After all the excitement of last weekend, missing only in my judgment some exuberant cart-wheeling down the nave by the cathedral vergers, it would be easy to think that our celebration of Easter is over for another year. But this morning’s gospel reading picks up the story just where we left off last Sunday morning.
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 and dying of Jesus Christ. It is he, John, who defines the focus of attention and draws the panorama further and further back to the vanishing point of the perspective.
We have an example of what I mean in today’s gospel 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 his 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 (a key word in this gospel) , 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, and Paul as well, see the dying and rising of Jesus as one event: with resurrection as the other side of the same coin of what happened on Good Friday.
And 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.”’
The Ascension—the being with the Father—is not a separate event which takes place some forty days after the Easter rising. Jesus is ascending then and there to the Father. He is saying that he has never been closer to the Father than when he was raised up on the cross.
And here 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, as we are right now, to be sent out to forgive sins, is also part of one single, redemptive event, in which we (like the first disciples) are all involved right now here at this Eucharist.
I could (and possibly should) 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 skeptical. ‘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, he offers his wounds for inspection. Jesus understands the hesitation of the sceptic, just as he endured on the cross the callousness of the scoffer. Every disciple needs convincing.
The risen Lord does not try to convince waverers like ourselves with a knock-down argument. There is no trace of coercion or bullying in his approach. To Mary, in the garden on Easter morning, just the speaking of her name was enough. She doesn’t need to touch 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 is offering Thomas, Mary, the other disciples, and each of us this morning, is not a knockout argument that will contradict our skepticism and convince our unbelief. What he is offering us is not argument at all: he simply offers his wounds, his suffering, and his passion.
It is as though he were saying to them (and to us), if you really want to discover God’s love in the world and be redeemed by it, then enter into my compassion and stand with me alongside others in their waywardness and pain and fragility. Discover your own vulnerability that speaks to the vulnerability of others, and you will find and be found by my vulnerable love, which St. Paul reminds us is stronger than human strength, and his foolishness which is wiser that human wisdom.
On August 23rd last year this cathedral was shaken to the core by an earthquake that damaged the building and scarred its outward appearance. In a very real sense it disturbed the peace and de-railed the cathedral’s best-laid plans. I have often thought during my time here that perhaps God had a hand in that earthquake and that in it he was trying to say something to those of us who work and worship here about our own vulnerability. Cathedrals (like this one) that are shaped in the form of a cross are not immune from the cosmic implications of a world re-created in the life and dying of Jesus Christ—but it sometimes takes an earthquake for us to see it.
When you enter the new Coventry Cathedral in the United Kingdom 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. Perhaps in that earthquake we were being lovingly nudged by God to bear the scars of those nails in our witness to the gospel here. As disciples of Jesus Christ we too have to show the wounds with which his Body, the Church, is scarred today. It’s those five nails that pin me (and pin each of us) to his risen life, as well as to his bleeding body. We have to learn to live with our scars. Not to lock the doors to fear and not triumphantly to parade our invulnerability.
If we are to be true to Christ’s wounds, we have to live with a vulnerable integrity by compassion, kindness, concern for others, and self-sacrifice; out of our scars and wounds which God’s grace alone will turn to creative account in the new world order. Such wounds convinced Thomas as he wavered to cry out ‘My Lord and my God’; such wounds will help us today in our Christian discipleship. So let me end with a poem that captures that sense of wounded integrity that is implicit in all true Christian discipleship.
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.
To smile in the face of an earthquake
Believing that love conquers all,
To give when it’s madness to do so,
To follow because of a call.
To open your heart to a stranger,
Saying yes when the sceptic says no.
To feel for another’s injustice
Standing firm when others let go.
In the daily transactions of living,
In the simple concerns of each day,
A heaven may open like blossom
Like children learning to play.
The truth of God’s Easter uprising
Beyond doubt will never be proved,
But drawn by faith’s deeper perception
We know through his presence we’re called.