Second Sunday of Easter – May 1, 2011 – St. John’s
Imagine that a sociologist, say from the University of Mars, were to arrive in the United States to do a study of American society. Imagine that he were to stumble upon this gathering of Americans in this building on this morning. He would come in and wonder why these people are here on this beautiful day and not somewhere else, perhaps out on a golf course or digging in a garden. Why are these people spending this hour doing whatever they are doing here? Imagine also that the sociological study was long-range, longitudinal, as it is called, and that it was part of a study initiated 2000 years ago and carried out regularly ever since.
The sociologist would notice, of course, many differences–the place, the people, the races, the languages, the music, many of the rites; but if he were alert, he would also note what was first noticed somewhere around the year, say, 50. What was different then, and a novelty then, is what is different about this gathering today. People are gathered today to do what those people did then. It was a new thing then. If it is no longer new today, it remains different.
The Protestant biblical scholar, John Knox, once wrote that the only difference between the world as it was before Jesus of Nazareth was born and the world as it was after he had lived was that there now was a group of people called the Church. When you hear the word “Church,” do not think immediately of something apart from yourselves. Think rather of yourselves–you are the Church I am talking about, just as small groups of people assembling together were the Church of the year 50.
What made those people different then? Knox placed the difference in three things. Those people first gathered because they remembered Jesus of Nazareth. Many others might have remembered him, of course, perhaps as just another one of several failed messianic figures. This group did something more. They affirmed that his death on a cross was not the end of his story but that God had vindicated his life and teachings by raising him from the dead and making him Lord and Messiah. They said things like: “Jesus is Lord” and “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” And, finally, they rejoiced in and celebrated that in their own midst, in their hearts and in their relationships with God and with one another, was already being realized that Kingdom of grace which Jesus had proclaimed was near, and they attributed this new communion with God and with one another to the work of the same holy Spirit that had raised him from the dead.
Those three things–remembering, believing, and celebrating–and all of it centered around Jesus of Nazareth–were what set that group of people apart, and they are, centuries later, what sets this group of people–you and me–apart. We do today what they did then. We, as they, represent the difference that the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth have made and make. Of us it can or at least should be able to be said what was said of that primitive community of people described in our first reading: who were of one mind and heart, experiencing the power of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, sharing with one another so that there is no needy person among them. Of us it can or at least should be able to be said what was said in the second reading: that we enjoy the victory of God over the world, that we have been reborn as God’s children and love one another as brothers and sisters, knowing in our hearts the testimony of God’s Spirit. And of us it can or at least should be able to be said what we have heard in the Gospel: that the Holy Spirit has been breathed out upon us for our own forgiveness and for the forgiveness of others.
The Gospel, in fact, makes the linkage explicit: “You came to believe, Thomas,” Jesus says, “because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” The Evangelist even indicates that this was his purpose in writing: “These things are written so that you–my future readers–may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may have life in his name.” John the Evangelist was thinking of us here gathered as a Church dedicated to him.
What John did by writing his Gospel others have done ever since by their words and deeds. And every generation that has remembered Jesus and proclaimed him Lord and celebrated the new life his Spirit generates has made it possible for a new generation to encounter him and the challenge of believing what they believed. Now the word has come down to us, the same word, remembering the same Lord, challenging to the same faith, inviting into the same communion. If we respond in faith and in hope and in love, then there is a church here, we are a church here, and Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, continues to make a difference in the world.