This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 23rd April 2017. This was the first Sunday after Easter.
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Last week in course of my bringing you God’s word for Holy Friday I used a phrase which has garnered a great deal of feedback. In speaking of what the day of our Lord’s death might mean for us I quoted C. Manning Clark and his description of the spirituality of Australians as “a shy hope in the heart”. As Australians, we are not known to blow our trumpet in the world too much; unless it involves the Ashes or the Bledisloe Cup, but since neither of those trophies belong to us at present there’s little to say on the world stage. Mostly we are a people who like to go unnoticed in the world; we don’t like tall poppies and we don’t like being told what to do. Australia is not a shy nation, we never have been, but as a nation in the world we are far less brash than our nasal accents and the boisterous singing of our countrymen in European pubs might suggest. We live in a lucky country, (a phrase which was originally an insult, as if such people of us don’t deserve what we have been given), and we like to think of ourselves as a nation of battlers, pioneers, diggers, and vanquishers only so far as we have made a go of it. We are hard-fought survivors not empire builders; we are not flashy and we dislike those who are. It is in view of this that Clark addressed the spirituality of Australia. We are not a nation of flashy preachers, we are not Americans. We are not a nation of lofty cathedrals and bells and smells, we are not Europeans. Even as we have both of those things, Australia’s largest single congregation is Hillsong Church and we do of course have our cathedrals of the Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox varieties, for the most part the churchgoing of Aussies is local and hidden. We are quietly confident that we are on the side of right: like Crocodile Dundee we believe in a Jesus who has fishermen mates and we reckon he’d like us because of that. How much of this view of Australia is true, how much of it is stereotype, and how much of it was once true but is no longer so in an Australia which now resembles the culture northern hemisphere than it does the culture of the Northern Territory is not mine to say. I’ll leave that to the sociologists, I’m a theologian and a narratologist. But I think it’s an image worth looking at, and after the feedback I have had in this past week it seems like more than a few of you agree with me.
So, what is this shy hope in our hearts? Is it permissible that Christianity be “a shy hope” at all? After all isn’t Christianity all about witnessing and boldness? Isn’t our call to extroversion, extravagance, and exaltation? Aren’t Christians supposed to be the Strayan tourists in the world, loud, brash, bold, and publicly celebrating in season and out of season?
I believe the story of the Christian scriptures is that the people of Jesus are to be confident but not showy. The writer of Psalm 16, whom Peter quotes in his sermon on the day of Pentecost and names as David, has penned a song of trust and security in God. Those who trust in the Lord in reliant assurance will live lives of delight, confidence and joy. This is how we are to be: this confident reliance upon God is the Australia of the shy hope.
In John 20, following from last Sunday’s reading and speaking initially of the evening of Easter Day, Jesus appears to the ten, greets them with shalom and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, imparting to the Church the power to forgive. The purpose of the gospel is later summarised as being that those who hear it (without seeing) will believe that Jesus is Messiah, and that having heard and believed the message the life of trust in Christ brings an abundance of life. In view of this Thomas, who meets Jesus a week after Easter, (which is to say today), does not deserve his title of “doubter”. Thomas is no different to the others; recall that the men had not believed the testimony of Mary, indeed they had locked themselves away in terror until they saw Jesus personally (and somewhat miraculously) enter their locked room. Jesus demonstrated grace in showing himself 1:1 to Thomas, as he had done on Easter day to the other ten. In the same way that the revelation was given to eyewitnesses who then went and spoke of what they had seen to others who were never given the opportunity to see so now we have the gospel according to John to tell us that even though Jesus has ascended (which John does not record at all) all who hear can still believe in the written and spoken words of the evangelists.
Seven weeks after that first appearance of Jesus to the ten Peter stands up on the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the ten commandments at Sinai, and addresses the people he calls Israelites. In Peter’s day, and indeed in our own day, the Israelites were native Jews who were not priests or Levites. So, Peter is literally addressing the crowd, the common people when he tells them the story of Jesus and how his ministry amongst them had carried the evidence of God’s favour in deeds of power (dynameis). God was obviously blessing and in favour of the work of Jesus, says Peter, but you Israelites, you mob of common man, you handed him over to Rome and Rome killed him. Peter is pulling no punches here. Perhaps he is bold in the Holy Spirit’s anointing, perhaps he’s an unschooled fisherman and doesn’t know how to be polite in public address so he’s calling a “manually operated, blunt-edged, single user excavating apparatus” a “bloody spade”. It’s probably a bit of both, but at least he’s speaking plainly. He goes on to say in his straightforward manner that the same power that worked through Jesus in his life, God’s power, the power which then raised him from death, (and thereby continued to attest to his identity), that same power now courses through Peter and the 120. By that power, God’s direct empowering, the Jesus group proclaims Jesus as Messiah even as David in his day proclaimed the messiah as the message of the Lord God. The power of God in Jesus the Christ, makes his disciples bold, confident, joyous in the face of continued life on earth. We have seen Jesus raised, says Peter, therefore, we are confident (and no longer hiding in locked rooms afraid of what the Priests, Levites, and you Israelites might do to us).
This is supposed to be true of us today. As an Australian (Strayan) Christian living in Gippsland in 2017 I live without the terror of Jewish authorities. I live without terror of any authorities. In part that is because of how Australia operates as a nation in my generation, but it is also because I am filled with the spirit of God and I am living a life of freedom and confidence because of “Christ who liveth in me”. As I said a few weeks ago about the Tanakh, the scriptures used by Jews, having the overarching message of the fulfilment of a promise for home so God has showed to Peter’s Israelite audience (who knew that tradition) an instance of this in God’s faithfulness to Jesus. Jesus has been redeemed from the exile of death, into everlasting life in the land of promise.
In the letter attributed to him Peter extends the promise of God revealed in the resurrection (rebirth) of Jesus to all who trust in Jesus. We, like Christ risen, are reborn into a living hope, and into the promise of abundance in Heaven and protection on Earth. Life will be hard in days to come, there is no hiding from that fact, but God has your back and you can trust with full confidence in the promise given to you. Let the fires of the world burn away the rubbish, let that happen because you know that there is something precious within you just waiting to get out. Although you have not seen him you love him says the writer in 1 Peter 1:8, fulfilling what Jesus said in John 20:29. As early therefore as the middle of the first century the discipleship thing is seen to be working: there really are second generation believers who have heard about Jesus from the eyewitnesses and believed in their testimony. Peter and the eleven, plus the other members of that first 120 on the day of Pentecost, plus Paul and others who saw the risen Christ, went on to tell the story to others who never saw Jesus and those others believed what they were told. And they told others, and they, and they, until in our day we have none who saw the risen Jesus, or even met the apostles in person, but have believed the message of Jesus in our billions.
This is the shy hope in our hearts. We have been told that God loves the world, our world, our 2017 world, and that the evidence of that love was seen in a Bethlehem barn, a Roman cross, a garden tomb, and the eyes of the woman or man who told you that story and you believed it. It is a shy hope, almost unbelievable, but it is a sure hope too.