Pentecost • 4 Jun 2017

Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
John 20:19-23

Rev. Chris Udy

One of the authors
featured at the Sydney Writers Festival
was Brit Bennett,
an American author in her mid-twenties
whose first novel has won awards all over the world.
The book is called ‘The Mothers’,
and it tells the story of a complicated relationship
between two young women and a young man
who are part of a Christian community
called ‘Upper Room’.
The ‘Mothers’ in the title
are a group of older women
who care for and pray for
the other members of the congregation
and provide a sort of Greek chorus
to what’s happening around them.
This is a passage from the book
where the Mothers describe what they do.

We pray. Not without ceasing, as Paul instructs, but often enough. On Sundays and Wednesdays, we gather in the prayer room and slip off jackets, leave shoes at the door and walk around in stocking feet, sliding a little, like girls playing on waxed floors. We sit in a ring of white chairs in the centre of the room and one of us reaches into the wooden box by the door stuffed with prayer request cards. Then we pray: for Earl Vernon, who wants his crackhead daughter to come home: Cindy Harris's husband, who is leaving her because he'd caught her sending nasty photographs to her boss: Tracy Robinson, who has taken to drinking again, hard liquor at that: Saul Young, who is struggling to help his wife through the final days of her dementia. We read the request cards and we pray, for new jobs, new houses, new husbands, better health, better behaved children, more faith, more patience, less temptation.We don't think of ourselves as "prayer warriors.” A man must've come up with that term-men think anything difficult is war. But prayer is more delicate than battle, especially intercessory prayer. More than just a notion, taking up the burdens of someone else, often someone you don't even know. You close your eyes and listen to a request. Then you have to slip inside their body. You are Tracy Robinson, burning for whiskey. You are Cindy Harris's husband, searching your wife's phone. You are Earl Vernon, washing dirty knots out of your strung-out daughter's hair.If you don't become them, even for a second, a prayer is nothing but words.

“The Mothers” are very human.
They make mistakes
and they miss important cues
and sometimes they jump
to the wrong conclusions -
but they care,
and their compassion makes them wise,
and they offer both encouragement and forgiveness -
and when a Christian community can do that,
it’s coming close to what it’s meant to be.

Today, alongside Luke’s story
of the day the Holy Spirit came to Jerusalem,
we also read John's version of Pentecost –
and John’s Pentecost is quite different.

It was the evening
of the day Mary and the other women
had discovered the tomb empty -
the evening of Easter Day.
Earlier the women had told the disciples
what they’d seen:
that the tomb was empty;
that they'd been inside
and seen only the grave clothes there - but no body.
Peter and John had run to the tomb
as soon as they could
and seen for themselves also
that there was nothing in the tomb.
There was no body.
But they still hadn't seen anything of Jesus himself.

That evening
when the disciples were together in a locked room
trying to understand what was going on,
Jesus appeared to them.
He showed them his hands and his side -
and when the disciples realised
that this was Jesus, they were amazed.
Then Jesus made three statements
that have always been understood
as John's way of describing the birth of the church - because these three statements
define the life and purpose of the church.
So where Luke describes Pentecost -
nearly 50 days after Easter -
as the day the Spirit came and the Church was born -
John describes it happening
on the evening of the day of resurrection.

Jesus first said
"Peace be with you,
as the Father sent me, now I send you."
Then he said
"Receive the Holy Spirit."
And the third statement was
"If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.
If you retain the sins of any,
they are retained."

In those three statements
Jesus established the foundation
of Christian community.
First - we're
not to do our own thing,
but to continue the work that Jesus began.
The life and purpose of the church
is the life and purpose of Jesus.
Second, we
receive the Holy Spirit.
It’s a bit sad that the Holy Spirit
can sometimes seem to have been taken hostage
by fundamentalist churches
where the emphasis on marketing and spin,
prayers for financial prosperity,
and supposedly spiritual signs and wonders.
In John’s Gospel the Holy Spirit’s work
begins - not with wind and fire and noise -
but in peace.
“Peace be with you”, Jesus says;
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is the source
of guidance and creativity.
In every moment of inspiration,
in every revelation of truth,
in every new awareness of meaning,
the Holy Spirit is at work.
So when we meet together to worship,
or to make decisions
or to look for our future together,
we depend on the Holy Spirit’s inspiration,
and our origin and destination is Christ’s peace.

So we’re
sent, with the Spirit,
to be a community of
“If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven” Jesus said.
“If you retain the sins of any,
they are retained.”
Forgiveness is resurrection business.
It releases people from the living death
of condemnation and rejection and isolation -
and it restores them to life.
Forgiveness isn’t some kind of fearful tolerance
or lazy disregard for justice -
it doesn’t overlook or minimise
the hurt and damage we inflict
when we do other people wrong.
Forgiveness begins by telling the truth
about what we’ve done,
or what’s been done to us –
as the Uluru statement said this week -
but forgiveness also recognises
that life cannot go on
when we’re frozen into our memories
of bitterness and fear.
We need rise to life beyond,
and forgiveness is the only way to do it.

We are sent, with the Holy Spirit,
to be a community of forgiveness.
So - for John,
in that first appearance to his disciples
Jesus formed the church
and he gave the church its mission.

But there was a problem -
the idea of the Christian community
as a community of forgiveness
was no sooner established
than it was going to be tested.
Thomas, who had always been
a solid, dependable supporter
of the work Jesus wanted to do -
who’d even persuaded the disciples to follow Jesus
when Jesus decided he had to go to Jerusalem -
Thomas was missing
on that night when Jesus first appeared.
So when Thomas came back
the other disciples told him what had happened.
They said,
"We have seen Jesus, he's risen, he’s alive!"

Now Thomas had been with this group,
and with Jesus for three years.
He knew them well -
they were his friends, companions.
He had committed himself to them.
You might expect that Thomas
would at least have been gracious enough to say,
"Well, you know, I find that pretty hard to accept,
but if you say so then I guess it must be true."
You'd think he might trust his friends enough
to think that they wouldn't lie to him -
but instead Thomas virtually told his friends
that they are either liars or insane.
He wouldn't trust their word.
He wouldn't admit the possibility
of what they were saying,
and he showed no awareness
of what his stubborn denial
might mean for his friends.

For a while people thought of Thomas
as the 20th Century saint -
the person who best exemplified what it meant
to live in a sceptical age.
They thought of him as an honest doubter,
a kind of spiritual searcher, an agnostic -
and that seemed to fit with the mood and tone
of the modern age.
But the modern age is over.
We’re told we’re now post-modern,
and we live in a world
where modernity’s arrogance and certainty
simply no longer fit.
Whether we like it or not,
our families and friends and neighbours
see the world - and God, and faith -
in ways that are not only strange to some of us,
but may even be distressing and offensive.

Thomas didn’t share his friends’ experience
of the risen Jesus,
but that didn’t stop him
describing what his friends had seen as nonsense,
and loudly denying the hope they had found
in the resurrection.

So here - in the first week of the church's life,
with the Holy Spirit freshly stirring
in their hearts and minds,
there's a member of the church -
even a leader of the church -
who’s testing their limits
as a community of forgiveness.
Thomas is dismissing their trust and hope -
belittling their faith in the resurrection
and making outrageous demands:
I see the marks of the nails,
I put my finger
on the marks of those nails on his hands,
I put my hand in his side -
this is going a bit far isn't it ?-
I will not believe....I
will not believe.

So what did this community of forgiveness
do with difficult Thomas?
Did they gang up on him and force him to conform?
Did they tell him
that unless he believed in the resurrection
he could no longer be a Christian?
There’s no sign of that -
Thomas was obviously a follower of Jesus,
somebody who loved Jesus -
but the way he’d experienced Jesus
was different from the experience of the other disciples.

So what did the Christian community do?
Did they isolate him - ignore him,
remove him from their fellowship
saying that they could no longer associate with him
because he didn't believe as they believed?

No - that didn't happen either -
Thomas was still there with them a week later on.
He'd obviously been meeting with them
over that period of time -
still very much a part of the community,
still in communion with them
when Jesus appeared again
and again said,
"Peace be with you".
He then invited Thomas to come
and touch his hands and his side.

It’s significant to note
that there’s nothing in the text to say
that Thomas did either of those things.
There was no pressure on him to do anything;
there was no demand for him to be obedient
or to conform to the theological opinions
of the other disciples.
What changed Thomas
someone else’s influence or opinion,
it was his own experience of the risen Christ.
Despite his difficult intransigence,
Thomas was respected and treated with grace,
and because the community
did not reject or belittle him,
Thomas also met the risen Christ.

The other disciples had become,
under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration,
a community of grace for Thomas -
and maybe it was because Thomas knew - first-hand -
the power of their respect and forgiveness
that Thomas was the first,
not only to recognise Jesus as present,
but to see that in Jesus
God was being revealed in an entirely new way:
as humanity to humanity -
It was through the grace of forgiveness
that Thomas was the first to recognise
that in Jesus,
God had been living among them.

The church Jesus calls us into
is not a place
where everyone must believe and think
and speak and act the same.
Jesus gives his people the resources we need
to live together in communities
where people are different.

God calls us together
like a family round a meal table
where you expect the members
to have their own identities
and you expect differences
to lead to healthy discussion,
sometimes even dispute and argument.
What holds the family together
isn't an idea or a philosophy,
it's a relationship, and a life, and a purpose.
We share the meal provided
by the one who makes us a family;
we bring our prayers for each other, and the world,
and we remember the words of Jesus:
"Receive the Holy Spirit."
"If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.
If you retain the sins of any,
they are retained."
And "Peace be with you,
as the Father sent me,
now I am sending you." Amen.