Sermon: "Yes, but in this case it is true"
Preached on 26th April 2009
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48
Holy Eucharist 3rd Sunday of Easter
‘Sir. The Dean of Durham Cathedral was absolutely right to state that the story of god's son makes us think. The reason, from what can be deduced, is that the story is either totally or partly mythical. What is claimed fits a clear and oft repeated pattern of what is supposed to have happened to a large number of pagan / mythical gods. ... These include ... (dying) in cruel circumstances, usually on top of a hill, not buried, resurrected after three days only to disappear ... Using a fictional factor list for mythical gods, an academic placed Oedipus first with a maximum of 22, with Jesus third with 19, ahead of such as Mithras. When it was pointed out to early Christian leaders that claims about Christ matched those for many pagan gods, they said, "Yes, but in this case it is true."'
That is the first part of a letter from last week's Durham Times, responding to the Dean's editorial column at Easter. It concludes, ‘If anyone today claimed to be the product of a virgin birth and the son of god, he would rightly be mocked and or recommended for psychiatric treatment. Why then are we supposed to accept what supposedly happened 2000 years ago and for which there is no historical record. ...It appears that man created God; blind faith is required to believe otherwise.'
The author of the letter is in good company in having doubts. The disciples had the same problem. They had seen Jesus die cruelly and be buried (the author of the letter is wrong there, Jesus was buried and the Romans even put a military guard on the tomb to stop grave robbers - even his enemies knew he was a corpse) and the disciples knew that dead people don't reappear. But they'd just heard two of their friends, who had been as sure as they were that Jesus was dead, tell a wild story that a stranger they met on a road was in fact Jesus, and that as soon as they'd recognised him he had vanished. They couldn't produce physical evidence, it was only their far-fetched story. No wonder our gospel reading today began, ‘while they were still talking about this...' if it happened to us, we'd be talking about it because it stretches all the boundaries of common sense and rational belief. The author of the letter in the paper is right to say that anyone today claiming to be the Son of God would be recommended for psychiatric treatment; Jesus faced worse than that and was killed. It is quite possible that some of the disciples thought their friends were similarly losing touch with reality: they had seen Jesus die, women had embalmed him, a respected religious leader had buried him. All the evidence is against it and on the face of it irrational faith is indeed needed to say that Jesus is alive, so I can understand the exasperation of the people like the author of the letter when similarities - but not identicalities - to pagan mythologies are pointed out and Christians say, ‘Yes, but in this case it is true'. We must be infuriating to them.
And as the disciples talked, Jesus appeared among them. They had the only rational reaction I can come up with and thought he was a ghost. They didn't immediately say ‘Oh yes, we believe in the resurrection of Jesus and here he is to prove it' because they were not, at that stage, people who believed the Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus had some convincing to do and he did it by letting them touch him, showing him the wounds that they would have remembered all to well from the horrors of just two days earlier, and Luke lays it on thick by saying he ate broiled fish in front of them. People who believe they have seen ghosts make no such claims. If you read all the gospels with their different accounts of resurrection appearances, the one common factor is that the people who knew Jesus best and knew he'd been crucified, took a lot of convincing that he was now risen from the dead. Our confident proclamation of the resurrection, which is appropriate in the light of history and given that we are not eyewitnesses, sometimes overlooks the fact that at the time these events were appallingly confusing, and resurrection was the last thing on people's minds..
So what happens? In one of the greatest phrases of his gospel, Luke tells us ‘while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering'. It echoes Matthew's description of the women running from tomb ‘quickly with fear and great joy'. Usually people disbelieve for grief or disappointment that things have gone wrong. Not so here. When I was training, I remember vividly our New Testament professor, one of the great New Testament scholars, telling us to preach this text, which another translation renders ‘could not believe it for joy' because, as a pastor he knew that disbelief has a valid place in the Easter message. Resurrection is not something we can get our minds round easily and to struggle with belief in something as improbable as this is perfectly in order. We see a pale reflection of these clashing emotions in the annual ritual on the TV news of students opening their A level results and finding straight As. All they have dreamed of but hadn't dared to take for granted is there in front of them and they can't take it in all at once, a whole new world opens up with in that one instant. Some of you may remember that moment for yourselves. The circumstances at the resurrection were very different because it was totally unexpected so therefore required a much bigger adjustment of the disciples' lives - they weren't getting what they dreamed of but what they thought was totally impossible.
It was only after the joy and disbelief had taken hold of them that Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. It had all been hidden before. That is what makes the resurrection stories all the more likely, these are not gullible people at the mercy of every whacky idea but sensible people who do not understand. They are also the people who most likely to recognise an impostor if they see one pretending to be Jesus. And at first they do not understand or believe because they can't make it add up. Anselm, the great medieval scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, famously said ‘I do not understand in order to believe, but I believe so that I may understand'. When we say the creed, as we will in a minute, we do not say ‘we understand God' but ‘we believe in God; we do not claim to understand all we affirm because faith is always seeking understanding and at times has to accommodate disbelief for joy. It is not the blind faith referred to in the letter to the paper but faith that accommodates disbelief for joy. I would not be in this pulpit if I did not believe that the Christian faith is both intellectually rigorous and beyond my understanding so I have to rely on faith - the joy, the disbelief are part of it and so is the excitement of a lifetime's journey of coming to greater understanding of God's glorious ways with the world, which include the sovereign action of raising Jesus from the dead. In saying ‘we believe' we are not making our faith the last word on the subject and closing down discussion but putting our toe in the water of God's grace and making ourselves vulnerable to God.
And then Jesus tells the disciples that they are witnesses of these things. These people who disbelieved for joy, the ones who are hardest to convince because they are the ones who saw Jesus tortured, killed and buried under guard, are the witnesses on whose testimony we have relied. And only a few weeks later they are acting as witnesses. We heard what happened after Peter healed a lame beggar outside the temple. Again there was a cacophony of emotions: the phrases ‘filled with wonder', ‘amazement', ‘utterly astonished' and ‘why do you stare at us?' are Luke's attempt to convey what was going on and come from the same part of the thesaurus as the words he used in the gospel - ‘startled', ‘terrified' ‘thought they were seeing a ghost' ‘frightened' wondering'. Whatever the letter writer might claim about similarities with the pagan myths, this is one place where they differ. No pagan myth has been put to the test in the middle of crowds of people who don't expect it to happen. One reason Christians can say, ‘but in this case it is true' is because there are so many eye-witnesses whose incredulous and shocked reactions are recorded.
No wonder the healed man clings to Peter and John in the crush of the crowd that surges together, it was a frightening and confusing place into which to be suddenly thrown, just a couple of minutes after he was sat on the floor begging. Peter, who from his own recent experience understands how the beggar feels and has had time to let his own joy and disbelief settle into more confident faith, tries to set what the people have experienced in the context of the bigger biblical story - which is exactly what Jesus did with the two people on the road to Emmaus and with the disciples in the gospel. He took their experience and gave it a context which allowed room for God's miracles and made sense of conflicting experience and understanding.
Coming to belief and understanding is always a process. For some people the belief part of it may be instantaneous, as though a light bulb goes on in us and we suddenly know and believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, risen from the dead; for others this is part is a much longer journey in which beliefs we have held and thought immutable are called into question by new experience, times when disbelief at what we now see and experience is tempered by tantalising joy that all this might indeed be true. That is the more common way in the biblical stories, coming to faith is nearly always a process and some of you here are probably on that journey at the moment. You may find help in the prayer of a man who came to Jesus for help when his daughter was dying, ‘I believe, help my unbelief'. But for all of us there is the lifetime's journey towards understanding, when disbelief and joy nestle close to each other at times, when there are glorious ‘aha' moments as we are grasped by truths so much bigger than us and glimpse the wonderful ways of God, and also times of resilient faith that does not quite understand but holds on anyway because what we have come to believe is enough to keep us asking the questions that will lead to fuller understanding. This is not blind faith, it is adventurous faith and it is what the resurrection carved out in the disciples. Less than three months separate the two stores we heard today, the joyful disbelief of the confused disciples has given way to the bold action by Peter in bringing healing to a lame man and then a challenge to bewildered people to put their faith in the God whose actions have begun to turn the world upside down.
What we can learn from both stories today is that when we have an encounter with God that is overwhelming and almost beyond belief, the best thing to do is to stay with other believers and grow in faith together. So this Easter when we bring our doubts and fears as well as our joys and assurances into church, it is not blind faith that sustains us but adventurous faith. That faith enables us to say of the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, perhaps while still disbelieving for joy, ‘Yes, and in this case, it is true.'