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. 


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