At this time of year the traditional scriptural readings are all about the threatening consequences for the church of the Easter story. The upshot of the Paschal Mystery is that Christians find themselves worshipping a God whose continuing creativity is confined neither by life nor by death. In other words, we are stuck with a God who raises the dead.
That ought to be good news, but actually it’s rather tricky, downright inconvenient even. Aside from giving us no end of explaining to do (how do such things actually come about, for goodness sake?), it invites us to put our lives where our mouths are. And given the church’s capacity to squabble nastily over things that fall rather short of life and death issues, it also means living well outside the ecclesiastical safety zone.
Meanwhile, as far as most of the rest of the world is concerned, Easter is now done and dusted. The expected liturgies have been said, the hot cross buns have been consumed and the grave clothes of the media’s puzzlement about religion have been disturbed by a small seasonal flurry. You have to have a brouhaha every year just to stop it all becoming terminally uninteresting, it seems – this time it was a furore about the Dean of St Albans’ entirely sensible comment that the cross of Christ is not an act of divine sadism, but an embodiment of God’s willingness to absorb and transform our human capacity for continually doing ourselves and other people in – “living unto death”, as an ancient baptismal liturgy puts it.
So where do we go next? That, as it happens, is the title of an article the great Welsh poet and Anglican priest R. S. Thomas wrote for The Listener magazine back on 8 August 1974. In it, he declared: “This is an age of searching and doubt, of confidence and hesitation. In the strangely shifting climate which is common to most of the world today, can there be a finer, more satisfying response than trust? The great hymn of the Christian Church, the Te Deum Laudamas, closes on the humble yet proud verse: ‘In thee, O Lord, have I trusted; let me never be confounded’.”
Above all, the Easter message is an invitation to trust; to place ourselves in the hands of a love so excessive that it goes on giving beyond all possible expectation. Its fruit is not bargaining or recrimination (such as conventional religion and politics deal in), but forgiveness, unmerited and life-changing grace. That was the burden of St Peter’s message to the high priest and the Sanhedrin (the ruling council) when he was dragged before them, as recorded in Acts 5: 27-32.
You might have thought they would be glad to hear this, but they weren’t, because if God can work wonders through an executed criminal then the guardians of shrines and palaces may well find themselves redundant. As John the Seer points out as he celebrates Christ the alpha and omega (Revelation 1: 4-8), in the kingdom of the Lamb it turns out that God has enthroned the people in place of kings and has ordained all the faithful as priests.
The power of the God of life, says our Gospel reading, is now in the hands of those who constitute the Body of Christ, the ekklesia. We can forgive sins or we can retain them, bless or curse (John 20. 22, 23). And boy, have we done so throughout history! When we get religion wrong (usually by trying to restrict or ration what God has given in abundance, or by turning it into an instrument of our own vindication) there’s hell to pay. Which is why theology is so important, by the way. No-one would trust a hospital which said it had given up on medical training because these days most people found the details a bit boring. So why should anyone trust a church which has given up on wrestling seriously with the promise of God because it’s easier just to bathe in a few hymns or hold coffee mornings? The Gospel is such that we are always handling really dangerous ideas. And we should never forget it.
The high priest, in facing down the apostle Peter, spotted this instantly. The message of Jesus’ death and his vindication by God is pure subversion, given how things are – yet, he says in an accusatory tone, “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us.” You can see the poor fellow’s point. This time Peter and his companions got away with it. In future they would not be so lucky.
Trusting the God who turns our lives around and will not even let death have the last word is equally tricky for Thomas – who, because of John 20:19-31, has come to be called ‘the doubter’. He is, I think, a somewhat misconstrued figure. Looked at one way, he has the courage to do something that the church throughout the ages has often hesitated or refused to do: that is, to touch the wounds of Jesus. Really, not ritually. One of the notable things about those New Testament fragments which deal with the disciples’ growing apprehension that Jesus’ death is not the last word, is that they present us with a risen Christ who retains his scarred, brutalised appearance.
Resurrection does not obliterate the marks of suffering and death. It places them in a new context. When we develop the ability to recognise and honour each others’ wounds, we find ourselves being put in touch with the true source of redemption – the wounded healer. Imagine what it would be like, says Archbishop Elias Chacour, himself both an Arab and a citizen of Israel, if Jews and Palestinians could weep over each others’ many and terrible lacerations. Would they then be able to go on inflicting suffering, to go on making an enemy of each other and a tormenter of themselves? No, something quite new would have to happen: reconciliation. In Christ’s tortured and yet glorified body we see a hope precisely of this kind – fleshed out eternally, one might say.
Chacour’s observation is one of remarkable depth. It’s a question which can equally apply to our own most difficult relationships. And we owe it to Thomas for having the courage to reach out, albeit in deep uncertainty and suspicion. In seeing this we are recognising that the nature of doubt needs a bit of re-thinking, too. Thomas finds it difficult to believe, for sure. A God who raises the dead is entirely outside the calculations made possible by human reason. And that’s the point. As much as we too long for assurance and certainty, Thomas wants proof, something that fits the world he can handle, not the world as it is re-ordered by the God who is to be found, bloodied but still pouring out love, in the shape of Jesus.
It would therefore be more accurate to talk of certain Thomas. Thomas, the man who shares with many believers and non-believers today the desire either to have a God at our disposal (the great fantasy of religion) or, if not, no God at all. The worst of all worlds, it seems, is that God exists not to vindicate what makes us comfortable or ‘in control of the facts’, but to lead us deeper into trouble – into the waters of baptism where being buried in death and raised to life are a single, inseparable reality. In this way we Christians are invited to get our dying in first, so that we can be liberated from its continuing power over us. We are freed to be a little bit odd – to love enemies, to do good to objectionable people: all kinds of things that do not fit into a reasonable foreign policy.
In inviting Thomas into his woundedness, Jesus shares an inextinguishable life with him – and shows him the unavoidable cost of true living, as opposed to living at the expense of others. There are many people, he says, who down the ages will discover this without even the strange comfort of feeling my wounds. They may feel completely cut off. They may be overcome. They may feel nothing at all, sometimes. Yet they will go on believing, go on affirming a love which will not let us go. This is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the go-between God (John V. Taylor).
Let’s give the last word to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On Good Friday it was the 62nd anniversary of his death at the hands of the Nazis in Flossenburg concentration camp. In a world trapped and enthralled by the power of death, he declared, “only a suffering God will do.” Not a God who avoids, justifies, inflicts or disowns suffering, but a God who embraces it (and its victims) through an unquenchable love that is beyond our comprehension, for sure – but not beyond either our imagination or our capacity to act and pray. As St John puts it elsewhere, the gospel of the risen Christ invites us to “do the truth” by living as those who know not so much who we are (that can be pretty confusing at times), but whose we are.
Bonhoeffer summarises it like this in a letter written in Tegel one year before his execution: “It is not from avoiding death but from the resurrection of Christ that a new, purifying breeze can blow into the present world …. If even a few people were really to believe this, much would change. To live from the perspective of the resurrection: this is Easter.”
Adapted from a sermon given at St Stephen’s, Exeter, on the second Sunday of Easter