Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 27th April 2014
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away. [Hughes Mearns, 1899]

I hope that’s not too irreverent a way to introduce some reflections on the story of Doubting Thomas, which is one of my favourite stories in the Bible. I’ve always thought that, if I’d been around at the time, and had been fortunate enough to be one of Jesus’ circle of friends – if not one of the actual disciples – if I’d bumped into the disciples, and they had been saying, ‘We have seen the Lord’, I think my reaction would have been a bit like Thomas’: ‘Unless I can see him, touch him: I couldn’t believe it.’

But then Thomas is put out of his misery, because Jesus does come: Thomas does see, he does touch – and he does believe. But Jesus himself says that the really marvellous thing is if someone doesn’t have Thomas’ good fortune, wasn’t actually there, wasn’t able to see, feel, touch the risen Jesus – but nevertheless still believes – that is the real marvel.

St Peter wrote in his first Letter, Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice …

This is a very important message for all of us Christians. Starting from the disciples on the way to Emmaus, Christians have always had a tendency to be a bit despondent when they haven’t had Jesus right there in front of them. Now 2,000 years further on, there are an awful lot of people, like the Prime Minister, for whom their Christian faith ‘comes and goes’, but clearly doesn’t exactly get him by the throat.

Let’s go back a minute to the man who wasn’t there.

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.

The Jesus that Thomas encountered, the Jesus that all the disciples encountered, was there – and then he wasn’t. He was a man, but he was also God. So in a sense, he was a man who wasn’t there.

The bit that Thomas saw, and felt, and touched, was Jesus the man. But the fact that he saw, and felt, and touched Jesus, the risen Jesus, the man who wasn’t there: the man who had died, shows that this was a revelation, a revelation of God: God showing himself.

You can approach that in all sorts of different ways. If you believe in God as a sort of benevolent old chap with a beard above the clouds, who somehow created everything that there is, that may be fine – and it may indeed be perfectly OK to believe in someone like that, simply because you know that the question, what it is to be God, is actually beyond our comprehension, and therefore a picturesque metaphor, like an ancient Greek god on Mount Olympus or in the heavens – or indeed, all the imagery we have in the Bible, ‘sitting on the right hand of God’, and so on, may be perfectly OK as a way of talking about something which we really can’t comprehend – but which, nevertheless, we can believe in.

The point about the Resurrection is that it was God’s ultimate way of demonstrating, not only that He, God, is there, He exists, but that He is still interested in His creation, and in us in particular.

There have been signs of God’s involvement all down the ages. Moses and the burning bush: Daniel in the lions’ den; all the various miracles that Jesus did, are very difficult to explain, unless they are to some extent revelations, revelations of God at work in the world.

Many of us will be able to say that they have experienced the power of prayer; that prayers are answered. Again, very difficult to analyse this in any way. Why, for example, are some prayers answered, and others aren’t?

The philosophers of the Enlightenment – Spinoza, Locke, Hume – all had difficulty with the idea that God was something, God was a something, something made, when at the same time He was the ultimate cause of everything, the ‘unmoved mover’ as Aristotle called him, or the ‘first mover’, the first cause, in Thomas Aquinas.

The idea of the ultimate cause, the unmoved mover, ‘τι ό ού κινούμενον κινει’ [Aristotle, Metaphysics, Λ 7, 1072a25], could lead you to William Paley’s C18 idea of the ‘divine watchmaker’; that Nature was so marvellous in its construction and operation, that it must have been constructed by, and organised by, a divine craftsman. The most complex mechanism which Paley could think of was a watch – pretty rare in C18 – so God’s skill must be at least that of a watchmaker – he was the Divine Watchmaker.

Charles Darwin is said to have been inspired to start his own researches into evolutionary biology by reading about Paley’s idea of the Divine Watchmaker.

But the problem with those understandings of God – sometimes called ‘deist’ ideas – which were popular in the C18, is that they don’t make sense of Jesus. They imagined a divine watchmaker, a god who set up the world, programmed it, pressed the start button – and then had nothing more to do with it.

It would be fairly difficult to justify worshipping, or having any kind of interaction with, that sort of a god. There wouldn’t be a lot of point in praying to the divine watchmaker, because he wouldn’t be there. He would probably have moved on.

It would be difficult to understand any ideas about ethics, why we should choose to do one thing rather than another, on the basis that some things are good or bad – because the divine watchmaker, having made the mechanism to run at a certain speed, and perhaps in a certain direction, wound it up and set it going, has left it to get on by itself. The world has to evolve by itself. As Richard Dawkins put it, the watchmaker is blind.

There’s nothing that the clock itself can do to change its time or to run in a different direction. So if all there is, is God in the form of an unmoved mover, then we are ultimately pre-programmed, predetermined, and there’s no point in our trying to choose between the good and the bad.

If, on the other hand, we accept that the point about Jesus is that His life, death and resurrection is a revelation, is God showing His hand – then it is the revelation. The divine watchmaker is not blind. He is still there, caring for what He has made and sustaining it. The fact of Jesus, his life, death and above all, his resurrection, is the evidence. How should we respond to it?

Although I’m sure you’ll all realise that I’m mighty tempted to have another dig at our hapless Prime Minister and his lukewarm faith, I don’t think it would be very fair to do that. Let’s concentrate on what we should do. St Peter, in his first letter, suggests that when you have faith in Jesus, ‘you believe in Him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:8-9).

You, you who have come to church, have faith that God cares for you, and that God will save your soul, will bring you home. I suppose the thing today is that, for many people, there is no sense of being lost in the wilderness and needing to be brought home. There is no sense of being cut off from God – which is what sin is – because people feel that they can get by perfectly adequately without addressing their minds at all to any questions about God. They just don’t engage.

If you’ve got a nice family, if you’re doing reasonably well: if you’ve got a decent job or a decent pension: if you live in a nice place, if you drive a nice car: if you have decent holidays: if you have all that, it’s very tempting to think that there’s nothing really missing in your life.

And yet, of course, very commonly, people experiencing that sort of earthly-paradise prescription, which might even be normal life in Cobham, say – are often the ones who confess to not being entirely fulfilled, to having a sense that there’s something missing in their lives. Perhaps they turn to some New Age philosophies or fads – Yoga or special diets – in the hope that it’ll fill the gap in their lives.

Yoga or special diets. I hope that doesn’t sound impossibly sniffy. What I’m leading up to, is that you don’t need pet rocks or fancy diets. You just have to get your head round what the encounter with Thomas, or the meeting on the road to Emmaus, or the empty tomb, all add up to.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe’ [John 20:29]. That’s the message. It changed people’s lives 2,000 years ago – and it can still do it. We need to think hard about what that revelation can do in our lives, and how we ought to respond to it.

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