A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20:29)
Now that the crowds of Easter Service have thinned a little, let’s take a Sunday to go into a little bit more detail about how we think about our faith, and in particular how we think about the resurrection of Jesus. Let me introduce you to two of the twentieth centuries greatest preachers and thinkers about the good news of Jesus Christ: Rudolf and Karl.
Rudolf and Karl, as you might have guessed from their names, are from German-speaking lands: Rudolf is from Germany and Karl from Switzerland. Rudolf and Karl lived through the end of the 19th century and into the twentieth, and their experience as pastors and theologians has been shaped, consciously or unconsciously by the horrors of the First World War. Although they have brains the size of a planet, Rudolf and Karl are pastors and preachers alongside being brilliant academics, and their instincts in the ashes of post-war German-speaking lands, is to respond pastorally. Rudolf and Karl are informed by deeply humanitarian concerns and, although their paths take them on different routes in responding, they share a scepticism about the value of historical evidence in helping people to be Christians. Perhaps taking a line from Jesus’ words – Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet come to believe – they emphasise the central element of faith in the risen Jesus, they see (in different ways) the historical fact of the resurrection as being of significantly less importance than the importance of believing in the risen Jesus.
For Rudolf, especially, this means going back to the Easter stories and stripping away what he thinks of as the myths about Jesus in the New Testament. Rudolf thinks that when we read the stories of the Resurrection, it is basically impossible to get to the core of what happened on Easter Day. Instead, says Rudolf, when we read the Easter stories in the Bible, what we are reading is what the early Church believed about Jesus. It’s impossible to get back to what happened at Easter, all we can do he says is look at the effect of the resurrection on the disciples, all we can see is the faith of the first Christians in the risen Christ. In fact, Rudolf goes further. He says that, because modern human beings know that dead men don’t rise because miracles don’t happen, when we talk about the risen Jesus what we’re talking about is the way in which the message of Jesus so inspired the first Christians, that the resurrection is basically something that happened to them not something that happened to Jesus. They knew Jesus alive in their hearts and that was what inspired them to go out with the good news of the gospel. Jesus risen is Jesus risen in them. Rudolf’s message powerful message and it has had a long life in the past 100 years or so, taking root in some unexpected places. So the revivalist hymn, I serve a risen Saviour, not one we regularly sing here but still widely sung, includes the chorus line, He lives, he lives, salvation to impart! You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.
Karl took rather a different view. He didn’t agree with Rudolf about the resurrection being about what happens in people’s hearts and not in the tomb of Jesus. He thought that the tomb was empty on Easter Day but he said that the history didn’t matter that much. He said you could never get back to the history. What matters says Karl, and here he comes close to Rudolf, what matters is the faith of the disciples. Faith in the risen Christ is what Jesus commends and what the Gospel invites, and no amount of historical investigation will ever get you to the point of deciding to trust in Jesus, as he invites us to.
Now why am I giving you this little insight into two modern thinkers about Easter Day, apart from the fact that it might prompt you to find out more about Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth, two of the great theologians of the past century? Well, because our Gospel reading today invites reflection on this very question. We often focus on the question of doubt in this reading and doubt is very much part of our human experience. Listen to this moving account of someone who doubts, Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. There is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead…I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake? That’s a quote from the diary of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Doubt is very much part of the human experience, even in the lives of those who follow Christ. It’s telling that this passage, in which we meet so called ‘Doubting Thomas’ is almost the only passage in the whole of the bible that is read once a year in our pattern of readings. You get this every Sunday after Easter, without fail. You cannot avoid doubt.
But the significance of the story of Thomas and Jesus isn’t about the reality of doubt. The significance of the story is the invitation to faith.
Rudolf and Karl are right, up to a point, it seems to me. Faith is faith in Jesus not faith about Jesus. We can believe that the tomb was empty, that the miracles Jesus did happened, that Jesus was born of a Virgin, the whole kit and caboodle that we recite in the creeds, we can believe it all, and we won’t have had faith in Jesus. We can believe that till the cows come home, but what matters is that we place our trust in Jesus risen for our lives. Robert Farrar Capon was an American Anglican priest with a pithy turn of phrase. He captures what it means to have faith in Jesus brilliantly in this quote from his book From Noon to Three:
Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting – no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you – you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.
Trust him. That’s what faith is. Trust him with your life, as much as you can. Doubting Thomas is in fact Faithful Thomas. Having faith in Jesus isn’t a matter of moral perfection, it isn’t a matter of being orthodox on the creed, it isn’t even about believing that the tomb was physically empty on Easter Day, and it isn’t even about having anything more than faith the size of a mustard seed. It is about trusting Jesus, as we can, just as we trust those who love us to love us for ever.
Just a word of aside before I conclude: perhaps the greatest struggle to believe comes for those who find it hard to trust others. This is why to me abuse and harm, which undermine trust, are so corrupting of this ability to have trust in Christ. A compassionate and caring church, will be a safe place to build trust; we have to work hard together, even when tested to our limits, to make churches communities where broken trust can lead to greater trust.
I’ll end today with Rudolf and Karl. Time has moved on since their heyday. Giants of thinking though they are, the pendulum has swung back, and today’s great thinkers about resurrection are not where they are. Nowadays there’s much more interest in history again, about what happened. I could introduce you to another German, Wolfhart, who talks about the resurrection as history, but there isn’t time. Instead let me say this. If we agree with Rudolf and Karl that faith in Christ is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, then more recent thinkers have emphasised that the Christian claim is that the resurrection happened in history, on a certain day at a certain time, and so as good historians, we should investigate it as such. And I could introduce you to Tom, a retired Anglican bishop, for whom the investigation of the bible as history has led to a reaffirmation not just that history matters but that, when you do your history well, it is possible to not just trust in Jesus in our minds and in our hearts, as Rudolf and Karl would want, but to trust Jesus because the historical evidence exists to say that this extraordinary Easter event actually happened and the tomb was empty and the history says so too. All these thinkers would agree though that faith in Jesus Christ, trust in him, is what matters. Whether you or I love to give time to think about our faith deeply as they do, or whether we simply want to trust Jesus and get on with doing his work in the world, it’s all about faith.
Trust Jesus. Amen.
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