St Francis, Terriers - Easter 2 (23.04.2017)

Tony Dickinson

In this morning’s Gospel the risen Jesus repeats the same greeting three times. Twice when he appears to the disciples minus Thomas, the third time when Thomas is present. We shall use the same greeting later in this service. “Peace be with you.”

That’s a greeting the disciples needed to hear. So do we, twenty centuries on. Both for them and for us the world is a frightening place. Jerusalem at Passover was not a good time or place to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. In “The News Quiz” on Friday Andy Hamilton got the biggest laugh of the evening (and a round of applause) when he said, in reply to a question about last week’s announcement of another general election, “The only, tiny speck of hope I can offer you is that nuclear war may break out and stop this nonsense.” And he was only half-joking. Many older people have been casting their minds back to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and comparing it with the current sabre-rattling in Washington and Pyongyang.

That’s on top of the continuing agony of the Syrian people, the election today in France (hugely complicated by Friday’s events in Paris), the deep divisions revealed by the Turkish referendum, the latest phase of fighting in Mosul, new horrors uncovered in the Congo, and now yesterday’s bloodshed in Afghanistan. “Peace be with you” is a greeting the whole world needs to hear.

But peace isn’t easily come by. Half a century ago Roger Schutz, the founder of the Taizé Community, wrote a book whose title was “Violence des pacifiques”. The English edition was sold as “Violent for Peace”. That title underlines the reality that peace-making is a struggle and those who seek peace, true peace, not the lifeless desolation which the powerful have falsely called peace since at least the time of the Romans – those who seek true peace must be prepared to bear the cost of that struggle. The risen Christ still carries the wounds of a crucifixion inflicted by those in authority to remind us that it was through the blood of his cross that God reconciled all things to himself. The marks of the nails in his hands and the stab-wound in his side are the credentials which he presents to Thomas. They are, paradoxically, a sign of hope.

That hope runs like a thread through our readings today. It is the “living hope” of which the first letter of Peter speaks, the living hope into which we have been born anew by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In the book which I mentioned earlier, Brother Roger writes “Our hope is Christ within us. The more we allow ourselves to be penetrated by this reality, the firmer we can stand against wind and tide.” That, I think, is part of the meaning of that symbolic action which St John describes, when Jesus breathes on his disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The risen Christ breathes in us. The risen Christ shares his life with us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist – not as a ritual obligation, something we have to do in order to get to heaven, but as a sharing in the life of God, so that we can be truly the body of Christ in the world; in the words of the old hymn, “that we may love what [he doth] love and do what [he would] do.”

Sometimes that means direct action, as it will this afternoon, when we welcome “High Wycombe Helping Others” for the third of their “drop-off and sort” days, preparing clothing and mother-and-baby items and medical supplies for the camps in Syria and the surrounding countries. The details are on the notice-board immediately outside the south door. Sometimes it means back-up for those who are doing the hard work, as it does with this year’s Lent Project, supporting our Anglican brothers and sisters in Genoa financially so that they can focus more sharply on the humanitarian crisis which has faced the people of their city since the first refugees began to be resettled there.

In both these cases we are doing what Brother Roger describes in the section of his book which is about creating peace. Our support for the people of Holy Ghost, Genoa, like our support for High Wycombe Helping Others, is what he calls a “concrete sign to awaken the conscience of Christians, and non-Christians as well.” But, as Brother Roger points out, “[Such] gestures are signs, nothing more. [Those who do them] are anxious to put into practice what was asked of Christians fifteen centuries ago… ‘It is because some are attempting to take for themselves what belongs to all that quarrels and wars break out, as if nature were shocked that man puts division, by means of those cold words “mine” and “yours” where God has put unity… You are stewards of the goods of the poor, even when you possess them by honest labour or by inheritance.’”

Now those words of John Chrysostom which he quoted can be hard to accept. The siren voices of our monetised culture, and of those within the Churches who preach a gospel of prosperity, encourage us to believe that what we have is ours. It’s a sign of God’s blessing on our hard work. It’s the reward of our faith. But that, as our second reading this morning makes clear, is far from the truth. Any material blessings we receive in this life are purely incidental. What we have, what gives rise to true and lasting joy, is the hope which is ours in the risen Christ, a hope which is tested by suffering, by doubt, by anxiety. Is the whole Christian project just a leap in the dark? Well, yes it is; but it is a leap made in the confidence that God is there in the dark, waiting to catch us. The cross is a permanent reminder that God is there even in the deepest darkness and that there is no situation, however shocking, however desperate humanly speaking, in which he is not present in love and mercy.

Brother Roger again: “In Christ, God made himself poor and obscure. A sign of God cannot be an image which overpowers. God does not ask us to work wonders beyond our means; he wants us simply to understand how to love our brothers” and (I would want to add) sisters! It is in such love, a love which takes no account of political, or racial, or gender difference, that the peace of Christ is found. “What a challenge,” Brother Roger writes elsewhere, “when even one Christian becomes a living hope in the midst of a world of injustice, segregation, and starvation! Emptied of all hatred, [their] presence is constructive; it creates. This challenge is a blaze of love, it is a violence inhabited by a Presence. When someone’s life is ablaze in this way [they kindle] a fire on the earth.” That fire gives warmth and light to those who struggle for peace, whether it’s peace on earth, peace of heart, peace of mind.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!