It is a rather oddly named day, Low Sunday. The rather flat and uninspiring name belies the reality that, as we read the narrative of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, this was a time of new beginnings, energy and hope for the disciples of Jesus who had known only defeat and fear on Good Friday (another oddly named day in the Christian Calendar!) So here is my sermon preached on Low Sunday – 27th April 2014
Jesus came and stood among them – “Peace be with you”, he said and he repeated it, “Peace be with you”. (John Chapter 20)
The experience of Jesus’s resurrection was a communal event not just a private one. It was also a physical event, not just a mystical one. In this room, with the doors locked, full of frightened, doubting, broken men and women a new community was being born – the Community of the Resurrection.
This community was not just an intellectual and mystical community of like-minded people, it was a community rooted in life, in experience, mingled with the real challenges of love and loss and all the “actualities of life”. It did not limit itself to the invisible realm of people’s individual souls and was not a purely intellectual experience, there was a visceral physicality about it, made all the more real by Thomas’s demand to see and touch the wounds of Christ.
This moment was not a point of decision for the disciples in which they decided to hold the opinion that Christ had risen from the dead, it was a tangible moment of rebirth – the community of dejected and terrified disciples were transformed, energised, empowered, invigorated, radicalized and made ready to work and struggle and die for justice and hope and Jesus’s Gospel of Love. The transformation can only be characterized as a re-birth.
It has always slightly depressed me that people want to reduce the Christian faith to the holding of opinions. It is dangerous in my view to think of the things of faith solely through the lens of a kind of mystical detachment.
Is there a God? What is your opinion on that subject? Did Mary really conceive by immaculate-conception? What’s your opinion on all of this and the rest of Christian belief?
There is a difference between truth and fact. Some things can be true even though we cannot verify the actual facts about them. (It is worth noting that there were plenty of witnesses to the risen Christ but none to the actual moment of resurrection). The realm of meaning should be disentangled from the realm of verifiable fact and the truth of the human condition is that we operate on the basis of needing both – it is a left brain/right brain thing. It can become hugely tiresome when people reduce the things of faith to pure logic, reason and propositional statements that one is supposed either to believe or reject. Faith in Jesus is much more a matter of trust than it is a matter of opinion. To say, “I believe in Jesus” is not just a statement that I believe he existed or that he is the son of God, or that he rose from the dead, it is about a relationship of trust. I believe in him because I trust in his way as the way to a fuller life. You wouldn’t be saying much if you were to say, “I believe in Alex Salmond, but what I mean buy that is that he is a real person who actually exists!” To say you believe in a person is an act of trust more than the holding of an opinion with regard to a few verifiable facts.
Faith can be reduced to facts – doctrines – philosophical ideas – opinions – laws – mystical musings; but in reality it is about relationship, community, covenantal fidelity, the reorientation of our souls and lives so that they point in a certain direction. It is about the will towards love and service to others, growth in well-being and a deepening sense of community. All of that is bound up with grime and tears, pain and struggle, love and laughter. It is what we see in the narrative appearance of the risen Christ among his disciples. These encounters are about lived lives. They are about relationship, hospitality, touch, breath wine and bread, humility and service, companionship and so many other things that are bound up in meaning rather than in propositional facts.
Just think how earthy Jesus’s ministry was? He took some mud and spat in it and rubbed it into a blind man’s eyes to heal him. When a man came to Jesus and asked the question. ”What must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus gives him an answer that he does not expect and that goes to the very nub of the human dilemma. In what is your spirit most deeply invested? Jesus is saying to this man? And his answer is, “Go, sell your property and give it to the poor”. It is an answer that “earths” Jesus ministry and takes it beyond the merely intellectual, the holding of opinions. It goes to the very heart of our priorities and habits and values, the ordering of our daily lives. It is at this point, the point of challenge to the actualities of our lived lives, where people need to make the break for new life, for their place of resurrection. In the case of this man, Jesus sees that he is most heavily invested emotionally and practically in his property. Now this is not a broadside against the owning of property, it is not a harsh judgement on those who own things. Rather, out of love and regard for this man, whom perhaps Jesus sees as being troubled, unhappy, unfulfilled and in need of some kind of breakthrough in his life, he invites him to consider a change of heart and thereby make a breakthrough in his life, and come more fully to life.
The disciples come alive too. Courage displaces fear, hope supplants despair, grace takes the place of doubt. A new community is made in this period of encounter with the risen Christ.
We can be very prone to an analytical, causal and descriptive way of picturing things. That might be the way of one hemisphere of our brains, but the other side is all about feeling, meaning, well-being, relationship, intuition and gut-feeling, and we need both to work in harmony. Someone once wrote that “the most reliable guide to the truth is the tingling of the spine” and I tend to go along with that.
There is something deeply earthy about the church – the community of the resurrection. The most holy thing about Jesus is his humanity, his living, breathing, weeping, loving life; his humility, poverty, simplicity, love and tears. He took break and wine and he took the most horrifying beating and suffered an unimaginably painful death. To reduce all of that to the holding of opinions or to dogma is to make the Christian faith a purely mental exercise. We should throw ourselves on to the place where this humble Jesus is to be found, which is into life and the world in which Jesus moved and breathed and shared; amongst the poor and the dispossessed, in the midst of the dirt and dust and pain of life, not the ivory tower of spiritual escape.
I read many years ago in a book by John V. Taylor an account of the Anglican cathedral, St Paul’s in Calcutta. It was built in the 19th Century at the height of the British Raj. It was a building of the type you might well imagine. The patrician ideals of empire were written into the DNA of the building, it reflected the power of Empire with a nod in the direction of imperial splendour. “Rarely”, wrote Taylor, “have I seen a building of more monumental irrelevance to its environment”. He said it looked more like a bank or a palace than a church and it seemed incongruous against the teeming hoards of humanity that swarmed around that great city, so many of its people living as they did in abject poverty.
Then, in the 1970s, came the war in Bangladesh. “Exhausted and bewildered refugees poured over the frontier” and the people of India as well as the people of the cathedral rose to the challenge and did what they could to welcome and support these refugees. The great barn of the cathedral became literally that – a great barn, full of sacks of rice and other supplies. The spacious drive way, constructed to accommodate the horse drawn carriages of wealthy worshippers was churned up by trucks delivering aid supplies, the marble steps of the cathedral became chipped and frayed by canisters and crates being heaved around. And the congregation, “which grew beyond all previous records, moved forward to communion between towering walls of rice sacks, flour bags and blankets with a deeper sense of mystery than ever”. The galleries of the cathedral became work rooms where people stitched together great tarpaulins into tents to offer shelter to the homeless and disposed. “It was”, says Taylor, “a disfiguring death of many cherished values, but what a coming to life there was”.
On Thursday of this coming week, we will gather in the Grassmarket Centre to discuss the future of the Kirk o’Field buildings in the Pleasance. That church has such a distinguished place in the history of the Church of Scotland. Its story began as a home to the order of Deaconesses, an initiative that released the underutilised capacity of women in the 19th century to find a role and a place in the life and leadership of the church. The outcome was a hospital whose ethos predated that of the National Health Service by meeting need regardless of ability to pay. All the initiatives, inspired by Professor AH Charteris and his wife were earthed in the “actualities of life” and the challenge of need.
Today, still, there are so many needs still to be met, from isolated elderly people struggling to cope, to the problems of disaffected young people struggling to belong and desperate for nurture and opportunity. For all of us, in our increasingly atomised society, there is the need to create community and networks of caring, support and belonging. These are challenging times for the church, but also times in which the earthy message of the risen Christ needs to be told and lived in places of care and hope and hospitality. As AH Charteris is reported as having said, “Everything must be done if the old ship is to be held together”. Amen.