Easter 2 – Sermon
Reading: John 20: 19-31
Here we are then, coming back down to earth after Easter, and it’s most definitely after Easter.
The cross is still here of course, and the flowers are still beautiful and the hymns still have a distinctly Easter feel to them, but there’s one thing missing – the people.
Numbers were down a bit this year for whatever reason but still, the attendance we had at each service last Sunday was significantly more than we have today, which is always the case of course.
The Sunday after Easter always feels a little empty, which is why we Anglicans call this ‘Low Sunday’, but I have to admit, I like the crowds. I think most of us do – not all, I know, but for many of us it’s a heart warming, uplifting thing to see the pews more than half full and note that it takes a good 15 minutes to get through everyone at Communion. It’s a good feeling, albeit not one that’s overly frequent here or in most Anglican churches these d
I was talking the other night with someone about the situation in another denomination a few years ago where numerous clergy were finding themselves out of work as they failed to meet the new criteria set by their national body.
Every congregation, that criteria stated, had to experience 20% growth in a year – that’s physical growth and financial growth – 20% per year. Thank goodness I kept my bus driver’s license!
Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral fame was once asked what he believed was the most important thing for a church to have, and his answer was a big parking lot. Numbers, for many of us, are an important sign of the health or otherwise of a church.
They’re not the whole story of course, and I know that if we were to draw up a list of all the things we would consider most important in a church it would be a long and varied one. I know because we did that, last year. There are all sorts of things people want and like, but full us still nice.
Whatever you think the Church needs of should look like, I’m quite sure it’s probably not the picture that John paints in our Gospel reading this morning. This is, as Tom Long once described it, the Church at its very worst.
For several long, drawn out chapters of John’s gospel Jesus has warned his disciples that he won’t be around for long and done his best to prepare them for the days ahead.
He’s made it very, very clear and spelt out precisely what they need to do – love one another, follow his commandments, support and care for each other, do what Jesus himself has done – it’s all been laid out for them.
So who wasn’t paying attention? Because here we are, just a couple of chapters later, post-Easter and where do we find the disciples? Huddled in a locked room like a bunch of scared sheep, just 10 of them apparently because Thomas has gone AWOL, and all 10 totally incapable of doing anything except hide.
This is the first Post-Easter Church. No crowds, no lively music, no pipe organs, no choir, no flowers, no brilliant sermons, – none of the things you take for granted on a weekly basis. Nor do we find a friendly welcome or efficient greeters. There’s no hospitality, no cup of tea waiting after-wards, just a small group of tired, scared, disheartened people with no idea what’s coming next.
You know, I haven’t done it, but I suspect that if I were to go back to those response forms from last year and look through all the things you’d like to see in a church there would be no mention whatsoever of locked doors and frightened members. But that’s what we get. This group of scared disciples, this Post-Easter Church has nothing going for it whatsoever except for this – Jesus came and stood among them.
Jesus came and stood among them. Among this motley, frightened, disorganised bunch, who had either forgotten or simply ignored everything he had taught them beforehand.
Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’ Peace be with you, just like we say each and every Sunday, then “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
“If you forgive the sins of any.” These are important words, significant words. If we cast our minds back we might remember one of the accusations against Jesus was along the lines of, ‘who is this man who thinks he can forgive sins?’
Forget about any debates over the semantics of the actual words for a moment and consider that this is the actual work of Jesus being handed over to the disciples. All that has been laid on Jesus’ shoulders by God he now lays on this small, huddled mass of frightened humanity.
Jesus comes, stands among them, gives them the Holy Spirit and tells them that his job is now theirs. And maybe, if we’re really honest, that’s as close as any of church gets to being a church. No matter how big or small or beautiful or ugly, regardless of whether there’s an organ or a band or an altar or a table, or whether the preacher is long or short or even non-existent – none of that makes a church a church.
And while it’s true that careful planning and proper presentation and care given to the details makes a service run more smoothly – all things we pay a lot of attention to here at St Luke’s – none of it makes our worship more real or us all more of a church. That only happens when Jesus comes and stands among us.
It’s a gift, that’s all there is to it. Nothing those disciples did earned them the right to be a church. And the same goes for us. None of our mission projects or our youth ministries or our pastoral care or our work with the elderly, none of them make us a church. It’s only the presence of the risen Christ that does that.
I really can’t say it any better than Bishop William Willemon did some years ago when he was chaplain at Duke University, with a church not unlike this one, old, beautiful, lovely. Considering all that, Willemon wrote:
“We are church, not because of the building we’ve built and cared for, not because of the choir, the organ, the preaching, or the various activities. We are church because to us, even to us, Christ has come and given us his gifts of Spirit, mission, and forgiveness, commissioning us to give them to the whole world in his name. That’s why we’re called church.”
And the same is true for us.
So as we gather today, a little smaller than last week, a little smaller than most weeks perhaps.
As we gather with our doubts and our fears and our preoccupations and concerns, as we gather as all that we are and all that we’re not, may we recognize the risen Christ among us, may we feel the breath of the Holy Spirit and know that we are forgiven, may we know that for this reason and this reason only, we are church, and be thankful.