Sunday, 11th April, 2021. Second Sunday of Easter
Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of your only Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Sprit, one God, now and for ever.
A reading from The Acts of the Apostles: (4. 32-35)
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life for evermore.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end.
A reading from The First Letter of John: (1.1 – 2.2)
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us - we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteous-ness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Listen to the Gospel of Christ according to Saint John (20. 19-31)
Glory to you, O Lord.
When it was evening on the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’
But he said to them, ‘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.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’
Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’
Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’
Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
Reflection - DK
Thoughts today will be dominated by the death of Prince Philip, who’s been a familiar presence in the national story for much or for most of all our lives. A far-thinking man with a sharp tongue, little time for conventional courtesy, famously rude on occasions, even offensive, but often very humorous too.
We pray today for our Queen as she mourns him.
Prince Philip was interested amongst many other things in the environment before it all became fashionable and in the relationship between scientists and theologians. He established a number of Commonwealth Study Conferences looking at tensions and opportunities in the way industrial enterprise and community development interact. He was, of course, very well-known for having founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme that aims to give young people a sense of responsibility, both to themselves and to their communities, a sense of fellowship. And fellowship has to be more than just being temporarily nice to each other. It should carry the idea of service, continuing commitment and in particular of interdependence.
Fellowship is the main theme that Jane Williams picks out in her published reflection on today’s readings. “This fellowship of ours, through which the world will begin to glimpse what God is like,” she says, “can tolerate weakness and failure.” She draws our attention to John the letter-writer, saying that what this fellowship cannot tolerate is lies, which harm our ability to know our own and each other’s strengths and weaknesses. And God is less interested in guilt than in the truthfulness that will build this vital fellowship. Jesus’ disciples know that they’ve lied about their own capabilities, in saying that they would follow and stick with him. After the Resurrection, the new fellowship demanded of them has a different basis from the old one. That had depended on their unrealistic assessments of their own strengths; and all that broke down at the foot of the Cross. This newer fellowship relies on the vision of a searching and gentle God who has called disciples together for the purpose.
Looking at the triptych east window in our church, we see two apostles whose limitations are well described in the Gospels. They were real people like us and it’s their failures that make them ideal guides to bring us and all into the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. On the left is impetuous Peter, our patron saint, the one who denied Christ and yet was the rock on which the future church would be founded. And on the right? It’s Thomas, the Doubting Thomas of today’s gospel story. This episode isn’t in any of the synoptic gospels, only in John, who’s often described as the most ‘theological’ of the evangelists. And John is quite open about the purpose of his account – to make us believe. It’s there in that last paragraph of chapter 20. But there’s so much to wonder about in this story from the way he presents it. I suppose many will have assumed, as I have until now, that Jesus not only reproves Thomas for his previously expressed doubts but that, in levelling criticism, he somehow deems Thomas less worthy than the other disciples present. But let’s look again. John’s account is nothing if not precise. Firstly, of course, Thomas has been told by the others about Jesus’s earlier appearance and at which he wasn’t present. He hasn’t the advantage of the other disciples’ previous direct experience, including that of being shown the wounds. Does Thomas’s declaration of incredulity suggest truculent disappointment and annoyance that he’s missed out on such an important moment earlier on? I think that would actually be understandable to most of us, if we’re really honest with ourselves. Or is he just more obdurate than the others anyway, almost unable to accept the mere words of his fellows? Likely it’s neither; he may function with a big need to be shown things but, as we find out, he’s open to revelation all right.
Jesus gladly offers Thomas the chance to feel inside the wound. But does Thomas do so in the end? Mediaeval paintings of the scene usually show this happening. There’s said to be a general belief in Roman Catholic tradition that Thomas does put his hand or finger inside the wound, but the Gospel doesn’t actually say that. To others, it looks as though Jesus makes the offer in fellowship, understanding and lovingly accepting human limitations, but that Thomas finds the visual evidence and that of Jesus’s risen presence compelling enough without having to go quite as far as touching.
And then Jesus’s question: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” I read this and then looked it up in the Authorised version, where (perhaps with more pleasing rhythm) it’s given as “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” But those who have “not seen” apparently aren’t any of those present in that room; they’re ones well away from the scene – and, of course, those yet to come, including ourselves.
I was struck by a new impression on re-reading this, whether in the NRSV or Authorised versions. Jesus’ tone is really gentle – certainly far less critical of Thomas than I ever remembered from the distant past. I was therefore really intrigued to see Jane Williams detecting what she describes as a “teasing note” in Jesus’s voice. Yes.
If we’re asked to believe stuff that goes beyond our normal experience, we must trust who’s telling us, and that’s certainly something we have to do often enough in modern times. With whom can we place that trust without finding it ultimately betrayed? Earlier last week, and before news was dominated by the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, another item was being widely reported. Recent observations from the accelerator at Fermilab in Illinois support a single earlier finding from elsewhere in 2001 that a muon particle wobbles in a magnetic field faster than it should under predictions of the so-called standard model of particle physics. If confirmed, it will mean there are extra particles and forces beyond anyone’s current understanding and that the standard model that’s held sway since the 1970s will require major revision. This all involves the strange world of quantum physics where particles can appear and disappear from existence. Have I a hope of genuinely grasping any of this? The answer is no – and I have still less hope of understanding any of the maths involved. I have to rely on what often feels like a scientific priesthood to interpret it for me. I’m delighted that physicists are excited by possibilities arising from their discoveries and equally pleased to know that they’re much in awe of mysteries beyond their and our reach. But in many things, and like Thomas, I still have to see, hear and maybe even touch to accept what I’m told. What I now take from Jesus’ response to Thomas tells me that’s OK – it’s part of being human, an ordinary human – and that’s precious in the sight of God.
And from what we’re told, I rather think it’s also something that would have gladdened the heart of a no-nonsense man like Prince Philip.
Lord God our Father, through our Saviour Jesus Christ you have assured your children of eternal life and in baptism have made us one with him: deliver us from the death of sin and raise us to new life in your love, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.