Sermon at St Mary Hadlow – Easter 2–The Resurrection of Jesus – 27th April 2014
Acts 2 vv 14a and 22 – 32 Peter tells Cornelius about Jesus
John 20 vv 19 – End Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter Day and a week later
Theme: Believing that Jesus has risen.
Introduction. Poor Thomas, thank God for Thomas! ‘Poor’ Thomas, because he has been known down the centuries as ‘doubting’ Thomas. Yet there is a strong tradition that as an evangelist he went East to India to preach the gospel and that the Mar Toma Church today was founded by Thomas. Thank God for what he did in India and thank God that he stands as an example to so many, including perhaps a number of you here, who struggle with a belief in Jesus’ resurrection. It is not easy to believe in something that is way outside our personal experience and the experience of those we meet day by day. I want to consider with you this morning something of the limits of belief, the hindrances to belief and the way to belief.
The Limits of belief and hindrances to belief. I am putting together the limits of belief and hindrances to belief as they overlap and are not readily distinguishable. In any case I can but touch on some of these negative factors.
Lack of knowledge. Firstly although people are rarely convinced and brought to faith solely though logical persuasion, a lack of knowledge of the events can be a significant hindrance. Sadly there is an increasing lack of knowledge of the basic accounts relating to Jesus’ resurrection, in particular of the four gospels. We have a duty firstly to ourselves to have a fair degree of familiarity with the gospels, to read them both to obtain an initial familiarity and then to refresh our memories; how much do we need the latter as we get older. I find also that re-reading familiar passages brings to light something new. If we are in the position of being parents, godparents, grandparents, teachers in Church or school, and that probably accounts for most of us here, then hopefully we have the opportunity to encourage those in our care to learn the basic facts whether through a direct reading of the scriptures or children’s Bible stories or The Real Easter eggs with the story enclosed. Also we should be alert to general opportunities to speak to others to help overcome the barrier of lack of knowledge. Without this fundamental platform, what is anyone going to believe in?
Conservatism. A few weeks ago a salesman was trying to persuade me to buy a marvellous device that would save me 30% on my heating bills. Firstly I wasn’t convinced that it would in fact do all that was claimed of it and secondly that at my stage of life that it was likely to be overall particularly financially beneficial. We are naturally and I think rightly, conservative. We don’t like change. This innate conservatism has to be overcome before anyone who is unbelieving becomes a true believer.
Science and faith. Thirdly there is a prevalent view that we live in a scientific age in which faith and science are incompatible. This view is I think as prevalent, or even more prevalent, amongst people of other backgrounds than science. Now Jesus’ resurrection is a unique event and science does not handle unique events as easily as events that are repeatable, that can be performed in the laboratory or observed in the natural world by more than one person, thus giving corroboration to a hypothesis. Did God act contrary to natural law in raising Jesus from the dead? The Bishop of Tonbridge in his sermon here on Passion Sunday clearly and rightly differentiated between the raising of Lazarus as revival to a continuation of life here on earth and Jesus’ resurrection in a new bodily form associated with hope for the future both his and ours. I would though have liked him to say that nonetheless the raising of Lazarus was a sign pointing to Jesus’ resurrection. Around Easter time last year there were in the Church Times several letters which in one way or another spoke or implied that God was somehow contravening or superseding the laws of creations. I felt compelled to reply to these letters that God does not contravene the laws of his own creation, albeit he may supersede our limited human understanding of natural law. Mathematical equations and functions are valuable in modelling and representing what goes on in the natural world. Many mathematical functions have what are know as points of singularity at which the value of the function changes quite suddenly from a quite ordinary, finite, value to an infinite value. I have printed out such an example with one copy here which I will put on a table if you care to view it on your way up to communion and another near the font. If it doesn’t make any sense to you don’t worry. In God’s plan of salvation it should not surprise us if there are “points of singularity” that we do not fully comprehend. By all means call these points of singularity miracles or, as St John calls them, signs, as long as in so doing we do not think of God as acting in contradiction to his own creation or that there is some essential conflict between science and faith.
Jesus a prophet. Some people accept Jesus as a prophet but no more. This is OK as a half way house if one goes on to a progressive faith in the person of Jesus who is alive today, not buried in some unidentified grave in Jerusalem. In the Lent course on the beatitudes we thought about the implications of “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness”. Tony Wedgewood Benn, the politician, who died recently, was passionate about justice. His grandfather was a Congregationalist minister, his mother was a theologian and an early proponent of the ordination of women ministers. He was no doubt influenced by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, but sadly he never progressed beyond accepting Jesus as a prophet. He never went on from believing that Jesus was a great teacher to believing in his resurrection, his divinity, his lordship. Believing in Jesus asa good teacher, as a prophet can either be a hindrance or a stepping stone to full belief.
The way to belief Enough then of the limits and hindrances to belief, let us move on from the negative side of belief to the positive side as we picture Jesus lovingly appearing to the 10, fearful, disciples on Easter Day saying to them, “Peace be with you”, then holding out his arms and showing them his pierced side and then a week later, now with Thomas present, whom he invites to see and feel his hands and put his hand into his spear wound. There is nothing like a personal experience, direct evidence, to convince the doubter. Thomas was not convinced by the reports from the 10 who said, “We have seen the Lord”, but he was convinced when he had seen Jesus. He straightaway made a firm declaration of his newly found faith as he proclaimed, ‘My Lord and my God’. He didn’t just say “Jesus, it is you after all”. No with real insight and conviction he proclaimed, ‘My Lord and my God’.
Last Sunday’s first reading was part the account of the apostle Peter telling the Roman centurion, Cornelius, about Jesus – his life ministry death and resurrection. Cornelius was already half way there. We are told that he and all his family were devout and God fearing. An angelic visitation was the cause of his inviting Peter to his home.
This Sunday’s first reading was part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. The strange events, about which I will have more to say on Pentecost Sunday, were the means of capturing the attention and interest of the crowd of already believing Jews.
People come to a personal faith in Jesus as their risen Saviour and Lord in a variety of ways. Often a committed friend is an important link in encouraging a person to come to faith. Sometimes it is through a specific answer to prayer perhaps for healing. Sometimes a significant dream or vision gives a person the necessary nudge. The Church of England has not fully emerged from a pastoral Church to an evangelistic Church. We somehow expect that people will come to faith through attendance at church, through confirmation classes or in other ways, through the structures of the Church and in part this is so. But meanwhile congregations dwindle or stagnate. In the present age we all are called to be evangelists or at least as the Apostle Peter says, to give a reason for the hope that is in us.
The starting point is for each one of us to be personally convinced of the basic truths of the Christian gospel and to be trusting in Jesus as our risen Saviour and Lord. Perhaps you have been coming to church for many years and yet have never really moved on from seeing Jesus as a good man, a great teacher or perhaps a prophet. Or may be you have only recently started attending church but you are in a similar position. May this Eastertide be a time for you to put aside the hindrances and barriers to faith and to make that further step of personal commitment and affirmation as the Apostle Thomas did on the Sunday after Easter, “My Lord and my God”. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” May we all go out today renewed in faith, to make the risen Christ known to those people who are ready to receive the good news, the Christian gospel, but who as yet are outside the fellowship of the Church.