelt trust in the risen Jesus, whose presence with us is something that no evil, however great or overbearing, can destroy or take away from us.