1 John 5:1-6
So, what happens now?
Christ is indeed risen, and death is indeed defeated, and the world is forever changed by the events of Holy Week. Nothing will ever be the same again. And yet, of course, they are.
Christ is indeed risen, but we have not seen him, neither touched his hands nor felt his breath upon our faces nor heard him say our names, as he did Mary Magdalen’s in the garden.
Death is indeed defeated, but we carry on in our ageing and dying and decaying, neither like Lazarus nor like Christ himself, tasting life afresh.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, he says, and he is speaking to us, perhaps more than he is speaking to Thomas. So be it: we are blessed then, those of us who believe having not seen, even if our believing is a sort of faithless and feckless desperation to see. Blessing (whatever that amounts to) sometimes feels like a poor substitute for evidence or certainty. Or, put another way: it would be nice, after all, to touch his hands, to feel his breath upon our faces, to hear him call our names.
It would, of course, scare the living daylights out of us, if Jesus did walk through our walls and extend his bleeding palms, so we could stick our curious fingers into those wretched, blessed wounds. “Peace be with you”, he would say, and we wouldn’t hear him, for all our fear and trembling. It is well known that we are, among animals, perhaps uniquely cursed with the knowledge of our own mortality, which leads unsurprisingly to the fear of death. But we are, in some sense, also afraid of the dead, which is why people have always and everywhere taken such pains to dispose of human remains. We sealed Jesus behind a rock, and yet here he stands. “Peace be with you”, he has to repeat himself, and the warmth of his breath reassures us that he is somehow alive after all.
Receive the Holy Spirit, he also says to us, and then also, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. Which is to say: we are his people, sealed by the power that conquers death, and tasked with the duty of discerning the identity and boundaries of this new people. Whose sins will we forgive? And whose will we retain? Who’s in?; and who’s out?
Every community has its principles of demarcation, whether explicit or implicit. It is naïve to pretend that the Church is any different, as much as we want to tell ourselves that it is so big a tent as to include everybody. It is one thing to say that everybody is welcome, and quite another to say that everybody is already in. But then, what kind of place is the Church? What does it mean to be the people of God in Christ after the events of Holy Week: to be Easter people, resurrection people?
The theologian’s temptation is to insist that the Church is a Mystical Body and an eschatological reality, and not an empirical entity. And this assertion is true enough: the Church is not, in the first place, a conglomeration of human beings who happen to have some things in common. Even so, it is not a silly question to ask: what should the Church look like? What is its ministry and mission?
Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. From our second lesson this morning.
Or, if you prefer, from our first lesson:
Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common, and
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.
The New Testament has diverse opinions on this point, and so it is that we still disagree about what the Church is and should be:
Some say the Church is a community of believers; specifically, a community of those who believe certain things about this Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Christians are those who believe in Jesus.
Some say the Church is a moral community, bound by certain rules, to be found in and extrapolated from the Scriptures. Christians are those who obey commandments.
Some say the Church is primarily a political community, with alternative processes and structures pertaining to power and resource distribution. Christians are those who share all they have in common, such that no one is in need.
These are, of course, hardly mutually contradictory propositions. We can—in classic Anglican fashion—all be correct: the Church is that gathered body of the Risen Christ, which confesses with Thomas that Jesus is Lord and God, and which lives in love and obedience in what looks remarkably like a socialist utopia.
So, what happens now?
The world looks the same as it did last week. The news is as depressing as it always is. Our lives are as quietly desperate as they have always been.
And yet, and yet, there is a new world. There is a new world that began in a garden, when he called her name; in a locked room, when his scars touched them, and they felt the Spirit on their faces. There is a new world in which marginalised women get to forever be hailed as Apostle to the Apostles, and in which cowards and doubters leave their attics to create this subversive society in which “no one says that any of the things which he possesses is his own” and “distribution is made to each as any has needs”.
God knows, a week after Easter—2000 years after Easter—this new world is still a pipe dream, and, God have mercy, that’s on us, we who have the power to loose sins or bind them, and have had our moral priorities mislaid; we who have been called into peace and blessing, and have turned instead to violence and selfishness.
So, what happens now? I’m pretty sure we know already. It really doesn’t take a biblical scholar or systematic theologian to give us, in broad strokes at least, a vision of the Church and world as they ought to be in the shadow of the Cross and the light of the Resurrection. We can debate till kingdom comes about what this or that parable or commandment means in this or that particular situation. But Jesus’s attitudes toward the poor and otherwise needy are not exactly subtle, nor for that matter, was his relationship with money and power.
Even our hypocrisy and wilful ignorance is forgiven us, thank God. But all the same, we’ve got work to do. There is peace to be received and shared, sins to confess and forgive, possessions to give up and be given up by, needs to meet. There is a new world to live in.