Second Sunday of Easter 2011

(Acts 2: 14, 22-32; John 20: 19-31)

We have two very different readings this second week of Easter. On the one side, in our Gospel, we begin with fear and uncertainty. The disciples are “together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.” Thomas, who is not there at first, does not see the Risen Christ and demands “unless I see the nail marks in his hands…I will not believe.” On the other hand, in our reading from Acts, we have boldness and certainty. Peter preaches that “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of this fact.”

These two different readings lead us to a challenging question. The question is this: do we hide our faith away, or do we confidently preach the Gospel into our public lives? In short, are we frightened or are we bold, and why?

First of all, then, I want to consider any fear we might have about being an Easter people. I suspect any fear we might have is related to our perception of the wider cultural attitude to religion. In a certain regard, I think we have some reason to feel anxious, to feel that we ought to keep our faith and religion private, quiet, and hidden. There certainly are pressures to keep faith – any faith – private and hidden in our western culture. Let me give just one example.

You may have seen in the news over the past few weeks a series of public disturbances over religion in France. Recently, the French government has banned the public wearing of the Islamic burkha, the full-face veil. In protest, a number of Islamic women have worn the full-veil, and so we have seen their manhandling by the French police. It is hardly France’s greatest hour.

The ban on the full-veil is part of the French government’s approach to secularism, known as laïcité. Within the original idea of laïcité rests a fundamental commitment to a separation between religion and the state in order to protect the freedom of religious choice. Yet, in recent years in France, laïcité has also become increasingly bound up with a suspicion that Islamic immigrants in particular are diluting the sense of what it means to be French. Hence, the new ban on the burkha: it allegedly threatens a divide between faith, seen as a private matter, and the public square, and it is seen as culturally alien, as fundamentally un-French.

In truth, the ban has little to do with laïcité and a great deal to do with the current French discomfort about the “other”, here both the ethnic and religious “other.” Such groups may, in certain regards, show a non-compliance with certain modern western norms of bourgeois behaviour, especially the idea that faith should be Christian, private, quiet, and invisible. France is hardly alone in this discomfort. Across Europe, we can see the rise of an intolerance of Muslim minorities, disguised by an appeal to a rather vague and numinous set of western and sometimes Christian ‘values’. I have certainly seen and heard in this area some very disturbing instances of Islamophobia, an irrational fear of Islamic immigrants. Yet this type of fear of the ‘other’, when unleashed, will one day overwhelm people of any faith, including Christianity.

Before we think that, with our Established Church, we are very different to France, that we and all faiths are protected, we might want to reflect about how we actually think and act. The rise of public legal actions by British Christians against employers, councils, and third sector groups show that there is a perception that Christianity is being discriminated against and marginalised. I think that, on the whole, and considering our huge freedoms and privileges, this feeling is a false fear, but it is nonetheless real as a perception. Do you feel embarrassed or afraid to share your faith, to wear a cross, to publically talk from a Christian perspective about social and political issues? Are you afraid, like the disciples in the Gospel? We might do well to stop and ask why and if we should be so afraid after all.

I think, on the whole, that we should rather be bold. Let’s think now about what a bold faith means. The command ‘Do not be afraid’ is the root of boldness. In the Bible, visiting angels, the voice of the Lord, the resurrected Jesus give this command time after time. Do not be afraid. Be bold. Peter talks to the people gathered in Jerusalem. He is public. He is bold. He is clear and loud about the Good News of Jesus Christ.

If we know what fear feels like, what, then, does boldness look like for us? I think it looks something like this: boldness involves being a people of resurrection, of new life. We are bold when we make Christ visible. Making Christ visible in the here and now means standing alongside those who are crushed by debt, unemployment, cuts to public services, poor housing, or poverty in this area, country, and world. Making Christ visible in the here and now means standing with the vulnerable child, elderly neighbour, unemployed friend, stressed-out student, and saying we want something better. Making Christ visible means that we become the resurrection in our communities.

The challenge of the Risen Christ, then, is this: receive Christ’s peace in the fear of your locked rooms and go out, proclaim the Good News with all you do and say. Leave fear behind and live boldly as a public disciple. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you,” Jesus says. We are called in today’s readings to move from fear to joy, from behind locked doors and into the public square. The Easter message is one that can pervade our whole lives, one that is peace, the fullness of life in God. Be bold, then, like Peter in Acts, and not afraid. Preach the Gospel into and through your public lives. Amen.