John Rainbow, one of our Local Preachers in the Gloucestershire Circuit, has written our reflection for today.
Our readings are about three people looking at the events of Easter. Thomas, a week after, Peter after the tremendous experience of Pentecost, and the writer of 1 Peter some years later. And we’ve been doing the same thing. However we’ve celebrated Easter – and I expect that, like me, it’s seemed a very strange festival this year – we’ve somehow rehearsed the events of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Day. And perhaps you are like me, and find that the familiar stories have somehow lost their edge, been blunted by repetition. Then I need the New Testament writers to remind me of what I’m confronting at Easter.
First – how does Thomas react to the resurrection? He always gets a hard time for being sceptical – but who can blame him? The tale that his friends tell is not easy to believe. And when he meets the risen Jesus, there’s no hesitancy. He says “My Lord and my God”.
I might be wrong, because I often am, but I can’t think of another place in the Gospel accounts where anyone refers to Jesus as “God”. He is “Messiah” or “Son of God”. And this reaction of Thomas’ is so important. Peoples often think of God as someone and disengaged – think of Zeus on Mount Olympus.
But Thomas is understanding that God is actually a real presence in our world, a participant in our humanity. That the pain and dereliction suffered by Jesus at Golgotha were, in some way God’s. It’s not something that we need to understand, nor rationalise – just something to hold on to. It gives us the trust that, as we cry to God in our extremity we are talking to someone who knows our pain. Not to someone who says “I know what you are feeling” but who says “I feel what you are feeling”.
People are in all sorts of troubles today. There are those who are dying alone in isolation wards. Those who are denied the opportunity to mourn the loss of loved one. Those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the lockdown, and who face an uncertain future. It seems quite feeble to tell any of them that God is with them.
Yet look at Calvary. It was a situation of complete hopelessness, where the dying Jesus felt abandoned even by God. But what we’re looking at is not defeat but victory – not hopelessness but the fulfilment of hope. Jesus – God – plumbs the depths of misery and overcomes it all.
And especially today we need to get this message of Easter hope out to a suffering and fearful world. Not the easy promise of relief from trouble – problems are what we have because we are humans, in a fragile and often hostile world. But the certainty we can somehow be delivered from their grip, because God is there with us, and will bring us through safe.
Thomas looks at Jesus’ scarred body – his hands and side bear witness to his suffering. And he declares – “My Lord and My God”. He sees the triumph of divine hope – one in which we can share.
So that’s Thomas looking at Easter. Now we move forward to Pentecost, and Peter’s address to the crowd. He starts out by talking about the Holy Spirit and then he talks about Jesus’ death and resurrection. And one thing particularly stands out. He is explaining that the crowd had a share in Jesus’ death. Translations differ, and you probably, like me, don’t really care about the exact wording. What’s clear is Peter is saying that his listeners were a party to the events of Good Friday.
He doesn’t mean that literally, of course. Most of the people in Jerusalem for the Passover probably had better things to do than get involved with the machinations of the High Priest and his friends. But… What is it that kills Jesus? Perhaps the jealousy of the Sanhedrin. The treachery of Judas. The cowardice of the disciples. The politicking of Pilate. The cruelty of the soldiers. The mockery of the crowds. You could make a much longer list.
And, whilst I’m sure that most of you haven’t killed anyone, it would be a very self-confident person who would say that they’ve lived a life free of the sorts of things brought Jesus to the cross. Every Sunday, at some point the worship leader will ask the congregation to remember how their discipleship has failed, and ask for forgiveness.
And it is the cross of Calvary that makes it possible to ask for that forgiveness. There’s a lot I’ve never understood about Jesus death. I’ve never been certain what “He died to take away my sin” really means. What I do know is that Easter is a declaration that the things that conspired against Jesus – things that blight our lives – these have no power.
It may not always seem that way. Guilt is a hard thing to shake off. Regret spoils many lives. And if we don’t imprison ourselves you can guarantee that someone else is on hand to bring our past into the present-day. And Easter says that we can be freed from all that. “O for a thousand tongues to sing” isn’t much chosen for services any more, but it has this great line “He breaks the power of cancelled sin”.
On the cross, Jesus faced the massed forces of human wickedness. And as the sky darkened, and the temple veil was torn, it seemed as though they had won. But it was all an illusion. These things had no real mastery. And that encourages us in acts of penitence and repentance. Of course the past cannot be undone, and history cannot be unpicked. But the cross gives us a future – tells us that what we have been will not dictate what we shall be.
So Thomas sees the real significance of Jesus. And Peter reminds us of the defeat of sin. Our third reading is Peter again (or maybe not. At this distance in time, who can tell? I’m just going to say “Peter says” – too complicated to use another phrase). This letter is written to people in some sort of difficulty, probably a period of anti-Christian persecution. So it might have some message for these troubled days.
Peter begins with a note of praise – “Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope, and so we look forward to possessing the rich blessings that God keeps for his people”. “Hope” again.
This time the hope seems to be in the future. Peter talks of heaven, and of the day when Jesus will come again. This sort of stuff has rather gone out of fashion. Victorian sentimentality destroyed any sensible thoughts of heaven, and a certain brand of American Fundamentalism has done the same for the end of days.
But isn’t Easter all about the defeat of death? The empty tomb is the sign that death will not have the final word in our life histories. Just as Jesus is still a living reality, so what we have done will be eternally significant.
However it works, the important thing is that our value will not be wiped out by death. Peter speaks of the coming day of Jesus. Then, he says, the eternally valued parts of our lives will be honoured. This will be the culmination of the victory of Easter.
This Easter has been very difficult for many people. The focus of the news is all about illness and death, about the threats that have separated us from each other, about the crisis faced by our economy. And this is all just a reminder of the frailty of human existence that has been part of the human condition for ever.
But the final word – for Thomas, for Peter, for us – is not given by despair but by hope. With Thomas, we looked at God’s presence in suffering, and the power of the resurrection within in that situation. With Peter, we looked at the power that releases us from the grip of sin. And with 1 Peter we looked forward to our eternal destiny. My wish for myself – and for you too – is that Easter is not just a date on the calendar, but a daily source of hope.
14th April 2020