“Father, in your great mercy you gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord”.

It is difficult not to think of Syria at the moment and wonder what Easter there may be for the Christian communities of Syria.
One of the people I met last week has been a regular visitor to Syria in the last few years. He was returning to Syria on Friday, knowing – better than most – just how precarious the timing would be. But for one congregation he had visited, his visit had been the first by an outside Christian for over 4 years. Being present with them was to be in solidarity with their fears and their perseverance in faith:- the opportunity to show such solidarity was compelling, more compelling than the risk involved.

Today’s Eastertide readings offer a real contrast to each other in terms of the disciples’ behaviour. In the gospel account, set on Easter day evening, we hear these words describing Jesus’ disciples: startled, terrified, frightened, doubts, disbelieving, wondering. This is a group of people whose nerves have been badly rattled. Their plans for Jesus have recently clashed head on with the raw power of the temple authorities. They have discovered painfully that their own faith, their own trust in God, are not as assured as they had assumed. They were chosen by Jesus, yes, but they have learnt that that was not for their own worthiness. They have failed him in a way that compares with the way their nation has always failed its God. They are in a very jumpy state of mind.

So, when Jesus comes and stands among them, they don’t at first see the realisation of their hopes. They don’t experience the presence of life overturning all the threat of death. They don’t feel the weight of the many witnesses to the resurrection. No, they think they are seeing a ghost – a manifestation of death not of life.
And Jesus, as ever, works hard to change their hearts.
He says to them in his characteristic way, “Peace be with you.”
He opens his tender vulnerability – his wounds – to them. He assures them that this is for flesh and blood, the very same stuff of which they are made themselves. It is for them.
And he eats with them. How remarkable is that? Can we comprehend the risen body of Jesus, that moves through walls, that is not easily recognised, that vanishes from sight, this body, this life, needing meal times? “Have you anything here to eat?”
But human beings need to eat and when we eat together we become companions. Jesus makes this band of frightened men and women companions of the risen life. Bread and fish keep recurring in the stories that bind together the new community of God’s people.

Now fast forward a few weeks – not many: two months maybe on Luke’s chronology. And listen to the disciples now. This is Peter speaking in our first reading from Acts. But John is with him. And their friends, we are told, are not far away.
Notice first where he is speaking. It is in the Temple. The very place where Jesus’ preaching 2 months before had so provoked the Temple authorities that they called on the occupying Roman power for a judicial assassination. There is no more sensitive place. If Peter and the disciples were wanting to risk everything and put their heads into the lion’s mouth, this is the place to do it. But they are not, not deliberately, wanting to risk everything. They are just coming to pray, and this happens.
They meet a man lame from birth and draw him to his feet, and they do it in the name of Jesus. Because it is given to them to do. Because they can’t do otherwise, being so aware of the presence of the Spirit of Jesus and of the gospel.
Peter’s impromptu sermon follows on.
It is a model of directness.
It’s not designed to be diplomatic. He doesn’t let his hearers feel good about themselves. “Pilate – the unjust pagan – wanted to release Jesus. But you, you rejected the Holy One and asked to have a murderer given to you.”
It is an accusation against God’s people in the place that is at the very heart of their covenant.
And by implication Peter includes himself in the indictment; he stands with the condemned people. “It is not our own power or piety that has made this man walk. … I know,” he says, “that you acted in ignorance.” And he knows because he and his companions also acted in ignorance over those days of the Passion.

There are no more hiding places – for Peter, exposed in the Temple;
for the Jews there who hear it given to them straight: “Repent and turn to God, that your sins may be wiped out.”
And no hiding place for the Jewish authorities either – the subtleties of the lawyers can’t cover up this very public giving of health to a cripple … and we heard a couple of days ago the follow on from this – Gamaliel’s warning to the council and elders:
“Keep away from these men. If it is of God, you won’t be able to overthrow them.”

And Peter does not fail to tell everyone that this is good news.
Yes, we may indeed be guilty, but God’s intent is to bless. To bless the Jewish people and, as he promised to Abraham, to bless all the families of the earth through them.

In all this drama of Acts there is no longer any hint of doubt, of fear, of ghosts.
What has made the difference?
Seeing, knowing the presence of the risen Jesus, the one whom Peter now dares to name, “The Author of Life”. Flesh and blood still, but beyond death and the fear of death.
This life holds their minds and hearts fast.
This life is always more compelling than any of the daily realities they face.
As we read later in Acts: “They rejoiced that they were considered worthy to be flogged, to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name of Jesus.”
“Father, in your great mercy you gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord”.

Here is the Easter life.
Today’s collect continues by asking that we too should have such knowledge of his presence with us that we in our turn may be strengthened and sustained and may serve.
And as we pray this, we need also to recollect that Acts includes the martyrdom of James not long after, and of Stephen for preaching, and the clash between the Jerusalem and Antioch Christians, and falling out of Paul and Barnabas, and the many towns of the Empire where Paul’s preaching of the name provokes confusion and opposition.
These too are experiences of flesh and blood in the Easter life.

So we return to today and to Syria:
“Give us such knowledge of his presence with us that we in our turn may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life.”
One story that I heard from today’s Syria was of a café on which a mortar had dropped, killing 16 people dining together.
6 months later, the owners had re-opened the café, and Christians and Muslims had gathered again – had dared to gather again – to celebrate Christmas together.

“Father, in your great mercy you gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord”.