Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 8 April 2018.
One of the pitfalls of childhood is that we easily misunderstand what others are saying or doing, and equally easily we find that we have been comprehensively misunderstood ourselves.
The adults in our lives may have laughed indulgently and made encouraging noises as we bumbled around, getting more and more embarrassed as time went on. And yes, we all had to learn the hard way that ‘When you are in a hole, stop digging.’
Yet I sometimes wonder whether Jesus Himself begins to wonder at us – and how we fumble around, not just with the details and institutions of our faith, but with faith itself.
It should be so abundantly clear but somehow we get entangled with the fact and the meaning of the resurrection. Is it as one bishop put it, ‘a conjuring trick with bones’ and perhaps an exercise in wishful thinking or is there perhaps, just perhaps a little more to it?
Jesus came to the disciples who were sheltering behind a locked door and offered them His peace. Peace beyond understanding and certainly beyond capturing, bottling or manipulating. Even then the disciples were alarmed, thinking that they were seeing a ghost and the last time they had done that was at night on the Sea of Galilee, amid some pretty boisterous conditions.
Jesus came to bless them with His peace, and although they had heard rumours they still could not make sense of it. As far as they were concerned, dead meant dead and buried and after a few days the body would already be decomposing.
For them to make up a story of resurrection was so far beyond their imaginations that they might as well have developed radar and the internal combustion engine while they were at it. I have to say that the notion that the disciples contrived a tale of Jesus’ resurrection out of wishful thinking and phantasy as to be so remote as to be absurd. This would for them have been in Donald Rumsfeld’s terms, not just an ‘unknown-unknown’ but an unimaginable daydream, far beyond the realms of human contrivance. Fine for myth but not for real.
So the first thing that Jesus encountered among the assembled disciples was a state of emotional shock and in this situation they definitely needed all the peace and shalom that Jesus could offer them.
But then there is another story here, if we compare John and Pater and Thomas.
First there is John who had run with Peter to the now empty tomb and got there first. John looked in but did not enter – and yet he already believed. His eyes saw the empty tomb and the lair where Jesus had lain, together with the grave clothes – and he did not have to go in. He already believed, and this faith may have been grounded in how he knew Jesus and remembered His teaching within the context of the scriptures of the Hebrew bible.
But John saw and already believed.
Then there was Peter who went into the tomb but was none the wiser in doing so. And Peter is also an example for us for we also can go into a figurative tomb and yet see nothing. We can surround ourselves with books about prayer but do no praying; we can read books about the bible and yet not encounter the Word of God. We can immerse ourselves in the history and structures and doctrines of the church but still not encounter Jesus.
Until, that is, in His mercy and grace Jesus reveals Himself to us – and sometimes we can be at the extremity of our lives. We cannot and dare not trivialize this. But knowing about Jesus can never be a substitute for knowing Him, heart to heart and soul to soul.
And so Jesus was indeed concerned for Peter, and eventually appeared to him personally.
But if Peter then why not Thomas? Thomas had not been with the disciples when Mary Magdalene had come to them first and he had not run to the tomb that first morning. Evidently he was somewhere else, with his own issues and feelings.
And equally he had missed that first evening with the 10 disciples when Jesus first appeared to them as a group. In a sense he was already at a distance from them, and possibly disappointed at missing out on that first meeting with Jesus.
And perhaps also he was a little put out that the others had seen Jesus, even when in their excitement they told him. But to his credit he was willing to trust them and to stay with them. He would at least go half way even if he was laying it on a little with his preconditions.
But Jesus honoured and even humoured Thomas anyway. Jesus was willing to use the slack that Thomas had allowed Him, and to make Himself known.
It is easy to be superior about our own faith but the gospel tells us of some of the stages in coming to faith. Yet Jesus had a special blessing for those who believed Him without having seen Him.
These are the people who have struggled down the centuries and yet have been willing to stay with it, even despite their misgivings. Let us therefore hold them in our thoughts, especially today, those among us who may yet need some help.