Easter 2 - As the Father has sent me, so I send you

A sermon preached at St George's Campden Hill by the Revd Ivo Morshead, 7 April 2013

Acts 5 v 27-32; Rev 1 v 4-8; John 20;19-25

Words from the Gospel for today:
Peace with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you. John 20 v 21

Today is known as Low Sunday. Probably so named as it is in contrast to the High Sunday of  Easter, the high point of the Christian calendar. As we sang in the Easter canticles, Christ has been raised from the dead. The tomb is empty, the disciples mystified and alone. Now on this Low Sunday we are reminded of what scripture depicts as the next happening. 'When it was evening on the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’'

As we heard in the Gospel the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, proved his presence by the showing of his wounds from the Cross and even satisfied the doubts of Thomas, absent on this first occasion, by appearing again on the second week after the resurrection. Our faith as Christians is grounded in the belief in the Resurrection and the Bible is insistent in providing witnesses to this earth shaking event. Without such belief there would be no Church or Christianity. Today, then, we are reminded of this first appearance to the disciples, of the doubts of Thomas resolved by the second appearance and of the command given to the disciples 'As the Father hath sent me, so I send you'. On this Low Sunday we are reminded of the obligation of our witness to those around us by the writer of our first lesson.

The first lesson was from the Acts of the Apostles. St Luke wrote these Acts in order to forge a link between the Gospels which are all about Jesus with his disciples working in a rural environment  and the Epistles or letters that are all about people who are part of the urban society of the Roman Empire who live in the towns in Asia such as those referred to in the second lesson from the last book of the  bible, the Revelation of St John the Divine. Acts is  the only book in the Bible that does this and is so important for that reason. What we heard read was the second arrest in 24 hours of the apostles. The previous verses had told how they had been preaching to  people in the Temple courtyard and also curing them of their illnesses. The authorities became alarmed at this threat to their authority and put all the apostles into the public prison. Miraculously, in the night, the locks in the prison were unfastened and in the morning the authorities again found them at  work for the Lord in preaching and healing. Immediately but gently on account of  the crowd who were on the side of the apostles, they sent the police to arrest them again and bring them before the council. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,”  said the High Priest. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

In Peter and the apostles defying this ban on teaching in Jerusalem, we have the beginning of  this new movement of  urban preaching. We have here too the defence of Peter in his reply to this charge of treason; “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead – whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

In this defence appears the crucial sentence of relevance to and recognisable by the Jewish Council of learned men. The reference by Peter is not to the death of Jesus crucified on a Cross but instead a direct quotation from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy chapter 21 v 22,    which says that when someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed and you hang him on a tree..’ By making this change from the reference to the tree of execution rather than to a cross of wood, Peter is drawing the Jewish people directly into the inheritance of the fruit of  Christ’s death and resurrection. He is emphasising that the sacrifice and suffering of the hanging on the Cross, or, for a Jew, a tree, brings repentance and forgiveness also to the Israelites themselves. The Gospel message is for all men and Acts shows this preaching as a first and important step.

It is in this connection, worth emphasising over and over again our Christian heritage in this United Kingdom is for all citizens. The Union Jack, our National Banner with its correct name for our national flag, is unique in the world in that it consists of three Christian symbols of Christ crucified. It consists of  united crosses, that of St George for England, the saltire of St Andrew added by James 1st and the Cross of St Patrick for Ireland added in 1801. All citizens wittingly or unwittingly witness to Christ through use of coinage bearing the sovereign's image and stamped FD - defender of the faith, by their payment of income and other taxes to the government out of which are paid the cost of chaplains to Parliament, and the House of Lords, to the armed forces, chaplains attached to our hospitals, airports, overseas embassies and our prisons. I am sure we are aware that an Anglican  bishop has the legal right to turn up at the door of  any of  her Majesties prisons at any time and be admitted to go wherever he wishes and speak to any person be they staff or inmate. Our main diocesan bishops still are very much part of  the House of Lords and play an important role in law-making or curbing government excesses in that respect. Everything related to any change in parish boundaries or details of church amalgamations and so forth have to be passed by the Privy Council and the still valid Book of Common Prayer is an Act of Parliament as were  the original rules governing the Annual Parochial Council meeting which follows this service today.

So first then in the context or our Lord’s command to the those first disciples, we give thanks for the witness and work of our forebears. They made many mistakes and were not by any means always without sin but they have left us a fine legacy which needs to be nurtured and valued and used for the good of all.

With this heritage it can be too easy to sit back and do very little ourselves. Yes, we are indeed witnesses to the risen Christ by our very presence here this morning. Others hear the bell tolling as they pass by, they can look in and see us at worship and note us going in and coming out. We need to be sustained by the Body and Blood of  Christ and to grow in our knowledge and faith all through our lives. We act as part of the Body of Christ, the family of the church in this place as we play our part in the church as a whole in its witness.

Our service will end this morning with the dismissal to go out into the world. We are bidden especially at this time to make our witness. How better expressed than in these words found in the handbag of the famous theatre director Lilian Baylis when she died;
O Holy Spirit of God come into my soul and fill me. I open the windows of my soul to let thee in. I surrender my whole life to thee. Come and possess me, fill  me with light and truth…guide me to the people I should meet or help, to the circumstances in which I can best serve thee, whether by my action or by my sufferings. But above all make Christ to be formed in me, so that he is in me , and I in him, today and for ever.

If we allow Christ to be formed within ourselves we will be fully equipped to heed the Risen Christ’s words to the disciples; Peace with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you

Holland Park Benefice