Easter 2 Year C April 2022 St John’s Upper Norwood
The scripture readings today present us with a humanity that is both scarred and glorious. It rings true with our everyday experience of living in a world that holds both immense potential and beauty, but also indescribable cruelty and destruction.
This ambiguous sense about what it is to be human reminded me an experience I had as a pale young curate in the early 70’s in Tooting. I spent most Mondays, my day off, exploring London, including the V&A. For over a year I kept revisiting a particular room where a huge Altar-piece was being restored, another mixture of beauty and decay. As panel after panel disappeared it was difficult to make any sense of the whole. Eyes gazed excitedly, or adoringly, or pleadingly at heaven knows what. Gaps appeared as yet another panel was taken away to be cleaned. You got glimpses of glory alongside emptiness. The one thing that gave some sort of order to the whole was the repeated image of the right hand of Christ in the upper corner of some panels, identified as the Lord’s hand by the mark left by the nail, the open wound of crucifixion. Each time the hand was raised in blessing but over a very mixed bunch of events, a victory in one, a torture or martyrdom in another. The message the Altar-piece wanted to convey was, I suppose, that the crucified and risen Lord is present in all times and all places, in our joy, and in our sorrow, both now, and at the hour of our death.
The gaps and disorder of that that restoration often made me think of the gaps and disorder in my own journey in faith; not always making sense of things, confused and doubtful when I met with darkness and suffering in my work. And this week another image brought back those feelings of questioning and pain; the sad sight in the news of a mother and father in Ukraine, saying their goodbyes to their young son, killed in an airstrike; his coffin set down before an icon of the crucified Lord in their local church. The scene played out beneath the image of the One who is meant to come bringing peace and hope, but who is at the same time a Saviour who shares with us the wounds of betrayal, and love and sacrifice. He is with us in all that we endure, even the darkest of places.
So today in the Gospel Jesus offers Thomas the chance to probe and test his authenticity, laying bare his wounded side, a sign that he is both our victim and our victor, our brother and companion, and our God. It is this same openness and solidarity that He sets before us at every Mass, his real presence with us, wherever we are, whatever we are going through.
The vision of the risen Christ given to John the Elder in this morning’s lesson from Revelation is very much about a shared journey that God makes with us. The imprisoned John working in the salt mines sees the Risen and glorified Christ, who tells him that the sufferings that he and his own persecuted Congregation are going through is something they don’t endure alone. Remember that same promise of solidarity that the risen Lord gives to St Paul on the Damascus Road. Jesus doesn’t say, “Why are you persecuting them, my followers?” No, he says, “Why are you persecuting ME?” The sufferings we all endure, as we work to bring in God’s Kingdom are united to those of Christ. Sharing in the tribulation, and the kingdom-building of Jesus, we also take our part in his work of re-creation and cohesion.
John the Elder, and John the Apostle both wrestle to make sense of what is going in their world and their communities, as they face hatred, the confiscation of their property, and even execution. And yet, somehow, despite appearances things are beginning to make sense for them. The kingdom of God has arrived with power. In Revelation we meet Jesus the Glorified one, possessing the characteristics of God Himself. Light doesn’t rest on him, it emanates from Him. He is Divine: and yet at the same time he is also related to us, because he is dressed as a high priest, working on our behalf, doing the work of intercession, standing between God and his creation. And it is this divine-human Christ that we meet again in today’s Gospel reading. Thomas is driven to a blasphemous conclusion when he encounters his risen Master. “ You, the man I have endeavoured to follow through thick and thin, I can only now see as My Lord and my God.” Language, even religious language has reached breaking point, because, as Orthodox theologians constantly remind us, theology is not about clever human thinking, but is the outcome of a living encounter with God, calling us to worship, and awe.
The fact that the apparent muddle and brokenness of human existence is beginning to make some sort of sense is there in Revelation and in today’s Gospel. Our credibility is stretched as Thomas’ was. We struggle often to make a connection between our broken and suffering world, and the conviction that here in Jesus we meet with a humanity like no other, a humanity that speaks to our deepest needs and longings. But this meeting is no fantasy, we encounter authenticity and realism. We are offered an encounter with a human life that like ours is scarred. (‘Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bares.’- runs the Advent hymn, and it goes on to say that is the cause of our “endless exultation”. This encounter is brutally honest and real. The body of the Lord is torn open. Here is the only clear record in the gospels that Jesus was in fact nailed to the cross, and not simply strung up, as some criminals were. We look at a body that has already shared with us suffering and even death, and yet it is also a risen and glorified humanity, able to share a meal, able to be touched, but also reaching beyond the limits of time and space, and our understanding. The first letter of John puts it in a nutshell. “ He has existed since the beginning, but we have heard and seen with our own eyes as well, touched him with our own hands.” And as John says again this is something that “makes our own joy complete.” At every Mass we are reminded that we join the crowd of angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, to greet the crucified and risen Lord in the breaking of bread. And yet this is also an intensely personal relationship, , bringing each one of us hope and comfort , strength and joy. Of course we still from time to time share the fear, incredulity, hesitation and amazement of the first disciples. But we like them we called to go beyond the niggardly limitations we often set on our believing, love and service.
The Lord comes to us now, with that same word of forgiveness and healing that he used before in the Upper Room-“Shalom!” He confronts Thomas’ doubt head on. “Come on then! Touch me, push your hands into my wounds.” Archbishop William Temple described these wounds as ‘Christ’s credentials to the suffering human race. ( Readings in John’s Gospel p384) and he quotes a poem, written in the aftermath of the first World War, by Edward Shillito, in a collection entitled ‘Jesus of the scars.’
“ The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak. They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne. But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.”
Temple comments, “ Only a God in whose perfect Being pain has its place can win and hold our worship.” We think that originally the fourth Gospel ended with this story, so that this is John’s final word on the subject of who Jesus is. And then there is Jesus’ last word for us – a blessing on those who come in faith.
Here, in the bread broken and the wine outpoured we share in all that brings us hope and joy. Like those disciples at the inn on the road to Emmaus we recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread, and like Thomas we can only make that same acclamation of faith, “My Lord and my God.” Our faith is always about facing reality, with all its demands, but facing it hopefully and generously. Jesus comes to stretch our belief and our living, calling out from the depths of us a cry of worship and wonder.