Sunday 18th April; Doubting Disciples
Readings: Acts 3:12-19 Luke 24:36b-48
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is sometimes easy to forget that Easter, like Christmas, is not a single day but it is, in fact, a whole season.
We don’t simply hear the story of the resurrection on Easter morning and then get back to ‘business as usual’, or at least we shouldn’t.
For the 50 days of the Easter season we travel with the disciples in their struggles to come to terms with the reality of the resurrection, and what it might mean for them and for the world.
On Good Friday this year Professor Alice Roberts, the President of the Humanists in the UK, Tweeted that ‘dead people do not come back to life.’ Apart from demonstrating a severe lack of grace I wonder what she was hoping to achieve – would millions of Christians suddenly realise the error of their ways?
Of course, we know that dead people don’t come back from the dead, apart from in ghost films, and the disciples also knew that dead people do not come back to life. Well there was Lazarus and Dorcas but they are exceptions because Jesus did that, but generally dead people don’t come back. It’s simply common sense, and the disciples were sensible people – fisherman, tax collectors, grown ups.
Dead people do not come back to life.
Last week we heard about the disciple Thomas. And ‘thank you’ Christopher for reminding us that the stories of the disciples did not end when their story in the bible ended, and that Thomas may well have travelled to India proclaiming the good news.
Saint Thomas is often referred to as a doubter because he would not believe in the resurrection until he saw Jesus for himself. This is doubly unfair on Thomas – at no point do his words or actions display the slightest doubt, in fact he is crystal clear: At first he says that “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my fingers in his side, I will not believe.”
I will not believe. That is not doubt.
And then, when Jesus appears to him and Thomas sees and touches the wounds of the cross he says: “My Lord and my God!” That is not doubt either. Thomas was clear in both directions – he would not believe and then he believed.
But the reason that calling Thomas a doubter is doubly unfair is because that word is used in today’s reading and it is not aimed at him:
“…Jesus himself stood among them and said to them ‘Peace be with you.’”
“They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” “Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your minds?”
There is that word – doubt – and it is not being aimed at Thomas but at all those who were gathered in that room.
The disciples knew that dead people do not come back to life. Except for ghosts.
I find it fascinating that some think that it is entirely un-Christian to believe in the possibility of ghosts – when the disciples mistook Jesus for a ghost not once but twice – in this passage and also in Matthew 14 when he walked on water.
Jesus then goes to some lengths to prove that he is neither a ghost, nor a purely spiritual being:
“Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”
This reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus was never a purely spiritual matter. Jesus rising from the dead had nothing to do with a ghost or a spirit or a soul shedding it’s earthly shell, floating around for a bit and then floating up to heaven.
The incarnation of Jesus does not just mean that God joined himself with our fleshly humanity in birth but he also joined himself to our physicality in death and resurrection.
But even having seen his hands and feet the disciples were still not sure and so Jesus ate some fish in front of them.
Poor old Thomas gets called a doubter and yet here is Jesus having to do party tricks in front of many of the disciples to get them to believe that a dead person had come back to life.
Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures. What a gift – to have your mind opened in person by the resurrected Jesus so that we can see him throughout the scriptures and see in him the fulfilment of those scriptures – we pray that the Holy Spirit will work in each of us that way.
But it is not kept secret – this is not a gnostic gospel – Jesus says clearly that the scripture is fulfilled by the Messiah who suffers and rises from the dead on the third day. This, we know, is the thing which distinguishes Christianity from the other Abrahamic faiths – that apparent failure and disappointment will be overturned by new life and resurrection. And that forgiveness for the repentance of sins will be preached in all nations.
Christianity has a had bad rap for being too focused on sin, historically, and often for the condemnation of sin. I sometimes wonder whether we have gone too far the other way in not thinking about sin at all and pretending that we are all fine with God exactly as we are, with no change required. If the latter is true then, frankly, there would be no point to faith at all. Actually I think we need to rediscover the import of what Jesus is saying here:
Sin is real – not everything we do is what God would have us do.
Repentance is real – We can turn from wrong.
Forgiveness is real – When we admit our sins and turn to Christ we are not condemned, rather we are forgiven.
Those who know their need for repentance and experience the forgiveness that only Christ can bring are always the most powerful witnesses to the power of faith.
And I want to close on that word ‘witness’ – it is used in both the reading from Acts and the Gospel reading. For us to be a witness means two things: It means to see something happening – to witness an event.
But witnesses are not merely bystanders. They are those who are prepared to stand up and act as witnesses to what they have seen – to give evidence of what they have witnessed.
The mission that Jesus gives the disciples is to be witnesses to his bodily resurrection. To see that although dead people do not come back to life that Jesus came back to life and not as a ghost but as flesh and bones. It is the resurrection first and foremost that makes us who we are. Having acted as witnesses to his resurrection Jesus charges them to be witnesses to the whole world of the forgiveness of sins and the new life that brings.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ. In the power of the resurrection the dead do come back to life – that is the lesson the disciples learnt and that is the lesson for us.
“You are witnesses of all these things.”
Go out into the world and be witnesses to the difference that the resurrected Jesus makes to you.