The Bible readings this Sunday include the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples, waiting fearfully in a closed room as they probably thought they were about to be arrested and killed as he had been. Their astonishment was total, as any of us could imagine. Jesus didn't waste any time; he needed to get these disciples to believe that he was back, in a resurrected body, and wasn't some kind of hallucination or 'ghostly spirit'. So he made sure that the disciples got to look at and touch the wounds he had suffered, including the nail holes in his hands and feet and the hole in his side where one of the Roman soldiers had stabbed him with a spear. To show that he had a working body, he requested food and ate it in front of them, before telling them that their job was to spread the Gospel, the 'Good News', to every nation on earth.
Our other Bible reading covers a period shortly afterwards. By then, the disciples had become the apostles, the ones who would carry that message. Peter speaks publicly to the Jews of Jerusalem, challenging them to recognise the evil that they had done by calling for and causing Jesus's death but, importantly, offering them forgiveness if they repented. Even at this early stage of the church, with the conspirators and the killers still alive and content with their deeds, Peter was saying that they could be saved. He had just seen his best friend brutally slaughtered, yet here he was telling them that forgiveness was theirs if they were sorry for what they had done.
The transformation was amazing in Peter, yet we know from other Bible stories that he was not alone in believing that forgiveness was there, from the grace of God. Peter himself says it many times but the other apostles say the same.
It is strange to think of these women and men, living in areas severely hostile to them, not only openly proclaiming Jesus's Good News but also forgiving the persecution that they suffered as they did so. Their courage was immense and Christians would certainly say that they were filled with the Holy Spirit, changing them from 'hole-in-the-corner' people to valiant public speakers, fearless in their determination to do as Jesus had told them.
In today's Britain, such antagonism is almost unheard of against Christians. Only those who oppose any religious belief are constantly aggressive, seeking to obliterate faith and its advocacy. In Britain, Christians instead face communities where they are seen as irrelevant and not worth any commitment of precious time. For Christianity's opponents, and that includes that which previous generations would have called 'evil', 'Satan' or 'the Devil', that's fine. Far better to have the people dismiss Christians as irrelevant, with nothing worthwhile to say, who should stick to their Sunday services and leave the world to carry on. But there is still a fear among the rich and powerful who dismiss Christianity in this manner; they know the power of the Christian message, reaching beyond immediate gratification and consumerism. They know that Jesus has plenty to say to those who abuse the old, the young, the weak, the unemployed, the exploited, the underpaid, the hungry, the cold, the refugee, the imprisoned and who benefit from privilege, corruption and sleaze.
That is why you will always hear politicians telling Christian leaders to 'keep out of politics' and will read similar headlines and editorials in the media owned by rich people and powerful companies. They fear the Christian message and no, they are not going to repent. So encouraging a way of looking at Christianity that says, 'This has nothing to do with the world we live in' is an effective way of turning people away from the Gospel. Instead it turns them into the arms of the evil and manipulative, the rich whose ambition is to get richer at the expense of everyone else, the powerful whose aim is to enjoy power forever and without control.
Strangely, in country such as Britain, this has happened. If we turn to the countries where the boundaries are clear and obvious between good and evil, between the powerful and the majority of the people, Christianity is thriving; in fact, there are drastic shortages of people to minister to them, not because the supply is drying up but because so many people have heard the Gospel and turned to Christ in hope. They are not passive either, going to church on Sundays and bowing down to their earthly masters at other times. Instead they are carrying that Christian message onto the streets and opposing their exploitation because they see it as morally wrong and an afront to God.
Can anyone envisage a Britain where that might happen? It has in the past. It is a fear of such unstoppable opposition that causes the rich and powerful to continue to peddle their line on the role of the church and the irrelevance of Christianity.
Christianity has as strong a message and a relevance today as it had in those days in Jerusalem when Peter found himself changed and the church realised its mission. It's worth giving up some of that precious time to explore and it will give more meaning to your life. Amen