Bishop Peter's Easter Day 2018 Sermon

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Is 55 vv6-13            John 20 vv1-20

For my thoughts are not your thoughts

Nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord

There’s an old story of an Uncle visiting his young nephews and nieces.  He decided to ask them what they thought they might do when they were grown up.  He asked one boy, who said that he would like to be an engineer.  His brother said that he thought he might be a doctor.  And then he turned to their younger sister, aged 3 or 4, who replied: ‘I would like to be God, but it’s too late to change now’.

In Christian understanding, building upon the Judaism of the Old Testament, there is a sharp distinction to be made between God who is the Creator, and the creation he has made, of which we are a part.  This is an aspect of what we call the doctrine of creation, the belief that God has created the world in a new and free act –‘out of nothing’, as Christian theology has often expressed it.  God was neither forced nor obliged to create the world.  His precise motives are hidden in the mystery of God’s own inner life.  We can say that God created out of love for the world that he decided to create, but only because all God’s actions are motivated by love, because God is love.

The ancient world, with its various fusions of Greek and Roman philosophy, assumed that in some sense the universe was eternal and had always existed, and that the being of God was part of it, at its highest level.  The aim of human beings was to escape from the limitations of being part of the physical world, in order to aspire, or ascend, to higher orders of being, and ultimately to the Divine force which somehow held everything together. 

Christianity, building upon the Judaism which had gone before it, made two decisive breaks from this ancient way of picturing the world.

In the first place, Christianity asserted that the world was created by God, and had not always existed.  It was fundamentally different and distinct from God, whose ways were not our ways, whose thoughts were not our thoughts.  God could not be portrayed or pictured as if he was part of the reality experienced around us.  He was and is intrinsically invisible to us.  That’s why the second of the ten commandments  precisely forbids any visual images or representations of God – which was a unique ban among the religions around at the time.

The invisibility of God derives primarily from the fact that he is our Creator.  We can no more picture and understand God from within the world than we can bend down and pull on our shoe laces and lift ourselves into the air.  The invisibility of God is there right at the start of the Bible in the story of creation in the Book of Genesis.  God speaks to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and they can hear him, but they can’t see him.  He speaks from the shadows, or as the Authorised Version put it, ‘in the cool of the day’.

The second decisive break which Christianity made, again building on the Judaism which had gone before it, was to assert that the world God had made was ‘very good’.  Our lives are not to find fulfilment by escaping from this world, but amid this world, in the down-to-earthness of our lives as creatures of flesh and blood.

That’s why God chose to redeem the world by becoming part of it, and living a human life as Jesus of Nazareth, loving it from within.  ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’, as St John put it in the familiar Christmas reading from his Gospel.  With this assertion, Christianity radically moved beyond its Jewish roots.

That’s why it’s so important that the tomb was empty on that first Easter Day.  That’s why, for all the sense of mystery that attended it, the risen body of Jesus was discernibly the same body which had been nailed to the Cross.  ‘God so loved the world’ – he loved this world, our lives, each of us amid our human ups and downs.

So, why did Mary Magdalen mistake the risen Jesus Christ for the gardener?  Mary Magdalen, one of his closest followers, knew just what Jesus looked like.  The same thing happens, of course, on the Road to Emmaus, when the two disciples do not recognise Jesus until they sit down to eat with him, and he breaks the bread, as he had done at the last Supper.  Why did Jesus appear to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee as the stranger on the shore?

The answer, I think, lies in the fundamental distinction between God and us – the God whose ways are not our ways.  The more that God reveals himself through the humanity of Jesus, the more mysterious that humanity must become. Inasmuch as the risen Christ represents the pure presence of the Kingdom of God on earth, the more mysterious he must necessarily become, after his resurrection 

Yet his down-to-earthness is also emphasised.  The risen Christ eats and drinks with his disciples.  When he first appears in the locked upper room he asks for something  to eat.  He cooks breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and invites the disciples to have breakfast with him.  The Church’s celebration of Holy Communion has always been seen as in direct continuity with these meals which the risen Christ ate with his disciples.

The distinction between God and us, between the Creator and his creation, sets limits to our understanding, which we just have to accept.  Yesterday saw the funeral of the remarkable scientist Stephen Hawking, who did so much to advance our scientific understanding of the universe, and of the fundamental cosmic forces which operate in it.  Our scientific knowledge of the expansion of the universe from its mysterious beginning nearly 14 billion years ago is very remarkable indeed.  A book has been written on its first three minutes, about the extremes of pressure and temperature which existed then in its highly compressed state.  But the beginning itself, scientifically, remains a complete mystery, a horizon which cannot be crossed by human effort.  There will always be much speculation about the initial conditions of what scientists call ‘the Big Bang’, but from a Christian perspective, humanly speaking there must always be a mystery about God’s decision to create the universe.

The intrinsically invisible, transcendent nature of God, from our perspective, is why we can only know God and relate to him through ‘faith’.  As St Paul puts it in a famous passage, we see through a glass darkly (1Cor 13).  Or elsewhere, ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’ (2Cor 5).  That’s because we are human beings, and not God.

That is why the Bible is so honest about doubt.  At a purely logical level, doubt is equivalent to faith.  The Bible doesn’t gloss over the people of Israel, on their way to the promised land, muttering and murmuring that life was better back in slavery in Egypt.  It doesn’t gloss over St Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus before the cock crowed.  It doesn’t gloss over St Thomas who says to his fellow disciples that unless he sees the wounds in the side of the risen Christ, and puts his fingers into the wounds, he will not believe.

At the very climax of St Matthew’s Gospel, the tendency of the disciples towards doubt is very honestly recognised.  On the Mountain of Transfiguration Jesus summons his disciples as he is about to ascend.  And St Matthew records calmly:

          ‘And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted’

                                                                                                (Mt 28 v 17)

Jesus dealt gently with his disciples’ doubts, and he will deal gently with our doubts too.  But we must not be deceived into thinking that therefore doubt is in any sense a good thing.  It’s not.  It tends to exist side by side with faith, just as do light and darkness but, just as the light dispels the darkness, so faith dispels doubt.

I sometimes hear it said today that doubt is really a form of faith, and is to be welcomed as such.  In some theological circles, such thoughts are currently quite fashionable.

I reject them.  The point can be made quite succinctly: in the Bible there are many verses in praise of faith, but you will not find a single verse in praise of doubt.  Not one.  Job can express great perplexity about his circumstances, and can be brought to the point where he curses the day he is born, but he never curses God.  He never doubts that God is God, and that he is a human being, created by God.  He never doubts that God will ultimately vindicate him, as indeed is the case.

There is no equivalent in the Bible to the great hymn of faith in Hebrews ch 11:

‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the men of old received divine approval.  By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.’

This is followed by a whole litany of examples of faith in figures in the Old Testament.

We contemplate this Easter the mystery of the Word made flesh, risen from the dead, who very mysteriously was crucified for the salvation of the world, whose ways are not our ways.  We can only say with the Father who desperately wanted healing for his ill child:

‘Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief’.

 

Bishop Peter Forster