Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Easter 2024

‘My Lord and my God.’

The Reverend Ralph Godsall Acting Minor Canon

Sunday, 7th April 2024 at 11.15 AM

On these Sundays in the Easter season, it is to St John’s gospel that we return each week. It is St John, along with St Paul, who recognizes the cosmic implications of a world re-created and re-formed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have an example of what I mean in today’s gospel [John 20.19-end] and in John’s account of the passion of Jesus. There is no doubt about the direction of his narrative.

We know almost from the start of this gospel that the climax of the story will be the raising up of Jesus on the cross. And when we get there, we find that the glory, the final revelation (the completion of Christ’s work of redemption) uses the same root verb that the Greek Septuagint uses in the Book of Genesis (2:1) to describe the completion of the old world, the old creation: ‘Tetelestai’ - ‘It is finished’.

John is quite consciously using Jesus’ final cry from the cross to establish the completion of a new creation, a new and universal cosmic world order.  And though Christian apologists down the centuries have tended to isolate the cross of Christ from the rest of salvation history, John (together with St Paul) sees the dying and rising of Jesus as one event. Resurrection is the other side of the same coin of what happened on Good Friday.

It doesn’t end there for St John. For, as we heard last week when the risen Christ addresses Mary Magdalene by name in the garden after the resurrection and tells her not to cling to him, he says ‘Go to my brothers and say to them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’ [John 20.17]. The Ascension – the being with the Father – is not for St John a separate event that takes place some forty days after the Easter rising. Jesus is ascending there and then to the Father. John is saying that Jesus has never been closer to the Father than when he was raised up on the cross.

In this morning’s gospel we are told that on the first day of the week when the fearful disciples gathered together behind locked doors, the risen Christ appears among them. He says ‘Peace be with you’. He breathes on them and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

Fifty days after Easter, at Pentecost, we will be celebrating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, but not in John. Dying and rising, ascending to the Father, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are all for him a single event. And furthermore, being gathered together in God’s peace, to be sent out to forgive sins, is for St John part of one single, redemptive event, in which we (like the first disciples) are all involved right now here at this Eucharist.

I could end here; but that would mean ignoring the second part of this morning’s gospel. Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, was not there, on that first Easter evening, when Jesus strode through locked doors to prove to his disciples that breaking out of a tomb and passing through locked doors was as nothing compared to the feat of breaking through the closed doors of human fear.

Thomas wasn’t there – and when told of the appearance of Jesus, he was frankly and understandably sceptical. ‘I saw the nails hammered home; I saw a spear driven into his side; I saw him die; I helped to bury him. We didn’t bury him alive. Unless I see the wounds of his passion, the risen Christ will always be an impostor to me’.

When Jesus appears a week later and the disciples, including Thomas, are gathered together again in the same upper room, Jesus offers Thomas his wounds for inspection. St John is demonstrating here that Jesus understands the hesitation of the sceptic, just as he had endured the callousness of the scoffer on the cross. The risen Lord does not try to convince waverers with a knock-down argument. There is no trace of coercion or bullying in his approach. Every disciple needs time and space to be convinced.

To Mary, in the garden on Easter morning, just the speaking of her name was enough. She doesn’t need to touch Jesus in order to be sent off on her mission. Thomas, by contrast, is given the opportunity to contradict the evidence of his own eyes – though having seen the wounds of Jesus, he doesn’t need to touch them.

What Jesus offers, then, is not a knockout argument that will contradict our scepticism and convince our unbelief. What he is offering is not argument at all: he simply offers his wounds, his suffering, and his passion. It is as though he is saying - if you really want to discover God’s love in the world and to be redeemed by it, then enter into my compassion and stand with me alongside others in their pain and unbelief. Discover your own vulnerability. It will speak to the vulnerability of others, and you will find (and be found) by my vulnerable love.

When you enter the new cathedral in Coventry from the bomb-scarred ruins of the old, what confronts you inescapably is Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry. With a small life-size figure of a human person between his knees to show the tremendous scale, the majestic image of the Ascended Christ raises his hands in blessing, hands that bear the scars of the nails. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we too have to show the wounds with which his Body, the Church, is scarred today.

That’s why the Coventry Cross is made up of five nails. It’s those five nails that pin us to his risen life, as well as to his dying body. They teach us to live with our scars - not to lock the doors to fear - and they caution us not to parade the Church’s invulnerability triumphantly.

Those who are truly risen with Christ have to be true to Christ’s wounds. We have to learn to live with our wounds by compassion, kindness, concern for others, and self-sacrifice - out of the vulnerability which God’s grace alone will turn to creative account in the new world order. Jesus’ wounds convinced Thomas, as he wavered, to cry out ‘My Lord and my God’. We too make the same proclamation today. It is, as the poet says,

To see without being certain,
To trust when the intellect fails,
To push out from shore in all weathers,
And catch God’s sweet breath in the sails;
To find that flowers bloom in the rubble
As hope disappears in the sand,
To probe to the edges of meaning
Though truth can be held in your hand.