Readings: Acts 2:14a, 22–32, 1 Peter 1:1–12 & John 20:19–31
In this Season of Easter, we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and each of our readings this morning, deal in some way either directly with the Resurrection, or with the ongoing effect of what the Resurrection means for the world.
Our first reading this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, forms part of the very first sermon, that the Apostle Peter gave after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, on the Day of Pentecost. In this section of the sermon, Peter emphasised both the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, whom the prophets had foretold would be descended from King David, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus, were part of God’s deliberate plan. And Peter draws on Scripture, in this case a section of Psalm 16 that we also heard this morning, to support what he claimed.
In history, many of the Psalms, including Psalm 16, were believed to have been written by King David, and in that context Peter quoted from verses 8–11 of Psalm 16, where David expressed confidence that God would not abandon him to the grave, but rather than applying that to David, Peter instead applied it to Jesus. Peter argued that since “David died and was buried” and his body decayed, David must have been speaking as a “prophet”, of the “resurrection of the Messiah,” whose body would not see decay.
Our second reading this morning, also involves the Apostle Peter, with this passage actually being the opening verse of the First Letter of Peter. Like a number of books and letters in the Bible, there is debate among scholars, as to who the real author of the First Letter of Peter was, and while there are arguments against the author being the Apostle himself, there are also arguments for Peter actually being the author, so I am going to assume, that the Apostle Peter did actually write this letter himself.
Peter may have written the letter to Christians who had recently migrated to the region of northern Asia Minor, and who may have been in need of guidance, about how to live in their new social setting. The immediate purpose of the letter, was to provide encouragement to these Christians, to stand firm in the faith, despite the difficult situation challenging the faith and endurance of the Christian believers, something that was apparently widespread across northern Asia Minor at that time, when people were being persecuted and oppressed for their faith.
Peter was telling them, that Christians should expect suffering to be a part of their lives. Some people believe, that if we are people of faith, then God will prevent bad things from happening to us, but as we know, this is not necessarily the case. Embracing the Christian faith, does not guarantee immunity, against the suffering that is common to human existence, but it can enable us, to endure and persevere in the face of the challenges this suffering brings.
Peter had obviously been present when Jesus said to the Apostle Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And having heard those words, Peter repeated them in his letter when he wrote: “You love him even though you have never seen him.” This is a perfect segue into today’s gospel passage, which of course is from the Gospel of John, and which is unique to John’s Gospel.
On the evening of the same day that Mary Magdalene visited the tomb of Jesus, and discovered his body was not there, the disciples met behind locked doors, because they were frightened of being discovered by the Jewish religious leaders, who had called for Jesus to be crucified. They were concerned that they might suffer the same fate as Jesus for being his followers.
John then tells us that suddenly Jesus stood among them. Nobody opened the door for him, but he was somehow able to just pass through, either the door or the walls of the room. But he was not a ghost, or some sort of phantom, because he showed the disciples his hands and side, which obviously still bore the wounds from the nails and spear that were used to crucify and kill him. In the same way that Mary Magdalene was not able to immediately recognise Jesus, when he first revealed himself to her in the garden, where his tomb was, there is clearly something different about his resurrected body, that allows him to pass through matter such as walls and doors.
And in a scene reminiscent of the creation story in the Book of Genesis, when God breathed life into the nostrils of Adam, Jesus breathed his spirit on the disciples, and commissioned them to go out and continue his ministry. This is the beginning of a ‘new’ creation, a ‘new’ life; the life of the Church, which is to become the body of Christ in the world.
The Apostle Thomas was not present with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them, and when the others told him of their experience with the risen Jesus, Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He said to the others, “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.” This is of course where the well known phrase ‘doubting Thomas’ comes from, which is used to describe someone who is sceptical of something.
A week later, the disciples were once again in the same room, behind locked doors, only this time Thomas was with them. Jesus again suddenly appeared among them, just as he did on the previous occasion, and this time he told Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and side. He also told Thomas not to doubt, but to believe. Thomas immediately responded with the words, “My Lord and my God!”, which clearly acknowledged that Thomas believed Jesus was God, because only God could raise the dead.
Jesus asked Thomas if he only believed because he had actually now seen for himself, that Jesus had been raised from the dead, whereas he previously hadn’t believed it when the other disciples told him. Jesus then made the statement, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Not very many people saw Jesus after he had been raised from the dead. From the gospel stories, we know that he appeared to Mary Magdalene and several other women at the tomb, then to the apostles, and to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; and the Apostle Paul, writing in his First Letter to the Corinthians, states that Jesus first appeared to Peter, then the rest of the apostles together with Peter, then to 500 other disciples at the one time, which may have been at the time of his ascension into heaven, and finally to Paul himself, at the time of Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus.
So a only relatively small number of people have seen the risen Jesus, but for over two thousand years Christians have believed that he was raised from the dead, even though they haven’t seen him for themselves, and many of those Christians have actually died for their belief. And even today, Christian minorities in various parts of the world continue to die for their belief. It is difficult to imagine being in a position where you are faced with the choice, to either deny your beliefs or to die. We are unlikely to ever be in that position ourselves, but think how strong a person’s faith must be to enable them to die, rather than renounce what they believe in.
In this Season of Easter, as we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, it is the perfect time for us to reflect both on our own faith, and also on the faith of the church, and to remember that the Resurrection marked the beginning of a ‘new’ creation. That ‘new’ creation took shape in the Church, and for over two thousand years the Church, as the Body of Christ in the world, has given witness to Jesus, who is the light and life of the world.