Sunday, 8 April 2018

Easter 2 - Darkness, Death and Doubt

John 20.19-31, 1 John 1.1-2.2, Acts 4.32-35

Fellowship. It’s not a word I hear used much outside of church context nowadays. Perhaps it’s heard occasionally in the world of academia or Society but not often now in common conversation.

When John refers to it in his letter he wants his readers to consider that fellowship is something we find together in God, a common way of existing, being and believing. It’s something through which other people might get a glimpse of what God is about , when at its best. In our Acts reading we heard of fellowship lived out in a way that ensured the needs of the entire group were met.

John’s letter is about living an honest life, not wanting those seeing us to think that all is perfect once we choose to enter into fellowship with Christ. He points this out in saying ‘if we say we have fellowship with him when we are walking in darkness, we lie’.

Our shortcomings and weaknesses which we later regret don’t necessarily cease because of our faith but neither do they make a mockery of it if we are honest about them.

I can remember someone telling me Sunday mornings often really cheesed him off, he would be washing his car or mowing the lawn as his neighbours arrived home after church strutting in full of self-righteousness and superiority. I suspect it had more to do with his mistaken idea of what being a Christian means and we certainly suffer from the judgment of many who have made up their mind what Christianity is, and they often don’t like it.

For many, Christians are seen as intolerant of alternative lifestyles, sexual preferences even other faiths, or are dull people who take themselves far too seriously and don’t know how to have a laugh.

It’s for us to challenge that view by simply being ourselves with all our faults and weaknesses yet being people who keep trying to make God’s love known to others through acts of kindness and forgiveness, and even trying to be cheerful along the way.

After all when Jesus appears to the frightened disciples who have locked themselves in a house it’s not to vent his anger at being denied and deserted by those closest to him, leaving him to suffer and die but to say ‘Peace be with you’, it’s the offer of a new relationship with the risen Christ which causes a spontaneous outbreak of joy.

Then there’s Thomas, who was out when all this was happening. He’s such an important figure in that he makes it OK to have doubts. I’m sure that many of us can relate to him. It reminds me a bit of the times when I was at school and didn’t want to ask about something I thought everyone else knew or understood, and then it’s a relief when someone else has the courage to do so.

Of course Thomas already has history with Jesus, back in John 14 we find him asking more questions when Jesus said ‘And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Perhaps Thomas drew on this and for him the ultimate realisation of ‘the way’ was to be in the presence of his Lord and God.

It may seem a counter intuitive thing to say but his doubts make my faith more real. For me it’s hard to relate to a version of the Christian story which is neat and simple, teaching all taken at face value. We should never feel guilty to say that we cannot find God where others tell us he is, to say this isn’t real for me, to explore and look for God in our own way. I’m with Rev Mark Oakley when he said he remains ‘unconvinced that reality is mirrored neatly in the recitation of any creed’.

We need space and time for our faith to be felt, tested, lived with and ultimately become part of who we are to make it authentic, something that others may find believable.

I wasn’t in a great mood to celebrate Easter last Sunday and I was relieved that Anne’s sermon was sensitive to the fact that this will have been the case for many of us as we remember dearly loved friends and family that we miss sorely. Even when our faith is firm, to do so can still be painful. We heard how, at the end of Mark’s gospel the women fled in terror without answers and reassurance, no neat happy ending, perhaps a bit more typical of our reaction when the reality of loss hits us and dread and fear can take over.

This year Lent for me began with the death of a dearly loved friend, from MS and complications, the wife of my friend since childhood. As many of us do at such times I gave my sincere condolences and then felt quite helpless as I said ‘let me know if I can do anything to help’. He came back to me a few days later and said that the funeral service would have more meaning if led by someone who really knew Amanda and the family. It’s something I’ve not done the training to be licenced for in church but I was able to accept as anyone can perform this role as a Civil Celebrant in an appropriate place.

Whilst Christian prayers and hymns were included in the funeral service I was acutely aware that this was a time to tread very gently with the eternal hope I feel to be real through Christ, a time to focus on the very real love for Amanda and make space for memories and mourning. After all what right do I have to assert my beliefs in such a setting?

I was grateful to be given the opportunity to serve my friends in this way but deeply saddened for myself and them that it was necessary to preside over Amanda’s coffin being lowered to its final resting place.

It was both a stressful and strange experience for me returning to my old Essex stomping ground and having discussions with chums from school days met rarely since.

Chatting with people later in the day I could understand why some, like Thomas did, have doubts, why some don’t believe at all and why some are not quite sure what to believe about death and an afterlife.

Tom Wright, in his book ‘Surprised by Hope’ wrote “Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t, as the old liturgies used to say, “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead” but the vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.

Most of my lent time this year was spent thinking about death, the physical finality, the pain and separation. I can understand why this can bring a real pressure on an individual’s faith which can seem suffocated by the darkness and angry questions left unanswered, particularly when we may feel no tangible reassurance of life with God continuing in a new way.

Yet despite these dark thoughts, little by little the love of God made real in Jesus Christ proves too powerful for me to lose hope of an eternal future for myself or for others.

We can use words and live lives that demonstrate what we believe but ultimately we cannot prove that God loves us too much to abandon us anymore than we can prove that love for another is real, at some point we have to accept it or reject it.

Coming back to that fellowship in John’s letter, one aspect of this is to create a community where we are able to talk with each other about hopes, fears, sadness and times of reassurance relating to the death of loved ones or anything else we find challenging. I know that to be the case here via individuals or groups and positively encourage it.

It reminds me of the words of George Burns, ‘Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family. In another city’.

Taking today’s readings forward into the weeks ahead the symbolism of Christ saying to Thomas ‘reach out your hand and put it in my side’ is an important one. Jesus is making it very clear that this is still him, the same man who lived with them. He’s saying I came to you in flesh and blood but I’m also your way to the Father.

When we think of the disciples and their sending out by Jesus it has to be to a new more honest interaction with the people. They are aware of their weaknesses and failures, promises to stick with Jesus through anything turned out to be lies and it’s time to rely less on their own strength and more on their response to God’s calling.

It’s a message we can draw upon as we continue our own journey through life, aware of our own weaknesses but also aware of the liberating hope and forgiveness available to us each and every day.

Kevin Bright

8th April 2018

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