The Second Sunday of Easter is one of relatively few Sundays where the same Gospel reading is specified every year, whether we are in Lectionary year A, B or C. For this reason we hear it more often than most readings and so we know it quite well. It’s all about Doubting Thomas isn’t it? But is that all it is about? Listen again to the opening words of verse 19:
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … …”
Where have we heard reference to the evening of the first day of the week before? Listen to the opening words of the Bible from Genesis 1:
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
In Chapter 22 of today’s reading we heard:
‘When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”’
In Genesis 2 verse 7 we hear how ‘the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’ and in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve ‘heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.’
These similarities are no accident, for the author of John’s Gospel is very deliberately portraying the resurrection of Jesus as the new creation. This was not the end of God’s work here on earth; it was the beginning – a new beginning, a new creation.
And the purpose of this new creation? We have been talking about it throughout Lent. It was to establish the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus and continued by … … continued by … … well, continued by whom? That’s a pretty important question, so let’s go back to the text at verse 21:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
As the Father has sent me, so I send you. The ‘you’ in this context were the disciples: the ten who were in the room at the time, Thomas who wasn’t, Matthias who replaced Judas Iscariot and, if we accept his claims, Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. This verse, so often passed over when eyes and ears are fixed on the story of Thomas, tells us of what is known as The Great Commission of the disciples, and, through them, the church. No wonder the Lectionary ensures that we hear it every year.
The Great Commission can be said to mark the point when the disciples became Apostles. The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, meaning ‘one who learns by following another’. The word Apostle, by contrast, comes from the Greek apóstolos, meaning ‘one who is sent away to convey a message to others’.
In a few minutes time, whilst saying the Nicene Creed, we shall profess our belief in what are sometimes known as the Four Marks of the Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
For some Christians, the term apostolic refers to the apostolic succession of Bishops stretching from the Apostles in an unbroken line to the Bishops of today. In the second chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, Paul says: “What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.” In this verse Paul is referring to the first three generations of the apostolic succession, the first being himself, the second Timothy and the third ‘the faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.’
This very specific view of the term apostolic is rejected by many Protestant denominations that prefer a wider definition of a Church that is built upon the teaching of the Apostles. It is an interesting, but sometimes contentious debate. Should you ever find yourself at an Ecumenical Meeting, it would be better to avoid the word apostolic in the same way as you would be well advised to avoid bringing up the subject of Europe at a meeting of the local Conservative Association.
So, going back to my question about whose job it is to continue the work of building the Kingdom of God, does this idea of apostolic succession lay the whole burden on the Bishops and let us off the hook? Not a bit of it. Admittedly, today’s account of the Great Commission from John gives little detail of what the Apostles were to do other than to forgive (or not forgive) sins, but the account in Matthew tells us rather more:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” That makes it pretty clear what our role is doesn’t it? To become disciples of Jesus and to obey everything that he commanded.
Just as the disciples graduated to become Apostles, or teachers, so we have become the disciples; the learners; the followers of Jesus. Our role in building the Kingdom of God is to be obedient to the word of God, just as Jesus was throughout his life here on earth, even to death on the cross. Often it will be hard and often we shall fail, but Jesus understood that. That is why he assured us: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is the reality, the comfort and the joy of the resurrection that we shall celebrate throughout this Easter period.