Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Sermon Easter 2 2017

Acts 5.27-32
Revelation 1.4-8
John 20:19-31
Lent and Holy Week are a very full and busy time in the Church’s year. Come Easter Sunday evening, there’s an understandable tendency to relax. Take a breather. We’ve got through all the special services, it’s back to normal now. Judging from the number of clergy friends on Facebook who seemed to be jetting off to warmer climes on Easter Monday, that’s probably quite a widespread feeling.
But, no, if we think that Easter morning is when things go back to normal, we’ve got it wrong. If there is any day when we should think that, it is today. The Second Sunday of Easter, called “Low Sunday”. Have you ever wondered why it’s called that?
In the early Church, once Christianity had become accepted and even popular, there were large numbers of converts wanting to join. For the most part, they were all baptised together at the same time, at the long service of the Easter Vigil.
In those days, people knew how to reinforce a lesson and make things stick. And that was by having one big long party. The new Christians didn’t just go to the one impressive service at which they were baptised. They went to eight, on successive days, going through an entire week of festive religion and celebration. In fact, once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the whole of Easter Week was a public holiday. I wonder if we could suggest that as a manifesto pledge to our various political parties?
In Rome, the newly baptised would wear the white robes of the newborn throughout the week, going in public processions every day to different churches for the Easter Mass, accompanied by great throngs of the people. Each service that week was celebrated with the full splendour of Easter Day itself. It must have been almost overwhelming.
But you can’t be on holiday forever. Today, the eighth day of Easter, the newly baptised arrived at the last church of the celebration – in Rome this was St Pancras, some way outside the city. There, at the end of Mass, they took off their white robes, and resumed normal dress. The next day they would return to the daily round and common task. It must have seemed like coming down from a mountaintop experience.
So it became known as “Low Sunday”: the day when the new Christians came down from the heights of festivity and celebration, and had to get on with the job of being ordinary Christians, like everyone else, in their day to day lives.
Today’s gospel reading is always read on this day, the Second Sunday of Easter. One reason is that the key scene, in which Jesus meets doubting Thomas, is set today, a week after the Resurrection.
But another reason is that it is very appropriate for the day when new Christians come down from the mountaintop and have to go about their ordinary lives. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, is the message for today. New converts can experience a time of great joy, the absolute conviction that the Risen Lord has entered their lives and is with them. But experiences like that don’t last. Faith is needed to sustain us in the long haul, when we might or not might not feel the presence of the Lord with us.
This holds true for all Christians, not just for new ones. We may from time to time have very uplifting spiritual experiences, perhaps on a retreat or a pilgrimage. Or we may not. God may see that we do not need such experiences, or perhaps that they might be dangerous for us, if we are prone to pride. Perhaps God allows such experiences to those who are weaker in faith, to keep them going. We might reflect that in today’s Gospel reading Thomas was singled out for special treatment because he had special needs.
But whether we have such experiences or not, they don’t last. It’s like the first growth of spring, when everything bursts into new life. That new life is intended to grow and bear fruit. It can’t be fresh flowers and lively colours all the time. Maturity is a long process and quite a lot of that process is ordinary, everyday and slow. There are times when growth may seem imperceptible, although in fact things are going on under the surface.
For Thomas, today may well have been the only time that he saw and touched the risen Lord. For the rest of his life as an apostle he had to keep going by faith, however difficult or dark the times might have been. If the tradition is true that he evangelised parts of India and died there as a martyr, then that Sunday gathering in Jerusalem when he saw the Lord, a week after the resurrection, must have seemed a distant memory. It was present faith, not the memory of a mountaintop experience, that had to keep him going.
In just the same way, St Peter in the second reading today says, “rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith… may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him”.
This is an important lesson in the life of every Christian. All the great spiritual guides say the same thing. St Ignatius of Loyola, for example, says that you may have times of consolation, when you feel the presence of the Lord, and feel assured of your salvation, of being loved and cherished as a child of God. And you may have times of desolation, when those feelings are removed and God seems absent.
The important thing is to form the habit of faith and your rule of life as a Christian in times of consolation, and carry on following that rule in times of desolation. In fact, it is even more important that you should do so when God seems absent than when God seems present. Because whatever we may feel, God is never absent from us. God is still with us and working in us, and may in fact be doing more in us in times of desolation, when we are sustained by faith alone.
So, whatever you may feel, carry on saying your prayers, reading the Bible, coming to church. The Risen Lord came to the gathering of disciples on the first day of the week, as he still does, week by week, making himself known in the breaking of the bread. Here we do see him and touch him in a sacramental way, under outward signs of bread and wine. Here he nourishes us with his risen life, and transforms us into his image.
Sometimes we may feel that more strongly than others. Sometimes we might not feel it at all. Carry on anyway. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. Persistence in the practice of faith will bring its reward. The fruits that have been maturing in secret will in the end be seen, perhaps partially in this life, but fully in God’s kingdom. Because it is by believing, and not by having mountaintop experiences, that we will have life in the name of Jesus.

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