Wembley Downs Uniting Church
The Triumph of Love (Kirsten Lambert) 30.3.2008
Reading: John 20:19-31
When I first read the verses that I had to preach on for today, it made me laugh. How ironic that I had to preach on doubting Thomas and the resurrection. Over the years I’m sure I’ve believed pretty much everything one can believe about the resurrection - from atheist to fundamentalist to liberalist and lots of things in between. After 10 years of studying theology at university I can proudly say that I am more confused than ever. Am I the only one or has any one else really struggled with the resurrection accounts? Perhaps you’ve struggled with what they mean for you now? I’ve often heard preached that the Resurrection experience was so profound and overwhelming that it transformed a group of frightened and disillusioned disciples instantly into a team of fearless apostles who changed the world and willingly and gladly became martyrs. Their instant faith and fearless dedication always made me feel just a teensy bit uncomfortable. Yet there are a few things in the gospel accounts that give cause for some doubts about this. And the doubts themselves may prove quite helpful and inspiring because they make their first experiences of the resurrected Christ sound a lot more like our experiences of the resurrected Christ. One of these things is in today’s story from John’s gospel, but we’ll look at another one first. In Matthew’s account of the resurrection, only the two Marys have encountered the risen Christ before we read of the disciples gathering on a hill in Galilee and Christ meeting them there. And it says, in chapter 28:17, ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him, even though some of them doubted.’ Some doubted! He was right there before their eyes, wasn’t he? Whatever the nature of this experience of the risen Christ, it wasn’t something that left no room for any possible doubt. When Josh McDowell wrote ‘Evidence that Demands a Verdict’ to argue that any legal weighing of the evidence would prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, he must have got it wrong. Even those who had the evidence of their own eyes and hands were still a mixture of faith and doubt. If Jesus had simply been resuscitated, everyone would have been sure, one way or the other. Perhaps it wasn’t so different for those first witnesses to the risen Christ, because whatever the nature of their experience that day, it wasn’t something that swept away all doubts and filled everyone with unshakable faith. And that’s kind of exciting because not only does a small community which is a mixture of worship and doubt sound a lot like the rest of us, but it is precisely that community, with its mixture of faith and doubt, that Jesus regards as being worthy of being his representatives. Now on the evening of the day of resurrection, the disciples, who have heard from Mary, are locked away behind closed doors when suddenly Jesus appears among them. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says and then shows them his nail-scarred hands. Kierkegaard once said, ‘If Christ is to come in order to dwell in me, that has to transpire in accordance with the heading of the gospel: ‘Christ enters through closed doors’. Kierkegaard recognises that it’s part of our nature to have closed doors to understanding, and yet it is precisely these closed doors through which the Spirit of Christ enters. But what happens next? Jesus disappears for a week, and when he next appears, where are they? Locked in the same room again! The community that received the Holy Spirit and was commissioned to take on the world is still locked in the same room. And they’ve only grown by one - Thomas has turned up! And what’s more, their experience of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit hasn’t even changed them enough to convince Thomas. So much for being fearless witnesses! If you are still unclear in your own mind about the resurrection you’re in good company. It seems to me that for most followers of Jesus, and even for these foundational few, the experience of the resurrected Christ didn’t suddenly wipe out all the doubts and fears of their pasts and turn them into unstoppable world changers. But does that mean that we’ve been conned; that it is not really something that will set you free and change your life? No it doesn’t. What it does tell us is that the experience of the first disciples probably tells us a lot more about the reality of our own experience of the presence of the risen Christ than we might have cared to imagine. Yet there is also another critical issue here that is often overlooked. To call John 20:24-29 the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ is to miss the whole point. The centre of the story is Jesus, not Thomas. At the heart of this story is Jesus’ generous offer of himself to Thomas. Thomas had established the conditions for his faith: He must be allowed to touch Jesus’ wounds. The Johannine Jesus doesn’t censure Thomas for these conditions, but instead makes available for him exactly what he needs for faith. Thomas asks for a sign and he gets it. This palpable offer of Jesus’ grace leads Thomas to a confession of faith. Jesus’ offer of his wounds to Thomas is similar to his calling Mary by name in the preceding passage. It is another demonstration of his love for his people. The story ends with a blessing, that knowledge of and relationship with Jesus is not limited to his first disciples. The story of Thomas is a story of doubt, faith, hope and blessing; not judgment and reprimand. It stands as a promise to later generations who ‘have not seen and yet have come to believe’ that they, too will experience the grace of God in Jesus. So what do we have to believe in, in order to ‘experience the living Christ’? For Josh McDowell he requires ‘evidence that demands a verdict’- that is irrefutable evidence for a full bodily resurrection of Jesus. Yet the fourth evangelist suggests that blessed are we who ‘have not seen’ [who don’t have the forensic evidence – the resuscitated body] ‘and yet have come to believe’. For me this passage suggests that the authority and ‘truth’ of scripture is not to be secured by debates about verbal inerrancy and critically verified ‘evidence’. Rather, the truth of scripture lies in its power to make the presence of God in Jesus available to the faith community in each successive generation. Any attempts to equate and identify the reconstruction (or deconstruction) of the events of Jesus’ life with the authority of scripture miss the point. Such attempts would – according to John – fall into the category of demanding signs – falsely equating the fact with its meaning and theological truth. The point of this story is that we ‘who have not seen and have yet come to believe… that Jesus is the Messiah… may have life in his name’. As the previous Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnley wrote in ‘The Structure of Resurrection Belief’: ‘The Christian story, which pre-eminently transmits and celebrates the memory of Jesus and God’s revelatory deed in and through his life and death, should lead us beyond itself to a living encounter with the real presence of all that it celebrates and rehearses: him, whom by story we recall, we actually know as the living Spirit of the fellowship of faith.’ So then, what is the resurrection about for us today? What is its significance in our lives? Does it have any significance? I think part of the answer to this question can be found in the concluding verse in the passage we read out from John: ‘But these [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’. So here we see that John’s gospel was not written so that we could have irrefutable forensic evidence for a bodily resurrection of Jesus, but so that we could we could experience ‘real life’ in Jesus’ name. It is not the signs that are important, but what they point to. And as Neville is fond of reminding us, ‘Jesus gives us real eyes to realize where the real lies.’ I read a book on the Easter break that really highlighted this for me. It’s called ‘Remember Me’ and it’s by Liz Byrski. The story is autobiographical and it recalls how Liz, at 18, falls in love for the first time. It’s a beautiful reminder of our first experiences of romantic love and the power of love in general to totally transform a person. She recalls with amazing clarity how the experience of being loved made her see herself completely differently – she feels complete, loveable, capable and full of joy. However, fate – and her parents – have other plans and love is lost. That beautiful spirit within her dies. Thirty seven years, and two failed marriages later, she has given up on love. She moves country, becomes a successful writer and business woman, and vows never to open her heart to another man. She has a great job, a beautiful house, good friends and a dog. Who needs love? But then one day the phone rings and she hears a voice from the past that still has the power to stop her in her tracks. Love is resurrected, the world regains its colour and Liz’s faith is restored. She becomes a believer in the spirit of love. So why am I telling you this? What has this well-written yet amazingly cheesy love story got to do with the resurrection and the bible passage we read today? Before I became a drama teacher I was actually an English teacher and we used to call these stories ‘models’ or ‘types’. You know ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy slays dragon and gets girl back again’. We’ve heard them all before but we love them. They’re as old as time immemorial. It’s the story of birth, death and resurrection; the birth and growth of love, the death of love and the resurrection of love. The reason we love these stories is because they ring true for us. There’s something deep within the human psyche that longs for the process of birth, death and resurrection. In one sense it’s the greatest tale of all. As I read Liz’s book it reminded me of the disciples in this week’s gospel story. They’ve just spent three years with Jesus; a man who completely embodies the Spirit of God – the Spirit of love. Everything’s going really well, they are transformed. And yet things didn’t turn out how they expected - they didn’t become heroes in Jesus’ new kingdom - Jesus is killed. Love dies. And yet three days later something amazing happens - Jesus is resurrected, love is resurrected, and slowly but surely so too is their faith. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, said in his Easter sermon this year that what the world needed most at the moment was not the resurrection of the financial market but an experience of Christian love. He told a congregation in Westminster Cathedral: ‘This love is so badly needed amidst the troubles, insecurity and pain existing in our society. This is not so much about economic uncertainty for it would not be wholly untrue to say that for many people to have less would make them a lot better off… They long for a renewal of the values that hold a society together in justice and peace and where each person has a sense of being at home, at one with the people who share their life. It is this rebirth and resurrection for which people yearn.’ For me, the resurrection experience is not about forensic evidence for the resuscitation of a human corpse, but rather it is about the power of the Spirit of love to overcome all things even death, not just 2000 years ago, but right here and now. The Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of love, and love conquers all.
130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882
Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands, Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands