Saturday, 22 April 2017

Living on the first day of the week

This week an interesting question has been raised within our Australian context, what are Australian
values?  The moment the question was asked the debates began about what Australian values might be and whether trying to define them was opening the door to racism.  As interesting as this debate may be for us trumping that insular kind of nationalistic question the gospel that we read today asks a more pressing question to us as Christians.

The question that comes to us today from the gospel of John is as simple and as complex as this, “Are you living on the first day of the week?”

“Are you living on the first day of the week?”

In John’s gospel we are told that the disciples were gathered in a locked room on the first day of the week.  Now the first day of the week is Sunday.  It is the day of resurrection.

Many of us tend to think of Monday as the first day of the week but in the Scriptures the first day of the week is Sunday.  Sunday is the first day of the week: it is the day of resurrection, the day Jesus first appeared to his disciples.

As Christian people we do not celebrate our faith and rest in God’s presence on the Sabbath, which is the last day of the week, the seventh day – Saturday.  No, we celebrate our faith on the first day of the week, on the day that Jesus rose from among the dead.  The first day of the week!  The first day of the new creation. So the question for us as Christians takes us beyond our nationalistic interests and into a deep existential question: Are you living on the first day of the week?  This is the first day of the new creation.

It is true to say that those disciples in that locked room were not yet there.  Though they were living, as we all do, in the context of the first day of the week – but they were not yet really alive.  They were not yet able to accept the news that they had received that Jesus was really risen from among the dead.

They were on the first day of the week but they were not yet really alive to the first day of the week.  It was not until Jesus came and stood among them and declared God’s peace, “shalom”, that they began to wake up to their new reality – it was in Jesus presence that they came to realise they were living on the first day of the week, that they were living in the now of the new creation.

In this new reality of Jesus’ resurrection there were implications for what it meant for them to be alive, to live as resurrection people.  I want us to reflect on three of these implications – three principles of being people who live of the first day of the week.

The first of these principles is that they were to be a people of peace.  When Jesus comes and says ‘shalom’ Jesus is declaring the ‘shalom’ of God, just as the high priest would have done on the day of Yom Kippur, the festival of atonement.

Jesus was saying to the disciples, and to us, that as people who live on the first day of the week we have been reconciled with God.  God has established mercy and peace and forgiveness.  This act of God is at the heart of the community of life in this new creation.   God’s way is a way of peace which reconciles us not only with God but with each other for often our failures to live in the light of God’s love are failures to live loving one another.

If we are to be people who live on the first day of the week, who are recipients of this declaration of God’s peace, we are called to be peacemakers.  In our relationships with family and friends, in our connections with people that we find difficult to get along with, and with the people who have wronged us personally we are to be peace makers.

So often, as humanity, our behaviour is the opposite of this, we are war mongers and power seekers.  As we listen to the news and hear the sabre rattling of world leaders, as we see the conflicts unfold around the world we see anything but peace.  God’s response to the violence of human beings, of the powers and authorities, is not more violence but in Jesus to accept the way of the cross.  The resurrection and the declaration of God’s ‘shalom’ speak to us and remind us that the violence and death we would perpetrate against one another, and God in Jesus, is not the last word.

To live on the first day of the week is to live as people who know this peace and share this peace of God by how we live.

This brings me to the second principle of living as people of the resurrection on the first day of the week.  Jesus breathes the Spirit on the disciples and says to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In the past this passage has been associated with the power of the confessional and the right of those who sit in the apostolic succession to absolve or condemn the sins of individuals.  However, forgiveness and mercy are ultimately God’s domain. So what does this mean? What is Jesus naming here when he gives this authority to the disciples?

For me the power of forgiveness or the refusal of forgiveness fundamentally shapes our lives.  When we forgive others and find reconciliation life and relationships can be rekindled, but when forgiveness is withheld or not accepted the consequences can be drastic and dire.

On a personal level when we fail to accept forgiveness we can carry feelings of guilt and anxiety and depression that make us feel worthless.  And when we fail to forgive others we carry grudges of pain and hurt sometimes through the decades as we harbour ill feelings about a long past hurt or incident.  Community is lost and love goes missing.  If you retain the sins of any they are retained.

Just as this impacts on a personal level we see the same to be true of communities and ethnic groups and races and nations.  Hurt and hate develops into war and violence.

Let us not be naïve.  Forgiveness is not an easy business.  The cost of God’s shalom is seen in Jesus death. Remember his word from the cross, “Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing.”  Our inability to accept this forgiveness and to forgive others destroys the peace that God declares in Jesus’ resurrection.

To live as people on the first day of the week is to live as forgiven and forgiving people.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he taught them to say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  This is a fundamental principle to live by if we are to live as resurrection people.

So, if we are living on the first day of the week we are people grounded in and shaped by God’s shalom, God’s peace, and by the knowledge we are forgiven and that we are called to forgive others.

I want to skip through to the end of the passage to after the declaration of Thomas which affirms another truth of living as people on the first day.  Thomas declaration is that we who live as people on the first day recognise Jesus properly as “my Lord and my God”.

With this in mind it is the last statement of the passage which informs the third principle I want to elucidate for living as people on the first day of the week.  “Through believing you may have life in his name.”  As people of the resurrection we live life in his name, in Jesus’ name.

The words of Peter's letter are helpful to us here as he reminds the people that they are people of new birth who have a living hope.  As the disciples are awakened from their state of denial and ignorance and doubt to belief in Jesus’ resurrection they are transformed.  Jesus breathes the Spirit on them and they are born from above. It is what Nicodemus had been told by Jesus in the 3rd chapter of John’s gospel.

Something fundamental has changed in their relationship with God and the disciples’ become aware of this new reality in their own lives.  Their life is to be define by the peace and forgiveness of God and how that changes their view of the world.  In living life in Jesus’ name the disciples are invited to encounter the outcome of their faith within this life, just as Peter will later write in his letter. The salvation of their souls and ours is not something to wait for but is to be encountered now – just as Jesus prayed, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, this is the third principle of living as people on the first day – to live life in Jesus’ name experiencing and celebrating the faith and salvation we are already encountering.

The question the gospel is asking is an important one, “Are you living as people on the first day of the week?”  This is more than a choice to live by a set of values but is an invitation to live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.  We might wonder about how good or bad Australian values are, depending on who defines them and how, but for us as Christians the question that should occupy our thinking is not a question of which Australian values we choose to live by but whether or not we will live as resurrection people.  Do we live as people who know God’s peace, people who are forgiven and who are forgiving, and people that through new birth live our life in the name of Jesus and even more interestingly in Jesus.

Just as the disciples were woken to this reality so too this good news is before us – Jesus is risen, God’s peace is declared, his Spirit is breathed on us, we are forgiven and we are invited to living life in his name.

Are you living on the first day of the week?  It is the day of the resurrection.  It is the first day of the new creation.  It is the day on which we celebrate.  Christ is among us in the locked rooms of our hearts and minds, let us believe and celebrate with the disciples our resurrection life and with Thomas declare our faith in the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”

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