Easter 2: Time for Renewal

My response to the Bishop of Oxford’s call for theological & spiritual renewal in word and sacrament. No better place to start than the resurrection accounts

Raphael Cartoon, Christ’s Charge to Peter (Matthew 16: 18 – 19 & John 21: 15 – 17), cartoon for a tapestry, by Raphael, about 1515 – 16, Italy. 


Easter 2 (3rd Sunday)

Acts 9:1-6
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

In the Easter season, of which we are still in, despite the lack of chocolates, we are encouraged to contemplate the events of that first Easter again. In these weeks the Lectionary guides us through the Book of Acts and the various Gospel stories of those people who met the resurrected Christ. Those who met Jesus in the days and weeks following the resurrection were forever changed. We too are forever changed when we meet the resurrected Christ.

Bishop Steven of Oxford visited the Wycombe Deanery this past Thursday to meet with the clergy, primarily to get a sense of how everyone is doing. He visited various projects being led by churches in the Wycombe area; the day ended with a celebration for the work of the rural review. The Bishop’s message to us and to the wider Diocese is that there is a need for spiritual and theological renewal in the church. He believes that this started before Covid. This renewal comes through word and sacrament. We have been doing this – each week as we come together to worship when we hear the word of God read and we break bread together. But this needs to go deeper. People are coming to the end of themselves and their resources. We need a different place to look to be sustained.

During the morning clergy-only session when the Bishop asked us how we are, one clergy colleague observed that no one had brought up the war in Ukraine or the real threat of World War 3 and nuclear warfare being far more possible than any of us want to admit or even think about.

We have distracted and busied ourselves with many other things – all good and noble – but we are still looking away from the real and present evil in the world. I want to call on us this morning, as a Church community, to look at our own need for spiritual and theological renewal. If our faith does not have anything to say into the current situation then we are well and truly lost.

There is no better place to start than with the resurrection. It is the defining moment of Christianity, of our faith. You cannot call yourself a Christian and deny the resurrection. It is not an add-on. We are reliably told it was put into the tomb and sealed. It wasn’t there the next morning; Jesus’ physical body had moved, changed, disappeared overnight. He then begins to appear to people in small and large groups. Fortunately, in the church we have a few weeks to contemplate the events of Easter, meet the people who were there that first Easter day and see the effects that Jesus’ resurrection had on them and the rest of the world for the last 2000 years.

It started last week with the story of St Thomas, the dogged disciple often accused of being slow on the uptake, the doubter. Poor Thomas. Many a sermon has been preached as a warning to not be like Thomas. Thomas the 50% believer; the one who needed everything proved before he could believe.
Don’t doubt, just believe. So easy! Sure, if you don’t want to think too hard about anything! I believe that Thomas is the 110% believer. The one who wants to give everything; the one who has so much riding on his commitment to Jesus that he just has to know that he is right. If Thomas is going to give it all, he needs to know he is not making a fool of himself. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails…‘ insists Thomas.

This is not a man of weakness but rather one we can learn from, even if uncomfortably. The things that make Thomas seem weak or doubtful are what makes him strong, his willingness to press on and ask the questions that others won’t. Thomas shares his doubts willingly and Jesus responds and meets him where he is at. Thomas gets a mention in the gospel reading this morning, he’s in the boat with Peter, Nathanael, James, John and two other unnamed disciples. Thomas is no longer missing out in case Jesus pops up again.

After his resurrection, Jesus appears to those who needed to see him, needed to encounter him. Jesus goes to them which says a lot about how much Jesus knew and loved those who had persecuted him (Paul) and denied him (Peter). We don’t get any indication that either of them wanted to see Jesus.

Paul’s ‘Road to Damascus’ is the defining moment of his entire life. It is dramatic, light from heaven flashed and Paul was knocked off his donkey and fell to the ground and struck blind. Paul had been so sure he was right in his persecution of disciples. He was a man of high intelligence and deep conviction; but he was convicted of the wrong things. We see in Paul that a person can be sincere in their beliefs yet sincerely wrong.

Yet Jesus still pursued Paul. What does this say about his love? No one is beyond the reach of it. This is good news! This should give us hope for those people in our friendship groups and families, world leaders who have not yet seen the light so to speak.

Peter. He too needed an encounter with the risen Jesus. Peter had denied Jesus three times on the night of the crucifixion as it was predicted he would. Is there much worse than being told what you are going to do (before you do it), then you deny you are going to and then do it anyway? The crowing of the cockerel must have been deafening for Peter! Peter was at the tomb that first Easter morning but didn’t see Jesus there, only the emptiness. Peter was there at Jesus’ first appearances to the disciples. He probably witnessed the conversation between Jesus and Thomas and maybe he longed for a similar experience. Peter had some making up to do.

At this point in time, the disciples didn’t really know what to do with themselves. They had been told to wait for the Holy Spirit with no idea of how long they had to wait for. They have left Jerusalem and gone back to Galilee which was home for some of them. Peter, James and John have seemingly gone back to their fishing boats, back to what they know as they probably tried to work out what has gone on and what to do next. I’m sure we’ve all had those times in life when we have no idea what the next move is.

It is in that moment that Jesus appears to them, standing on the beach, knowing that they have caught nothing. The faithful carpenter tells the fishermen how to do their job. Peter’s reaction is a bit odd; he was naked in the boat, so puts some clothes on and immediately jumps in the water, leaving the others to bring the boat in. Peter must have been beside himself! Breakfast is cooked and Jesus eats with them. There are many people who have come to faith based on Jesus’ eating of bread and fish with the disciples. It occurred to them that ghosts do not eat solid food!

After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and it is time to do some business. Jesus asks Peter three times ‘do you love me?” This is significant because Peter denied Jesus three times, and this was part of Peter’s restoration. Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter ‘why did you deny me?’ or ‘will you do that again?’. Jesus asked Peter ‘do you love me?’ because no other motivation will last. Only love does.

If we are going to follow Jesus in the power of the crucified life, it is only love that will last, carry us through to the end. Peter doesn’t need to have his faults and failures held over him and neither do we. These will not motivate us in the long term, they are not what Jesus is about. Jesus wants to know that Peter loves him because it is love that will drive Peter on to ‘feed the sheep’, spread the good news and build the church. The other reason that Peter’s love was so critical is that Jesus tells Peter what kind of death he would suffer. Peter too would be crucified. It is only love for Jesus that would compel Peter to follow through with us. Peter is then invited to ‘follow me’ by Jesus.

Where does that leave us this morning? Not every encounter with Jesus is dramatic like Paul’s although I know many people who have had dramatic ‘Damascus’ like encounters. Equally I know many people who have not but still know that they have encountered the risen Jesus. Maybe like Peter, Jesus came alongside them in a moment of quiet. It wasn’t an easy quiet though.

That encounter on the beach that morning changed the course of Peter’s life and the lives of the disciples with him even if they didn’t know it at the time. No more fishing nets for them.

The good news for us in the weeks after Easter is that Jesus still meets us where we are at too. He is not afraid of our Thomas-like doubts, our sincerely held but sincerely wrong beliefs like Paul or our Peter-esque denials. If we want to work on our theological and spiritual renewal, then we need to set some time aside to think and reflect, contemplate, read or study, whatever you want to call it, our understanding of the resurrection and where Jesus might want to be meeting us. All we need to do is ask.

Easter 1: Thomas


St Thomas

Acts 5:27-32
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred
open the doors of our hearts today.
Help us when we are slow to believe, bring us to a place where we can say, ‘My Lord and my God’,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen.

The tomb is empty, Christ is risen, death has been defeated, love wins, we are a resurrection people, nothing on earth will ever be the same again.
That was last week! Right?

But this week…the Easter lilies are wilting, the chocolate has been eaten, the eggs have been found, it feels wrong to eat hot cross buns and the rest of the world has moved on. Welcome to the Week After.
Now what? Where do we go from here?

Fortunately, in the church we have a few weeks to contemplate the events of Easter, meet the people who were there and see the effects that Jesus’ resurrection had on them and the rest of the world for the last 2000 years.
The Gospel for the first Sunday after Easter traditionally features the story of Thomas. I find Thomas to be a rather interesting character. There is very little mention of him in the gospels; he first appears as a name on the list of the chosen disciples. There is no information about what he did for a job, where he came from or his family, only that he was a twin. Thomas is usually portrayed as the dogged disciple, often accused of being slow on the uptake, the doubter. Poor Thomas. Many a sermon has been preached as a warning to not be like Thomas. Thomas the 50% believer; the one who needed everything proved and crystal clear before he could believe.

Don’t doubt just believe! So easy! Sure if you don’t want to think too hard about anything. We live in an age where doubt has become the predominant form of belief. Fake news, fake images, filters to make photos look better, everything needing to be verified due to a lack of trust. There is so much more government legislation now than at any other time in history due to a breakdown in trust.

Daily we put ourselves in a high number of situations that we should doubt more than do. We doubt both what we see and what we don’t see.
I think there is another side to Thomas; he needs another look in. Maybe Thomas was the disciple who was asking the questions that everybody had but didn’t want to ask out loud. Before his comments that made him the poster-boy of doubt for all eternity, Thomas is quoted on two other occasions.

The first is found in John 11 as the news of Lazarus’ illness reached Jesus and the disciples. The authorities are looking for Jesus and it was dangerous for him to be travelling around. The disciples are trying to dissuade Jesus from going to be with Lazarus, Mary & Martha; Jesus is not concerned with the threats to his life. In the middle of this Thomas declares, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’. The other disciples were ready to run the other way but not Thomas, he was prepared to go to the wire with Jesus. This doesn’t sound like a man who doubts. Maybe Thomas was the disciple who didn’t say much but when he did everyone else listened? Know anyone like that?

The second account is in John 14. Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he is going to leave them. The chapter starts with the reassuring words ‘do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house…’ Jesus is explaining where is going and what he is going to do there; he also tells the disciples that they know the way. It is Thomas who says, ‘we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?!’

Jesus responds to Thomas with some of the most beautiful words ever to fall from his mouth. Jesus tells Thomas ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ Thomas has been told; he has seen the Father in the Son.

So where was he on the evening of that first day of that week when Jesus appeared? The news of the resurrection was fresh and raw, the disciples were living in fear of the Jews and had locked themselves away. As we know the end of the story, their confusion and grief can often escape us. Maybe it was all a bit too much for Thomas? Some people stay away and hide when life gets tough. The disciples were together but Thomas was not with them.

That following week must have been torture for Thomas. The disciples had received the Holy Spirit (a whole sermon on its own for another day!) and were in much better moods! I am sure we have all had to miss events due to circumstances. Then those who did attend the event talk incessantly about it, down to every last detail, the play by play of every moment. And no matter the minutia of detail – you still weren’t there!

It would be reasonable to believe that Thomas became more entrenched in his declaration to see the nail marks and the side wound. Jesus returns again. This time just for Thomas. Thomas, the one who doesn’t get much mention, says a couple of brilliant things that we know about, was there through it all and then disappeared in grief and confusion. In a moment in the presence of Jesus, Thomas’ excuses and defences are dropped. Jesus invites Thomas to put his fingers in his hands and on his side.

The text doesn’t say if he did or not. All it gives us is Thomas’ verbal reply of ‘My Lord and my God.’ In this moment, Jesus firmly but gently reminds Thomas that he believes because he has seen (at least twice). Thomas is responsible for the blessing that the whole rest of the world gets for not seeing and yet believing.

I want to finish off with a final observation:
Thomas was part of a community where he openly voices his doubt. Like I said, Thomas has been portrayed negatively as the doubter, one of weak faith, the cynic, the holdout. These are often seen as spiritual flaws. I don’t see Thomas as weak, I see him as a man who wanted a living encounter with Jesus. Thomas wasn’t going to settle for someone else’s experience of the resurrection but wanted his own. Thomas was willing to admit his uncertainty in the midst of those who were certain. This is bravery.

How does this community respond to doubt? Is this a place where they can be shared openly without fear of judgement or silencing?

When Jesus’ wounds met Thomas’ doubts, new life erupted. In Acts 5 the apostles are performing miraculous signs and wonders among the people of Jerusalem, people were believing in Jesus and being healed. I wonder how many times Thomas told people ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed?’

What happened to Thomas? Tradition holds that when the apostles were dispersed after Pentecost, Thomas was sent to evangelise the Parthians, Medes and Persians before he ultimately reached the Malabar coast of southwest India. There is a large native population there calling themselves ‘Christians of St Thomas.’ Unlike most of the other disciples/apostles who were killed for their faith in quite gory ways, it is thought that Thomas was killed in a tragic peacock hunting accident when the hunter missed the bird and hit Thomas instead.
This is not a man of weakness but rather one we can learn from, even if uncomfortably. The things that make Thomas seem weak or doubtful are what makes him strong, his willingness to press on and ask the questions that others won’t. Thomas shares his doubts willingly and Jesus responds and meets him where he is at.

The good news for us the week after Easter is that Jesus still meets us where we are at too. He is not afraid of our doubts, our wavering or our slowness. We, like Thomas, can hope for more. So let’s.