Who Can You Trust?

Sunday 15th April 2007
Year C, The Second Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Acts 5:27-32
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

There was a politician, a Bishop and a journalist and the politician said: one of the ideas that have been put to us is that we should consider enforcing gender equality in religious organisations. The Bishop said: You can't do that because justice upsets some people. And the journalist said: Government to slap on quota of women bishops; what a story!

Who can you trust? It is so difficult these days with so much competing information, half-truth, rumour and spin; but I must say that from my experience if I had to choose to be stranded on a desert island with politicians, bishops or journalists I'd take the politicians every time.

Since Onora O'Neill's Reith Lectures in 2002 there has been a great deal of public debate about trust. Clearly a complex society cannot do without it; we have to take all kinds of things on trust: the management of our pension; the education of our children; the safety of aeroplanes; respect for our confidentiality. And although we should not get into a panic about our world it is certainly true that we are, as a culture, more cynical, less trusting than we used to be; and, if you believe Adam Curtis in his television programmes The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, we at least have good reason to worry. And although we may disagree about what we should do, one simple point is obvious: it is easier to destroy trust than to rebuild it; just look at the disintegration of the former Jugoslavia!

In place of trust, our society is full of targets, audits, regulations, checks, security systems, health and safety rules, CCTV's and body scanners. The extent to which we have accepted surveillance in public places with hardly a bleat of protest is truly amazing, given our supposed obsession with privacy. We also seem to have accepted without real thought that all men are potential child abusers, that all physical contact with children is sexual, that our streets are unsafe because of traffic, rapists and knife carriers. One question we need to ask is what level of public interference we are prepared to accept in exchange for the totally unrealistic objective of a risk free society.

The answer to that question goes right back to the issue of trust which is the subject of our three readings today. St. Peter in Acts tells the Sanhedrin in a passage which is a self conscious reflection of the trial of Jesus, that he cannot keep quiet - lying by omission - to please it; he must say openly and honestly what he needs to say. St. John the Divine at the beginning of Revelation, writing against a background of persecution and dissension, also says that he is impelled to proclaim the message of Jesus. Then we come up against the infamous 'doubting Thomas' who asserts that seeing is believing.

Now I have a great deal of sympathy for Thomas. After all, only eight days before the community that Jesus had led was in disarray: Peter, the Lieutenant, had denied Jesus; Judas had betrayed Him and committed suicide; The rest, except for John, had run away and kept their heads down. There they were in a locked room when, they say, Jesus came in. Most people would have regarded them as unreliable witnesses; I would have believed Mary the mother of Jesus but, as usual, what she might have said is not reported. The objective of this story, of course, is to debunk the idea that seeing is believing. Jesus says: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." And while this runs counter to our empirical sense, it goes with the grain of our true lives, lives based on trust, on the word of others who have seen what we have not seen.

The problem with that word, as represented by the Bible, is that the witness of the Evangelists and letter writers is not straightforward. These writers are not historians, they are theologians; so what can we take on trust?

First, quite independently of the phenomenon of the empty tomb, we know that something so cataclysmic happened between Good Friday and Pentecost that a group of obscure, largely uneducated men who had been frightened out of their wits by the death of Jesus, were prepared to risk their lives to launch a movement to remember His teaching  and his acts of power. Here is Peter in today's reading standing up to a body that had recently condemned Jesus to death.

Secondly, whatever the actual corporeal experience, Jesus was truly present to His followers in a way that they could understand and, in turn, communicate to others. There is no equivocation in the message. The ancient world had its full complement of wraiths, ghosts, angels, spirits, demons, fairies, demi-gods and apparitions; but Jesus is not described as any of these.

Thirdly, no-one doubted the significance of these events; Jesus had overcome the humiliation of Crucifixion, He had conquered death, He had risen again. Our three readings are very different in tone but they all bear witness to the truth of the Resurrection.

I often think that our New Testament does not do justice to the Resurrection; narratives on the Crucifixion are vibrant as is the account of Pentecost in Acts; but the passages in between, for all their affirmation, are rather colourless. Perhaps this accounts for our often muted reaction to the event. Jesus erupted into human history, was rejected by us at Calvary but then erupted in human history again at the Resurrection. He confirmed the irreversible offer of salvation; it was the sacred equivalent of the 'big bang' in science. Things could, things can, never be the same again.

Yet the only way we can make the Resurrection real is not through studying the text but living in its intense, sacred light. The reality of the Resurrection does not depend upon written testimony, it depends upon living testimony. It depends upon straight, unequivocal saying and doing; it depends upon the degree of trust which we generate through who we are.

When it comes to the reality of our life in the risen Lord we need not use the cautious language of the politician, the equivocal language of the Bishop or the exaggerated language of the journalist.

We need only use simple words.

Christ is Risen:
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!