Sunday, 19 April 2020

A message of peace
when we are locked
behind doors in fear

‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ (1601-1602), Caravaggio, in the Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 19 April 2020, the Second Sunday of Easter (Easter II)

9.30 am: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick Morning Prayer

11.30 am: Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2).

The Readings: Acts 2: 14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; I Peter 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31.

There is a link to the readings HERE

The font from Saint Thomas Church in Newcastle West Co Limerick … the font is inscribed ‘One Baptism For Remission of Sins’ … the church was deconsecrated in 1958 and demolished in 1962 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Second Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as Low Sunday. In the past this Sunday has also been known as Saint Thomas Sunday, because of the Gospel reading (John 20: 19-31) recalling the story of ‘Doubting Thomas.’

In the Eastern Churches, the Sunday after Easter is known as Thomas Sunday, because of this Gospel reading.

In many places, this Sunday is also known as Low Sunday. Some say it was called ‘Low Sunday’ because today’s liturgy is something of an anti-climax after the solemn Easter liturgy and celebrations a week earlier. Some even joke that today is known as Low Sunday because this is the Sunday choirs take off after their hard work during Holy Week and Easter.

In these difficult times, many people are feeling low, feeling isolated and looking for hope. Like the disciples in the Gospel reading, they may feel they are living locked away in fear. But the Gospel reading is not just a reminder, but a triple reminder, that the primary message of the Risen Christ is ‘Peace be with you.’ In Saint John’s Gospel, this phrase has the same impact as the message of the Risen Christ in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Be not afraid.’

‘Peace be with you.’

‘Peace be with you.’

‘Peace be with you.’

We find this phrase three times in this Gospel reading. It is a phrase spoken by the Risen Christ three times, with a Trinitarian resonance that is also a reminder of the three times God says to Moses, ‘I am …,’ or the three visitors who receive hospitality from Abraham and who remind him of God’s commitment to fulfilling his plan for all creation.

This phrase ‘peace be with you’ is a saying in this Easter story in Saint John’s Gospel that identifies the Risen Christ, now living in the Glory of the Trinity, in the same way that the phrase ‘Be not afraid’ is phrase that identifies the Risen Christ in the post-Resurrection narrative in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

That phrase, ‘Be not afraid,’ keeps on being repeated by many people in this time of crisis shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic. But this other phrase of the Risen Christ, ‘Peace be with you,’ is equally significant as we try to cope with our own angst at this time, and the angst we share with our families, our friends and our neighbours.

We suspended sharing the peace as this crisis began to unfold, weeks before we decided to also shut our churches. But even before that, in some churches, we may have been guilty of being a little too glib about that phrase, ‘Peace be with you,’ when it comes to exchanging the sign of peace. We may have been be a little glib, not just with our handshake, but with what we are actually wishing each other, in our hearts.

The peace that Christ wishes for his disciples is not the usual sort of peace that we often wish one another on Sunday mornings. Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, it has become yet another saying robbed of its real significance, with no more heart-filled meaning than the shop assistant who says, ‘Have a nice day, missing you already.’

The peace Christ is bringing to his disciples this morning is not a cheap way of saying ‘Good morning lads.’ It is a peace that the Disciples sorely need. It is a peace that a traumatised society needs to hear being offered by the Church today.

The Disciples have been sorely hurt by the dramatic and traumatic events of the previous week or so. They know they are a deeply flawed body of believers.

One of them – trusted enough to hold the purse strings – has betrayed Christ, perhaps sold him for a pocket full of coins. Why, there are even rumours that he has now run off and killed himself, or that he is speculating in property with the money.

Another, a most trusted disciple indeed, has denied Christ, openly, not once, but three times, in public.

He and another disciple went to the grave on Sunday morning, but were not quite sure of the significance of the open, empty tomb. Indeed, it took a woman to wake them up to the reality of what was taking place.

And yet another disciple is refusing to believe any of this at all. He is hardly socially-distancing. Was he calling us liars? Was he ever a true believer? Was he thinking of quitting? After all, he had not turned up for a few of the last meetings.

It is to this deeply divided, hurt and self-isolating body of Disciples that Christ comes, breaking through all the barriers, physical barriers and barriers of faith, and says to them, not once but three times, ‘Peace be with you.’ It is not a mere greeting. It is a wish, a prayer and a blessing for those Disciples. And it is a wish, a prayer, a blessing that Christ still has for his Church today.

We are like those Disciples: mutually suspicious, feeling isolated, thinking others may not have realised the full significance of the message of the Risen Christ; perhaps making demanding on others that we would not demand of ourselves.

If we keep our eyes on the Risen Christ, rather than nurturing our fears and our phobias, then we might allow ourselves to see that the same Risen Christ breaks through all barriers, physical, geographical, spiritual, the barriers of time and space, and the barriers that separate us one from another.

The Risen Christ breaks through all those barriers and sees a future when we are gathered together into one, healed and whole body.

Let us pray that we may be true witnesses to the Risen Christ, that as the Body of Christ we reflect not the broken body on the Cross, but the Risen Christ, and that we are not afraid to rejoice in the message of the Risen Christ, ‘Peace be with you!’ … ‘Be not afraid.’

As the Disciples of the Risen Lord, we cannot stay locked away in the Upper Room waiting for God to put everything right at the end of days. We must take courage from the Risen Christ, we must have an Easter faith that allows us to take to heart that message ‘Be not afraid,’ and look forward to going out with his message, ‘Peace be with you.’

In the Epistle reading (I Peter 1: 3-9), Saint Peter tells his readers that even though we may be suffering in our present circumstances, what we have in our faith is more precious than all we may possess. These sufferings refine our faith, as gold is refined in heat. We can have faith in Christ, even though we cannot see him now, and in the end we will rejoice with him.

The Second Sunday of Easter is traditionally called ‘Low Sunday.’ But we need not be low in spirit; instead, we can be in high spirits because of the Risen Christ. ‘Peace be with you!’

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Saint Thomas … an icon in the chapel of Saint Columba House retreat centre in Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

John 20: 19-31 (NRSVA):

19 When it was evening on that day, 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.’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27 Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28 Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29 Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Saint Thomas the Apostle in a stained-glass window

Liturgical Colour: White

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day (Easter II):

Almighty Father,
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
Grant us so to put away the leaven
of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).

Preface:

Above all we praise you
for the glorious resurrection of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
the true paschal lamb who was sacrificed for us;
by dying he destroyed our death;
by rising he restored our life:

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God our Father,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
you have assured your children of eternal life
and in baptism have made us one with him.
Deliver us from the death of sin
and raise us to new life in your love,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessing:

The God of peace,
who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus
that great shepherd of the sheep,
through the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good work to do his will,
working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight:

or:

God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!


Patristic relics … Saint Thomas (centre), with two raised fingers, with Saint Onuphorius, covered with a fig leaf (left), and Saint Basil (right) in a cave church in Göreme in Cappadocia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

252, Alleluia, alleluia, give thanks to the risen Lord
293, Breathe on me, Breath of God
338, Jesus, stand among us
372, Through all the changing scenes of life

Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort, Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The ruins of Saint Thomas Church, the former Church of Ireland parish church at Kilronan on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, Galway Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This sermon was prepared for Sunday 19 April 2020, but was used at a celebration of the Eucharist in the Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

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