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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 2, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 1, 2011

John 20:19-31

A breath of fresh air’

In the context of excitement over the fairytale nuptials of the dashing prince and the comely commoner, now Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, we can affirm some things. We can affirm the tremendous human capacity for empathy. We can affirm the willingness of millions to invest in a common wealth; to invest of themselves; to invest themselves in something other and bigger than themselves. There’s indomitable human daring to dream and to hope – and the embracing of a mystery that might be called the eternal in time. Watching the telecast, I was struck by all these positive things. I was moved by them. Yes, I liked Kate’s dress. But …

The pictures presented a glittering alliance of aristocracy and celebrity, the military and the state-church clergy. The “best” of the British, the glorious “elite”. Christendom. I found it confronting to see Rowan Williams involved – not surprising, I guess, but confronting. Last Sunday we read from Psalm 117 and celebrated the crucified and risen Christ as the “stone rejected by builders” become the “cornerstone” of a new temple and kin(g)dom. Friday’s pomp and ceremony invited us to celebrate a fresh-faced royal couple as the cornerstone of a class system and violent colonial order. Westminster Abbey, as commentators were quick to point out, was a scene of frenetic social climbing and patronizing handouts to commoners, charities and the homeless (well, there was a formerly homeless woman in attendance, apparently).

The homily was given by the Bishop of London who offered a warm word – safely psychological – a veil, we might say, to obscure the social and political violence. The wedding was a highly expensive and beautifully orchestrated public relations exercise. (Oh, there was also the matter of Clarence House instructing our ABC as to appropriate coverage of the event – nothing for us to laugh about, nothing at all ...) The front page heading in the Herald on Friday put it well: “United in hope for their kingdom.” Their kingdom!

None of which is to say we ought to harbour resentments or wish William and Kate anything but happiness. We ought, however, to be very wary – especially in light of the Church of England’s blessing of the occasion. On our behalf? On current settings, the Duke of Cambridge and honorary colonel in the Irish Guards will one day be Australia’s head of state and also head of the Anglican Communion. What’s at risk here is the nature and mission of the Church itself – what’s at stake is Christian belief, our trust …

In the midst of all this, we hear the Gospel for us today. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit and frightened disciples are promised peace and new courage. A new perspective on all that has threatened them, on all that has pushed them, cowering, to the margins of the empire/kingdom. Jesus administers a breath of fresh air to invigorate their resistance to glittering power and violence. The text offers us a breath of fresh air, too.

What are we supposed to believe? What are we supposed to believe in? That Jesus was God’s Only Begotten? That he rose from the dead? Is that what Thomas was having a hard time believing? In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus was a recent event for Thomas. Why, in the context of the story, then, can he not believe that God could raise Jesus? I’m not so sure the incredulity of a resuscitation was Thomas’ problem. I’m not so sure that’s what John is wanting to teach us. Perhaps it wasn’t simply that God could raise Jesus from the dead. Perhaps Thomas had trouble believing that God would raise a crucified Jesus from the dead. Why would God raise someone executed in utter shame? How could someone so utterly shamed – a non-sovereign – be the One worthy of resurrection?

Was Thomas having trouble believing that God’s Annointed would be crucified? Doesn’t that confront him, and us, with a completely shocking salvation? How could one who seemed so powerless against the violence be the one who saves us from it? Is this our breath of fresh air? A nonviolent way to end the violence?

Thomas doesn’t demand to see Jesus in order to believe. He demands to see the marks of his execution! Jesus, the wonder worker, was supposed to save his people from centuries of oppression. Jesus, the dashing prince, was supposed to help them resist the violence of the Romans. How could one who seemed so powerless against that violence be the one who is saving them from it? Impossible! God raise him in power as the Messiah, the Sovereign? He’ll believe that when he sees the nail prints and puts his hand in Jesus’ side.

When we talk about “faith in God”, it seems to be no problem for many Christians to talk in terms of a God who backs our most deeply held, our most conservative values of sanctioning violence against the people we deem bad, evil or just plain inferior. But such talk increasingly gives rise to doubts about what is really meant by “faith in God” if we profess a Sovereign who suffered violence but never dished it out. Is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ the full and true revelation of God, or not? Is there some additional event needed to save us – like a second coming of Christ (with attendant ceremony of marriage) that’s completely different from the first, namely, full of sacred, beautifully orchestrated violence? “Like Thomas, we can find it hard to believe that an executed Messiah is the One who saves us” (Paul Nuechterlein).

How could one who seemed so powerless against the violence be the one who saves us from it? Is this our breath of fresh air? A nonviolent way to end the violence?

Gene Robinson reflects: “When I was preparing for my consecration as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, I was getting a lot of death threats. Preparations were being made for the consecration security, and I was asked for my blood type, so that preparations could be made for immediately beginning medical treatment on the way to the hospital, should something violent take place. I remember saying to our two grown daughters, who were worried and anxious about my well-being, ‘You know, there are worse things than death. Some people actually never live – and that is the worst death of all. If something does happen, remember that the God who has loved me my whole life, will still be loving me, and I will have died doing something I believe in with my whole heart.’

“As I strapped on my bulletproof vest just before the service, I remember feeling blessedly calm about whatever might happen. Not because I am brave, but because God is good and because God has overcome death, so that I never have to be afraid again.”

How could one who seemed so powerless against the violence be the one who saves us from it? Is this our breath of fresh air? A nonviolent way to end the violence?

Aung San Suu Kyi, Leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy and Nobel peace prize-winner (1991) reflects: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it …

“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.

“Saints, it has been said, are the sinners who go on trying … A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.” (Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom From Fear”, The Times Literary Supplement, 1991).

How could one who seemed so powerless against the violence be the one who saves us from it? Is this our breath of fresh air? A nonviolent way to end the violence?

… Amen.