EASTER 1    LOW SUNDAY    1 MAY 2011

John 20:19-31

There is a temptation in middle and later life, I gather, to look back and to look through rather misty glasses. Nostalgia (and it can creep into the attitudes of faith), looking back to when keeping faith was direct and straight forward and, indeed, to the days of the first Christians when all was simple, those of whom we have heard in today’s gospel. A looking back which removes the gaps and does away with the edges and the bumps. With those glasses one can end up looking back much as Coleridge does in his famous verse about the young poet Thomas Chatterton

O Chatterton! that thou wert yet alive! ,
Sure thou would'st spread the canvass to the gale
and love, with us, the tinkling team to drive
O'er peaceful Freedom's undivided dale1

Now you do not find such an approach in the gospel, not least because you do not find that kind of looking back. To understand, the disciples have, of course, to look back; one of the features of the disciples' responses to the Christ is that they are slow to understand; even on the mount of Tabor they do not get it. Thomas longs to go to Jesus with Him on the way to the cross but does not get the stuff about resurrection. It seems almost universal that there are two stages to the reception of the good news, a reception which is partial, even wrongheaded and then, later, sometimes much later, a greater clarity when the penny really does drop, the plant once dug in sprouts new shoots and growth takes off.

What is remarkable is that this seems also to be the pattern after the resurrection. There is the finding of the empty tomb as we heard last week and then the appearance to Mary of Magdala; Peter and John’s response and then Mary’s. Faith seems to come in stages, at least two.

Mary’s news of the appearance of  the Risen Lord does not seem to have resulted in an outburst of exuberant and confident joy; they are still behind closed doors in a closed room, for fear of the Jews. Even when the Lord appears to them with the peace of God, a week later finds them behind the doors. Does nothing enter their thick skulls, you might think, does no warmth enter their cool hearts, no movement into their sluggish veins?

What is here is something about the kind of belief which comes with the reality, with the mystery of Jesus crucified and risen. A common view of the resurrection is of course that all is clear, that what was murky is not made full light, glorious summer made not by this Son of God, no gaps, no edges, no bumps; Freedom's undivided dale’.

The problem is that the gospels do not speak of the resurrection like this; they speak of faith in the strange wonder of Jesus Christ. When He speaks, He speaks of peace, with patience. He gives peace but he has to give it three times and with no rebuke to those He has been want to rebuke for their slowness of heart. Strange wonder, yes but it is a faith where what is believed is not taken in one way and in one gulp; no undivided dale.

This faith comes in stages, connected and attendant to different intensities. The belief of a John who just has to see the absence of the Lord from the tomb to believe, love sheer and unalloyed, the others who huddle together and are yet given peace and the life from on high, the Spirit but are still hesitant and fearful a week later and, then Thomas who has difficulties, rather over well formulated you might think but certainly a loyal Thomas.  If one scholar is to be credited2 he may have been the one who witnesses the thrust of the spear (19.35). It is therefore he who knows by what marks, by what wounds, Jesus is to be identified. I hope that is a help to the many Christians who feel bad just because, like Thomas, they never seem to be there when Jesus arrives.  

Faith in the Risen Christ and His person has from the beginning meant stages variously found, variously expressed, different emotions and different intensities. If Thomas’ faith  is regarded as inadequate, then so is that of the other disciples. He is not on his own. If he is regarded as confessing as profoundly as he does, My Lord and my God, then he does so in the name of the Twelve. He is therefore not one who is to be marked out as a doubter as he commonly is; Jesus offers him what he asks for, even though it is faith he brings, faith even though he could both touch and see. St Augustine commented; ‘He saw and  touched the man and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched3’.  Thomas did not touch, so perhaps one should say He saw and could touch the man and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor could touch.’

I have laboured that most of the resurrection accounts treat of coming to faith in the resurrection, to full faith which is in at least two stages. Resurrection faith, although it involves a true kind of certainty, seems to involve change and sometimes a bumpy one too. In all the accounts there is something of wonder and hope; none look back. None on the way to Christian faith looks back to an undivided dale, even those on the Emmaus road do not do that.  

Coleridge fantasises about Chatterton:

And we, at sober eve, would round thee throng,
Hanging, enraptured, on thy stately song!
And greet with smiles the young-eyed poesy
All deftly mask'd, as hoar antiquity.

Yet that can never be a proper attention to the Risen Christ. The disciples might stare into their boots but there is no thinking of what it was to have hung on Jesus’ stately words, young-eyed poesy. Christian faith has no room for Romantic nostalgia.

The Risen Christ is something believed in now, with all our gaps and bumps, puzzles and difficulties, as present to a real  faith now, howsoever like that of the Twelve or of the women at the tomb or of John, to faith as real, as it was to the one who said ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands , I will not believe‘

Thomas Seville CR

1 Monody on the Death of Chatterton (final edition 1834)

2 James Charlesworth, The Beloved disciple, p226-33

3 St Augustine ’s Tractate 121 on the Gospel of John