Sunday, 24 April 2016

Easter 5: Being a grown up

Do you remember desperately wanting to be grown up when you were a child? Most children do. It’s the only time in our lives when we want to add years to our age rather than take them away. Children will tell you proudly that they are 5 ¾, not 5 or 5 ½, and it really matters to them. They want to claim every month, every week, every day they’re entitled to. I’m not sure when that stops, but at some point we realise that being grown up isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not just the grey hairs and the wrinkles; it’s that sinking feeling that when you’re grown up, people expect you to know what you’re doing, be able to cope, have some answers for life’s knotty problems, and that can be a bit daunting.  

I vividly remember bringing my first child home from hospital, sitting down and bursting into tears, suddenly hit by the thought that I was now responsible for this fragile, tiny being. I was the parent. But how could that be? What did I know about anything? And what if I got it wrong? I know from talking to many new parents as they prepare for their child’s christening, that this is a very common feeling, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

It’s not just having children that can make us feel like that , though. Getting that promotion at work sounds fine until the moment when you realise everyone is looking to you for a lead and you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. Or it may be that you need to take a decision about your personal life, about a job or place to live or relationship. No one else can make the decision for you, but where’s the crystal ball, the magic wand you always assumed you’d be given when you finally grew up? We can’t always even tell whether we’ve made the right decision after the event because we’ll never know what might have happened if we’d chosen differently. Being a grown up can sound great when we’re 5 ¾, but the reality is often different.  No wonder we’re so susceptible to conmen and megalomaniacs, anyone who will offer us black and white answers, even if their solutions haven’t got a shred of substance, sense or common decency about them.  It is so much easier to be a sheep than a shepherd.

In our first reading today we find Peter trying to be a grown up, trying to take a tough decision as he sits on the rooftop of a house in Joppa, praying.  The question that’s troubling him is what’s to be done about the Gentiles – the non-Jews -  who want to follow the way of Christ. Jesus had been a Jew of course, and so were all his first followers. He’d encountered Gentiles during his ministry, and welcomed and included them, often praising their faith and love. He’d challenged Jewish rituals and rules when they were imposed without integrity and compassion, but it was still his community and there was never any suggestion of leaving it behind wholesale.  

After the resurrection, though, increasing numbers of Gentiles wanted to follow the way he’d taught and that threw his Jewish followers into disarray. Should these non-Jews have to follow all the Jewish rules and regulations too – there are apparently 613 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures?  What difference could it possibly make if they ate pork or shellfish? What was intrinsically unholy about these things? Wasn’t it enough to live a good life, to love others, to give up worshipping other Gods? Jewish purity laws may have seemed obvious to Jews like Peter, but that was just because they’d grown up with them. To everyone else they just looked like tribal markers. The arguments were long and bitter; they went right to the heart of what it meant to be the people of God in this new kingdom Jesus had brought in.

That’s the background to Peter’s vision on that Joppa rooftop. He literally can’t stomach the thought of associating with people who eat what to him are obviously unclean foods, but if he can’t eat with them, how can they become his brothers and sisters in the Christian community? The fact that he struggles with this doesn’t make him some kind of unfeeling bigot, just a human being, who’s imbibed certain ideas with his mother’s milk, learned them at her knee, and for whom they are so deeply dyed that he’s almost unaware of them until they are challenged. When God invites him to eat the unclean animals in his vision, Peter even suggests that God must be mistaken. God may be telling Peter to do this, but what would Peter’s mum have said?  God has to point out that he’s the one who makes the rules, so he can change them too, but we can see how much of a struggle it is for Peter.

It turns out to be a struggle that matters, because straight after this vision, Peter  is faced with a real, practical challenge that touches on all this.

Some men come to him, sent by a Roman centurion called Cornelius who wants to know more about Christian faith. These are exactly the kind of people his mum warned Peter against, filthy foreigners…What will he do? He’s not sure until he gets there, but at least he sets out. His vision has opened his mind to the possibility that God might want to have something to do with these people. And when he gets there, he discovers that God has gone before him and has made himself at home in Cornelius’s household.  
Peter accepts the revolutionary idea that all people can be called by God – just as they are, but it doesn’t come easily. It’s not obvious.

It is a great blessing that we have this story in the Bible, along with all the others in which we see Jesus’ followers struggling and often failing miserably. They might have been regarded as saints in the end, but they are also, unmistakeably, people like us, people who often feel clueless in the face of big decisions. Many of these less than flattering stories can only have come from the individuals concerned themselves. No one else was with Peter on that rooftop. They want us to know that this is how it is to be human, and that Christian faith, whatever else it brings, doesn’t come with a neat package of answers. You have to bring your own brain, take responsibility, and accept that you may be wrong. Even a saint who has spent three years in Jesus’ constant company can only do the best with what he has.

But there is also some more practical help for us in today’s readings, as we struggle to make our own , grown-up decisions in life, and it comes in the Gospel reading.

This passage from John’s Gospel is also about people who are in over their heads, even if they don’t quite know it yet. It is set on the night before Jesus dies, at the Last Supper. Judas, we are told, has already “gone out” – gone out to betray Jesus, that is. Did they but realise it, the disciples have just a few short hours left with him. Soon they’ll be plunged into confusion and terror. They’ll look around for Jesus, as they always have done before when they’ve been frightened, but he won’t be there, at least not in the way they are used to. “Where I am going you cannot come”, he says, ominously.

Jesus could, I suppose, have left them a detailed set of instructions for the days and weeks ahead – go to such and such a place, say such and such a thing, do this or that, keep your heads down, turn up at the tomb on Sunday… But he doesn’t. His only advice to them is “Love one another just as I have loved you”. That seems ridiculously vague  and wishy-washy. How is it going to help them deal with the complexities of crucifixion, resurrection, spreading the Gospel, building a new, multicultural community? How is it going to help us decide what job to do, which relationships to choose, how we spend our time and money, how we vote in the EU referendum? But actually, Jesus was right. When faced with intractable dilemmas, forced to choose between unsignposted pathways, the reminder to “love one another as I have loved you,” is spot on. It sets our priorities right. Our natural tendency is always going to be to choose what feels like our own best interests. Politicans play on that. Advertisers rely on it. But doing that narrows our view of the world, and that, in the end that won’t be in anyone’s best interests.

It’s like sitting in a tree and deciding that, since we are only sitting on the one branch, we can saw it away from the rest of the tree and not suffer.  We discover to our cost that the branch needed the tree more than the tree needed the branch. We are part of one another. What happens to those around us affects us too, so if we don’t try to work out what will be best for them, we will harm ourselves as well. That’s especially true, Jesus reminds us, of those who are least and poorest in the world’s eyes, because they are so easily overlooked, and yet they may have the voices we most need to hear. They are the ones who know and tell the real unvarnished truth of how the world is, when we may be insulated by our wealth and power. They know the impact of careless trading policies, climate change and inequality far better than the rich ever can.

There is no decision we can take that is just about us. When we love one another as Christ did – sacrificially, joyfully, generously - we reconnect ourselves to tree of life, see the world anew, and receive back far more than we could ever give away.   Peter let the Gospel go, out beyond his comfort zone, for the love of the Roman, Cornelius and his household, and in doing so, he found God at work in a new place and in a new way which otherwise he would have missed completely, and we would all be the poorer for it.

Grown up decision-making is tough; anyone who tells us otherwise is lying, but God is love, says the Bible, and that means that wherever love is, God is present. And if God is present, whatever route we take through the trackless wilderness of life, we will find him there filling the world with blessing for us and all who need it.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Easter 4 - Inescapable Choices

John 10.22-30 & Acts 9.36-43 Inescapable Choices It has often been said that most sermons used to be 3 points and a poem something that you would be hard pressed to find in this church. However I have got a poem and, really only one point or theme, that of inescapable choices. The broadcaster, writer and poet Clive James was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2014 and in the autumn he wrote a poem called ‘Japanese Maple’ which in his words ‘confidently stated that when the maple tree in my garden turned to flame in autumn, that would be the end of me. It reads… Your death, near now, is of an easy sort. So slow a fading out brings no real pain. Breath growing short is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain of energy, but thought and sight remain: Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see so much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls on that small tree and saturates your brick back garden walls, so many Amber Rooms and mirror halls? Ever more lavish as the dusk descends this glistening illuminates the air. It never ends. Whenever the rain comes it will be there, beyond my time, but now I take my share. My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new. Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame. What I must do is live to see that. That will end the game for me, though life continues all the same: Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes, a final flood of colors will live on as my mind dies, burned by my vision of a world that shone so brightly at the last, and then was gone. Clive James continues ‘The poem was published in the New Yorker, at a time when the magazine’s paywall was temporarily out of commission, so a lot of people logged on. The poem went viral and attracted many sad assurances of fond farewell. Autumn came, the tree turned red and I was still here, steadily turning red myself as I realised that I had written myself into a corner .Winter arrived, there has been a whole other summer, and now the maple is just starting to do its flaming thing all over again, with me shyly watching. But people are still sympathetic, except perhaps for some of my Australian critics, the most scornful of whom has always wanted me dead anyway.’ Two years on I was listening to an interview with Clive James yesterday and a new pill is still keeping him going but he said the knowledge that death isn’t too far away, coupled with the fact that he is practically housebound has given him a peace and stillness which enables him to look back on his life with great clarity of thought and recollection of detail. To look back over our lives so far in such a contemplative way is certainly a sobering exercise. You realise that there are times of inescapable choices which shape who we become, how we live our lives and how we relate to others. I wondered how those religious leaders who refused to face up to who Christ was felt when they had time to look back over their lives. Maybe we can think of our own times when we have had to make a choice to trust someone, to commit to something. Perhaps when deciding whether to get married, to throw your lot in with others on a risky venture, to reject an attractive option because we know it is wrong even though it is difficult to do so. When big decisions come along we often try to manage them by ignoring the consequences or pretending to others that we are not bothered. So we find the religious authorities, the self-professed experts in God and all things holy asking over and over whether Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah, whether he is one with God, different words asking the same question. They have seen miracles, heard teaching and yet, maybe because they have got God neatly packaged up in their rituals and laws, many don’t want to face up to who Jesus is. To do so would mean that they can no longer keep God at ‘arm’s length’ , to acknowledge that they face an inescapable choice, whether to accept Jesus as the Messiah, whether to believe him when he says of his followers ‘ I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’ All this is a reminder to us not to fall into the trap of thinking we have a tame God that won’t inconvenience us with his presence when life is going well. As people who, in our tradition, formalise our response to the inescapable question through the act of Confirmation, our faith lives on daily with a loving God who is always there for us, who wants to share in our lives as we respond by seeing the Spirit at work around us. We heard in our reading from Acts how Tabitha helped share the message of God’s love and the life enhancing relationship which is possible through her positive choice. We are people who yearn for the eternal life with Christ which we are promised but also want to share in abundant life on earth for every day possible. When we take time to look back, there will always be things we wish we had done differently but the decision to follow Jesus is not one we will ever regret. Amen Kevin Bright 17th April 2016

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Easter 3: The charcoal fires

Today’s Gospel reading is really just a P.S. – a post script -to John’s account of Jesus’ life, Chapter  20 finishes, “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.”  Chapter 21 is very obviously a later addition. Soon after the Gospel was finished, someone, maybe even the original author, decided that it really needed one more story to be complete.

The post script – P.S. -  is a common feature of handwritten letters, of course. It’s far easier than rewriting the whole thing if you need to add in an afterthought. You might think, that in the days of email and text messages and letters composed on computers that they would have died out – it’s so easy now to edit what you’ve written. But it’s not so.  In fact, some marketers recommend putting a P.S. on the end of every advertising email because they’ve discovered that this is one of the few bits people actually read. Somehow, deep down, we assume a P.S. must be especially important, because someone has taken the trouble to add it.

We don’t know why this final chapter of John’s Gospel was tacked on, but the fact that it was suggests that the writer felt very strongly that there was something in it his readers needed to hear.
So what was it, and was it just important for them, or do we need to hear it too?

The disciples had gone fishing in the Sea of Tiberias – that’s Galilee by another name. It was a place they knew, and an activity they knew too. After the emotional roller-coaster of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it seems like they wanted the comfort of familiarity. But it didn’t work out as they’d hoped. They fished all night, but caught nothing.  

When dawn broke they spotted someone on the beach, but didn’t recognise him. When he suggested throwing the nets on the other side of the boat you can imagine them thinking, “who does he think he is? We’re the experts here!” But their expertise didn’t seem to have got them very far, so they took his advice, and when they hauled in a huge catch of fish, they suddenly realised who this stranger was. He was the one who’d produced abundance out of nowhere before, the one who’d fed five thousand on five loaves and two fishes, the one who’d turned water into wine – gallons upon gallons of it.

Greek Orthodox Church in Capernaum, Galilee
Simon Peter, too impatient to wait, jumped into the lake and swam towards Jesus, as the rest dragged the nets full of fish towards the shore. As it turned out, Jesus didn’t need any of their fish, though. He already had some, cooking on a charcoal fire on the beach. 

This story of the miraculous catch of fish isn’t unique to John. Luke tells it too, though he sets it much earlier in his Gospel. But the breakfast on the beach, and the charcoal fire on which it is cooked, are only found in John’s Gospel.  And John is very specific. It’s not just a fire, it is a charcoal fire. So what? Well, there’s another charcoal fire in the Gospel, just one, and it too is in John’s Gospel, only three chapters before this.  It’s the charcoal fire that was burning in the courtyard of the High Priest where a hastily assembled court was meeting to try Jesus on trumped up charges. It’s the fire that Peter was warming himself by when some other bystanders asked him three times “Aren’t you one of his followers? Aren’t you from Galilee too?”. It’s the fire he was standing by when, three times, he denied even knowing Jesus.
The Denial of St. Peter by Nicolas Tournier, oil on canvas, c. 1630,

Dawn was breaking then too. The cock crow was the sound that brought Jesus’ words back to Peter. “Before the cock crows you will have denied me three times.” (John 13.38) This was the moment of Peter’s greatest shame, the moment he longed to forget, the moment when he suddenly saw his worst self.

We’ve all done things we bitterly regret, said things we can’t unsay, things we’d like to consign to oblivion. All we want to do is forget them, and surely Peter did too. Maybe he thought he could. After all, Jesus had appeared several times to the disciples by this stage, and he’d had never mentioned it. Did Jesus even know what he’d done? But now here was another charcoal fire, and another dawn breaking. The echoes of that earlier story are unmistakeable, and I am sure they are deliberate. Nothing is spelled out, but this is the moment of truth for Peter. 

Jesus’ question to him seems almost cruel. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asks him this, not once or twice but three times, just like that first  threefold question he’d been asked by that first charcoal fire. But it was vital that Peter heard the answer coming out of his own mouth, just as he’d heard his earlier denial. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” It was even more vital that he heard Jesus’ response to him.

One commentator on this passage, David Lose, said that Jesus’ answer gave Peter the two things that he  most needed, two things that everyone needs; a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

First Jesus restores his relationship with Peter. Without this painful conversation , Peter’s failure would always have been an elephant in the room; he would never have felt that he fully belonged as a disciple. Perhaps, at best, he’d have felt tolerated, but that’s not enough. A grudging welcome can feel worse than no welcome at all. But Jesus makes it clear, both for Peter and for the rest of the disciples there; Peter belongs in the family of the Church. And more than that, Jesus gives him a job to do. “Feed my sheep” he says. Peter isn’t just brought back into the fold; he’s made its shepherd, a leader of the Christian community. You don’t do that if you don’t trust someone.

The reason why this story was tacked onto John’s Gospel almost certainly reflects disputes within the early church. At the end of the first century when, this gospel was written, it didn’t have a settled structure or hierarchy. There was no central council, no Pope, no General Synod or Archbishop. Each little community of Christians decided for itself whose lead it would follow – often their faith was shaped by whoever had first brought the message of Jesus to them. By this time, though, the first generation of apostles had all died – Peter, Paul,  James, John  and the rest, and the second generation were squabbling about what Christian faith should look like, and in particular what it’s leaders should look like. Peter had had a prominent place, right from the outset, but was his example really a good one to follow.  really a good example to follow? Could Jesus really have meant him to be the leader he became? The story of his denial of Jesus could only have come from Peter himself, of course, but it didn’t look good.  If this new faith was going to grow and thrive, surely it needed leaders a little less flaky than this?

This addition to John’s Gospel, though, is the answer to those questions. Yes, Peter denied knowing Jesus. Yes, he failed. But Jesus still emphatically and definitely chose him  - as he was – and commissioned him as leader.

The story of St Paul – another prominent early leader of the faith - is equally unlikely at first sight. A man who had been hell-bent on slaughtering Christians until his conversion on the road to Damascus. We heard his story in our first reading. He ended up being healed by one of the very Christians he’d set out to kill, Ananias, whose courage  and love shines through the story.

By telling these stories of Peter and of Paul the New Testament
writers remind us of the priorities of God. Worldly success means nothing to him. People with tidy lives are not necessarily any better or more suitable to lead and to serve than those whose lives have been mess, whether that mess was of their own making or imposed on them by others. The early Church united people across the divides of wealth, ethnicity, gender and family background; prostitutes, tax collectors, slaves and outcasts were equally welcome, equally valued, and equally called – even flaky fishermen. It was revolutionary then, and it’s still is. We still struggle to live out the Gospel message that it isn’t where you’ve come from, but where you are going to that counts. But when we do, it can have profound effects.

We’ve seen an example of this this very weekend. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has discovered his biological father isn’t who he thought he was. That’s not his fault of course, but until even quite recently it probably would have made some people look askance at him. That’s why it has made the news. But in the beautiful statement he wrote in response to these revelations, he states a truth that applies to all of us. His true identity is found in Jesus Christ, he writes, not in genetics, and that that identity never changes. As part of the liturgy of his inauguration as Archbishop he says, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said these words to him: “We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?”  He responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” What has changed?” he asked, after this weekend’s revelations. Nothing!” he answered.

Whether you’re St Peter, St Paul, the Archbishop of Canterbury or just Joe Bloggs, whatever the world thinks of you, whatever mishaps there have been in your life, whatever you have done, whatever has been done to you, you belong and God has a purpose for you. It was true for Peter, who denied Jesus in his hour of need. It was true for Paul, who set out to kill his followers. It has been true for countless unlikely people over the ages who have found themselves called to the service of God . And it’s true for us. That’s what this P.S. to John’s Gospel tells us, and it’s a message we all need to hear.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Easter 2: Being the Christ we want to see

We don’t know where Thomas was when Jesus first appeared to his disciples on the day he rose from the dead. Maybe he had gone out to get some food for them all, maybe he just wanted some time on his own. Maybe he’d decided the only thing to do was to move on, to try to get back to some kind of normal life now that this whole “following Jesus” thing had ended in disaster? Whatever the reason, though, he wasn’t there, and he sounds as if he felt very left out.

Thomas is only mentioned a couple of times in the Gospels, and only speaks on three occasions – all of them in the Gospel of John – but what he says tells us quite a bit about his character.  The first time he speaks is when Lazarus has died, and Jesus announces that he is going to Bethany, to raise him from death. The other disciples are aghast. They know that there are plots to kill Jesus. He will be in danger if he goes anywhere near Jerusalem. But Thomas says, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” (John 11.16) He is not a coward.

The second time his voice is heard is at the Last Supper. Jesus is trying to prepare his friends for what is going to come, his arrest and crucifixion. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. “I am going to prepare a place for you. I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas pipes up, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” It is a perfectly logical response to a somewhat obscure statement. This is a man who is honest, and who appreciates straight-talking. He wants reality, not mysterious metaphor.

So his response to the story that Jesus has been raised from death is entirely in character.  He isn’t afraid of the idea of the resurrection; he just needs to see the risen Jesus for himself. Jesus has been brutally killed. There is no way he could be alive again. Unless Thomas puts his hands in the wounds he has seen inflicted by the Romans; he won’t be convinced that the resurrection is for real.

And so, a week later, that’s exactly what happens. Jesus appears again, just for Thomas. It’s all the reassurance he needs. “My Lord and my God!” he proclaims. There’s a lot in that statement to ponder. Thomas doesn’t just admit that the others were right. He doesn’t just acclaim the resurrection as a great miracle. His response is one of personal commitment. He calls Jesus “Lord” – the one who has a right to direct his life. Tradition says that he travelled to India with the Gospel, and founded a Christian community there. Tradition also says that he was eventually martyred there, so the commitment he made was a costly one.
But he also calls Jesus “God”. He sees in him the authentic likeness of the one who, in the Jewish Scriptures, had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon.   For Thomas, the resurrection is proof that Jesus is not a fraud or a failure, which is what it had looked like when he died on the cross, but one with his Father. He’s the one God has sent to rescue the world from oppression and sin.

So, Thomas is convinced. He has seen the risen Christ, just as he said he needed to. But what about us?

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, says Jesus, but that’s a big ask. Of course we aren’t going to see Jesus appearing in physical form amongst us, but there is a sense in which we still need to see the risen Christ, to be aware of his presence,  to see the ways in which he makes a difference, if we are going to make any kind of commitment to him. There’s a bit of Thomas in all of us, which needs flesh and blood reality to convince us that following the way of Jesus is worth the effort and the cost. And that's how it should be.

The days when people turned up to Church out of habit, out of fear, out of social conformity, or simply because there was nothing else to do on Sundays are long gone. It’s no surprise to me that church attendance has fallen – the changes in society over recent decades have been huge. What surprises me is that so many still turn up and stick around, finding faith anew in every generation. But there’s no question that it takes more courage and conviction for people to start identifying themselves Christians now than it once did. They need compelling reasons to do something which involves swimming against the tide of popular opinion and culture.

What is it that draws them? When I talk to people who have started coming to church or started asking questions about faith for the first time, I nearly always find that they have caught some glimpse of the risen Christ in the Christian community.  They have found love, welcome, forgiveness, new possibilities, new purpose; all the things which Jesus’ first disciples found in him. They may also have responded to the challenge of faith. The Church is a place where our desire to help is  taken seriously. People are drawn to the Christian community because it is a place where all can serve as well as be served.

Of course intellectual arguments about the existence of God or the resurrection have their place, but it is usually faith in action, Christians going the second mile for others, that persuades people that there is something worth following up.
There is a quote, often attributed to Gandhi – probably wrongly – which is very popular these days. We need to "be the change we want to see", it says. I’d like to paraphrase that and say that we need to "be the Christ we want to see". The risen Christ comes into our presence in one another. We embody him when we love as he loved, forgive as he forgave. We all have countless opportunities to  reject others or to welcome them, to tear people down or build them up, to hoard or to live generously, and each choice either makes Christ visible, or obscures him. 

This time last week, while we celebrated the resurrection, hundreds of people in Lahore in  Pakistan were being killed or injured by a suicide bomber, many of them Christians, deliberately targeted as they celebrated Easter. It’s not for us to demand of them heroic forgiveness of those who hurt them, but we do have a responsibility for the choices we make in response to atrocities like this. We can react with suspicion and hostility to our Muslim neighbours, or we can draw closer to them, listen, try to understand. We can hold onto the truth that everyone, whoever they are, whatever they have done, is a human being, and therefore a child of God, just as we are. It’s never easy to choose the right path, but the impact when we do, spreads far and wide, inspiring and encouraging others.  The risen Christ comes and stands among us giving life and hope where there was none.

Here at Seal there are numerous ways in which we can "be the Christ we long to see". It’s been great that our Friday Group, drawing together people in our community for fellowship and mutual support, got off to such a good start last week. We hope that will be a very practical way in which we can show Christ’s welcome and care. There are also people serving others through the foodbank and the Domestic Abuse advice service and other local initiative. John Clucas has organised a chance next Saturday to make up packsfor families with premature babies, which will make a real difference to them. Then there are people visiting others, caring quietly behind the scenes, helping in our local schools, going that extra mile to respond with love in this place. Perhaps there are other things that we could and should be doing, things you feel called to do. If so, please say so – in all these acts of love the risen Christ is made visible to people who need to see him.

This sort of Christian witness isn’t easy, of course, and if it was we wouldn’t believe it. It is significant that Thomas needs to see and to touch the wounds in Christ’s hands and side to be sure it is him. “Put your finger here,” said Jesus to Thomas, “see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” The resurrection doesn’t airbrush the pain and suffering out of his story, it transforms them. It is the fact that Jesus has been so appallingly hurt and yet still loves and forgives that is so powerful. If people see Christ in us, it won’t be because we have mastered the art of looking cheerful and sounding positive all the time. It won’t be because they see everything in our lives going along just fine. It will be because they see that we can be hurt and broken and yet still live with integrity and compassion.

But if we are to sustain a life lived like this, it will only because we are constantly reminding ourselves of Christ’s presence, through worship, prayer, reading the Bible and coming together to receive as well as to give. That’s a part of the distinctive "offer" of Christianity too, not only that we are called to serve, but also that God equips and nurtures us as we do so, through the practices of faith and the Christian community.

We may think that Thomas was lucky. Wouldn’t it be easier to believe if Jesus appeared here in the midst of us?  But the truth is that he does, day after day, week after week. We have far more chances to see the risen Christ than Thomas did. He is all around us, and in us too, as we learn to live his risen life, and that makes us blessed indeed.