Saturday, April 27, 2019

Doubting Thomas

John 20. 19-31

This week, we've received the exciting news, that there is to be a 25th James Bond film.  How exciting, for all of us who enjoy a few hours of complex villains and testosterone-laden conflict!

Back in 1983, Hollywood was stunned when Sean Connery decided to reprise his role as James Bond. By that time he was decidedly middle aged - and had not played Bond since 1971. Movie-legend has it that after he finished filming for 'Diamonds are Forever' he said to his wife "never again". But she was horrified, and replied "no - never say 'never again'!"

The title of the 1983 movie was a bit of a joke at Connery's own expense.  It was a way of him recognising that he had been a bit rash in his original statement.

And that's something I think we've probably all done at one time or another, isn't it?  I know I have.

As a young evangelical, I know that I said I would never ever be seen dressed up in clerical robes….look at me now. I was quite certain that I had understood everything that God had to say on every subject.  Now, after 30 or more years of serious study...I'm not so sure.

Its the same in my personal life.  I grew up on a diet of good old fashioned English food…and I remember a time when I was being taken out to dinner by friends to an Indian restaurant.  “I could never eat that stuff”, I said.  “I’ll only go with you if they also serve egg and chips”.  But when we were there…someone persuaded me to have just a little taste….and I was hooked!

When Peter and the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, his response was pretty unambiguous, wasn't it?  "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe".  In other words -"never - I'll never believe what you tell me...unless I see it with my own eyes". (John 20: 25)

Just imagine the embarrassment that Thomas felt when Jesus appeared to him in that upper room!  He must have felt like an absolute idiot!  "Why did I say I would never believe?!  What a fool I was?!  Why didn't I believe my friends?!"

You see, the thing about Jesus is that he has a way of over-turning all our expectations.  His whole life-story is one of apparent contradictions to the way that others expected he should act.  He was born in a stable, not a palace.  He ate and drank with sinners, not the religious leaders.  He taught about love and forgiveness - even towards the Roman occupiers. He stubbornly refused to stay dead...and rose up from the grave.

Jesus overturns all our expectations.  Thomas expected that he could cling to objective proof - that he could depend on his eyes and his own sense of touch to establish what was true.  And that is the fundamental mistake that is made by so many non-believing people today...

God is separate from all that God has made. Above it.  Beyond it.  Outside of it.  We should not be surprised that God cannot be found in a test tube or at the end of a microscope or telescope.  God doesn't want to be found in a test tube.  Instead, God wants us, like Thomas, to discover God with the eyes of faith, and the hands of trust.

Why should that be?  Why is it those who believe without seeing who are blessed?  Wouldn't it be easier for God to make himself touchable, scientifically prove-able?

Well, I would argue that if we could reduce God down to something we could see in a test tube - it would not be God.  God is as far above such reductionism as the sun is above the earth.  God is far more than anything which can been seen or touched. God is a mystery that our tiny brains can only begin to glimpse.  Belief - or faith - in God is not about believing certain facts about God, and rejecting other theories.  It's about setting off on a path, with God as an end-point...being willing to be shaped and changed by the journey.

Evangelicals talk about have a personal relationship with God - which is a phrase I have sometimes lampooned (to be honest).  But actually, the idea of a personal relationship is quite powerful.  

I have a personal relationship with many people - not least 'the present Mrs Kennar' (to borrow from Terry Wogan).  In that relationship, which she has so far heroically endured for 32 years, we have learned many things about each other.  But we still can't read each other's minds.  (Though I do think Clare has a pretty good idea of what's going on in my mind when I see a table of cakes).  But we still have much to learn about each other.  New facets of our personalities, thoughts, preferences, ideas are constantly being revealed, and sometimes surprising each other.

So what does this mean for us - in our daily lives, and in our life as a church?

For our life as a church it means that we - like Sean Connery - must 'never say never again'!  Rowan Williams has famously said that all our language about God must be must always be open to being shaped and changed by the God who is outside of all human methods of proof.  That means never saying that we could never do things differently.  It means never saying that we could never change our view about what God is like.  It means accepting that the way we worship, the way we pray, the way we use our time and our money in the service of God must always remain open to the reality of God.

In our daily lives, it means growing in our attentiveness to God in all aspects of our life.  God is not tied down by our decisions, or even by our circumstances.  God has the capacity to break-through even the hardest of situations that life has thrown at us.  He can heal, because he is beyond all human capacity to heal.  He can comfort, because he is beyond human systems of support.  He can challenge, because he is greater than all human challenges.  He can change our minds about priorities, life-style choices, jobs and political allegiances - because he is beyond all such limitations.

God can neither be touched, nor seen...and yet God is present with us in every circumstance of life.  God cannot be boxed or sold - and yet he is the ultimate manufacturer.  God cannot be seen, and yet he is the light.  He cannot be touched, and yet he is the ultimate ground of all being.

At the end of the day, we can, and should, do no more and no less than our brother Thomas the Twin - fall on our knees and cry out, "My Lord and My God". Amen.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Palm Sunday to Easter - Bouncing from happiness to happiness...and missing the point

It seems perhaps a little strange that only the first few minutes of our service today has been focussed on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and so much of it focussed instead on the events of the following week.  This is a mandatory requirement – for all of us who are obedient to the Lectionary.  My best guess is that this is because the Lectionary writers knew, instinctively, that the majority of worshippers across the land will not – or perhaps cannot - come to many Holy Week services.  As a result, for many, the history-changing events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are entirely missed.  Many worshippers will hop from the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, straight to the fantastic news of the Resurrection (which we will, of course, celebrate on Easter Day).

This is, of course, regrettable.  For without the cross, the agony in the garden, the betrayals around the first Lord’s Supper, there is a danger that our faith can appear to be founded on celebration after celebration.  We miss the struggle which is really at the heart of what we believe. 

To jump from ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ straight onto ‘Alleluiah Christ is Risen’ is to live always on the mountain top.  But as I said a few weeks ago when we contemplated the Mount of Transfiguration – the thing about mountain-top experiences is that you have to come down.

The Easter story, in its entirety, is ultimately about how God transforms our apparent defeats into victories.  Or, if you prefer a less militaristic metaphor, it’s about how God can transform our suffering into healing, or our pain into growth, our hells into heavens, and the mini-deaths we all experience into new life.

Now that’s all very well, as theology goes.  But what does it mean in real, everyday life?  For an answer to that question, we need to look at people like Gordon Wilson, the Northern Irish draper and peace campaigner who was injured in the Enneskillen bomb – while his daughter was killed. 

In an interview with the BBC, Wilson described with anguish his last conversation with his daughter and his feelings toward her killers: "She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, 'Daddy, I love you very much.' Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say."

To the astonishment of listeners, Wilson went on to add, "But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She's dead. She's in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night." As historian Jonathan Bardon recounts, "No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact." 

Gordon Wilson went on to form a Trust which paid for young people from both sides of the Northern Irish troubles to encounter peace.  He exemplified the reality of a Christian life, in which tragedy is turned into triumph.

We can experience tragedy being turned into triumph in our own lives as well.  All of you will know of the sadness that Sandra Haggan has been experiencing of late, as her family business of 96 years has come to an end.  But, out of that sadness, joy has come – with the news that her new-found availability means that she has accepted the role of Pastoral Worker here at St Faiths.  I know that you will all join me in welcoming this news!

But what of other sadnesses and tragedies?  What even of the tremendous losses we have experienced of late within our own congregation?   Judy, Tricia, John Edwards – as well as more personal, family losses.  It is too soon, perhaps, to speak of triumph after such losses.  And yet, I hold within me a deep and sure conviction that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things will be well’.  With all its ugliness and pain, the entire message of Holy Week is that God is constantly at work, even among the worst of times, to bring hope and healing.

So finally, my encouragement to you this week is not to miss the opportunities of Holy Week.  Join us on Tuesday evening, as we walk the Way of the Cross, going from station to station around the church, contemplating each significant moment on the Way of Tears. 

Join us on Maundy Thursday evening, at 7pm, when we will re-enact the painful institution of the first Lord’s Supper, and the washing of feet, followed by an opportunity to watch with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Walk with us, if you can, on a pilgrimage from church to church on Good Friday morning.  Or, if such a walk is beyond you, at least join us for an hour of worship at the Cross at 2pm on Friday. 

For a chance to think about all we experience together, why not make a date to join the FaithTalk discussion on Saturday morning, when we will focus on the many historical meanings behind the Cross. 

Do all of this, or at least some of this with us over the coming days, and I promise you that the joy of Easter morning will be that much greater, and that much more profound.