Taken on Trust

Sunday 8th April 2018
The Second Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Acts 4.32-35
John 20.19-31

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Well, where was Thomas? We have very little to go on because, apart from being mentioned in lists of the Apostles, he only appears twice outside our reading: first, to make a rather brave statement about dying with Jesus (John 11), but we all know what that led to; and secondly, he makes a rather innocuous enquiry about where Jesus is going (John 14) during the Last Supper discourse.

The followers of Jesus were locked in their Upper Room for fear of the Jews, so either Thomas was extremely foolhardy for going outside or extremely brave. We can be sure it wasn't trivial because if they had run out of bread, or milk, they would have sent a woman!

I suspect that neither foolhardiness nor bravery was the case but, rather, that the Evangelist John needed to make a point about trust. This is usually explained as a case of Thomas not trusting Jesus because of what happened on the eighth day after the absence of Thomas but it is also a story about Thomas not trusting his friends and colleagues and, in a way, that is much more serious. True, they had a remarkable tale to tell of Jesus suddenly appearing among them without opening the door but Thomas must have heard the story of the women earlier on Resurrection day. So what was at stake here was not just the reported presence and words of Jesus but that all those present when Jesus appeared told their stories which Thomas did not believe. A bad start for a new venture.

Something else often overlooked in this story is that it is the only place where we have evidence of the bodily state of Jesus who, in his resurrected form, is carrying his wounds which underlines the eternal nature of his sacrifice; in a way outside our frame of reference, Jesus always had been and always will be crucified.

It was surely some elements of this presence in a new form which generated such a massive transformation in the followers of Jesus who also, in a way, had a kind of resurrection; gone was the cowardice and fear and, in its place, assertion so that when we see the new, post resurrection community in our reading from Acts, it has adopted a revolutionary lifestyle, holding all goods in common and distributing all its surplus to the poor, compared with which, what a fallen state we are in.

The problem with Christianity is that, when it is taken seriously, it is a very difficult way of life. We, in our comfortable world, will most likely shrug off as foolish or, anyway, Communist, the idea that we should hold all our goods in common but that is what the text says. Now it might be argued that the text merely describes what the new community did not what we are expected to do but we really can't have it both ways. Almost always, when we cite a Biblical text we expect it to be directive, not descriptive. Take, for example, the text about the relationship between Adam and Eve being the origin of Christian marriage; you could easily argue that it is simply a description of how things were, or a description of how the author of Genesis, over a thousand years later, thought they should have been. But my point is that we can't go dabbling about, taking some statements as descriptive and others as directive. If the foundation of Christian marriage is Genesis 2.24, then the foundation of proper Christian economics is today's Reading from Acts.

But there is a history which goes along with our avoidance of the difficult issues. Right through Lent we have been singing hymns and saying prayers which self designate us as sinners in need of salvation, nicely represented by today's Collect on Justification; but when we call ourselves sinners, as we so frequently do, what do we picture ourselves as? I suggest that we think about times when we have let people down, or been dishonest with ourselves, or broken trust, or said something thoughtlessly cruel; but do we really think of ourselves as sinners because people in Bangladesh are starving, others there are in danger of being inundated because of climate change, and hundreds of thousands of Rohingas are in refugee camps, open to the elements and also to terrible exploitation and cruelty. I suspect that our idea of being a sinner has narrowed itself down to a kind of exercise in personal integrity and personal piety which has very little to do with the massive problems 'out there'.

We could argue that, compared with the community we find in Acts, we live in a fallen state which somehow excuses our behaviour but that simply will not do because, reverting to our Gospel, just as Thomas was supposed to take the word of the other followers of Jesus on trust, so we are to take their word on trust. They were no doubt encouraged in their new enthusiasm by their memories of Jesus both before and after the Resurrection but we have not only their witness but two thousand years of Christian heritage to uphold us.

The truth is, we have made too many accommodations, we have, to use the current jargon, cherry-picked our Christianity, largely concentrating on our personal relationship with God and our estimated, or guaranteed, chance of going to heaven while, at the same time, shrugging off the massive, corporate sinfulness which pervades our planet. How many people have to starve to death, to be tortured to death, to die of a broken heart, while we fill our Christian head space with arguments about LGBT issues?

Christianity is not supposed to be a comfortable space where we allow ourselves to be hard on ourselves, rhetorically at least, but is, rather, in an admittedly over-used metaphor, a really difficult journey which is made more difficult by the amount of mental and physical baggage we insist on carrying.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!