Easter 2 May 1, 2011

Acts 2:14a, 22-32                                                                               

1 Peter 1:3-9                                                                        

John 20:19-31

If you are a visitor with us at Holy Cross today – and we welcome a group from the Church of the Holy Spirit, Plymouth, which is considering building a new church as we did – if you are a guest, you will not long remember the homily I’m about to give, or what hymns we sang, or anything else about this service. But you will remember this worship space, the seating in a circular pattern around the altar in the middle. We designed this building specifically for this configuration, and in these remaining weeks before my retirement on the Day of Pentecost, I want to celebrate Easter by worshiping together in this way.

It was Winston Churchill who said that “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” The  church architecture with which we’re most familiar traces back to the Emperor Constantine and Byzantine imperial reception halls, where the emperor or his representative sat enthroned at the far end of the hall, his court around him, and the supplicant common people arrayed below. These buildings, beautiful as they are, shape a theology in which God is far off, his people are passive consumers of religion, fearful and subservient to their clergy, and worship is a privatized affair – me and my Jesus.

This is not so different from the scene described in the gospel reading this morning – the evening of that first Easter day. The Resurrection has occurred – Mary Magdalene has seen, touched and spoken with the risen Christ, Peter and John have seen the empty tomb; they have reported these miraculous findings to the other disciples. The Resurrection has occurred – but nothing has changed. Everyone is huddled together behind locked doors, imprisoned or immobilized by fear. Remember: fear is always the first enemy of faith, the first enemy of the resurrected life we are called on to lead.

But (and this is significant) the disciples are together (with the important exception of Thomas, to whom we’ll return). In other words, this is a community. It is not possible to have faith, authentic Christian faith, apart from the community, from participation in community. Mary, Peter, John at the empty tomb were not a community, just individuals. Architecturally, that is why it’s so powerful to have the worshiping community gathered around the altar, not facing it in audience fashion. That is why this altar cloth shows a circle of figures around the cross at the center, with the eucharistic words: “The Body of Christ, the Bread of heaven; the Blood of Christ, the Cup of salvation.”

So, community: that is the beginning. The disciples are gathered together as community, and it is into their gathered midst that the risen Christ appears. He stands “among them” (not, emperor fashion, above them or at a distance from them) and proclaims the antidote to their fear: “Peace be with you.” And, immediately, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This peace that Jesus confers upon the community – and the word peace here, the peace which we exchange in the Eucharist, is the Hebrew word shalom, connoting wholeness, healing, reconciliation with God – this peace is coupled with sending out, with mission. The doors of fear are unlocked and the community is sent forth into the world.

This mission which Jesus confers on us, the mission given him by his Father, is specifically one of forgiveness. What Jesus is telling the community is that they are not to be preoccupied with accusations and recriminations, unhealed guilt or party factions, anger and self-righteousness. They are to be freed and empowered by forgiveness, so they can go forth and spread this spirit in the world. And that of course remains our commission, the whole reason for our being as the Church. And it is so gravely needed in our world today.

But, there has been one exception to all this: one of the disciples, Thomas, has been missing. He has not been among the gathered community. Thomas has come to be known as “doubting Thomas”; the name Thomas means “twin,” implying perhaps that doubt is the twin of faith. In any case, Thomas doubts the Resurrection, as manifested in his physical absence from the community that first Easter evening. Unless he sees the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, puts his finger in the wounds and his hand in the spear gash in Jesus’ side, he will not believe. He wants what skeptics and atheists today want: so-called scientific proof.

So one week later, the gospel continues, when Thomas is now present, Jesus stands again among the community, again announces his peace, and offers Thomas what Thomas had demanded: the proofs of sight and touch. And now, in sudden response, Thomas believes: “My Lord and my God!” It is very significant that he does not reach out, as he demanded originally, to touch Jesus’ wounds. He suddenly gets it: that belief of the sort Jesus is about is not a matter of “see-and-touch” proof. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet come to believe,” says Jesus. And St. John adds that his whole gospel is written as an act of witness, that people down the ages who cannot touch and see – people like you and me – “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in his name.”

We were originally going to have a second group of guests with us this morning: some high school students from Bishop Brady in Concord. Through a mix-up, they’re having to reschedule for later in this Easter season. But I was thinking of them this week, and this whole matter of belief. It is no secret that churches – all churches – are graying, not attracting or retaining young people. There are many reasons for this. But certainly one of them is that we live in an age that discounts any kind of reality except the seeing-and-touching, scientific proof kind. The other dimensions of reality – the dimensions suggested by words like truth, beauty and goodness, but words like faith, hope and love – those realities have come to be regarded as lesser, merely private, subjective emotions. So I may love you, and send you a picture of myself naked from my iPhone to “prove” it to you – the reduction of love to sex. But there is no room for a community of true love, a community of faith and hope, a community devoted to truth, beauty and goodness – no room, in other words, for the Church.

And what does that say? It says that there is no room for God. There is only us, debased human animals. A nation, a civilization, a world, that cannot form a common community around the realities which belief in God entails, is a desperate and barren world indeed. So dear friends, as we celebrate these Great Fifty Days of Easter, let us remember that the celebration Jesus gives us by his Resurrection is that of fearless mission to this world in his Name. Let us unlock our doors and go forth in joyous boldness, as those first apostles did so long ago.

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