This week’s Liturgy was written by the Reverend Dorothee Büürma, currently pastor of the Salzburg UMC, an ordained minister of the United Reformed Church (UK).

The household gathers together. If you have a candle, light a candle to signify God’s presence. Ask the Holy Spirit to join you during this time of prayer.

GATHERING
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
By God’s great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

HYMN – „This Joyful Eastertide“ by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1894)
(sing along to the tune available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPR_UqjCnfw )

1. This joyful Eastertide,
away with sin and sorrow!
My Love, the Crucified,
has sprung to life this morrow:

Refrain:
Had Christ, who once was slain,
not burst His three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now has Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen;
but now has Christ arisen!

2. My flesh in hope shall rest
and for a season slumber
till trump from east to west
shall wake the dead in number:
[Refrain]

3. Death’s flood has lost its chill
since Jesus crossed the river;
Lover of souls, from ill
my passing soul deliver:
[Refrain]

OPENING PRAYER
God of the Resurrection hope, we come to you in prayer on this second Sunday of Eastertide. The Good News still rings in our ears: Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! As Eastertide continues, as our lives adapt to new patterns, as our country and the world slowly rises from its „pandemic sleep“, we ask you: Breathe your new life into our lives. May we, too, rise to new life, with new hope, a renewed faith, new possibilities and new inspiration! Amen

PSALM 16

Moment for silent reflection

John 20: 19-31

SERMON by Pastor Matthew Laferty

The lectionary—the schedule of Bible readings—assigns the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples as the reading for the Sunday after Easter. It is unique among Bible readings because it is assigned for the second Sunday of Eastertide every year; few other Bible passages are assigned every year. The story of Jesus appearing to the disciples is so important that it is assigned again this year for Pentecost on 31 May. Needless to say, the story is very familiar to us. On the evening after the resurrection, Jesus appears to disciples who are amazed to see Jesus. Thomas—also called the Twin—was absent from Jesus’ previous post-resurrection appearances (Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene at the tomb and then to the disciples in the locked room) but meets Jesus one week later. Thomas is often called Doubting Thomas because Thomas refuses to fully believe without personally seeing and touching the resurrected Jesus.

However, the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances should be framed as gracious acts which invite the disciples into God’s presence and peace and offering new beginnings.

Let’s take a few moments to reexamine the story and note some important facts.

  • First, the two appearances of Jesus (vv. 19-23 and 24-29) occur one week a part. The first appearance occurs the night of Easter Sunday (cf. v. 19). For some reason, Thomas was not present with the disciples at the first appearance. Maybe Thomas went to purchase food or supplies for the group, or possibly Thomas was overwhelmed by emotions and needed a break from the disciples. Jesus made his second appearance “a week later” (v. 26) when Thomas was with the disciples.
  • Second, the disciples were living in fear. The disciples were afraid that they would suffer the same fate as Jesus – death on a cross. And with the body of Jesus no longer in the tomb, their fear was heightened; possibly the authorities would seek them out for ‘playing games’ by removing Jesus’ body in order to claim a false resurrection. The disciples locked themselves inside a house to hide and protect themselves from the outside world.
  • Third, the disciples suffered the same unbelief that Thomas later exhibited. Mary Magdalene met Jesus post-resurrection in the garden near the tomb. John’s Gospel is clear in v. 18: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” The disciples had already heard Mary’s claims when Jesus appeared to the disciples for the first time in vv. 19-23. Yet, the disciples did not believe and rejoice until Jesus showed his hands and side. In v. 20, it is written that Jesus “showed [the disciples] his hands and side. THEN the disciples rejoiced…” (emphasis added). With Thomas’ encounter with Jesus later in vv. 24-29, I believe he reflected the same skepticism that the disciples earlier displayed in vv. 19-23. In total, three groups of people show disbelief of Jesus’ resurrection as recorded in John 20—Mary Magdalene, the disciples in the locked room, and Thomas. Essentially, everyone questioned whether Jesus truly rose from the grave.

Studying this Scripture passage during the COVID-19 pandemic, I resonate with the disciples’ experience. For the first time in my life, I find myself locked away at home, trying to shut out the world beyond my doorstep. While I am not concerned about suffering a death like Jesus, I am afraid about the future and what might happen to my life. Keep away! Self-isolate! Lock the door! Don’t go outside! No visitors please! These are all phrase perched on the tip of my tongue, ready to ward off any unwelcome intruders. Like the disciples, fear has become my daily companion. So when fear mixed with grief from the arrest and murder of Jesus, the disciples turned inward, sought the security of isolation, and became unable to see God.

But the disciples experienced the greatest surprise of their lives—Jesus appearing after the resurrection! I don’t know about you, but the shock of an uninvited visitor in my home would scare me and cause me to hide under the table. Maybe the disciples were expecting someone to come through their locked doors though certainly not Jesus. Or perhaps fear and grief desensitized them to what was happening. Regardless, Jesus’ actions demonstrate clearly what God intended for the disciples and intends for us today—we are not alone especially in times of distress, trial, and fear. While we have locked our doors and erected barriers to keep the world out, God does not desire for us to suffer in silence and feel abandoned. Rather, God in Christ chooses to be near to us and remind us of the joy, hope, and empowerment which comes from the resurrection. Like God in Christ coming down at Christmas, God in Christ draws near to us, sharing in our all of our feelings and offering us peace.

Jesus said, “peace be with you,” which is both a greeting and a gift given freely. For me, peace evokes the absence of conflict and violence, like saying ‘the house is peaceful after the siblings’ fight’ or ‘we live in a time of peace after a war.’ In my home culture, ‘peace’ is used as a forceful instruction to a restless child as in ‘peace, be still’ uttered by a frustrated parent. Sometimes I have heard people us ‘peace’ as a request to be free from disturbance, like ‘let me eat my dinner in peace.’ But these definitions of peace do not fully encapsulate Jesus’ greeting and gift of peace. ‘Peace’ is used as a greeting in Hebrew; if you ever visit a synagogue or travel to the modern state of Israel, you will hear ‘shalom’ (meaning ‘peace’) often. Jesus said “shalom alecheim” to his disciples, “peace be with or upon you”. However, the definitions of peace in English or German are inadequate to what Jesus is saying to the disciples. Shalom means wholeness, harmony, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. In offering shalom to the disciples in their fear and grief, the disciples were finally able to see beyond their emotions to experience Jesus in their midst. Shalom opened the disciples to God in Christ. Shalom also enabled them to rejoice in the resurrection and the hope and joy it brings (cf. v. 20). Astoundingly, Jesus offered shalom not once but twice to the disciples during Jesus’ first appearance, assuring the disciples that shalom is a free gift for them to receive. With the gift of shalom, Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit who would guide, sustain, and comfort them after Jesus ascended to the Father.

In this time of COVID-19, the stories of Jesus appearing to the disciples in John 20 are a powerful gift in the midst of chaos coming from the pandemic. We too may feel like the disciples, overcome by grief and fear. But alas! God is with us. God in Christ comes to us and offers the gift of peace which restores us to God, makes us whole, and enables to find the hope, joy, and power of the resurrection. God in Christ leave us the Holy Spirit so that God’s gift of shalom may be granted to all humankind across time and space, not only to the first disciples. And if you are like Thomas who was away when Jesus first appeared, don’t worry; Jesus will come and find you again and turn your unbelief into belief like Jesus did with Mary Magdalene and the disciples.

I read this preaching text every year, but this year I want the gift of peace, shalom more than ever. To my surprise, Christ’s gift of peace came to me through a short SMS from a friend. The gift of peace opened my eyes so I could know joy and hope in God. While COVID-19 is still affecting our world in serious ways, God’s gift of shalom has given me a new beginning with the strength and courage to live in the world and with the assurance of God’s presence in my life.

May we be like Thomas who cried, “my Lord and my God” when he received Christ’s shalom. And may we share Christ’s shalom with our neighbors and the entire world. Amen.

AFFIRMATION OF FAITH (read aloud)
(quoted in part from the United Reformed Church (UK)’s Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the Church ) 

We believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The living God, the only God,
ever to be praised.

The life of faith to which we are called is the Spirit’s gift
continually received
through the Word, the Sacraments
and our Christian life together.
We acknowledge the gift
and answer the call,
giving thanks for the means of grace.

The highest authority
for what we believe and do
is God’s Word in the Bible
alive for his people today
through the help of the Spirit.
We respond to this Word,
whose servants we are
with all God’s people through the years.

We accept with thanksgiving to God
the witness to the catholic faith
in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
We give expression to our faith
in ever new obedience to the Living Christ, 
our crucified and risen Lord,
who leads us in our faith
and brings it to perfection.

We affirm our intention
to go on praying and working,
with all our fellow Christians,
for the visible unity of the Church
in the way Christ chooses,
so that people and nations
may be led to love and serve God
and praise him more and more for ever.
Source, Guide, and Goal
of all that is:
to God be eternal glory.
Amen.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Let us lift our prayers to the Lord. Let us pray.

Today we pray:

For people who are fearful at this time. We think of the many people across the countries of this world, who are currently finding themselves in enclosed spaces, unable to move freely, and afraid of the dangers life holds. We pray particularly for people who are facing persecution because of their faith, their nationality or race, their political opinions, or their sexual orientation. As the risen Christ entered into a locked room, so we pray: enter into the hopeless situations in our world and speak your Peace into our lives.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

For your children in this world whose journeys in life are leading them through the valley of death at this time. Do not leave them and remember them, as they too make their way towards the eternal Kingdom of Christ. We pray for all who have lost loved ones recently and for those preparing to say their final farewells – maybe not even in person. Comfort us, as you comforted the disciples in their time of mourning and grief. Give us hope that you have overcome death and that we too will find new life in you!
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

For all Creation – especially as we approach Earth Day this week. We have noticed the wonders of Creation in the flowering of trees and plants, we have heard birds singing amid the silence of humanity.  As we have used less of the world’s resources, we have seen it return to life in ways we never imagined possible. Breathe your new life into Creation – and help us to be mindful of it. Guide humanity, as we tend your world, and help us to look after it with respect, gentleness and love.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

For other concerns, [share your personal prayers], we pray to the Lord: Lord, hear our prayer.

We ask these prayers in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we join in with the words he taught his disciples to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

BLESSING
May God surround us and fill our hearts with love.
May Christ enfold us with his peace.
May the Spirit breathe into us new hope and new life.
Wherever we find ourselves this week –
May we go in peace to love and serve our Lord.
Amen.