We’re invited to believe in something harder to believe in than God raising someone from death
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Easter 2, 28th April 2019
Once, around Easter time, I had a strange dream. It was about our Easter celebrations. We had organised the most fabulous display, more creative than ever before, with flowers, music and even fireworks, in a way that could only happen in a dream. Except, whoever was responsible for putting it all together, didn’t understand how it should all work. It was not going as it should have. Elements of the celebrations were combining with other elements in totally bizarre ways, much like the surrealistic paintings of Salvador Dali, in which swans reflected in a lake become elephants, clouds in the sky are actually a pair of giant lips, or memory is represented by melted clocks. In this dream, all the elements of our Easter celebration were present, but not as they were meant to be.
For the average person, this would be a strange dream, but for a priest, this was a nightmare, because it’s my responsibility to see that Easter is celebrated in a way that conveys what Easter is all about. In place of that, the elements of celebration were distorted in ways that are not possible. I woke up feeling very disturbed and frustrated, because I couldn’t do anything about it. It was beyond my control. So, at 3am, I began to wonder why I had had this nightmare of a distorted celebration of Easter, when it hit me, that this was not a distortion of Easter. This was a revelation of Easter, because Easter is just like that dream: God takes the way things are in the world and makes something totally new out of them, in a way that is not humanly possible. It means that Easter changes the world. It makes something totally new possible.
Previously, resurrection was not possible. There are things in the world that serve as metaphors of resurrection, such as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, but they are only metaphors. The resurrection of Jesus is something totally novel, rather than a more spectacular version of those sorts of things.
In today’s gospel passage (John 20:19-31) Jesus’ disciples are together in a house, with the doors locked, because they are afraid of the religious authorities. Out of that scared group, Jesus forms the church. The meaning of the word church comes from root words which mean a group of people who are called out. Jesus calls his disciples out of their locked place. His first words to them are ‘Peace be with you’. They’re the most common resurrection words in the bible and we need to hear them too. That’s why we say them to each other in our Eucharist. They’re not just addressed to us to calm us in our daily anxieties, nor were they spoken to just calm the disciples in their fear. The peace Jesus imparted to his disciples was a peace in and beyond a community who are discovering what it means to be raised with Christ, that is, how that looks in the relationships between them and as they go out into the world. (Uncovering Sin by Rosy Fairhurst)
In order to be a community shaped and empowered by the risen Christ, it must be a community of believers, and in John’s Gospel, believing means accepting that God is at work in Jesus, and then also imitating him. Thomas struggles with that. We are told that Jesus tells him to stop doubting, but he actually never uses the word doubt. (Bad translation.) What he says is don’t be unbelieving, but believing. So what we’re seeing here is Thomas going through the process of maturing in faith. Initially, Thomas is not ready to commit. He’s not ready to accept that God raised Jesus, nor is he ready to imitate him. He’s the religious equivalent of the adolescent – starting with questioning and needing to come to truth in his own way. (Maybe one reason we have so few adolescents in the church is because we forgot that coming to belief is a process which takes time.) And when we see what it is that we’re really being asked to believe, we might realise that even though we’ve been coming to church for years, we’re not sure if we fully believe yet.
What is it that we’re been asked to believe? What is the resurrection of Jesus? Are we being asked to believe that God raised someone from death? That is amazing, but it doesn’t change the world. (Remember I said in the beginning that the world is changed by Jesus’ resurrection.) No, it’s not that God raised someone from death. We are asked to believe in something that is much harder to believe in, and that is that God raised the crucified Jesus from death. What is so world-changing about that? Well, Jesus was crucified by our rivalry, our violence towards each other. Along with all humanity, we are implicit in that. We are guilty, but what does God do with that? How does God respond? By giving Jesus back to us as the forgiving one. In other words, God deals with our violence through forgiveness, God heals our violence through forgiveness, or to put that another way, the answer to violence in the world, is through non-violence. That is harder to believe than that God might have raised someone from death. When others are violent towards us, the solution is through us being non-violent in return. Believing that and living by that is what believing the resurrection of the crucified Jesus means.
We are forgiven for being violent towards others, towards ourselves, towards the earth. That is God’s non-violent response to our violence. We are commissioned as a community of faith, to spread that message to others. Jesus says if we don’t tell people their sins are forgiven, they will not experience forgiveness. That’s because the world will not give it to them. It will not set them free, for the world locks people in sin. It fosters reciprocity – and eye for an eye for those who hurt us, and it fosters the maintaining of advantages we can hold over others. Humanity needs to know it does that, but it is free from it, and we, the church, will express humanity’s freedom, by being non-judgemental, forgiving and inclusive.
The resurrection is forgiveness, being set free from rivalry. Do we believe in the resurrection? That is the foundational Christian belief. It means believing that forgiveness, or non-violence is the answer to violence. Do we believe that? Will we therefore imitate that? Will we forgive our enemies? Will we work for non-violent solutions to conflict? We will never believe in it for the world, we will never be able to forgive our enemies until we first accept that we are forgiven, and that means acknowledging our sin, i.e. the ways we are caught up in rivalry. We might do that by being competitive, or we might adopt the other side of the coin, which is to put ourselves down, so rather than placing ourselves above others, we place ourselves below them, but it’s just another version of the same thing. When we see how we do that, and know the damage it does, but that God forgives us for it, we can begin to let go of it –stop acting that way. But of course, like Thomas, it will probably take time to work through. Belief is a work in progress. And unless we start close to home, acknowledging and beginning to change the patterns of violence in our own lives, we will never work out how to do it in the world, where violence is more powerful.
As the church, we are called to spread the message of the resurrection of Jesus to save the world. That does not mean get people to call Jesus their personal saviour so they won’t go to hell. It doesn’t even mean get everyone to be Christian. What is does mean is convert people to the way of non-violence. It doesn’t matter whether they are Hindu, Muslim, have an indigenous spirituality, or remain atheists. We are not about people changing their religion or world-view. We are about them redeeming it. The goal is peace. It’s what we all need and deep down, all want. But do we believe in it enough to live it out? It’s harder to believe in than someone being raised from the dead is, because it’s a transformation of the way the world operates into something totally different and uncontrollable.