The Revd Brutus Green
People leave and come to faith in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons. I happened to be a very rational nine year old and have very clear memories of going to an older brother with a crisis of faith, feeling that my Sunday school religion couldn’t possibly be true. When I came back to the church at 19 though it was for emotional reasons. You see, I had fallen in love with a girl. I had already chosen to study philosophy and theology out of a teenage compulsion to make sense of the world, which had at least answered some of my nine year old questions. But I went to church for the first time in ten years basically because a very pretty girl asked me to. I find it hard to articulate what happened next. All I can say is that I had a totally overwhelming sense of the presence of God; not far from terrifying, not far from falling in love, it was a calling, which is a recognition both of the one calling and a need to follow in a particular direction. Looking back, that single moment has been the most decisive experience of my life.
After being a victim of the best-selling evangelism strategy of ‘flirt to convert’ - and it’s undoubtedly true that historical figures like Jesus and St Paul must have had impressive charisma to attract such a following - I naturally questioned the validity of my experience. I’ve seen my fair share of destructive occasions, where ‘religious experience’ turns quietly into manipulation and abuse; enough to be sceptical; but I have also witnessed how faith could lead people to do the most remarkable things. Our spiritual journey, which may be barely perceptible, may look like a steady walk, may be a sprint and hide, may all be done at high velocity going backwards; usually has different phases related to what is going on in our lives. Through my mid-twenties I only went to cathedral evensongs because I found that there I could engage with ‘the beauty of holiness’, but avoid the two things I hated about Christianity - bad sermons, especially long bad sermons, and other Christians, who after all can be unfriendly, judgemental and above all dull. This was somewhat ungenerous but eventually I did find a church which I fell in love with and again experienced that sense of calling, a recognition of the one who calls and a direction, this time to serve as a priest. If I’m going to have to listen to long, bad sermons I can at least give them myself.
St John’s Gospel has a peculiar character. He, or she, is never given a name but referred to just as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, the ‘beloved disciple’. Traditionally he has been understood to be St John the son of Zebedee, one of the 12 apostles, and the author of the Gospel. This may or may not be the case, but what is clear is that for the original readers of the Gospel, the beloved disciple is the hero and the disciple with whom that particular church had a personal connection. When the church read of the beloved disciple they identified with him as the founding father of their church, of their tradition of following Jesus. As a follower of Jesus, there at the last supper, the crucifixion, running to the empty tomb (as we heard last week), it is his testimony that is the basis for the Gospel and the faith of this particular church where it is being written. And yet, there is something funny going on here.
In today’s Gospel we have Thomas, one of the twelve who finally meets the risen Christ in the most physical way, seeing and touching his wounded body, and testifying to the reality of the risen Christ: ‘My Lord and my God!’ But what is Jesus’ response: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ This is the original end of the Gospel, where the point of the book is laid bare, that reading this you might believe that Jesus is the Son of God and so have life in his name.
St John’s Gospel is written at a time when the generation of the original witnesses of Jesus’ life and resurrection has come to an end. The testimony of the original disciples is set down in order to convey it to the next generation. We have here a generational transition where we’re moving from Christianity as people who knew and followed Jesus, to a movement that will spread across the entire world, as the reception of this testimony and a new kind of encounter with Christ, through preaching and sacraments. But how will Christianity continue when we no longer encounter a physical experience of Jesus?
Well, Jesus’ answer here, that ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’, actually prioritizes the non-experience of the new believers as superior to that of the apostles. And in last week’s Gospel there was an even stronger endorsement. In the story immediately preceding today’s the Marys have all gone to the tomb to prepare the body and found it empty. Upon hearing this Peter and the beloved disciple run to the empty tomb. Somewhat pettily being the hero for this community, the beloved disciple outruns Peter. And then we are told ‘Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed’. He saw and believed. But what did he see? He saw an empty tomb. He saw nothing. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
By the time this Gospel is written Jerusalem and the temple have been sacked and burnt to the ground. All that remains is the Wailing Wall. It’s the beginning of two thousand years of Jewish diaspora. With the Jews though the centre of the new Church, the Jerusalem church, has also been destroyed, the apostles and first followers largely martyred. This community of the beloved disciple, away from the centre, possibly in Ephesus, stands at the beginning of a new age, a growing network of churches, filled with Jews and Gentiles who have never been to Jerusalem and were born after the death of Jesus. No wonder then that their hero is one who has seen nothing and yet has come to believe.
Each one of us here has a different story and a different character of faith. We may have an experience sometime in the past that we draw a quiet assurance from, we may feel regularly, or occasionally, touched by the presence of God, through music, sacrament or the Word. We may never have had any experience of God but nevertheless follow what we cannot see because we know that it is right, or because of our love for our fellow creatures, or because our partner does. But in times of difficulty it may perhaps comfort us that the hero of the most spiritual and theological gospel has not seen and yet came to believe. That it is the empty tomb that is the primary scene of revelation in all its ambiguity, that does not seek to prove God but asks us to trust him.
At the beginning of Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis he seriously advises his audience not to return. For those interested in practising it he actively warns them against it. Psychoanalysis at the time flew in the face of the direction of modern science and risked the reputation of any who professed an interest in it. ‘When we introduce a patient to a medical technique’, he writes, we ‘minimize its inconveniences and give him confident assurances of the success of the treatment’. With psychoanalysis, however, ‘We point out the difficulties of the method… its long duration, the efforts and sacrifices it calls for… that it depends on his own conduct, his understanding, his adaptability and his perserverance’. Part of the reason for this is that normal medicine, including psychiatry, operates on that which can be seen: anatomical preparations, chemical reactions, shortening of muscles, altered facial expressions. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is centered on what is not seen, through an exchange of words, one might say it is the process of bringing what is hidden to the light. Psychoanalysis after all literally translates from the Greek as ‘the loosening up of the soul’.
Much of what is most important in the world is what is not seen; from oxygen and gravity to our hidden desires and the invisible God. Often such things are known only by their effects. It may seem foolish to base one’s life on things that are not seen; especially when those things are so strongly disputed by others. It can certainly be a struggle, involves sacrifices and risk to our social standing and our sense of purpose. And when life gets difficult we learn the true strength of our faith. Christianity actively promises all these things. And yet all the things that raise us above being mere animals are connected to this realm of the unseen, the questions raised by the empty tomb. The community of the beloved disciple has spread throughout the world, but it remains a contested community, whose experience and belief is always questioned. As we find ourselves once again in the Easter Garden, the empty tomb raises its perennial challenge: is it the scene of death or of life? The Gospel answers with its 2000 year old unfading promise of assurance: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’