john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    The Resurrection: believe the peace

    Sourton, Bratton Clovelly and Germansweek Communion Services

    John 20.19-31

    The past two days here in Britain have reminded us of just how the mood of a nation can be altered by a single event. Dropped or lifted: and the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton has clearly lifted the people's spirits, in a very special way. The joyous kisses, the cheeky exit from the palace in an open topped sports car, raised genuine smiles and melted even the hardest hearts. The prayer which they composed for their marriage service connected with people's hopes and aspirations, when they said, 'In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy.' [1]

    And it felt like a good day too for the national faith, Christianity, which was at the heart of events on Friday. The Telegraph said, 'At a time when Christianity seems to shrink from public space, here is proof that at heart, Britain is still very much a Christian country. Hymns, prayers, bishops, priests and a heavenly choir: this was the Anglican Church in all its majestic beauty. There was pomp and circumstance, but its spiritual context was never forgotten.' [2] A nation's mood lifted by a couple expressing a desire to embrace the spirit of Jesus Christ in their lives, a people rejoicing at the prospect of a future king who shares their hopes and aspirations.

    What a contrast between the mood of our nation this weekend and the mood of the people described in today's gospel reading. There couldn't be a greater contrast between the two events, of course. The people described in John chapter 20 were living in the aftermath of an execution, a people who had each played some part in the killing of one who only days previously they had heralded as a great and future king. The whole community would have been feeling it - but the disciples felt it most keenly. Guilt, shame, and fear for the punishment and retribution which they felt sure would soon come.

    After the event we can imagine that each of these people developed a deep sense of guilt that they had contributed to making a victim of an innocent man. After the event each of them would have felt guilty realising how deeply they had betrayed their Lord. Peter, of course, had begin to feel his guilt at the moment the cock crowed for the third time and he realised he'd denied knowing the one he loved and served. Judas - his sense of guilt had led to his suicide. But the other disciples, and many in the wider community, would feel this guilt too, and were shamed by it. They'd followed him, praised him, keenly embraced his mission for so long. But when the tide of opinion turned against him, those closest to Jesus had abandoned him to his terrible fate. Everyone knew it, everyone was shamed by it, and we can imagine that within that place where the disciples were hiding they were probably arguing and fighting with each other about who was most to blame. They'd often argued with each other before about which of them was the closest to Jesus, who was his best follower: now we'd imagine they'd be blaming each other for betraying him, for putting each other in danger, for bringing guilt and shame on them all.

    And overriding all this, a sense of fear for the punishment and retribution which seemed sure to come their way. John tells us that they had locked themselves in 'for fear of the Jews'; they must have felt sure that the Jewish authorities would not be finished getting rid of Jesus until the followers of Jesus had been rounded up and dealt with in a similar way to their crucified leader. Even greater than this fear would be a lingering concern they must have held that the God who had seen his Son mobbed and killed, in part because of his disciples' betrayals, would bring a terrible retribution on them all. Surely God would bring vengeance on the people responsible for the death of his son. This is what God - and all gods - had always done before, in those circumstances... and of everyone in that guilty community the disciples were the most culpable.

    Imagine then the fear and dread in that land, and in that hidden room, on that third evening after the execution of their Lord. Imagine the sense of guilt, the anticipation of a terrible punishment they felt was sure to come.

    How unexpected, and how wonderful, then, that when Jesus came and stood among them he didn't come in vengeful anger, raining down the fire of a wrathful God. No: instead, he came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you'.

    'Peace be with you' - a peace to release them from the terrible guilt they had been carrying;

    'Peace be with you' - a peace to fill and mend their bereaved and broken hearts;

    'Peace be with you' - a peace which meant that they could drop the accusations they had of each other's culpability: a peace to take their shame away;

    'Peace be with you' - the peace of God's unprecedented, incomparable forgiveness:

    'Peace be with you' - on the first day of the resurrection, what a wonderful peace Jesus brought.

    What a change in the mood of these people Jesus' words must have brought. This wasn't what they thought would happen - far from it. No-one expressed this better than Thomas, who, when he saw Jesus in that hidden room, didn't doubt the resurrection. He doubted the crucifixion. Thomas wanted evidence that Jesus had actually died that cruel death - he wanted to see his body wounds - because he was struggling to believe that the event had actually happened - that Jesus their Lord had been executed; that the one who was supposed to be saving them from the powers which oppressed them, had submitted himself to those very powers; that the Messiah had become a victim of the violence of the world.

    Thomas struggled to believe that having gone through that terrible ordeal his Lord's response was to come back to them in a spirit of forgiveness, offering peace. It was clear to him that his Lord was alive. But could he really have died so violently in the first place, if, on coming back to life, he was so free of vengeance, retribution, and so full of forgiveness, peace?

    Could Thomas conceive of a Messiah who suffered violence but never dished it out? He found it hard to, but, in the end, he did. The spirit of peace which Christ brought to him finally satisfied Thomas that God was doing things differently here. Violence was over, death was defeated, retribution was a thing of the past, forgiveness was full and complete. On Easter evening, Thomas came to believe that an executed Messiah had saved him. And with the rest of the disciples Thomas now knew and felt that Jesus had taken his guilt away. [3]

    This new knowledge, this transformation in their hearts and minds, was reinforced by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the proceedings of that beautiful, scandalous night.

    'Peace be with you,' Jesus said. 'As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' When he had said this he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'.

    After the event, the peace he offered was the peace of taking their guilt away. The peace of someone being acquitted from the charge of a death-penalty crime.

    This is because the Holy Spirit who Jesus brought them was the advocate who Jesus refers to in John 14, the one who is called on to tell us the truth about God. The hidden room is like a courtroom, a place of judgement, and there before the disciples on Easter night the Holy Spirit judged that as Jesus' resurrection acquitted him of the scapegoat charges against him it also acquitted those who scapegoated him. The Holy Spirit judges that Jesus is not guilty of the charges his executors made against him - and those who executed him are no longer guilty either, because of the resurrection.

    The reason for this is simple. There is no longer any evidence of the crime. The tomb is empty, Jesus is not dead. And without a dead body the prosecution cannot proceed in this capital case. Calling on what Karl Barth calls 'The evidence of the raised victim', the Holy Spirit who judges this resurrection case pronounces the accused not guilty. The accused are 'justified by resurrection'. The resurrection means that the Holy Spirit must close the book on their case, must set the accused free, must take their guilt entirely away. [4]

    That acquittal applied to the disciples, and to everyone who has ever been convicted of their guilt before God. That acquittal applies to anyone who has ever sinned and fallen short, and in any way contributed to the sort of violence which made a scapegoat of Jesus and put him on the cross. The Holy Spirit's acquittal applies to anyone who has ever let anyone else take the blame and punishment for something they themselves have done, anyone who has stood by and let an innocent victim suffer in their place.

    The Holy Spirit's acquittal applies to you and me. And as Jesus appears to his disciples and says, 'Peace be with you', so he desires to appear to us and bring us that same peace, free of all retribution and vengeance, absolutely complete in forgiveness and heavenly grace.

    You will know that the Royal couple chose for the reading at their marriage service Romans 12.1,2,9-18, in which Paul appeals to the brethren, 'Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.'

    Like Thomas we may struggle to believe that a crucified God could behave so vengelessly, so peaceably, so graciously. But if we ask the Holy Spirit to help us, then we can be convicted of the truth of the resurrection for us, for the people of our nation, and for all people.

    'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit'.

    [1] Royal wedding: William and Kate's own prayer, The Telegraph, 30/4/2011
    [2] Christina Odone, The royal wedding proves this is still a Christian country. Hallelujah!, The Telegraph, 30/4/2011
    [3] This paragraph owes much to Paul Neuchterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER - YEAR A
    [4] This paragraph owes much to S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, A Theology of the Cross, p.145-147