Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 27 April 2014: Year A, The Second Sunday of Easter
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This week there was controversy as the Prime Minister suggested that we shouldn’t be chary of calling Britain a ‘Christian country’. Perhaps once that wouldn’t have been such a controversial idea- but it seemed to worry some people, who felt moved to write to the papers decrying the idea.In some ways, this is a Christian country, of course. Our history is infused with Christian ideas. Most of the population, when asked to define their religion, will say ‘Christian’ (far more than any other religious group, and far more than those who claim to have no religion). And, curiously, our constitution makes us a Christian country. The Queen, our Head of State, is also head of the Church of England, which is an established church- but only in England. Meanwhile, the Scottish government is about to try to write a constitution for use if Scotland becomes an independent country. Most people would expect that to be a secular constitution, as they have in France and the United States, but they will have to deal with us- for the Church of Scotland is, at the moment, constitutionally recognised as the national church in Scotland.
Of course, it’s not surprising that there is controversy about calling Scotland or Britain a ‘Christian’ country, because many people- incuding many who call themselves Christians on census forms- don’t actually worship very regularly in Christian churches, or are even members of any church. Indeed, this morning, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams correctly pointed out that in terms of the ‘practice’ of Christianity, and attendance at worship, the UK is certainly a ‘post-Christian’ society. So when politicians talk about Christian influence on society, they tend to think in terms of the social and moral influence of Christianity. I find it interesting that when I speak to folks who say they are not Christians, quite often the best parts of their morality is not very far from what we would understand as Christian morality. For example, the whole notion of human rights which we hear about so much nowadays is absolutely rooted in Christianity. To say that a person has human rights is simply another way of saying that they are created in the image of God.
Mr Cameron may have been trying to get reassure those Christians who disagreed with his gay marriage legislation by speaking about religion in the way he did last week. But when politicians talk about the influence of religion, they very often mean its moral influence, and the good works Christians do in society. Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, some of the most prominent work churches are doing in the community at the moment is running foodbanks, which people are often having to use because the government welfare system lets them down (see the graph above). Yet to be fair, perhaps David Cameron is someone who, having lost a child, has had to think a lot about faith.
Of course Christianity is about helping us to develop a sense of right and wrong, and it encourages people to be active in the community and care for their neighbours. Yet it is not only about those things. In fact, I’d go as far to suggest that these things are just responses to the message of the Gospel. For the Christianity is not, in the first instance, about morality. Christians love their neighbour and care for their communities because of the Gospel. And the Gospel is not about morality, but about salvation.
In the extract from the letter attributed to Peter which we heard earlier, the apostle begins with a greeting to the folks in the churches he’s writing to- he calls them ‘chosen’ and ‘a holy people’. And then he reminds them what it is they believe: he thanks God the Father ‘who gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death’. They are, he says, ‘receiving salvation for your souls, which is the purpose of your faith in him’. It would, I suspect, be hard for any politician to speak in quite these terms, to speak of a faith in the resurrection of Christ, and his or her hope for new life. Yet our faith in Christ’s resurrection, and the promise that, because of the resurrection, we are promised new life- this is all much closer to the centre of Christianity. All our good works and morality flow from our personal encounter with the risen Christ.
So Easter is at the very heart of our faith. Again and again in the New Testament, we read that the good news which Christians have for the world is not a set of morality, or a list of duties, but the story of Jesus, crucified and risen. Ours is an Easter faith.
Today the Easter story continues in John’s Gospel as more of Christ’s followers encounter him, alive, back from the dead. John the Gospel writer especially wants to tell us about two ocassions, for it allows him to bring us into the story. We hear of how, on the evening of the resurrection, the disciples meet together. They are furtive, secretive- they have locked the doors, afraid of the Jewish authorities. But somehow, the risen Christ appears among them, offering them peace, and the gift of the Spirit. This must have been an intense experience for those who gathered there. No doubt, afterwards, they would have gone around speaking of it to other people, excited and glad because the one who was dead has come back.
One of those who they tell the story to is one of the Twelve, one of the leading disciples, who, for some reason, was not there. With great excitement, his fellow-disciples tell Thomas, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But this is too much for Thomas: ‘Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe’. Because of these words, he’s been called ‘doubting Thomas’. But I rather admire him, for he is looking for proof for something which is inherintly unlikely- that his friend, Jesus, is back from the dead. If he is going to put his faith in Jesus, he wants to be on sure ground.
And I wonder, too, if Thomas found the certainty of the others a bit hard to bear. They had had this wonderful experience, of having Jesus appear to them and speak to them. Thomas missed that experience, and perhaps he feels the others are being a bit superior. When we speak of our faith, even when we are excited by it, even if we have had a wonderful experience of the divine we can share with people, let’s be careful with the Thomases, the ones who feel a bit left out, the ones who, for very good reason, cant’ share our confidence, because they were not there, as we were!
The Sunday following Easter, the disciples are together again- once more, behind locked doors. And this time Thomas is with them as Jesus again appears with the words, ‘Peace be with you’. And then there is this wonderful dialogue between Jesus and the disciple who wanted to know more:
Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”
There’s three parts to this dialogue, and it’s worth thinking briefly about each one.
Firstly, there are the first words of Jesus to Thomas. Thomas wanted very concrete evidence: he wanted to see the scars of crucifixion on Jesus’ body, to see the wound in his side where the Roman soldier’s spear was plunged in. And Jesus answers his questions: touch my wounds, he says to Thomas- here are my scars. Thomas encounters the risen Christ, and realises that Jesus knows what his questions are, understands why he would not believe. I think it is rather wonderful that, when the risen Christ meets with the disciples the second time, he has words especially for Thomas- the one who was left out, the one who lacked the confidence of the others, the one who had the questions. When Jesus shows Thomas his wounds, it is not to poke fun at him- he’s taking Thomas’ questions very seriously, and giving him an answer. Of course, Jesus always sought out the person who particularly needed him. There is a lesson there, I think, for us.
And secondly, there is Thomas’ reaction. It is not the cry of a beaten man: ‘OK, you win, I was wrong’, but the cry of someone who has found what he was looking for. ‘My Lord and my God!’ is a beautiful, simple confession of faith. Thomas had understood that if Jesus was, indeed, back, that had incredible implications. When he said to his friends, ‘Unless I see I will not believe’, he was indicating just how important this issue was. And not that he does see, he believes with all his heart. Because Christ is risen, Thomas understands that his friend Jesus can be none other than his Lord and his God. Thomas gets it! We ought not to call him doubting Thomas, but faithful Thomas, the one who first realised just what the implications of Easter were, and summed it up in a confession of faith and loyalty to Christ:’My Lord and my God!’
And thirdly, there is Jesus’ reply to Thomas. ‘Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!’ In fact, these are the words which draw us into the story. These words are addressed not so much to Thomas- who believed because he saw- but to us. We cannot see. We can never experience quite the same experience of the first disciples. We can only listen to them as they say, ‘We have seen the Lord’. Or rather, hear those words come down to us through many generations, until they are spoken to us. We might call this the ‘apostolic tradition’- what has been handed down to us over 2,000 years- the memories of those who first knew Jesus, gathered and written up in the New Testament, and then handed on and preached and taught down the generations. Today we hear John the Gospel writer telling of that second Sunday evening when the risen Christ met the disciples, of how he had a special word for Thomas, and of Thomas’ response in faith. And then Christ speaks once more to Thomas: ”Do you believe because you see me?’ And then these are words which draw us in, for they are words which we are meant, as it were, overhear: ‘How happy are those who believe without seeing me!’
Every generation of disciples of Jesus since the first Easter have beleive without seeing the risen Christ. We may well say we know him. We may well have had an experience, and encounter, a point at which, like Thomas, it seemed to us that Christ had a special word for us, that he answered all the questions we need to ask, that he turned out, indeed, to be worth following, worth putting our faith in.
And if we believe that Christ is risen, the implications are enormous. Death is defeated, love has triumphed, and we are promised new life. the new life begins now, as we try to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. We will seek to love our neighbour, and serve our community. He said we were to be like leaven in bread, or salt in food- we should enrich the world, bringing hope and love in Christ’s name. And we will perhaps be a puzzle to the people who wrote to the Daily Telegraph last week, who seem, oddly, to feel threated by having too much salt and leaven in our national life. For our motiviation is someone who is alive, but whom we cannot see. For the nature of our Easter faith is that we believe without seeing!
Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!
From 1 Peter 1.3-4
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo