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Touch and believe?

Easter 2

John 20, 1-19
1 Peter 1

Delivered by Rev Neil Whitehouse

Do you wish to be certain, like Thomas wished to be certain by touching Jesus?
The story of Thomas at Easter is a profound teaching for us, not to fall into the trap of seeking certainty.
Belief has two components ‘making sense’ – truthfulness is to be believed, and ‘trusting’ – living out that truth.
The trouble with believing at Easter is that it rather doesn’t make sense: resurrection is beyond belief because it is not true to our experience, nor to what present knowledge suggests possible.  It can however still be true.

So we are rather disturbed by the resurrection.  It is easier to try to forget it and follow Jesus as a great teacher. Yet this is not the story we have received, nor the explanation for how it has been passed on to us.

What I marvel at, is that even before a hundred years of Christian experience had happened, when John wrote his gospel, he is already writing to warn us of trying to touch the resurrection experience, to make it certain, beyond belief, to fact.

If touching would help us to have proof, it would relieve us of the disturbance, domesticate the resurrection (it is not, despite the French ressucité, a return to human life as before):

But I have plunged in to the deep end of what I want to say.  Lets pull back and recollect together what we heard of the gospel today.

The story, remembered, (by Q and A with congregation)

Key questions:
What does it tell us about Jesus, about the apostles, about John’s church?
(Jesus was alive but not alive in the ordinary sense (as before) and in an unpredictable manner.  The apostles were meeting in private: a safe house? Many of the early Christians wished they had met and touched Jesus.)

Why was Thomas known as the twin? 
(Twinned with the reader/hearer….standing for all of us who were not there when Jesus first appeared.

What did Thomas seek?  (Proof by touch that Jesus was alive)

This is an account that is symbolic rather than actual, and more important for that.  Wouldn’t you have wished to be there.  How close and how far. The jealousy of second hand, third hand experience as opposed to first hand.

What did Thomas receive?   (an invitation (not to touch but) to ‘see’ the wounds of Jesus Christ, and he found faith to confess, My Lord and my God.)

It was acceptable to question (not the doubting but the questioning Thomas)  unless I put my hands demands Thomas…..Important to honour the questioners, as Jesus did.

What are your questions?  Are you like Thomas?  He refused to accept the experience of others.   He demanded first hand experience.   He thought this was touch, when he was given sight.

My conclusions from this:

Do not accept the experience of others as enough.  Demand first hand experience.
Do not demand proof.   But experience for faith.

This week I attended a national Chaplains’ conference: multi-faith, spiritual resourcing, innovating,   It was a Frontier experience: cf sailors who set off to the New World, are they to be believed and followed?
We know that church-going is in decline: Head of Philanthropy of General Council stated fewer people are giving more, and will give more still.  The faith, he has, is that this will be enough to sustain the church, but ( I ask)  what form of church is going to be felt to be worth sustaining.

Feature of UCC (Anglican, Unitarian, Lutheran,) Chaplaincy is that we embrace the multifaith nature of chaplaincy/spiritual programme in a way that is not often found in other traditions.  A distinctive identity in not being so concerned to be distinct!

Hearing things like being less focused on programme and more focused on relationship networks.  Ringing bells for me, without giving me all the answers. Will the ship of the church drop off the earth because the world is flat? Or will we discover something new, wonderful, challenging and different?
I do not know.  It is scary.  It is lonely. It is misunderstood and undervalued.

If I continue the analogy, on a sea voyage there are times you leave port, times you lose sight of land, times you shout land ahoy, times you reach safe harbour. The Thomas story, warns us to resist proof, to embrace not knowing, to live with questions, or to be ‘at sea’.  ‘Happy are those who believe without seeing’.

I want especially to ask you to be faithful in letting go of the sight of land, in being church, because I know that you have already put out to sea in all that you are embracing here as a Christian community.   Go on then and do not be alarmed to lose sight of land, to have fewer bearings, like just the stars at night.  Be open as a community to not having proof, to trust God for what life in the future will be like.

This means admitting you do not know what form of Church is best, you are not certain and you are willing to let go of the things you thought were certain.

Secondly want to invite each of us as individuals to have faith in a larger Christ.
At this conference I met one of the staff members for the SCM student Christian Movement.  I naturally remembered my own participation in a large SCM conference in Edinburgh, in 1985, titled in search of a larger Christ.  This in turn was a 75th anniversary conference of a 1910 meeting with the same name when missionary units of different Protestant denominations agreed to stop competing with each other and accepting a sharing of the rest of the non-Christian world.  In 1985 we had moved a long way – indeed church had changed, to face multi-culturalism, and how Christ was known differently in different cultures, languages and theologies, a larger Christ!  A Larger Christ too, because all aspects of our lives can be imbued by this Primary relationship.

I find encouragement in this story of Thomas for Christian faith 2011, with such strong individualism, that has brought a heightened awareness of human diversity, complexity and the need for dignity and respect. Thomas was not belittled by Christ, his individual existential need was respected: but he did not receive what he thought he needed either: he received more than proof, he found faith, he found a larger Christ, saying my Lord and my God.

Let Jesus be Christ – My Lord and my God, means Jesus is larger than a human being; he stands for all of us, for humanity entirely AND how to relate to the absolute, infinite, awe-full, the Other,

One student came to me recently because she had nightmares of the angel Michael accusing her of being wicked.  She asked me sincerely, ‘is it too late’  She was living under the shadow of her mother, raised strictly Catholic, her mother had left the church but not abandoned a v strict moral code, that condemned both her and her daughter, internally.  All of this suffering, caused by the absence of a knowledge of God.   So God had become condemning, vicious, without mercy…in the face of this student’s personal life that had explored drugs and sex.  Is it too late?

I cannot prove my answer. But I can believe it, and I said so, on your behalf, on behalf of the Church, No it is not too late, never too late, that God’s Grace is good enough for all. That Jesus is a larger Christ than I can ever comprehend.

So In Easter faith, a truthful trust, calls me on, to say afresh as Thomas’s twin:
‘My Lord and my God!’

Amen.

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