You may have finished the last of your Easter eggs already, and the shelves in the supermarket where they were stacked for sale are now full of barbecue charcoal and picnic wear. But for the Church, Easter continues to be celebrated during the 50 days between Easter Day and Pentecost.
The first believers had such a powerful encounter with Christ after his death that they were changed by it. They discover a new life in him, and their experiences have continued to inspire believers through the centuries. Our readings today offers us insights into what this new life looked like.
We start with St Thomas. Poor Thomas, famous for doubting the resurrection of Jesus, when surely all he did was say what any one of us would in similar circumstances. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ When he, too, experiences the presence of Jesus alive to his faithful fellow disciples, then he believes. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,’ Jesus says.
What Thomas is not willing to accept is the testimony of other believers about the transformation that Jesus brings to their lives. And they are transformed. This rag-tangle band of rough and unsophisticated folk, who have previously been chastised by Jesus for their lack of faith, their slowness to grasp his teaching and their inability to follow the simplest of instructions (‘Watch and pray’) begins to coalesce into faithful followers who find themselves powerfully changed by all they have experienced.
For us, the experiences of fellow Christians has an important role to play in as they share with us what Jesus means to them and how they have experienced new life, a changed life, in him. Our faith is not simply passed on to us through the Bible, but also two millennia of Jesus’ followers testifying to how a life centred around him has brought them a fuller and deeper life.
One of the lovely things about our Lent course this year, as we’ve read various books of the Bible, has been to discuss our reactions to them as well as to open up and share some of the spiritual experiences we’ve had as followers of Jesus.
So one of the hallmarks of the Church since the earliest of times has been to share the impact of our encounters with Christ, and wrestle together with the challenges of faith and his calling to serve God in our lives.
Secondly, today’s reading from the book of Acts shows us another remarkable effect of the early Christians experiencing the presence of Christ in the their lives:
‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own... there was no needy person among them...’
— Acts 4.32,34 (NIV)
The first Christians are so dramatically changed by Jesus that they gave up their individualism and self-interest to share a common life. The impact of experiencing Jesus’ presence was to put themselves and their own desires aside, perhaps because they understood that the body of Christ was most fully experienced in the fellowship and unity of a community of believers who were of one heart and mind.
This is still the model for the Church, that when we encounter Christ in our worship, our scripture readings, our personal prayer lives and in breaking bread together, we become united, single-minded in serving Jesus by loving God and caring for each other and the wider world.
Finally, our other reading today, from the first letter of John, points us to another impact of encountering Christ — cultivating an honesty and humility about who and what we are. It is so easy in life to delude ourselves, in order to impress or be accepted by others. But God requires us to drop the pretences. New life in Jesus can only be experienced when we are willing to be truthful about ourselves. John writes:
‘If we say that we share in life with God and keep on living in the dark, we are lying and not living in the truth. But if we live in the light, as God does, we share in life with each other. And the blood of his Son Jesus washes all our sins away. If we say that we have not sinned, we are fooling ourselves, and the truth isn’t in our hearts. But if we confess our sins to God, he can always be trusted to forgive us and take our sins away. If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his message isn’t in our hearts.’
— 1 John 1.6-10 (CEV)
Spiritual growth and maturity comes from personal examination and self-knowledge. It means facing up to those areas of our life where we’ve been kidding ourselves and others. When we are able to be honest with God about ourselves, it follows that we can be more honest with one another, which in turn builds the kind of unity and fellowship that the early Christians experienced.
When they discovered that Jesus would always be present to them, the early believers were transformed. They shared their stories about how Jesus had changed them for the better, as Christians around the world still do, and bless each other by doing so. They became one body, united in heart and mind, sharing their possessions so that no one need do without. And they cultivated a self-awareness, an honesty and humility about themselves, because they were confident in the grace and forgiveness of God.
This is the faith into which little Zac will be baptised today. His baptism is also an initiation into the church, which continues to aspire to the example of Christ and his early followers.
We pray that he, too, will come to know union with God and the presence of Jesus in his life, through prayer, scripture and communion. As a community of faith, we stand together with him, his parents and godparents in affirming that we will do all we can to help him encounter Christ for himself.
Zac hasn’t had the easiest start in life, but as he grows stronger and healthier it is our hope that he grows to know for himself the love of God, the gentle leading of Jesus and the companionship of the Holy Spirit as he grows into his best self.