Second Sunday of Easter
April 23 2017
Acts 2.14b, 22-32, 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
I love watching football, in England it’s called the beautiful game. My team is West Bromwich Albion, which is in the Premier League – but it’s many years since it won anything! In football, as in any professional sport, confidence makes all the difference. You need the skill, of course, but confidence makes the difference so often between winning and losing.
We sometimes speak of confidence-building measures, what, I wonder is the perfect confidence-building measure? To the disciples after that first Easter morning it was the discovery of and the belief in the resurrection. To us it can be as well.
People vary greatly of course in the confidence that they have, some are naturally confident others naturally cautious. However having confidence in something that you can rely upon is a great help whoever you are. It is also true that the bigger the task before you the more you need confidence. A task like the one Jesus set the disciples at this time needs a great deal of confidence, “… go and make disciples of all nations….”
The disciples after the death of Jesus show all the signs of having lost all their confidence. They were together behind locked doors, they are frightened. There is no evident ability to organize and get on with the work that Jesus had been doing during his life, on the contrary, they show the lack of confidence typical of defeat. Even with the experiences of meeting the risen Jesus, time and again we see that the gospels tell of uncertainty and doubt as they go through the recorded resurrection appearances. The women early in the morning discover the empty tomb, but they don’t even recognize Jesus for who he is. In the reading we have just heard, Thomas doubts. The disciples on the road to Emmaus are discussing as they go, but the stranger has to instruct them and then break the bread, before they realize who is with them. Look at almost every one of the resurrection appearances and somewhere in the story there is doubt and uncertainty.
In contrast the figure of the risen Jesus as he arrives in their midst is full of confidence, and with every reason to be so. “Peace be with you”. Not the anguish of the Garden of Gethsemane, or the uncertainty that was besetting the disciples, not the under-confidence that left them hidden in the upper room, but the confident assertion of peace. The passage goes on to say “As the Father has sent me so I am sending you.” Hardly the act of a nervous phantom.
Of course he had every reason to feel this: What he had been through was enough to give anyone the ultimate in confidence. His humanity had trusted in God and found God worthy of that trust, the human agony of the Garden of Gethsemane was replaced by the confidence born of victory, the confidence now of knowing that God was able, in everything. Jesus’ faith, lived out in his life, was demonstrated for all time to be justified by the resurrection. Jesus’ confidence can be ours as well.
Contrast the disciples in the upper room with the story we read from Acts. It happens just a few weeks later, but after the implications of the events of the first Easter morning have been worked out by the disciples, and the Holy Spirit has come affirming their new confidence. Peter, with the other disciples alongside him, address the crowds and fearlessly make clear what has been done to Jesus and how he has triumphed. What was the source of this new confidence? There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit gave them power but the confidence came from the revelation of God as a God who resurrects, whose way of love justice and truth wins through in the end. Truly God truly makes a difference. The resurrection brought home to the disciples, that there was indeed nothing in earth or heaven beyond the power of God.
The transforming confidence-building measure was the realization that God himself was behind the resurrection, not only that he could do such things, but that he does do such things. They had seen many miracles during the ministry of Jesus, they had seen during their lives God’s power in the deeds of Jesus. Yet it was the resurrection that brought home the truth that later on Paul would write in the letter to the Romans …that “there is nothing in earth or in heaven that can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” and that “if God is for us who is against us, he who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things.”
Easter brings a confidence that became the backbone of the church through the troubled years that were ahead of it. It remains the backbone of the church today.
Followers of Jesus in every generation since have demonstrated the power of this faith. Time and again, nervous, uncertain individuals become forthright evangelists, teachers, and leaders when they discover for themselves that it is not in our own strength that we live and serve Christ, but in the strength of God who has the power and the will to bring about the resurrection. When that conviction is in our hearts we gain confidence in what we are doing, or more particularly in the one who does these things through us.
From my own church tradition, John Wesley the founder of Methodism is a classic example. He went through many years of agony as he constantly examined himself, uncertain as to either his own faith or of God’s calling to him as to how he should spend his life. When he first heard of his friend George Whitefield preaching in the open air he was dismayed and disapproving, but in a few months he was to be making that the hallmark of his ministry. The young man who went to Georgia in the United States and made such a mess of the time there became the dynamic leader of the Methodist Church who affected the whole course of history through the impact of his ministry upon the working people of Britain and subsequently on people across the world.
We too need that same confidence if we are to play our part in the mission of the church today. Much around us threatens our confidence. The media saps our confidence when it makes false or misleading assertions about the foundations of our faith and neglects the impact of faith today. The media casts doubt upon the biblical story, often neglecting contemporary scholarship that says something different. The church is presented as irrelevant.
The factors that made the disciples, nervous and uncertain about their work, and about what God was wanting of them, can equally play on us. We too need the confidence-building measures that allow us to go out and make new disciples, attract others to the church, serve in new ways for Christ. It is the resurrection that can give us that confidence. It is the resurrection that is God’s perfect confidence building measure.
The biblical story tells us time and time again that God is a God of resurrection, who lifts up the broken hearted, comforts the poor and afflicted. Joseph in prison in Egypt becomes the prince of Egypt. David the shepherd boy becomes king. Jesus the crucified is resurrected and recognized as the Son of God.
That is the God we believe in, a resurrecting God. That is the God who will lift us in the church out of our malaise, that is the God who lifts us as individuals from the despair we so often feel into the assurance of Christ’s presence with us every day, in every experience. Our church is not a team about to be relegated, we are on the winning side. So let us go out with confidence to score the goals that will make a difference not only to the church, but even more to the world we live in, a world that so desperately needs the message of Jesus today.
Words from the hymn we will sing in a moment:
You always stand among us,
no doors can lock you out.
Your presence reassures us
though we still live with doubt.
As present day disciples,
whose lives by sin are flawed,
we want to come believing,
and cry “my Lord, my God!”
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain (CH4 417)
The strife is o’er, the battle done (CH4 412)
How often we, like Thomas, need proof before we trust (CH4 432)
All heaven declares the glory of the risen Lord (CH4 426)
The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad (CH4 413)