Sermon for the Second Sunday in Easter
24 April 2022
St. Titus’, Durham
Texts: Acts 5:27-32; Rev 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Good morning. I hope you are safe and healthy. I’m glad to preach today because I want to praise God while I have breath. So, I offer this sermon as always, to the glory of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and for the benefit of his people.
This time next week we will welcome our Interim Rector, the Rev. Dr. Alecia Alexis, who will work for us and with us through the next year’s uncertainty as St. Titus undertakes to navigate its future. This should be an exciting and challenging time for all those who attend services here and who care deeply about God’s call to this parish’s unfolding.
So I personally hope that this room will be filled next Sunday to show Alecia that she is really welcome to this place and that St. Titus is eager and expectant to engage her in ministry.
Meanwhile, welcome to Low Sunday! That’s the name we give today, mainly because attendance following Easter Sunday is typically severely diminished. And in some ways, that’s unsurprising. Much like other significant life events the profound agonies of Holy Week and the great celebrations of Easter are ended– finished – and now it’s time to move on because we neither can nor want to live perpetually with such intensity and focus as these events have required of us.
So, while Easter Day, like other high-water marks in the Christian year is typically marked, by fanfare and jam-packed churches. Easter 2 by contrast, with its small attendance, many rectors on holiday, and special decorations put away, begins the process of settling down, resuming established rhythms, and returning to whatever is considered to be a relatively normal life. But this year we have good reasons to ask: “What’s next’?
We learn from our history so that we do not repeat its mistakes; but, what we do learn largely depends on what we make of past events. So now that the pandemic is being subordinated to the foreshadowing of possible nuclear war and humanitarian crises, we are now asking some big and hard questions: “What’s next”?
Will the war in Ukraine escalate or wind down? Will we get more directly involved in it? How can we reclaim what we lost during the months of mandated masks and lockdowns? How can our children recover their lost years at school?
Can we have confidence in the leaders in science and medicine? How can we trust
the truth of what we are told by government and journalists? And how can our country, as divided and conflicted as it is, recover its unity and peace?
More directly to the point, a New York Times editorial printed during Holy Week argued that when Satan is clearly in charge, we should eliminate God. We also have lots of local urgent questions that demand our attention – like what does St. Titus want to become and how can it be helped to get there with the leading of the Rev. Dr. Alexis?
But now, after 40 days of Lent, the solemnity of Holy Week, the cruelty and barbarity of Good Friday, the excitement of Easter Day, and celebration of our Lord’s resurrection, these other matters now claim our attention. The tendency is to relax, take Easter 2 off, and return to business as usual.
And it is precisely this issue that John wrestles with in the gospel appointed for today. He frames it to address what was not only a real and serious problem in the post-apostolic church, but a problem that continues to plague contemporary Christians.
Plainly put, the issue is this: “Is it possible to believe in a risen Lord whom we can neither see nor touch?” And if that’s possible, how can we believe without a personal experience of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance? How can we avoid the conclusion that, like other persons we have known and loved, Jesus is simply dead? And if Jesus is dead and evil is flourishing, why not just settle down and get by?
Years ago, the divinity school in which I taught sponsored a symposium to explore these questions, and it invited several members of the Jesus Seminar to give talks and participate in panel discussions. The answer of the Jesus Seminar’s represntatives was that there are only two things certain about Jesus: that he was born in Bethlehem and (2) that he was crucified during the reign of Pontius Pilate.
John Dominic Crossan was one of the leaders of the Jesus Seminar who argued that the tomb of Jesus was indeed empty – because that was the frequent fate of crucified Roman criminals, and that Jesus’s body had similarly been devoured by wild dogs, Other claims about Jesus–that he is the only Son of God, the Messiah – that his death was followed by his resurrection and ascension – that his sacrifice accomplished our reconciliation with God – all these and other claims about Jesus were dismissed as myths which were invented by the Church in later centuries.
So, I want to tell you how I think Thomas and other persons in the Bible came to believe in God. It’s of bedrock importance to us and it’s as simple as dirt. I’ve compressed it, but the story is a bit long. So please bear with me.
The first point is that in Thomas’s case, the answer to his doubt was that seeing is not believing. Some think that the roots of notions like those of the Jesus Seminar lie in Thomas; but I think that Thomas has been placed at a disadvantage by generations of Christians who have not carefully read John’s account of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances.
It’s clear in John’s gospel that Thomas was not present when Jesus first came to the disciples – when he said, “Peace be with you” and showed them his wounds. And it is equally clear that when they heard their Lord, they recognized him– and that their sorrow turned to joy when they knew they were not orphaned. The pattern was the same with the two Marys in Matthew 28, and with Mary Magdalene and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They knew him because they heard him.
In Thomas’s case the answer to his doubt was, like theirs, that seeing is not believing — that even being face-to-face with Jesus was no guarantee of faith. And that is noteworthy to us because our cognitive bias is precisely that seeing is believing. But for Thomas, faith came only after he heard Jesus speak. In fact, in all of the New Testament post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, it is through hearing his word – being addressed by the Lord – that the earliest disciples were able to discern him as the risen Lord and learn that they are to be his missionaries. So what Jesus says directly to Thomas, he says to all of them – and by implication to us – “Do not be unbelieving any longer!”
2000 years later we’ve learned that it is just like that for us who are his disciples our faith also comes, not through seeing, but through hearing the risen Lord speak through apostolic witness. And that’s actually not an odd claim to make. All of us know very little that we haven’t been told and taught; and none of us create our world from scratch. Along with our own curiosity, our parents and teachers and pastors and friends have helped to create our world.
The 2nd point is that the claim that “seeing is not believing” challenges the most fundamental and precious claims that we have inherited from post-Enlightenment theories about how we know what we know. We call it, “scientific method”, and it insists that the experience of the “knower” is the essential precondition for confidence and certainty about what we know. All of us have gifts we can share, and my gift to you today is an understanding of how we claim to know what we know, and believe what we believe.
It’s a fascinating story even though its roots lie in the 17th century – the great formative period of modern philosophy. That was a time marked by the decline of medieval conceptions of knowledge and it’s notable for the rise of physical sciences. It was the era of people like Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and the great astronomer Galileo Galilei; and because this was a world-changing and life altering time, understanding it helps explain the difference between naked reason and a simple trust as the different bases of what we claim to know.
The story begins prior to the 16th century when Christians enjoyed a precarious but operational unity within which reason was validated by trust in Scripture and tradition as these were interpreted by the Church’s magisterium. But people like Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei, and especially Rene Descartes challenged the notion that human thought and purpose should take its start from this base—so they offered instead the alternative of beginning, not with the theological and philosophical traditions of medieval Christianity, but with an autonomous human individual and his or her personal experience.
The 3rd point is that this meant that if we were to accept anything as true or false, it would be because he or she had individually and independently validated it. Of course, one would submit to conscience; but it would be my individual conscience. And of course, one would submit to the voice of God; but it would be the voice of God as only I hear it.
Eventually, the religious expression of this strong assertion of the individual as the principal, if not sole, source of authority was reflected in Martin Luther’s declaration before the Diet of Worms: “Hier steh, ich, ich kann nichts artderes” (“Here I stand”, he said, I cannot do otherwise”). That helped ignite the Reformation and create modern Protestantism- and later, Ayn Rand would later declare that “Reason is man’s only absolute”. What Luther and others represent is the total collapse of the medieval tradition, and the initiation of both civic and religious individualism and autonomy.
So while our landmarks are increasingly being challenged and diminished, social science tells us that our country has largely survived, and been united by the continuous observance of our national holidays and rituals. But now even celebrating July 4th, saying “Merry Christmas”, observing Memorial Day, and keeping Thanksgiving are disappearing.
In a post-Christian, post-modern secular world it’s called a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, and it’s marked by a general sense of skepticism and despair.
It also echoes the defiant private judgment upon which Thomas insisted: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, unless I put my finger into the place where the nails were, unless 1 place my hand in his side, I will not believe”. And then Thomas’s doubt was resolved in a way that is inaccessible to us. Jesus invited him to do what he needed to do in order to believe. And that was when Jesus made this odd comment: “Blessed and happy are those who have faith without seeing me.”
My 4th point is that when you think about it, that’s not such an odd comment. The fact is that every human undertaking – scientific, humanistic, or religious – depends for its acceptance on the trustworthiness of our predecessors.
So, I don’t disrespect science and, scientific method. Like you, I’m as suspicious of bogus science, but I’m grateful for true science – and our government is careful to spot the difference – so that, for example, we can confidently and legally receive medicines only after they been proven to be both safe and effective. We don’t repeat all of the experiments, and we don’t recreate the formulae. We accept them and build on them – so most of us simply acknowledge the science– that water is constituted of H20, that we cannot violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, that 2+2=4.
Christians, Jews, Muslims and others similarly trust the religious truths that they have received. What makes claims like these intelligible and cogent is the extent to which we agree with the premises and presuppositions upon which they rest.
We trust them to be true. And in the measure to which we share their common narrative, their stories make sense to us and so we inherit a tradition.
We also know that the converse is true – that we are powerless to resolve religious, scientific, or moral disputes in the absence of shared commitments about what is “true and real”. Remember the heated debates and disputes and disagreements about Covid vaccinations and other mandates – or about relieving the horrible violence and humanitarian crises in the Ukraine – or solutions to the recession and ruined family budgets. All of these reflect different views of truth and reality.
And my final point is that Christians should know that, like algebra or biology. That what faith and trust offer us is not a set of self-validating rational principles. Instead, both Bible and Church offer us a story – a tradition – an account of shared commitments – and that becomes the personal story of all of us who trust them. So, about Thomas – faith and trust comes to us as it came to Thomas–only after we hear the Word and trust it to be true.
Every Sunday in the year ahead will invite us to listen for the word of the Risen Lord – and hearing it–be formed and directed by it – so that believing and trusting we may have new life in his name. The great temptation of modernity and secularity is to doubt, to be skeptical, to despair. But God is not dead – nor is he to be eliminated – and our Lord Jesus commands us, as he did Thomas, “Don’t be faithless, be believing” – and he assures us that those who have not seen him and yet trusted him are those who are truly blessed and happy.
The Lord be with you:
Grant us, O Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and, so clarify, our doubts while we are placed among things that are passing away that we hold fast to those that shall endure – for you are our rock and our tower of strength, and into your hands we commend our spirits. So be merciful to accept our doubts and heal our desire for misplaced certainty. Grant us to trust you with all our hearts and minds – for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your wisdom and mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. So be it.
Written by the Rev. Dr. Harmon Smith