Sunday 23rd April 2006
Year B, The Second Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
John 20:19-31

Right at the end of my time at primary school we all used to line up in answer to the question: "Who do you like more, Cliff or Elvis?". I have to say that I found this an extremely boring procedure as I didn't like either; but soon this was overtaken by the much more interesting question: "Who do you like more, the Beatles or the Stones". At this point pop music became grippingly serious and caused a deep crisis in my budding spiritual life because suddenly Alan Freeman's Pick of the Pops, which became absolutely de rigueur listening amidst the mush of the then Light Programme, took place at the same time as the afternoon service of Solemn Benediction.

Meanwhile, the pop groups of what the media came to call the "Swinging Sixties" - I say the media because no matter how hard I tried to find these swinging sixties I never succeeded - the Beatles, the Stones and others were not having it all their own way. Parents, and particularly grannies, struck back with a group from Ireland called the Bachelors who specialised in a brand of unself conscious sentimentality of which this is just one example:

"Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky, then I know why I believe".

At which point my budding spirituality and my irritation with these crooners combined in the single shrieked retort "In what?" When they heard this newborn baby cry, or touched this leaf or saw the sky they might have known why they believed but they never got round to saying what they believed in. It always sounded to me as if this was some kind of European romanticised version of animism.

Of course, the problem, as with all big words, is that we don't only disagree about what we believe in, the root is that we don't agree about what the word believe means. Some people only believe things that are factual; others reserve the word belief for the things that are not factual; others still think of belief as something they generate in order to make things happen.

Viewed in this light, haven't we all been a little bit hard on Thomas, the doubter, who seems to have been a regular, practical sort of bloke? Today's Gospel says that while he was away, the ten (and perhaps others were in the room, we do not know) heard from Mary Magdalene that the Lord was risen but she did not know precisely in what form because He would not let her touch Him; He didn't use the word Resurrection but said He was going to the Father. Then he appeared in the locked room amongst them and showed them His wounds.

Now imagine the whole lot of them, on the day which we call the Day of Resurrection but which they must simply have thought of as the day of the Empty Tomb, telling Thomas what had happened. The tomb was empty, the linen left; Mary had seen Jesus but could not touch him as He was not yet gone to the Father; he had somehow come through the walls like a spirit and had talked to them and gone away. Even in an age which was far less sceptical about the power of spirits than ours, this was a lot to take and Thomas could not take it.

But, of course the point of the story is not the outer appearance of the risen Christ nor the inner workings of the minds of the followers of Jesus, John tells this story so that he can lead up to the moral: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe".

I mentioned a few moments ago that one of the problems with the idea of belief is that we don't all agree what it means but I think our problem runs deeper. Many of us think of belief as "Set in stone" and yet our experience, when we think about it, is obviously different. We instinctively sympathise with St. Paul's striking contrast in the famous passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13 when he strikingly contrasts childhood and adult belief. In other words, St. Paul thinks of belief not as something set in stone but as a growing process.

One of our cultural problems is that Christianity has been struggling with science for so long that we have adopted some of its language and methodology. Science, like belief, is a growing process but it has very clear markers on the way like the discovery of gravity or geological strata. Some of us will have startling moments of clarity along the way but for most of us the spiritual life is, or at least should be, a lifelong endeavour which will probably be wholly unspectacular.

In a few minutes we are going to say the Creed together and I doubt that any two of us will mean precisely the same thing when we say it: we are differently gifted intellectually; we have had different levels of theological training; we have different temperaments; we have differing traditions of Christian witness. In view of all these differences in the face of a God who can only be discussed in metaphorical language, perhaps the best we can hope is that we are close enough together in what we mean to be able to talk about God; what will matter will not be the degree of agreement amongst us, whatever that might mean, but our ability to share in an unending process of trying to complete the impossible sentence "God is ...".

I think there are three major implications from what I have said about belief as a process: first, at no stage can we ever stop exploring our belief, what we believe is always provisional; secondly, and growing out of the first point, this exploration is bound to include periods of serious doubt; thirdly, the necessary degree of difference between us because of our background and the material of our difference, means that we can only carry on our Christian dialogue if we behave in charity.

In recent Church discussions over matters of belief there has not been enough recognition of the provisionality of where we are; there has not been enough recognition of the strong element of doubt necessary for exploring belief; and there has certainly not been enough charity.

Finally, the problem with the primary school lines of allegiance was that you could not stand in both at the same time. Belief is about multiple meaning and spiritual enrichment rather than forcing us to choose between two ways of understanding something difficult. In any case, "understanding" is a rather inadequate word; to put it another way, we should take advantage of any idea which helps us to come closer to God.

After all, there must be some people who liked Cliff and Elvis, or the Beatles and the Stones equally; but surely nobody could have liked either the Beatles or the Stones and the Bachelors equally; there is a limit to belief.