Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 16 April 2023.
• First Reading: Acts 2: 14, 22-32 (I tell you confidently – God raised this Jesus to life and we are witnesses of it)
• Epistle: 1 Peter 1: 3-9 (Believe in Him, filled with inexpressible joy for you are receiving the end result of your faith)
• Gospel: John 20: 10-31 (Thomas’ refusal to believe – needed personal proof – ‘My Lord and my God!’)
I find it astonishing that in an age of so much rejection of faith, that folk put their faith in other things. Surely, faith is valid or it is not?
It may be a political ideology or project, a sports team, the progress of science or of humanity itself. But the faith is there – for me the question is whether it can deliver as promised and if so, just what it promises to deliver.
For us, there is also a question of what we really believe in. The liturgies and structures of the church, or its good works or its connections with the society where it operates?
For the first apostles, the matter was definitely about the resurrection of Jesus.
When He first appeared to them as a whole, He greeted them with His blessing of peace. And when they recovered from their shock, they could not contain themselves.
And Thomas got it all. WE HAVE SEEN THE LORD!! Oh dear, he had missed it. And there was a definite sense of one-upmanship about it. If they had seen Jesus, then Thomas had to go one better and inspect His wounds.
More dangerous however was his declaration that he would not believe. Refusal. Not a matter of honest doubts. This was the threat of an outright refusal. It was grumpiness taken to the next level.
And yet Jesus humoured him. ‘Have a look. Do you really want to handle My wounds? Here they are.’ And that brought Thomas back to earth. No room for doubt: only for worship and personal commitment.
Yet this is the centre of our faith. There is none other, and good works or theological games or other manoeuvres to avoid the centrality of Jesus, His death and resurrection, are all forms of evasion.
And he comes to us directly and personally. Do you believe? Will you commit? For the disciples they were being sent out on a more demanding and worldwide mission.
And they were being sent out with the same commission and authority as Jesus Himself: ‘As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.’ Nothing less.
Of course we are also surrounded with the same temptations to doubt as all generations.
In the Garden of Eden, the snake isolated Eve and then put her under pressure. Did God really say that? Is that what He really meant? Was there not another aim and purpose? Think how you will fulfil your destiny by eating the fruit, how you will achieve your potential.’
And it went on and on until she succumbed. Today the questions are the same. Did Jesus really die? Did He really rise from the dead? Perhaps this was an illusion, a fantasy, wish-fulfilment, a form of hysteria?
Are the stories of His resurrection really true? Were they not corrupted by the process of transmission down the centuries and in translation? Are we not also clutching at straws in order to escape a demanding and destructive world?
The temptation to doubt – and avoid the searching spiritual and moral issues of our time is no less with us today. For some, the doubt may be honest. For others this may be a pretext to cover other motives, not too far from Thomas’ initial refusal to believe.
Perhaps for many there are still painful memories of difficult and even damaging encounters with the church – its clergy and people – which raise up barriers to belief. And these demand ministry in one form or another.
But there is something else. Just as Mark, who we think of as the first evangelist, started with ‘Repent and believe’ so John, the last evangelist, ends with a simple but direct statement that his whole story is told so that people may believe and in believing may come to Life in Jesus’ Name.
For each of us, the encounter with Jesus is deeply personal but it is still the same Jesus who lives and speaks. Yet we are all challenged to live that faith and in doing so to share it as best we can.
There are of course alternatives – but none offer the forgiveness of sins and the overcoming of the fear of death. There may be visions of short-lived glory, revenge on enemies abroad and on the wealthy and powerful at home. There may be visions of a more honest and effective political system but all of these fade with the passing of those who promote them.
Even the project of humanity and its science and technology wilts under the pressure of worldwide exploitations and devastations by whatever regime happens to be the most successful or persuasive. And capitalism is not unique in this.
And so at the end of it all we face the question, and it will become the more demanding in the twilight of life: do we believe and is that faith still vibrant?
For one thing is certain. Just as God the Father invested everything in Jesus to redeem the world, so also Jesus has invested everything in His disciples in every age and culture.
‘As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.’