Sunday 30 March 2008

The Gift of Faith

1. “There’s no use trying,” said Alice “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the White Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”

I’m quoting from Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. The real name of this strange man was Rev Charles Dodgson. As well as writing his famous books - much more than just books for children I think - he was a Lecturer in Mathematics at Oxford University, a logician, and an ordained Deacon in the Church of England.

There’s a common theme running through all 3 of today’s readings. That theme is belief; belief that God raised Jesus from the dead; belief that his resurrection reveals him to be the Messiah, the Christ – both the Hebrew and Greek words mean the anointed one.

That belief is a hard call, isn’t it? In our common human experience, people who are dead - really dead, not just in a coma - stay dead. They don’t come back to life, walk about and talk to us. But that is what the Gospels tell us Jesus did. It seems impossible. Can we really believe it? Is this one of the six impossible things we should practice believing before breakfast like the White Queen?

Let’s look a little more closely at the readings to try to answer these questions.

2. First there’s the reading from John’s Gospel (John 20:19-31), about the apostle Thomas.

Thomas is nobody’s fool, he doesn’t take anything on somebody else’s say so, he thinks for himself. I like that!

Thomas isn’t there when Jesus appears to the other disciples on the day of his resurrection, so when they tell him their extraordinary news “We have seen the Lord!” he doesn’t believe them. He says “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But a week later Thomas is there when Jesus appears again. Jesus talks directly to him, and invites him to touch his wounds, to which Thomas responds immediately “My Lord and my God!” For all his initial scepticism, Thomas is convinced by his own senses that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Thomas is one of my heroes. I think it’s rather unfair that in the Western churches we call him Doubting Thomas. We should instead call him Believing Thomas as the Eastern churches do. He is the sort of character whose strong faith, once he was convinced by his own experience, would drive him to action. It is the living tradition of the ancient Christian communities of Kerala in South India that Thomas did indeed act on his faith; that he went there as a missionary, founded their Churches, and finally died and is buried there. Scholars have cast doubt on this, but I see no reason to offend our brothers and sisters in Christ in India by rejecting their tradition. Let us all enjoy him as the Apostle to India!

Yet there is something odd about John’s story, as there is about all the stories of Jesus after the resurrection. The risen Jesus is not quite the same as he was before. On Easter morning Mary Magdalen didn’t recognise Jesus at first; even though she knew him so well, she thought he was the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognise him either, until he blessed the bread and broke it, and then he vanished. Nor did the disciples who had been fishing unsuccessfully on the Sea of Tiberias, when Jesus appeared to them on the shore with breakfast already cooked. And in today’s reading Jesus seems to appear out of nowhere, even though the doors are locked. It seems clear to me that we can’t imagine the risen Jesus as just the re-animated corpse of the man Jesus who died on the cross. There’s a lot more to it than that!

So what are we to make of it all? Unless we reject the Gospel accounts out of hand, the disciples experienced something which they described as seeing Jesus the risen Christ: “We have seen the Lord” they say. I think we will never know just what their extraordinary experience was. And it must be futile to try to explain what happened scientifically, in terms of say physics or psychology – there just isn’t enough evidence. But that doesn’t mean that whatever happened contradicts what we have learned about the way creation works through science. We can both believe in the truth of science and believe in their experience. And we can choose to call their experience what they called it, seeing Jesus the risen Christ. But we also have to admit it is shrouded in mystery.

3. Now let’s turn to the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:14a, 22-32).

The scene is set at 9 am on the day of Pentecost; 6 weeks after Thomas declared his belief, and 7 weeks after the resurrection. The twelve have just received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and begun to speak in all manner of foreign tongues, attracting a crowd. Peter, acting as spokesman, starts to make a speech.

For the first time in public, Peter declares boldly his belief, and that of the other disciples, that God has raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” he says. And he declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, quoting from today’s psalm, Psalm 16, to show his Jewish listeners that King David had prophesied the resurrection of the Messiah:
"He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption."

We can no longer argue convincingly from biblical prophecy these days, because it doesn’t fit in with how our scientific culture understands the way the universe works. But in those days this is how everyone thought, and his words would have been very persuasive; in fact we are told he was so persuasive that 3000 new disciples were baptised that day!

What really impresses me about this is the change that has come over Peter. This is the man that only seven weeks ago denied that he knew Jesus three times and ran away, because he was afraid of what might happen to him. Yet now this ordinary fisherman is inspired to stand up in public and preach a sermon testifying to his belief that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that he is the Messiah. And by doing so he kick-starts the process that has led to countless people sharing his faith.

And Peter isn’t the only one changed. As we read on in the book of Acts, we see how the disciples pass on their faith to others; how they start to organise themselves into a Church; how they seem to be propelled by some irresistible force to go out and make disciples of all nations, just as Jesus asked them to do.

The experience of seeing the risen Christ and receiving the Spirit he promised utterly transforms his disciples. What a powerful force for change it is!

4. And so we turn to the 1st Letter of Peter (1Peter 1:3-9)

Most scholars today no longer believe this was written by the Apostle Peter; it was most likely written around AD 100, well after his death, to encourage Christians in Asia Minor in a time of persecution.

Whoever the author was, he gives us a glimpse of how the faith of Peter and Thomas and the other apostles was passed on to new generations. “Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him”. Notice how this echoes what Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And this faith of the Apostles, which Peter first declared on the day of Pentecost, has continued to be passed on, from generation to generation, until we ourselves have received it. And we in turn will pass it on to our own children and grandchildren, by the grace of God.

We should I think see this faith in Jesus the risen Christ, and our capacity to believe it, as like a magnificent gift from God, a gift which will utterly transform us if we let it, just as it did the first disciples. I think it is what allows us to be truly human. We are blessed by it!

4. Like the White Queen we have all had plenty of practice believing impossible things.

Scientists believe and tell us incredible things. Among them are these:
  • We are all made of stardust from exploding stars like our own sun;
  • We and every living thing on this planet have evolved from a common ancestor.

And so many of the everyday things we all take for granted would have seemed quite magical to Lewis Carroll, like mobile-phones and aeroplanes and computers.

We can all honestly believe, as the apostles did, that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, even though the details will always remain a mystery.

We should be awe-struck by what a powerful force for change it is to meet the risen Jesus and receive the Spirit he promised.

And we ought to thank God for the gift of faith, handed down to us from the Apostles.

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