Easter 2: Hope on the Road

Qe Hi – Road to Emmaus

Easter 2
Acts 2:14a,36-41
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

As I continue to grow in my faith and ministry, I find myself coming to love the season of Easter more each year. Each new season brings greater appreciation of the early church and the struggles it faced, the decisions that had to be made, and the stories of Peter, Paul and the disciples (now apostles) as they grew and spread the Good News of the Risen Jesus.

This new church faced great conflict, it had to wrestle with the issues of doctrine that we take for granted and it also had to contend with deadly persecution. Christianity could well have died in infancy if not for the bold and brave convictions of the early apostles. Fortunately there is not too much conflict in the Hambleden Valley! Although we do have our challenges and decisions to be made about the future Rector, the building works, how best to spend our time and money.

Over the next few weeks, we will be reading various parts of Acts and all of 1st Peter (hint- hint…if you have got some time and a Bible!).

These readings speak to new beginnings, fresh starts for Peter and Paul and the gatherings of the first church; all underpinned with a sense of hope and purpose. My hope is that we can see links between then and now.

Where is our Hope?

The Road to Emmaus is a familiar story; Luke includes it in his account of that first Easter Day. Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple are walking away from Jerusalem. Walking away from the disciples, away from their faith, their beliefs, potentially their families and jobs. They are without hope and they are sad.
To be a fly on the shoulder of Cleopas for that conversation! There was such overwhelming grief that when Jesus came near to them their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

As I read this passage, the same five words from verse 21 kept leaping off the page at me: ‘But we had hoped that…´ Notice the past tense of hope – they had hoped. Their hope, whatever it was in, was gone. When Jesus died, so did their hope. Many people right now are without hope, ‘but we had hoped that…’ What about you? Have you hoped for something, someone that will not now come through? Where is your hope today?

As Easter people, we are to be beacons of hope even in the most trying of times. As impossible as that might seem. If you find that you have lost or are losing hope; we can take comfort and take heart. Jesus understands. He wants nothing more than to restore our hope.

Before he died, Jesus had expressly told the disciples that He would send the counsellor, the Holy Spirit to be with them forever. All they had to do was wait. It could be assumed that the disciples were meant to wait together. These two have seemingly forgotten about this promise; so instead of waiting are walking away.

Jesus could have washed his hands of them, let them go. But he doesn’t. He meets them where they are at; going the wrong way, down the wrong road. As the disciples talk to Jesus, listen to him, they begin to see beyond themselves, they re-centre from their own issues and problems.

In that meeting with Jesus, Cleopas and the other disciple turn around and head back the right way, back on the right road, back to life. Hope is restored, hearts are burning in the breaking of the bread. Many people need to have their hope restored. Some of us might need to be turned around in our thinking, some might need to ask for strength in the waiting, and many likely need to find their hope again.

How can we find our Hope again?

One of the things I love about Eastertide is the renewal of baptismal vows. There is something in the renewal of promises and the sprinkling of water that makes all things new again and restores hope. For those of us baptised as babies, we didn’t have the opportunity to make those promises for ourselves, although maybe in confirmation we did. Either way it is a restorative thing to do.

Peter, in Acts 2, is calling for people to repent and be baptised. Our sins have been forgiven and the gift of the Holy Spirit has been given. This is the great Christian hope. Wonderful news and a wonderful starting point for reclaiming any lost hope. The first step, according to Peter, is to repent and be baptised.

Remember the promises made:

Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? I reject them.
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? I renounce them.
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour? I repent of them.

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? I turn to Christ.
Do you submit to Christ as Lord? I submit to Christ.
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life? I come to Christ.

Peter is imploring these Christians to love each other deeply from the heart. They have been born anew and nothing can take away the hope of the final redemption and resurrection. Peter knew this first-hand. Peter the one who denied Jesus three times and was restored three times. If anyone thought they were beyond hope, Peter is a prime example. Yet Jesus meets Peter on that first Easter, on the shores of Galilee as Peter too is attempting to go back to his previous life as a fisher of fish. In a conversation with Jesus, Peter is restored.

Remembering our baptismal vows, the forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the great love and long reach of God for each of us seems to me a place where we can recover our hope. It was in the breaking of the bread that Cleopas and the other disciple had their eyes opened and recognized Jesus. As we shortly break bread together this morning, my prayer is that hope will be restored and the promises of God will be renewed for each one of us.

Easter 1: The Resurrection Accounts – Thomas

Easter 1

Acts 2:14, 22-32
John 20:19-end

This is an exciting season in the church calendar after having just celebrated Easter. The tomb is empty, Jesus is risen, death has been defeated, love wins, we are a resurrection people, nothing on earth will ever be the same again. Right?

Of course right! This is what we and Jake who is being baptised this morning need to come to understand and embrace.

On the Sundays of the Easter season we explore the events that took place after the resurrection of Jesus. We re-read the accounts of the people who were there and the building of the early church. We look with fresh eyes at what these events say to us today. I also want to look at what this means for Jake, his parents and godparents.

The Gospel for the first Sunday after Easter traditionally features the story of Thomas. We are off to a good start as Jake’s middle name is Thomas. Thomas is usually portrayed as the dogged disciple, often accused of being slow on the uptake, the doubter. Poor Thomas. Not that most inspiring choice for week one. There is very little mention of Thomas 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.

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.

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 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 do not see. So often we doubt the wrong things. Misplaced doubt can be a dangerous thing. We and Jake need to work out the right things to doubt, to question.

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 in the story of Jesus’ friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. The disciples were trying to dissuade Jesus from going to be with them as it was dangerous for Jesus to be travelling around. The disciples are worried but 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 wherever Jesus did.

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; ‘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. 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?

So where was he on the evening of that first day of that week when Jesus appeared? The disciples were together but Thomas was not with them. That following week must have been torture for Thomas. 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 and he 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’ reply of ‘My Lord and my God.’ In this moment, Jesus firmly but gently reminds Thomas that he believes because he has seen. Thomas is responsible for the blessing that the whole rest of the world gets for not seeing and yet believing.

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. Thomas was not weak; he was a man who wanted a living encounter with Jesus. Thomas was not going to settle for someone else’s experience of the resurrection. He wanted his own. Thomas was willing to admit his uncertainty in the midst of those who were certain. This is bravery. I hope that Jake will become a brave man – someone who wants living encounters and will work to get them.

In Acts 2, St Peter and the disciples (we can assume that Thomas was there) were standing up and telling the crowds about the wonders of the resurrection. This is what Thomas would spend the rest of his life doing.

Tradition holds that when the apostles were dispersed after Pentecost, Thomas was sent to evangelise through central Asia before he ultimately reached the Malabar coast of southwest India. There remains 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.

We can pray today for Jake Thomas, that he too will follow the example of Jesus and Thomas, seek his own experiences, ask questions, learn to doubt the right things, show compassion and love to all he meets.

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.

Easter Sunday: The Surprise!

Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 28:1-10

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen

Holy Week is a good opportunity to read and re-read the four gospel accounts of the first Easter Day. There are, of course, many similarities and many large differences between them. The Gospels were written by four different writers, each with a unique perspective on this one event. These differences do not diminish any one account; rather they add a richness, a fullness to the whole story. 

I like the mention of the women bringing perfume and spices in Mark and Luke. My younger sister, on hearing one of these accounts at Sunday School, asked our Mum if she would please put perfume and spices on my sister’s body when she died. This was quite profound for a five-year-old: when she died, not if she died.

All speak of the empty tomb, the announcement of the Resurrection to the women, and the meeting of the disciples with the Risen Jesus. What is abundantly clear in all of them is that the Resurrection was completely unexpected. Despite his teaching, Jesus’ followers had no expectation that he would rise from the dead. The resurrection came as a wonderful surprise!

My hope is that we have not lost the surprise of the resurrection. Yes we have the benefit of hindsight and we know how the story ends but let us not lose the expectation, the surprise. Matthew’s Gospel account does not disappoint with the element of surprise! 

We might picture an Easter morning as a fairly mild affair;  the sun rising in a blue sky, birds chirping and the world feels peaceful and quiet with hot cross buns fresh out of the oven. The church looks at its best, the flowers are spectacular, the choir sounds good, and an enlightening  sermon while the timing of Sunday lunch ruminates in some minds.  

A closer reading of the gospels dispels this notion of a calm and peaceful morning. As the sun went down after Jesus was in the tomb, the waiting began. Not a peaceful, all-will-be-well waiting, but a restless, no sleep kind of waiting. Jesus’ followers had to prepare for the Sabbath, when any work or travel was forbidden. They had to stay home, rest and wait; wait to see what had happened, if Jesus was still in the tomb or not.  

Not to dampen the festive mood too much, but neither can we gloss over the events of that first Easter morning. Matthew is the only writer to note a great earthquake and the angel descending from heaven, who rolled back the stone and sat on it. The guards fell over and became like dead men. The Marys seem to have remained standing and were able to take in what the angel was saying to them. 

For Matthew, the only reason the Marys were there was to see the tomb. They were there when it was sealed so they knew the location. They had also seen the condition of Jesus’ body as they were at the cross. I am not sure if they wanted to see the body again, that would have been a horrible sight. Yet they were still willing to go, just to be there. The rolling away of the stone was so that they might get into the tomb. 

The angel had two messages for the Marys that first morning. 

Do not be afraid. The angel has come to help, not frighten. He encourages the Marys by assuring them that he knows about their mission: ‘you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified’.  

Many people live in fear. Fear of failure, fear of abuse or violence, fear of what other people think of them, fear of being found out, fear of letting ourselves or others down, fear of the unknown. Fear of death. In St John’s first letter he writes, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’ Easter is all about love, there is no room for fear. 

The angel knew exactly what the Marys were looking for. He knew their fears, their confusion and doubt; and he addressed them. By showing up at the tomb, despite their feelings and their fears, the Marys receive answers and leave changed. There is a lesson in this for those of us who live with fears. 

We can bring our fears, anxieties and doubts to God so he can reveal his light. He knows. You aren’t hiding anything from him. The message of Easter is the overcoming of death and despair – fear brings death and despair. The resurrected Jesus came to banish all fears.  

After reassuring the Marys, the angel turns to commissioning them to do something. ‘Go quickly’. The good news of the resurrection is not something to be held on to. The Marys are to be messengers to the other disciples. Jesus was going to meet them in Galilee, they would see him there. Obedient to the instructions with fear (the good kind) and great joy they go. 

Suddenly Jesus meets them. This might have been the biggest surprise of the morning. I wonder if he jumped out from behind a big rock? Suddenly! No expectation from the Marys, Jesus is there in front of them. Do we expect Jesus to surprise us? How would we react? The Mary’s take hold of his feet, without shame or reservation, they want to hang onto him and never let go. Jesus wasn’t a ghost or an illusion; the resurrection body was real. 

We are invited in the Eucharist to meet with the resurrected Jesus, to exchange our fears, our slavery to that fear with light and life. We are invited to come, see the place where he lay; eat and drink in remembrance of what Jesus has done for us, and then go and tell so we too might walk in the newness of life.

All four gospel accounts start in both literal and metaphorical darkness, in confusion, fear and no expectations of the resurrection. Each account ends with the proclamation that the Risen Jesus is indeed light and life.    

May we approach this Easter with a new sense of surprise and reality at the Gospel. Surprise at the good news of Jesus and knowing the reality of Jesus in our lives today. He is Risen and ready to surprise.