Easter 2 – Freedom Day
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed.
Today is the second Sunday of Easter; the day Jesus appeared again to his disciples in the upper room, and in particular, to Thomas.
Today is, of course, also Freedom Day (South Africa’s 20th ‘birthday’). I think that South Africans in 1994 had a lot in common with those who were around Jesus.
The difficulty that the Jews had with Jesus – whether they were part of the establishment, or Zealots working against the status quo or the disciples themselves – the problem they had didn’t lie with Jesus, but with what they expected from their Messiah: what he should look like, how they expected him act, what he would teach.
That the Messiah would change the status quo was pretty much a given, whatever party you belonged to. But to what extent, and how ruthlessly was up for grabs. Much the same as South Africa in the early 90s. Apartheid had to go. That was a given for everyone, except for a few diehard denialists. But how it was to go and what would take its place was very much under discussion (to put it politely).
But whatever people thought of Jesus during his ministry, his resurrection changed everything. He could no longer be seen as someone who came to fulfil our expectations but, sadly, died in the attempt. He had to be accepted on his own terms or not at all.
Thomas saw that. He could not, would not, accept the resurrection of Jesus on the say so of others. Because, if it were true, there could be no further doubting, no half measures; it was all or nothing. And once Thomas knew for certain, he committed himself in a profound statement of faith, ‘My Lord and my God.’
And although Jesus chided Thomas, he understood and accepted Thomas’s challenge. He didn’t send a message to Thomas via one of the disciples, ‘Listen here, Thomas. If you don’t trust your fellow disciples, if you don’t believe what I told you would happen, then I can’t help you.’ No, Jesus met Thomas at his most vulnerable, so that he could believe, just as he met with Peter, and he set them free.
There are, of course, two aspects to freedom. Freedom is a first of all a freedom from something.
And let me take a moment to say something about our Freedom Day. It’s a bit like spring.
If you live in Durban or up the north coast, spring is no big deal. Winter is so mild you hardly notice the changing of the seasons. But if you live on the Highveld, or worse, in northern Europe where winter is harsh and oppressive, dark and depressing; there, spring is everything. It something to celebrate, to get excited about, to get carried away over – it’s to be celebrated year after year.
For those of us who were privileged to experience apartheid as nothing much more than a mild winter, Freedom Day is not much more than an interesting event. But my friends, let us tread very, very carefully on this special day. For the vast majority of people in this country, for people here with us today, for people we meet at work, on our streets, in our schools, in our homes, apartheid was worse than the worst winter imaginable. It was harsh, oppressive and deadly. For them, the spring of freedom is something to celebrate, to get excited about, to get carried away over – it should be celebrated with joy and delight, year after year. Let’s learn to celebrate our freedom together, and not just complain at how incomplete it might be.
So, freedom is a first of all a freedom from – freedom from oppression, poverty, abuse, ignorance, from hunger, from pain from uncertainty, ill health — freedom from any number of things that oppress us and bind us. Jesus offers us freedom from sin; from its power and its guilt.
Freedom from these things is very important. It’s fundamental. Freedom is nothing if we remain bound by abuse and oppression. There is no freedom in hunger or poverty or pain. The children of 1976 understood it. They said freedom from ignorance is nothing if we can’t be free as a people. So, ‘No education before liberation’ became their cry. Freedom from oppression.
But for freedom to be real, it has to be more than just freedom from something. You can free someone from hunger by giving them a meal. But, as the old saying goes, if you don’t teach them how to fish, they will be hungry again tomorrow. If freedom is simply a moving away, we may still remain trapped.
You can free a child from ignorance by giving her a basic education, but if there are no opportunities to develop further or to put her education into practice, she is not free.
Freedom to (responsibility)
So, the freedom Jesus brings us through his death and resurrection is not just freedom from something, it is also freedom to something.
Jesus frees us from sin. But he also calls us to a new life, to new relationships and to a new way of living. If the death of Jesus freed us from our sin, the risen Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ And he turned their attention away from their failures to the forgiveness of others.
These disciples who desperately needed the forgiveness of Jesus for their failure and fear were given the authority to forgive others. And he transformed them from broken, fearful individuals, hiding behind locked doors, into a force of love that was to transform the world in which they lived.
And he offers the same transformation to you and to me. How does it happen? Let me read to you how one writer has put it.
‘It happens when someone offers us forgiveness when we have sinned. It happens when someone loves us even though we feel unworthy of anyone’s love. It happens when the people of God love one another as Christ has loved them.
In Christ, in the fellowship of Christ, in our membership in the body of Christ, God makes us do for one another what we are unable to do for ourselves.’
Rev. Dawn Chesser, The United Methodist Church, General Board of Discipleship
The spirit of Easter
Let’s bring this home to our community.
I read a business newsletter this last week. The writer tells us about an Easter Egg Drive through which ‘children, especially in the rural areas, were treated to Easter eggs, fun, games and also a milkshake….’
But the writer gets a little carried away. He tells us that, through this initiative, ‘more than 2 000 children enjoyed the spirit of Easter.’
It’s wonderful to give poor children Easter eggs, but do we really think that is the ‘spirit of Easter’? I know everyone talks about the ‘spirit of Christmas’ as if it is all about giving and receiving presents, but everyone loves Christmas because it’s all about a nice little baby; but they really don’t know how to handle Easter, because Easter has a dark side.
Context of Easter
So, I’m afraid that we’ve been conned by the Easter Bunny. But, is spite of what you might have heard, the resurrection is not a creation of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The context of Easter is a gruesome and horrendous death. The resurrection emerges from and gives meaning to the blood-stained horror of the cross.
The resurrection doesn’t come as a happy ending to a terrible nightmare. It doesn’t chocolate coat the cross and pretend it wasn’t quite so bad. The resurrection shines a bright and holy light not on itself, but on the cross. And it says that’s where God’s love is demonstrated; that’s where God has poured out his love extravagantly, recklessly for you and for me.
The cross as a way of life
The resurrection comes at enormous cost. And the resurrection is outrageous. Because the resurrection says that the cross was not a tragic end but a way of life.
Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 16, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ (Matthew 16:24, NRSV)
And again, in Matthew 10:38–39, ‘Those who do not take up their cross and follow in my steps are not fit to be my disciples. Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.’
The spirit of Easter
That’s how many Christians lived in this country during the apartheid years. In the spirit of Easter, they put their reputation and social standing on the line; they put their future on the line; in the spirit of Easter they put their lives on the line.
How do we live today, apart from giving out Easter eggs? Don’t get me wrong. It was a great initiative, a wonderful idea. It was a generous gift of time and money on the part of many people. But don’t let’s charm ourselves into thinking that passing out Easter eggs sufficiently expresses the ‘spirit of Easter’.
Yes, Easter is rooted and grounded in love, but it’s the extravagant, outrageous love of God. Love that says to Thomas, ‘Thomas, you want to believe. But to believe, you want to invade the privacy of my wounds? You have the audacity to want to touch the wounds of my hands, and place you hand in the wound in my side? Come – touch, feel, see and believe.’
That you might believe
John 20 ends with the words we read this morning: ‘Jesus performed many other miracles which are not written down in this book. But these have been written in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you might have life.’
‘I’m not writing an interesting story,’ John tells us. ‘I’m not writing a biography of Jesus, or recording things for posterity. I have one aim in mind: so that you might believe; that you might have life.’
Jesus was effectively saying the same to Thomas and to everyone whose life he touched; and he says it to you and to me today: ‘I’m not doing this to make you feel good. I’m not doing this to show you what I can do. I want you to believe, and I will do anything to help you believe, to help you find life. I will pour out my love, I will risk the nakedness of my wounds, I will lay down my life, for one reason only: so that you might believe.’
Dare to love
That is the spirit of Easter. And that’s where true freedom lies. It is not that I am suddenly free from pain or suffering or injustice or abuse or sickness or sin. It means that I am free to offer you these freedoms; to love you as I have been loved; to love my neighbour, to love a hungry and lonely child – to love as I have been loved.
It means that we dare to love each other and to love people around us as we find them, not as we hope they will become. It means that we walk beside them in their pain, in their grief, in their oppression in their poverty, in their hopelessness; that we walk with them and share their pain and care for them in their suffering, until they are able to reach out for themselves and touch the wounds that Jesus offers, and are able to say with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God.’
I have to confess to you that I don’t know how to love like that. I have to confess, I’m afraid to love like that. I’d rather pass around Easter eggs. But I do know that that is how I have been loved. It’s how Jesus loved me on the cross; it’s how God still loves me today through the love and forgiveness of people around me. And he wants us to love like that so that others, too, might believe; so that they, also, might find life and be set free.
This was followed by Christine Jerrett’s beautiful prayer ‘Parched souls’.