Sermon for Easter 1 (John 20.19-end)

I posted a snippet from this last week. Here’s the whole thing. Now I’ve actually written it....

St John reports that at Jesus’ mockery-of-a-trial, Pilate asked at one point, “What is truth?”  That enigmatic question finds an unexpected echo in today’s gospel, in Thomas’ own need to know what truth really is.  He is not just asking his friends whether what they have told him is literally true, that Jesus is actually live. He’s asking for an experience of the reality of that fact.

Thomas is remembered for his doubt. But should we not rather remember him for his extraordinary desire to experience the fullness of the resurrection for himself?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, certainly, but blessed also are they who undertake a journey of discovery in doubt, in order that they might experience more fully the truth they seek.  I admit it, I admire Thomas, and I am glad that the gospel records the fact that Jesus granted him his very own resurrection moment.

And in truth, there were many people to whom Jesus granted such a moment.  Yes, the resurrection was a one-off historical event which occurred at some point shortly before dawn on the first day of the week, as we know from the accounts of scripture. That’s a fact that we may either accept or choose not to accept. But the truth of the resurrection is that it was not one moment but many moments. Nobody witnessed the ‘real’ resurrection, but every one of Jesus’ disciples had their own moment where it became real for them.  Mary in the garden, the disciples (minus Thomas) in the room, Thomas himself a week later, the two friends of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and most poignantly of all, Peter on the beach in John 21, finally being released from the guilt of his betrayal and given his commission.

Yes, in factual terms the resurrection was a one-off event, but in spiritual terms it took time – time for Jesus’ friends to see it, to understand it, to believe it. And in fact, I would go as far as to say that in spiritual terms, the resurrection is still happening. Because it happens every time a modern-day disciple has a resurrection moment – a moment when it becomes real, when the truth that is sought is suddenly found, and found to be more deep and broad and high than the seeker ever dreamed.

So which of these is the ‘real’ resurrection?  The historical moment of Jesus’ own death turning to life, or the spiritual moment of our own death turning to life, each one of us, as it becomes real in our lives?

Which leads us back to Pilate’s question, and  back to Thomas’ doubt.

Attendances in church over Easter were up on last year.  Not just here, but all over the country. And the number of people attending worship in Cathedrals – where mystery and awe and wonder are most clearly in evidence in worship – has increased 30% in the last ten years. Among all the fears that as a society we are becoming ever more materialistic, ever more secular, there is good evidence that there is still – and perhaps more than ever – a desire to engage with God, to engage with things that go far beyond the world of the senses, and yet are revealed in what we see and experience in the world.

We might well feel like the gathered few behind the closed door sometimes, but we gather in expectation:  that there is a truth that is bigger and deeper and broader and higher than we can imagine.  We want some token of our doubtful seeking that, yes, we can see and hear and touch.  But we also want something that shows us that what we see and hear and touch is not the highest reality that there is, but can point us to that greater reality.

We may tend to think of material, physical reality as the most ‘real’ form of reality there is. If we were to see someone walk through a solid wall or a locked door, we, like the disciples, might assume that the person was somehow insubstantial, less ‘real’ than the physical barrier they just passed through.

But what if the reason why the risen Christ can walk through walls is not because he is insubstantial, but because his risen form is so real, so substantial, that the wall is insubstantial in comparison?

This physical reality – the material world around us – cannot be at odds with God. I’m not trying to advocate some kind of ‘spiritual is good, material world is bad’ kind of dualism.  Rather, what we see around us can help to show who and what God really is.  Again, that’s why cathedral worship does it so well – it’s absolutely about saturating the senses with beauty.  And that’s why people often feel close to God in gardens, on mountain tops, and so on. They are places where our senses are assailed by such beauty that we start to be able to see beyond it.

In today’s gospel the disciples see in the person of Jesus just a glimpse of that greater reality.  May we too, be granted such glimpses, and be changed by them, so that as the resurrection becomes real for us, so the light and life and love of God made real in us can spill out and become real for the whole of God’s creation.

 

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