Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden
John 20 Jesus appears to the disciples
Today is traditionally Low Sunday. The idea is that after the spiritual high of Easter we come back down to earth with a bump. Actually I feel quite bright and cheerful; the weather is picking up and I have just booked a holiday in Scotland for August so I have something to look forward to.
However, I cannot deny that no matter how uplifting our celebration of Easter, as we look around us we are only too aware that there is much to bring us back down to earth with a bump.
Images of dead soldiers carried off aeroplanes in grim silence and placed ceremonially into the waiting hearse, coffins draped in flags.
Constant reminders from all politicians that soon our country must take our economic medicine to deal with the harsh realities of the financial tsunami which has overwhelmed us and our children with debts which we just find hard to comprehend.
We are also at a major low in terms of a lack of trust in our institutions. We all know that people no longer trust politicians, but even the church is at an all time low. Scandals has rocked the Roman Catholic Church across the world, who would have believed that such a crime as to abuse little children could have been so endemic by priests and so systematically covered up? Of course these crimes are not new crimes they are as old as humanity itself, but now there is no deference, more scrutiny, increased access to information and instant publication, sins cannot be hidden away so easily. Little wonder then that often once faithful people have lost faith in the church and its leadership - and still the church seems preoccupied with internal arguments. I have shared with one or two church folks the analysis of the number of funerals which are now taken by civil celebrants. There is a huge rate of growth. It means that even at the most crucial time of death, people are turning not to the church but to a secular comfort.
I could go on about the current world situation but you all see and hear the news and read the papers. Then there are the private and personal griefs and burdens which characterise normal life. If you listened to the papers you might be forgiven for thinking that we are living in a terrible world in which people had no conscience and committed terrible crimes without fear of God or man. The truth is actually very different. Most people live with incredible burdens which come from bad upbringing from cruel parents and schools, from shame of past failures, from guilt at not having lived up to even our own expectations of ourselves. We shut these parts of our lives away and hope that they will go away, but of course they do not. Forget Low Sunday, we could have a Low Everyday !
So what can we learn from our Gospel reading today?. Well the disciples in our story were feeling low. We can understand why. Imagine that like the disciples you had believed in Jesus so much that you had given up everything to follow him. You had left your livelihood, and there was no social security to fall back on. You believed in this man and you trusted in him and then he was crucified and buried. There had been reports of an empty grave, but we can all fully understand why the disciples wanted to shut themselves away in a dark quiet place. The disciples were gathered, not re grouping but scarred witless in the face of so many seemingly insurmountable problems.
It was whilst the disciples were locked away that Jesus appeared to them. We don’t know how he did it. Yet we know that he entered the dark places of their lives and gave them hope and confidence, peace about the future. Jesus keeps using the world ‘peace,’ this is understandable. It must be said that the disciples had let Jesus down badly, they had betrayed him they knew all about guilt and fear, wasted opportunities, things they should have done which they did not do, things which they should not have done which they did. These hopeless failures were locked away, feeling their fear and guilt and shame and Jesus appeared to them. They would have expected a rebuke, a punishment. Instead Jesus gave them peace.
This is why the Christian Gospel is good news. We see Jesus going to those who expect criticism and correction and finding forgiveness and blessing. Now if I am correct and the human condition is truly one of personal anguish, recriminations for past mistakes and longings for what might have been, then this is a most comforting and uplifting message for Low Sunday, or Low Anyday. Jesus appears to those who have failed, to those who look to the future with fear and he says ‘Peace.’ In fact he says peace repeatedly. There is none of the criticism which the disciples would have expected, only grace and mercy. This is good news for us because in Jesus we see not only what God thinks of the failure of the disciples, but also how he greets us with our not so perfect lives. We often say that the incarnation means that Jesus is like God and that is true. The more fascinating and more difficult thing to believe is that God is like Jesus! We expect God to be more like us, with our limited patience and restricted forgiveness and our love which reaches out only to those who we find lovely. But God was, in Jesus, taking on a human face and we see that God has unbounded forgiveness and a love for all his children such that we can scarce begin to imagine.
So today is Low Sunday, but we must feel uplifted, our hope and confidence for the future must be raised.
But that is not the end. The disciples were comforted and given peace, but this peace was not theirs to keep. They were sent out by Jesus to share this message with other people who were equally troubled, disillusioned, sad and afraid. As they were sent so are we sent by Jesus today. To us also is entrusted the ministry of proclaiming God's forgiveness, setting free those who are held captive some by their inability even to forgive themselves. We do not share a triumphant call from a leader who promises to shield us from danger or remove us from the trials and tribulations of life. This is a meeting with a Christ who is known by his wounds, defined by suffering, who breathes life from his broken body. A saviour who shares our griefs and sorrows, but one who moves us from doubt to faith, from death to life. Jesus sends us out into the world, to put our hands on the marks of its suffering, to bring good news and hope to all of God's children. We are sent out to spread God’s forgiveness, to speak share the truth that transforms lives. We are not sent by Jesus to convince people that he was raised from the dead. Our charge is simply to share the presence of Jesus. The resurrection is not a fact to be believed, but an experience to be shared. We have a risen Lord not a dead leader. It is because of Easter that Jesus can still appear when we do not expect him and enter into the locked up secret tombs of human lives.