Psalm 133, Acts 4: 32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20: 19-end
It was with great sadness that we all heard on Friday the news of the death of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, aged 99, at Windsor. Prince Philip was the longest serving royal consort in British history. Married to Her Majesty the Queen for over 73 years, he was a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. He was dedicated to his duties of public service, carrying them out faithfully for so many years, and loyally supporting the Queen in her role as Monarch. Queen Elizabeth once described Prince Philip as her “strength and stay” and acknowledged his incalculable contribution to public life. He was among the last survivors of those who served in the 2nd World War, serving in the Royal Navy. His legacy will be a lasting one, and he will be notably remembered for his Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, which has encouraged and given life-giving opportunities to millions of young people around the world. Our thoughts and our prayers are with the Queen and the Royal Family in their grief at this time of significant loss. As our nation, the Commonwealth and countless people around the world mourn, we pray that God may bring comfort and strength to the bereaved.
Within the last couple of weeks, the Church has been focussed on another death, that of Jesus Christ on Good Friday. It has been that central time in the Church year when we recall the great events of Holy Week and Easter Day, those events over 2,000 years ago in Palestine that brought about our salvation. The sadnesses and losses and challenges of the ongoing pandemic deepened the sense of desolation that we particularly associate with Good Friday. But is has been a comfort and source of strength that many churches were open for the celebrations of Easter Day.
Our gospel reading today from John spans two Sundays, Easter Day and then a week later. First we have the evening of Easter Day. The disciples are together, desolate that Jesus their leader has died a cruel death by crucifixion, and they live in fear of the religious authorities of the day, who might do to them what they had done to Jesus – that is, hand them over to the Roman authorities so that they too might be crucified. The disciples meet behind firmly locked doors. They are in lockdown. What they have yet to learn, is that Jesus is indeed risen from the dead. He is alive! Despite the locked doors, to their astonishment, Jesus appears before them and says: “Peace be with you”.
Jesus shows them the scars on his hands and in his side. There can be no doubt – it is the risen Jesus! And the disciples rejoice. Jesus has a message for them, a mission. They are to be sent out, filled with the Holy Spirit. They are to be given authority to forgive in Jesus’ name. This passage has traditionally been taken as the gospel foundation for the sacrament of confession, or rite of reconciliation, as it is called nowadays, in which a penitent confesses his or her sins before a priest and receives from the priest counsel, penance and absolution. It can be a very healing sacrament, whether used occasionally or practised regularly as part of one’s spiritual rule of life.
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian message. As Christians we are called to live lives of forgiveness and openness to others. But at times this can be very hard. Forgiveness does not necessarily come easily, even when we desire it – it is a gift from God, in God’s timing. There is a very useful book on the subject called “Don’t Forgive too soon” by an American family called Linn. It compares the stages of forgiveness to the classic grief cycle. This grief cycle had already been described as having five stages by the American doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book “On death and dying” written in the 60’s. She had worked with dying cancer patients and defined the five stages of grief as: 1) Shock, denial and isolation, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression and 5) Acceptance. The stages form a spiral or cycle rather than a straight line. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross noticed this pattern in her patients, who grieved for their loss as they anticipated their own death. When we are hurt by someone there is a sense of loss, akin to the loss we feel when someone close to us dies. The journey towards forgiveness and the journey of grief are closely intertwined.
As our gospel reading for today develops, it tells us a lot about human nature. Thomas is not with the other disciples when Jesus appears to them on the evening of Easter Day. He won’t believe them unless he sees for himself. Doubting Thomas is a disciple that many of us can identify with easily. He lacks the bravado of Peter. Instead he doubts. And doubts are natural. I expect most if not all of us have had doubts in our lives at some point, whether about ourselves, others or even God. Thomas’ absence on the evening of Easter Day leaves him feeling totally excluded from the joy of the disciples, who claim they have seen their risen Lord.
But Thomas gets another chance. And that is the great thing about God, always keen to give us another opportunity, when at first we lose out. It is a week later, and this time Thomas is present. Once again, the risen Jesus turns up. Jesus knows Thomas’ needs, and he invites him to reach out and touch him. But there is no such need. Even for Thomas, the risen presence of Jesus is incontrovertible. At last Thomas lets go of his fears and doubts, and yields to the risen Christ, exclaiming: “My Lord and my God!”
This pattern of behaviour in Thomas is so true to the experience of many Christians, including the saints, down the ages. Many were resistant to God, whether through doubt or even sheer defiance, before God’s light and love broke through to them. St Paul on the road to Damascus was determined to throw Christians into prison. Yet he was converted en route to become one of the greatest evangelists the world has ever known. St Augustine, who before his conversion kept a mistress and was deeply influenced by heresy, was also for a long time resistant. Until one day in a friend’s garden he picked up a Bible and heard the sound of a child’s voice singing “take and read”. On reading a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, all his resistance melted away and he went on to be baptised and consecrated bishop and became one of the greatest theologians of the Western Church. Even Jesus’ own mother Mary was at first perplexed at the message of the angel at the Annunciation: “How can this be?” she exclaimed. But then her perplexity, her fears, her doubts all gave way to her obedient “yes” to God, her fiat, and she uttered:
“Let it be to me according to your word”. Mary gave her consent to be the mother of the Son of God.
For much of the time, we perhaps muddle along with our fears and doubts and misgivings. And that is normal, it is human. But what matters is that beneath all those mixed emotions and muddled thought processes is our simple faith – that God in Christ came into this troubled world as one of us, died on a cross, and rose again victorious and vindicated. Believing this, our own struggles and difficulties and temptations can be put into perspective. Life may be hard, particularly during a global pandemic, and challenges abound, but we can be confident that the risen Jesus knows all about our concerns and sustains us. And he loves us, forgives our mistakes, and cares for us. This Eastertide, let’s endeavour to keep that Easter spirit of joy uppermost in our hearts and minds. Let’s be encouraged by people like Thomas and the saints who were real human beings, with real weaknesses and failings, but who knew that the risen Jesus would enable them to endure for he had promised abundance of new life in him. As we mourn for the death of Prince Philip, and give thanks for his life, may we pray for his soul, and pray for comfort for the Queen and the Royal Family. And as this Eastertide progresses, may we also rejoice in Jesus Christ risen from the dead, confident that the Easter message of new live and forgiveness will sustain us in our own journey of faith and commitment to the love of God.
Amen Rev Sister Margaret Anne ASSP