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1 Sermon Sunday 7th April, 2013 Lessons 2 Kings 7: 1-16 Acts 5: St John 20: Prayer of Illumination Let us pray. O God, speak to our hearts by the Spirit in Scripture; confirm our faith in You that we may neither fall into error nor trifle away the time You have given us. May we cleave to the truth of Your Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Thomas said, 'Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.' St John 20: 25 Our Old Testament story of the four lepers is part of the larger story of the people of Israel's conflict with the king of Syria. The city of Samaria was besieged by Syrian troops. The prophet, Elisha, had protected Israel many times and this story of the leprous men is another instance of that. What struck me about this story is the phrase used by the king's officer. Elisha had said that by the next day flour and barley would be sold at the gates of Samaria. In other words, the siege would be over. In disbelief, the king's officer says, 'Look, if the LORD would make windows in heaven, could this thing be?' The following day the prophecy is fulfilled. Albeit that it was said in jest, I was struck by that beautiful phrase 'windows in heaven.' What a warm thought: to see the light that shines from heaven and to be able to glimpse into heaven. 1

2 In his speech before the High Priest and the Council, with calm assurance, St Peter tells the gathered assembly what he knows to be true: God raised Jesus, that He is at the right hand of God and that he, Peter together with the other apostles, has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. I think that to be given that gift is to be given a glimpse of the Holy, a window into heaven. Peter spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel lesson, Thomas and the other disciples are similarly afforded a glimpse into another world, another reality. In the Gospel narrative, Jesus appears to the disciples when the doors are shut. It is evening and Thomas was not with them. Jesus stands among them and says, 'Peace be with you.' The following week, the disciples are again together, with the doors shut, and Jesus stands in the midst of them. He speaks directly to Thomas: 'Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.' This story too is a window into heaven but how are we to understand it? What are we to make of the Resurrection stories? Pope Benedict says that within the stories there can be no contradiction with clear scientific data. He says the Resurrection accounts 'speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented - a new dimension of reality is revealed.' The pope speaks of an 2

3 'evolutionary leap'. He asks, 'Is not creation actually waiting for this last and highest 'evolutionary leap', for the union of the finite with the Infinite, for the union of [humanity] with God, for the conquest of death?' Benedict says that there is something in the Resurrection stories which lifts humanity out of this world, into heaven itself. The Benedictine monk, Laurence Freeman, tells the story of attending a conference in 1994 on Christian prayer and meditation. The Dalai Lama spent three days discussing the gospels with Christians. Freeman writes: The Dalai Lama...turned the attention of his remarkable mind to a gospel account of the Resurrection. [The Dalai Lama] remarked that the Resurrection was a unique feature of Christianity with no specific parallel in Buddhism...The Dalai Lama then paused and looking up from the page of the gospel he was reading, surprised a Christian sitting beside him by asking him what the Resurrection meant. Freeman said there was a 'moment of stillness', 'a meeting point was created through an innocent question.' This place, says Freeman, is where the meaning of Resurrection is most likely to be glimpsed. What do these ancient stories mean? The stories need to be read extremely carefully. Each gospel tells its own story and they are not always the same. In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus shares a meal with His disciples on the night before He dies; it is the Passover meal. However, in the Gospel of John, Passover does not begin 3

4 until Friday evening. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus dies on the cross at the same time as the lambs are being slaughtered for the Passover. Each of these gospels is faith narrative, not history. In the stories of the Resurrection, there are differences between the gospels. The earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, in its original form, has no Resurrection stories. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, once raised from the dead, appears to His followers for forty days before He ascends to the Father. By contrast, in the Gospel of John, the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, takes place on the same day. In some stories, Jesus may be touched and held by His followers, but not in others. In some stories, Jesus, it seems, eats breakfast with His disciples while in others in enters locked rooms. Pope Benedict writes of the mythological nature of the language. What do we mean by Resurrection? Not all Resurrection appearances are the same. In the Gospel of John, Mary meets the Christ, whom she mistakes for the gardener. Once He calls her by name, she recognises Him. Crucially, He tells her: Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father, but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and Your God. 4

5 Mary departs to tell the disciples. That evening, behind shut doors, Jesus appears to them but this is not the Risen Christ whom she met, but Christ ascended and in heaven. The appearances of Jesus to the disciples and Thomas are not before, but after the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The Synoptic Gospels were written between 30 and 40 years before the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John critiques the Synoptic tradition and moves us to a quite different experience. The 'appearances' have become intimate spiritual experiences. The biblical scholar, Marcus Borg, says, 'The core meaning of Easter is that Jesus continues to be experienced after his death, but in a radically new way: as a spiritual and divine reality.' Like many people around the country, I was very moved by the Archbishop of Canterbury's story about the death of his seven month old daughter, Johanna. Johanna was badly injured in a car crash in France; she died in intensive care five days after the accident. He says, 'It's a very rare day that I don't think of Johanna.' Over those five days, Justin and his wife, Caroline, prayed deeply. He said: He said: That was prayer at its rawest because it's just prayer of, Oh God help. Oh God, where are you? What's going on? Are you going to do something or aren't you? I suppose the deepest moment was... when we were in a café actually outside the hospital on the day Johanna died. 5

6 And we were talking and we were praying and we had a sense in ourselves of needing to say to God, Your will be done. Praying that, a sense of handing over - absolutely agonising - and going back to the hospital, and the professor of intensive care saying to us, 'She suddenly seems to be going.' Welby adds: The presence of Jesus in that room was simply overwhelming. And there was a sense of handing her over. And that was prayer, at its most profound and getting exactly the answer we didn't want. In searching for a metaphor to describe his experience of the Presence of Jesus, the Archbishop says: You know the experience on a really windy day, standing on the top of a high cliff? The wind howls around you to the degree where it's almost difficult to balance. You feel almost dazed by it, yet with that there was this extraordinary presence of God and the power of God touching us very, very deeply, and love. Is there a better example of what happened in the room with the first disciples, who were utterly broken by the brutal death of someone they knew and loved, than the experience of the Welbys? Like the Welbys, the disciples felt the overwhelming Presence of Jesus. With the eyes of faith, they saw Him and felt deeply, deeply touched by Him. Welby says there have been moments of immense pain and an absence of God but in that room 'We were carried. It's grace. It's not virtue...it's a gift.' In prayerful, meditative reading of Scripture, in stillness, we can enter that room, stand with the disciples, and see Jesus for ourselves. So often when 6

7 Jesus appeared people did not recognise Him. These stories are not about physical Resurrection, physical appearances; the Gospel writers want us to go deeper. Seeing with the eyes is not enough. In the language of mythology, it is not enough for Thomas to see with the eyes. He needs to be touch and take hold of Christ. In touching Christ, he is touched by Christ, and he is changed. Our sight can deceive us. This physical world is a shadow; Thomas wants a deeper encounter. Thomas touches the wounds of Christ and by His wounds is healed, is made whole. The French nun, Genevieve Gallois, is known, in part, for the sepia ink drawings. In a letter to her parents, she sent an image of a hermit in the stable at Bethlehem holding the Child Jesus and letting the Child take possession of his soul. The Resurrection stories testify that seeing in a worldly sense is never enough; it is always inconclusive. Like the hermit who let the Christ Child take possession of his soul, Thomas touched and was touched by the Living Presence of Christ. This is the message of Easter. This is where our hope lies. In prayer, we see and touch Christ no less than Thomas. Here is the solidity we need in an unstable world. This is our window into heaven. Amen. 7

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