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Sermon preached at Canterbury Cathedral

Posted on: April 14, 2002 11:21 AM

Meeting of The Primates of The Anglican Communion
International Study Centre, Canterbury
10th–17th April 2002

Sermon preached at Canterbury Cathedral
on Sunday, 14th April 2002
during the Eucharist Service at 11:00am

By The Most Revd Dr David M Gitari – Kenya

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
John 20:29 (b)
"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see"
Hebrews 11:1

The Gospel which has just been read from Luke 24: 13-36 records the story of two disciples who were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday who were joined by the Risen Christ but did not recognise him until Jesus took bread, gave thanks to God and broke it and began to give it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognised him and he disappeared from their sight. They got up and returned to Jerusalem to tell the eleven that they had seen the Risen Christ. It is interesting that Eusebius the historian suggests that Cleopas was the brother of Joseph the father of Jesus and yet he could not recognise his nephew until he broke the bread!

When the Risen Lord joined Cleopas and his fellow traveller, he asked them "What are you discussing together as you walk along?" Cleopas asked him "Are you the only one living in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?" "What things?" Jesus asked. Cleopas replied "About Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet powerful in words and deeds before God and people." The Chief Priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel….." Luke 24: 17-21 (a)

It is very clear from the Gospels that the disciples of Jesus completely misunderstood his main theme of his preaching, which Mark summarises as "The time has come, the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news" Mark 1:15. For three years the disciples understood the kingdom of God as earthly political expulsion of the Roman colonialists from Palestine and his becoming the head of the new Jewish kingdom. Even after resurrection, and just before his ascension the disciples were still asking the Risen Lord, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel" Acts 1:6

The twelve disciples must have assumed that once Jesus expelled the Roman colonialists and he restores the kingdom to Israel they would be the right candidates to be appointed to the first cabinet of Jesus. If it were today, Simon Peter who appeared to be most gifted might have assumed that once Jesus becomes the President he was the most likely to be appointed the first Prime Minister. But there were two brothers, the sons of Zebedee who were even more ambitious than Peter. They sent their mother, Mrs Zebedee, to make a special request to Jesus, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom." Matthew 20:21. James was probably aspiring to the top position of the Prime Minister and his brother John would probably have preferred the second most powerful position of the Minister in the Office of the President without Portfolio. Andrew, who had discovered the boy with five loaves of bread and two fish had special interest in domestic affairs and could have aspired to become Minister for the Home Affairs. (John 12:21). Matthew, the tax collector would have been a good choice for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Simon the Zealot, a former guerrilla fighter, would have fitted in the Ministry of Defence and Judas Iscariot, already appointed the treasurer of the group, would have thoroughly enjoyed the Ministry of Finance or Chancellor of Exchequer. Thomas would probably have preferred to become the Minister of Science and technology for reasons I will tell you later.

But on that fitful Thursday Jesus, betrayed by one of his own disciples, was arrested by a mob sent by the High Priests and taken to his palace and all his disciples ran away except Peter who went to the High Priest’s palace and there he denied Jesus three times. On Good Friday Jesus was crucified and there was not a single disciple present except probably the beloved disciple. But a large number of women who had come with him from Galilee were present when he died at the cross and were also present when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus laid the body of Jesus in a new tomb.

That weekend must have been a most agonising weekend for the eleven disciples of Jesus. All their expectations and aspirations of holding high positions in Jesus’ government were frustrated – they felt all was over and the group was in disarray and went hiding in various parts of Jerusalem in case the authorities went looking for them. Despite the hints that Jesus had given to them the resurrection took them by great surprise.

On that first Easter morning women went to the tomb to see death only to find life. On that first Easter morning women went to weep at his tomb, only to find joy. On that first Easter morning the women went to see the end of their ministry only to find a new beginning of a new ministry in the services of the Risen Christ. Mary Magdalene went running to look for Peter and John to tell them about the empty tomb. Peter and John went running to the sepulchre and saw the empty tomb and believed. An emergency meeting was convened in the upper room on that first Easter Evening to consider the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead. The two disciples who had walked to Emmaus might also have attended the meeting to report they had also unknowingly walked with the Risen Lord and that their eyes recognised him when he broke bread. In that upper room the disciples gathered and all the doors and windows were closed because of the fear of the Jews. To their great surprise Jesus stood among them and according to the Gospel of John he said "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. And again Jesus said "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so I send you" And with that he breathed on them and said "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven, if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." John 20: 19-23

John tells us that Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with the disciples that evening. He could not be found to attend this emergency meeting. He was probably too disappointed with what had happened on Good Friday that he decided to go and mourn alone. But by removing himself from the other disciples at this very crucial time he missed the blessing the Risen Christ gave to those present – When Jesus said "Peace be with you", Thomas was not there to receive that blessing. When he breathed on them the Holy Spirit, Thomas was not there to receive that blessing, neither was he there to hear the Risen Christ give that great commission "As the Father has sent me so send I you."

When the other disciples found Thomas and told him they had seen the Lord Thomas said," Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." I told you Thomas would have fitted in the Ministry of Science and Technology in the government of Jesus. Normally a scientist does not believe until he has done experiments in the laboratory. This is the great difference between science and faith. Men and women of faith believe without seeing. Men and women of science believe only after they have seen results of their scientific experiments. There are those who hold the view that anything that cannot be proven scientifically is not worth bothering about. But in life, there are many things which are so true even if we cannot prove then scientifically. As men and women of faith we believe there is heaven even if we have never been there, we believe there is God even if we have never seen him, we believe Jesus rose from the death even if we were not there to see the empty tomb. Eros love between a boy and his fiancée or husband and a wife is a real experience, but we cannot put love into a test tube to check whether its reaction is basic or acidic. The issues of human existence are so real and out hearts long to know answers to such questions as why we were born, where are we going after this life, and what can bring peace in our troubled hearts. The answers to these questions can only be found in our encounter with our creator not in scientific laboratories however important they are in bringing about new knowledge and improving our lives on earth. That wonderful organisation of the funeral of the Queen Mother last Tuesday, organised with British precision brought home the hope of resurrection. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his inspiring sermon and here I quote him:

"Her passing was truly an Easter death – poised between Good Friday and Easter Day. In the light of the promise that Easter brings, we will lay her to rest knowing that the same hope belongs to all who trust in the One who is the resurrection and the life."

I watched the funeral service on television with keen interest but I was however surprised that though it was a lady that was being buried all the lessons and prayers were read by men and no female voice was heard.

On the following Sunday Thomas was present with the disciples in the same room. The doors and windows were again closed because of the fear of the Jews. The Risen Lord came and stood among them and told his disciples "Peace be with you." Then he invited Thomas to come forward and do his scientific experiments. "Put your finger here, see my hand, reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe" (John 20:27). Thomas was unable to leave his seat to go to do his experiments. He was so overwhelmed to see the Risen Lord that all that he could say was "My Lord and My God". This is one of the greatest confessions in the Gospels. On the positive side, Thomas was not the kind of person who could follow others in believing things he was not sure of. But once convinced, he could not turn back. Having seen Jesus Thomas could at last confess Jesus was now the Lord of his life and was indeed the divine Son of God. The tradition says Thomas was the first apostle to preach the Gospel in India and Marthoma Church in South India traces its foundation to St Thomas. He died a martyr, near Madras.

But Jesus challenged Thomas "Because you have seen me you have believed, blessed are those who believe without seeing." The most comprehensive definition of faith is found in Hebrews 11:1 "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and certainty of things not seen."

Men and women of faith must live in hope that in this hopelessly troubled world, the truth will always be triumphant. In our own life time we have witnessed changes which at one time appeared to be impossible. After almost 70 years of atheistic communism in Eastern Europe the system came tumbling down with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The apartheid system of government in South Africa based on false theology that blacks are inferior than whites and races should be kept in their own apportioned areas for separate developments, came tumbling down when Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and South Africa became a free democratic state in 1994. And as the Primate of Ireland, told us last night, after many years of conflict there is now hope of Peace in Northern Ireland.

The most worrying conflict in the world today is the Middle east and it is our prayer and hope that the Jewish and Palestinians involved in the conflict can take seriously the first Alexandria declaration of the religious leaders of the Holy land agreed on 21 January this year in a landmark conference chaired by his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and attended by religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities. The declaration states in part that and I quote:

"According to our faith traditions, killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of his Holy Name, and defames religion in the world. The violence in the Holy Land is an evil which must be opposed by all people of good faith. We seek to live together as neighbours, respecting the integrity of each other’s historical and religious inheritance. We call upon all to oppose incitement, hatred and the misrepresentation of the other.

  • The Holy Land is Holy to all three of our faiths. Therefore, followers of the divine religions must respect its sanctity, and bloodshed must not be allowed to pollute it. The sanctity and integrity of the Holy Places must be preserved, and freedom of religious worship must be ensured for all.
  • Palestinians and Israelis must respect the divinely ordained purposes of the Creator by whose grace they live in the same land that is called Holy.
  • We call on the political leaders of both parties to work for a just, secure and durable solution in the spirit of the words of the Almighty and the Prophets.
  • As religious leaders, we pledge ourselves to continue a joint quest for a just peace that leads to reconciliation in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, for the common good of all our peoples."

As the conflict continues unabated Psalm 122 remains most relevant at this moment:

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem
May those who love you be secure
May there be peace within your walls
And security within your citadels
For the sake of my brothers and friends
I will say, "Peace be within you."
Psalm 122: 6 – 8

We also pray and hope that peace and reconciliation will be found in other troubled parts of the world such as Sudan, Angola, The Republic of Congo etc.

The events of 11th September, last year reminds how vulnerable we all are including the greatest and most powerful nation on earth. That the World Trade Centre in New York, a symbol of economic power, and the Pentagon a symbol of greatest military power could so easily be attacked by pilots trained in America and with crude weapons causing fear and panic throughout the world brought home our vulnerability.

This reminds us of the words of the Psalmist:

Unless the Lord builds the house
its builders labour in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city
The watchmen stand guard in vain.
Psalm 127:1

In shocking events of today’s world Christians must not be like the doubting Thomas. We must continue being sure of things hoped for and being certain of the Peace and Reconciliation in this troubled world.

Men and women of faith must also be men and women of prayer. Jesus taught us "ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you" Matthew 7:7. This a most balanced and realistic statement Jesus said about prayer. We do not only go on our knees to seek for justice, peace and reconciliation, we must fervently pray for peace of the world today, but we must also struggle for justice. Peace Making cannot be left to the politicians alone, left on their own, they cause Hiroshimas of this world. The Politicians say "If you want peace prepare for war." But men and women of Faith will say "If you want peace work for justice and reconciliation." The troubled spots of the world will not find peace by our praying only, but we must seek peace by urging our nations to rule in justice and truth and solve problems by diplomacy and dialogue. A young man who has reached the age of marriage and locks himself in his house and prays for months for God to give him a suitable girl to marry will never get one as long as he remains locked in his house. He must pray fervently but must also go out to see and be seen. And when he finds an answer to his prayers and there is mutual agreement with her fiancée, he will then go and knock at the door of her parents and the door will be opened – the process is "ask, seek and knock."

At the time of the struggle for independence our political leaders in Africa said they were going to fight against poverty, ignorance and disease. In many African countries the war has been lost on all those three fronts. Many in Africa are poorer now than at the time of independence. This is the result of bad stewardship of resources God has given us and other negative effects of globalisation. Many children cannot go to school because their parents cannot afford fees and suffer from shortage of food and malnutrition, as the African saying goes "empty stomachs have no ears". The HIV/AIDS pandemic is a frightening reality. In Kenya we say every family is either affected or infected and the government has admitted that 700 people are dying each day of HIV/AIDS related diseases. Those not infected are affected for loss of their relatives and friends and have to care for orphans. But we have hope in God that one day this pandemic will be part of history.

The Church must pray and seek ways and means of changing the status quo. Some of our leaders want to continue ruling even when they have run out of new ideas and have ruined our nations economically, some leaders such as Kamuzu Banda of Malawi and Mabutu Sese Seko make themselves life presidents. Such leaders have the false conviction that they are indispensable. One thing I have in common with the Archbishop of Canterbury is that we are both retiring at the end of this year. We both believe that we are not indispensable for God can always find people who are capable of bringing their talents of leadership to the life of the Church and society. I also have one thing in common with the President of Kenya, we are both supposed to retire before the end of this year but his Excellence the President still wants to continue being the chairman of the ruling party. As Lord Acton said "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

In this struggle for justice and peace men and women of faith must be prepared to take risks. To come from heaven and live in this world was a risky business for the Son of God. If God has commanded us to prophesy to our respective nations we have no alternative than to obey God’s command and tell those in authority Thus says the Lord……irrespective of the risks. We believe God is still in charge of this world he created and we have responsibility to co-operate with him in making Gods will done on earth as it is in heaven – For Blessed are Peace Makers for they will be called Sons of God.

I conclude by telling a story of Blondin that Frenchman who lived towards the end of the 19th century. He became famous all over Europe for his skills in walking on tight rope stretched over the tallest buildings in cities of Europe. His fame reached America and he was invited to go and walk on a tight rope across Niagara Falls. He accepted the invitation and thousands of people went to witness Blondin walk on a tight rope across Niagara Falls. He walked from one end to the other and was given a good clap. He then said he would walk pushing a wheel barrow and he pushed it along the tight rope and reached the other end. Then he said put a sack of beans on the wheelbarrow and I will push it across Niagara Falls. He successfully pushed it from one end to the other and he was given a standing ovation by all those present. He saw a small boy of about 12 years. He asked the boy do you believe I can push a wheelbarrow with a sack of beans on a tight rope across Niagara falls? The boy said yes I saw it with my own eyes. Then Blondin told the boy to get into the wheelbarrow and he was going to push him on that tight rope across Niagara falls. The boy ran away as fast as his feet could take him. The boy believed but he did not have faith.

Faith is willingness to get into the wheelbarrow of God to take us through all the Niagara falls of this world. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and certainly of things not seen. Blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed. But that belief must be rooted in faith which is the assurance of things hoped for and certainty of things not seen.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.