This morning’s gospel tells the story of what happened immediately following the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary of Magdala. That very evening, we are told, the remaining disciples of Jesus had regathered in a house near Jerusalem, and they have the doors locked out of fear that they will be arrested as known associates of their treasonous leader. Suddenly the risen Jesus appears amongst them saying ‘Peace be with you!’ As evidence that it is indeed Jesus, and not some kind of imposter or ghost, Jesus shows them the wounds of his crucifixion. The disciples, John tells us, were overjoyed to see the Lord.
Again Jesus says to them ‘Peace be with you!’ But now he adds ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ and breathes upon them the power we know as the Holy Spirit. In this power, he gives them a unique mission: to forgive sins as God had already forgiven their sins through the words and actions of his Son.
Now, as we gather here this morning for our final service as the St Columba’s congregation, this story would both comfort and challenge us. For it contains within it the comfort and challenge of the risen Christ himself, a Jesus who is as alive and present today - here with us - as he was for the disciples in the story.
I want you to notice, first of all, that Jesus twice appears to his disciples as they gather together on a Sunday. And what does he do when he appears? Well. He does three things. First, he blesses them with the peace and forgiveness of God. Second, he shows them that he, the very one who was tortured and crucified, has risen a new kind of body, a body of flesh and blood that bears the marks of his crucifixion, and yet it able to pass through locked doors in order to encourage and to bless. Third, breathing the Holy Spirit upon them, he gives them the very same mission he had received from his father: to forgive sins and declare the peace of God.
To a first-century audience, to John’s first audience, this is all code. It is a code that seeks to answer the question ‘where may we find life and hope when I feel abandoned and afraid?’ For that, we believe, is precisely what John’s first hearers felt. They were a small group of Gentile Christians who were no longer, it seems, welcome to worship God at their local synagogue. Because of their faith in Jesus as messiah and Son of God, they had finally been expelled. And in the wake of the Roman Empire’s first wave of anti-Christian persecution, they felt very much alone and without shelter. So, when John has Jesus appear to the disciples behind locked doors on a Sunday evening, he is seeking to address the very real and visceral concerns of his first audience. John is showing them where to find life and hope in the midst of their fear and despair. You find such things, he says, in the Jesus who greets you when you gather together as one body for Sunday worship.
For look at how John’s structures the story he tells about Jesus’ appearances to the disciples. He structures it like a first-century worship service. First there is a liturgy of gathering, a gathering of disciples from their immediate experience of alienation and even persecution. It is there that the risen Christ meets them with his first words: ‘Peace be with you’. This greeting immediately communicates to those gathered that God is on their side, that God is amongst them in Christ to heal and reconcile all the pieces of their broken lives; that while many others may have pushed them away and abandoned them, God himself has done no such thing. In Christ, God has brought them near and renewed the broken covenant so that they could ever more be God’s sons and daughters, heirs forever, with Christ, of all the blessings God had given his people from time immemorial.
Then there is a liturgy of word and sacrament, in which Christ reveals to them himself: a body broken and destroyed by the actions of evil men, and yet risen as a sign that evil will never have the last word, that the power of God’s Spirit is more powerful than the power of death. This is a word that is able to encourage everyone who feels that the broken pieces of their lives can never be brought back together, that broken minds, hearts and bodies can never be restored. This is a sacrament, an embodied story, by which the power of the risen Christ to renew hearts and minds and bodies that were dead is taken into the body that is now his church, so that even the deadest and most broken of congregations can be revived, raised, to give God glory and to serve the world for which Christ died.
Finally there is a liturgy of mission in which the now encouraged and joyous disciples are blessed with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who raised the dead Jesus to life. Here they are sent out, beyond their locked doors, into the smeared and broken world, now ready to speak and enact Christ’s mission of forgiveness and reconciliation to all who would look for such things.
The message here is clear, and it is the same message that Luke shared with his own church through the story of Emmaus: that the church meets the risen Christ, the source of all life and hope, when it gathers together for worship. What John is saying – to both his own congregation, and to ours all these years later – is this. If you, as an individual Christian, are feeling lost and confused, bewildered or doubting like Thomas the double-minded, get thee to worship! If you, as a congregation of Christians, are feeling beaten up or abandoned, forgotten by those whom you had looked to for blessing, shelter, or protection, get thee to worship! For in worship you will meet the risen Christ and he will heal and renew the faith you need to face the world once more, no matter how hostile and godless that world may appear to be. In worship you will receive from Christ a power that is able to forgive your most awful persecutors, a power than can turn even the worst of enemies into friends.
Now, I want to close with some brief reflections on what this all means for this congregation of St Columba right now, as you worship together for the last time.
First, let me repeat what I said to you on that first Sunday after we had heard the news that this building would be sold. That there is no doubt, in my mind, that the Synod has committed a grave sin here. The church which is supposed to encourage and support local congregations, the church which in its Basis of Union says that the congregation is nothing less than ‘the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ’ has, by closing this perfectly viable worshipping congregation, betrayed its own fundamental faith and doctrine. For it is in the worshipping congregation – the gathering of Christian disciples to encounter Christ in word and sacrament - that the church receives both its identity as Christian community and the power it needs to carry out its mission. A church that closes down worshipping congregations in order to preserve programmes that do not include the gathering of the church around word and sacrament will very soon cease to be a church. Such a church will very soon become, as a senior leader in another church observed in a recent conversation – little more than a property trust or a secular charity.
Second let me say, by way of affirmation, something about the undeniable vitality of worshipping here at St Columba’s. I can testify, from my own experience, that this congregation is indeed a place in which the risen Lord Jesus Christ may be encountered. As many of you know, at the times in my life when you invited me to join you here for a time, I came to you somewhat disillusioned, broken and depressed. What I found here was a group of Christians who were committed to worshipping God - to struggling with Christ in the Scriptures, and sharing with him in the healing sacrament of his body and blood. I found, too, a community that had allowed itself to fundamentally formed by this worship of Christ, a congregation in which mutual care and love for each other took first priority. A congregation that looked beyond itself to care, also, for those whom Christ loves in the wider community. A congregation that was not afraid to offer a prophetic critique when it was needed, when either church or state begin to neglect those whom Christ loves. Hear me now, my friends. The joy I found while worshipping with you here I will treasure for ever. For Christ has reached out to me here. He has forgiven my many sins, he has blessed me with peace, he has given me the power to go on in the life-long calling to be his disciple. Because of all this, St Columba’s is one of the few congregations of which I can truly say that I encountered, therein, a Jesus who is alive and real and made fully flesh.
Finally, allow me to say something about your future. Although it is true that you have suffered because of the sin of others, please don’t hang on to the hurt you feel for ever. Hear the word of Jesus to all his true followers: ‘If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’. There is a mystery here. Christ has given his disciples the power of forgiveness, of healing, of reconciliation. Therefore, if we forgive those who hurt us they are indeed forgiven. If we do not, they are not forgiven. So please, in considering the sins of the Synod, consider first your own sins and Christ’s treatment of them. If Christ’s first word to us all is one of peace and of blessing, if Christ was prepared even to die on a cross to show us how much we are loved by God, surely those of us who know this grace deep in our hearts can also forgive the sins of a Synod. The church is far from perfect. If the history of the church shows us nothing else, it shows us this! But neither am I perfect. Or, I suspect, any of you. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone! So if you are struggling, still, with the hurt of what has occurred, I encourage you to get yourself to church, to worship, to a wrestling with Jesus in word and sacrament, that you may received from him the power not only to heal yourself, but also the power to offer this healing to those who have hurt you.
So, the congregation of St Columba’s is now to be concluded. But the church of Jesus Christ lives on. For Christ is present wherever his church gathers to listen to his word and celebrate his sacraments. If you want to find the Christ who is alive, who has overcome the sting of sin and death, if you want this Christ to share his power for life and for hope and for joy with you, get thee to church! That church can no longer be the congregation of St Columba’s. But it can be some other church.
I’d like us to conclude by saying a prayer together, a prayer attributed to St Columba, for whom this church is named:
O Lord, grant us that love which can never die, which will enkindle our lamps but not extinguish them, so that they may shine in us and bring light to others. Most dear Saviour, enkindle our lamps that they might shine forever in your temple. May we receive unquenchable light from you so that our darkness will be illuminated and the darkness of the world will be made less.Glory be to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as in the beginning, so now, and forever more. Amen.
This homily was preached at the final worship service of the Uniting Church congregation of St Columba's, Balwyn, on April 27 2014, also the date of the congregation's 90th anniversary.