THIS IS THE DAY….ALLELUIA!
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY APRIL 19th 2009
John 20: 31 “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life through his name”.
Easter week is a glorious week throughout the world, and particularly in our parish. The tradition of Easter Week comes from the old Jewish tradition of an Octave. That is, in the calendar there are certain days which they are so important that they aren’t celebrated on the day, but for another week. So here we are on this eighth day of the week of Easter – a week of celebration.
Each day, both at Mass and in the saying of the Divine Office, it is celebrated as if it is another Easter morning. Each day Mass has been a living of the Resurrection morning all over again. Priests and religious all over the world saying the Divine Office enter into this wonderful spiritual treasury of celebrating daily the great event of last Sunday. And, of course, the word “Alleluia” permeates everything. Having been repressed during Lent, it leaps out, and is added to in every possible instance in the Church’s prayers and worship.
It’s a bit like my giving up chocolate in Lent – I can’t wait to over-indulge! So the Church over-indulges in this blessed word “Alleluia”.
Each day at Mass and in the Divine Office there is also the familiar refrain from Psalm 118:24: “This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it”.
This verse is used everyday in Easter week not just because of its great note of praise and of the day of the Lord – but also because of the two preceding verses of Psalm 118, verses 22 and 23. These verses have always been used in the context of the Resurrection of Christ. In fact our Lord quoted them on a number of occasions as a prophecy that he was to die and rise again.
The words are: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes”. Then it goes on to say: “This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it”. We could reflect amply on Psalm 118: 22-24.
So after a week of celebrating Easter morning everyday, we come on this Octave day to remember the evening of Easter Day. It is the night of the Resurrection and the apostles are gathered in fear and trembling in the Upper Room. Lo and behold, the Risen Christ – whom some have said they have seen – appears to them physically there in the room. And he says: “Peace be with you”.
Then something strange – he breathes on them and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. They, of course, were to receive the Holy Spirit in power at the feast of Pentecost in a few weeks’ time. But on Easter night they receive a gift of the Holy Spirit in the gentle breath of the Risen Christ.
Then he says: “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven”. The Church understands this as Jesus giving to the apostles the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins.
These words are said at the ordination of every priest throughout the Anglican Communion, and are the basis for the Sacrament of Confession – and indeed the authority for the priest to pronounce absolution at every Mass.
We see here an incredible thing. What is happening on Easter night is not just about the forgiveness of sins, which is the result of the Resurrection – but about three things that Jesus imparts to his disciples.
Firstly, the gift of peace from the Risen Christ.
Secondly, forgiveness of sins through his victory on the Cross.
Thirdly, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
These three things given to the apostles are given forever to those who follow in their steps – even you and me.
If the empty tomb on Easter Day reveals the Resurrection, then the appearance of the Risen Christ on this night – and indeed the subsequent appearances of Jesus – reveals the result of the Resurrection for the people of God. The result is peace, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit.
Since Christ appears physically and in bodily form, we can assume that these gifts are for us now in our physical living. They are not just gifts for us when we die – but now, as we live and move in this world of sin, temptation, rejoicing, and sorrow. It is now that we receive peace, forgiveness, and the Spirit of God.
When the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples and said these words, they finally understood who he was. They finally came to understand that he was the Christ, the Divine Son, the Lord of Life, the only one to rise from the dead. For them to have experienced that in the flesh summed up everything they had been taught. It had eluded their minds – now they understood through experiencing him in the flesh.
And so these appearances were all important. They were important enough that when the apostles met to pick a replacement for Judas Iscariot, they were quite clear that that person chosen had to be a witness to the Resurrection. It wasn’t good enough that he be a disciple who perhaps had been at the Sermon on the Mount, or perhaps been among the five thousand who were fed by the loaves and fish. No – the person had to have seen and spoken with the Risen Christ in those forty days of Eastertide.
The appearances of the Risen Christ, therefore, had to be more than just a spiritual experience. It was something that people could relate to as we relate to each other normally. It wasn’t just a spiritual event that happened on Easter Day – it was an appearance in the flesh, as we would say.
Let’s be quite clear – Jesus’ Resurrection is not the same as the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing to Bernadette at Lourdes. That was a vision – this is more than a vision. This is real life, because it is for our real living.
From the beginning, the truth about who Jesus is was confirmed by his Resurrection and his appearances as the Risen Christ. It wasn’t just enough for people to say that Christ had risen. What was handed on was that people had experienced Him as someone just like them. Of course he wasn’t just like them – but that was how he had to appear.
And this is what has been handed on right from the start of the Church. This is the tradition that we have received – that Christ did appear in the flesh. It wasn’t just a conjuring trick. 2,000 years on we believe because of what we have been told from those first witnesses – what has been handed on to us.
The Latin word “traditio” means to hand on – and that is where we get the word Tradition.
When we say that All Saints’ is a traditional Episcopalian parish, we aren’t just saying that we like nice music, old fashioned liturgy, vestments, and ceremonial. It is about the teaching that has been handed down, which all those things express.
If only those who wish to destroy tradition both in the Church and outside knew how central tradition is to the Christian Gospel and the Catholic Faith. Indeed maybe that’s why they are keen to destroy tradition? So we are proud at All Saints’ to say that we are traditional parish.
Today’s Gospel reading continues on from the appearance on Easter night to another physical appearance of Jesus exactly one week later. That is today – the Sunday after Easter. You remember that Thomas wasn’t there on Easter night; on this day in the evening Thomas is there – and Jesus again appears to the apostles.
Doubting Thomas we call him – because he doubted. He would not believe because he could not see. How common is that today? And he was in a way so atypical of Americans.
Here we are now, eight days later, and there is doubting Thomas. And here is Jesus. The Risen Christ invites Thomas to touch him – and not just to touch but to put his hand in his side. This is amazing! It’s gory – but it means that you could see the wounds of the Risen Christ. That is why his body was not quite the same anymore – in his wounds he shows his glory.
Thomas’ cynicism and disbelief were overtaken by the Risen Lord Jesus standing there physically in front of him, inviting him to touch and feel. And what is his response?
“My Lord, and my God”. What else could he say? It was all clear to him now.
Thomas’ response shows us that there is no way around it – Jesus is the victorious Son of God. He is the Lord of all life, the only one who is to be worshipped by all mankind. That is why Saint John tells us that we may have life through his name. Because he is the Lord of all life! Through his resurrection he brings us life in its fullness, life in abundance.
When the Risen Christ is acknowledged and accepted in this way, we experience something Jesus himself said in John 10:10:
“I have come, that they may have life and have it in abundance”.
Doesn’t the world need an abundance of true life? Isn’t that what seems to elude people?
Jesus came that we might have life in abundance. Jesus, risen from dead, conquering death, brings new life – and he can do that to every person. New life in abundance!
So Saint John says: “that believing you may have life through his name”.
But sometimes this new life isn’t so abundant is it? It doesn’t quite spring up inside us. More like a trickle than a fountain – which is one of the images Jesus used to describe it. A fountain welling up inside us, He said.
Sometimes it seems the tap is almost off! Life’s ups and downs, disappointments and mistakes – these all make our lives a trickle, make them old rather than new.
And so Saint Thomas represents us. Not as people who doubt, but as people who need a bit more of a sign of the Risen Christ. Need the Risen Lord to turn the tap a bit more on.
So we have the significance of Jesus’ words to Thomas at the end of this exchange today: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe”. That is you and me.
We have not seen – apart from in a Sacramental way – the Risen Christ, but we do believe. And Jesus says that we are blessed.
My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, we are indeed blessed because we believe in the Risen Christ, and know the power of his name in our lives.
We are also blessed because we belong to this wonderful parish of All Saints’ that conveys the truth of the Risen Christ through a beautiful church, through the beauty of our worship, and through the tradition we have not only received, but continue to express and hand on.
If Saint Thomas and the apostles had not handed on their experience of the Risen Christ, and the Faith, what would we believe today? We would have no understanding.
No handing on of experience, no living tradition.
No living tradition, no living Gospel.
No living Gospel, no living Christ.