Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Which Planet Are YOU On? – Sermon 19th April 2009

John 20:19-31

I’ve mentioned before  my fondness for the cartoons you used to get in Punch magazine. Another of my favourites shows two cavemen standing on a beach, contemplating the setting sun. It’s important that – as with the parables in Scripture – you “try to get the picture in your heads.” So – two cavemen on a beach, with long shadows tailing behind them.  The sun is setting, half-hidden by the horizon. One of the cavemen turns to the other and says “There goes another one! There must be millions of them behind there…”

Why do we laugh? Well, it’ll probably be different for each one of us, but for me, in the first place, it’s the thought of a huge pile of suns sitting, glowing, just beyond the horizon.  But then, perhaps another part of it is the license it gives us to laugh at peculiar and  – let’s use the word – primitive ways of looking at the world we live in. We probably all laughed at school at the old belief of the Chinese that eclipses were dragons eating the sun – and the tales of frantic efforts to drive off said dragon with loud music, with special emphasis on gongs and drums. Of course, we tended to forget that the Chinese were actually able to calculate eclipses, while primitive peoples in Europe would just panic when one came along unexpectedly. You can’t calculate eclipses without having a fair idea of what’s going on. And we didn’t notice that the point about all the music and drumming and – is there a word, “gonging”? – was that it was all highly ritualized. And very sophisticated.  There’s an important point there.

Then again, when we heard the story, in primary school, of Galileo being threatened by the Church to recant his view that the earth was stationary, and that the sun went round it, we probably smiled a smug smile. All these high and important churchmen, and they didn’t know that the sun went round the earth! We’d known that since P3!

So the thought of two cavement speculating about what happens when the sun “goes down behind there…” is very funny. Until you think of this.

If I ask you “Where did the sun rise this morning?” you will probably say “In the east.”  Which, when you think about it, is a very strange thing to say. Because we know – we just said we’d known since P3 – that the earth goes round the sun, and we would have been taught at the same time that the earth also spins on its axis, from west to east, once every 24 hours – which is what gives us our cycle of day and night. We know that that’s how things are. Which means we ought to know that the sun doesn’t “rise” anywhere.  But nobody I know says “What time does the horizon fall away from the sun tomorrow?”  And nobody I know says “The horizon rises in the west…”

And still we laugh at the cavemen…

Yet maybe we are really laughing at ourselves. Because while we know that the world is one way, it looks quite different. 

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is supposed to have debated this with a colleague, who said that the problem is that the world looks as though the sun goes round the earth. We can see the sun going round us, and the moon, and the planets, and the sphere of the fixed stars.

In other words, his colleague said, this looks like a geocentric world. The earth at the centre, and everything turning round us.

And Wittgenstein asked the fascinating question “How do you think a heliocentric world would look?”

In other words – how do you think it would look if the earth went round the sun?

And that’s a fascinating question, because the answer is obvious.

This is a heliocentric world. We do go round the sun…

A heliocentric world would look like this.

And so a heliocentric world would look like a world in which cavemen would see the sun going down behind the earth, and would ask where it had gone, and was it in a pile with yesterday’s one, and the day before’s, and would that happen to tomorrow’s one as well. A heliocentric world would look like a world in which people spoke of the sun rising, even though they knew that that wasn’t what was going on – because they couldn’t see what was going on because that’s not how things looked. A heliocentric world would look exactly like this – to us. From here…

So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas is a very singular man. As John’s gospel presents him, he is the epitome of loyalty, even loyalty to lost causes. That might seem an odd thing to say, but consider this. There comes a point in John’s narrative when Thomas says something very strange, something barely noticed, and acts on it. It’s when Jesus and the disciples hear that Lazarus is ill, and Jesus does nothing for two days. The disciples are mystified, but even more so when after two days Jesus says that they are going back to Judea.

Now, you need to remember the big differences between John and the other three Gospels. Virtually the whole of the action of Jesus’ ministry before Holy Week, according to Mark, Matthew and Luke, takes place in Galilee, and none of it is set in Judea. According to John, Jesus commutes fairly regularly to Judea and Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is the centre of opposition to him. So when Jesus suggests going to Jerusalem now, the disciples are aghast.

“Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”

From the disciples’ point of view, it’s a good guess –though the text doesn’t mention they thought of it – that Jesus wants to see Lazarus again. It would make sense. Lazarus is ill, Jesus is worried about him, it might be a risk, but it’s an important reason to take a risk, too. If someone we know is ill, or in danger, we will go out on a limb. But no, Jesus knocks that reason on the head.

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.”

The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Laz’arus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Now, none of them can make sense of this, none of them know what Jesus is talking about. But notice what Thomas says.

Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas has no idea what Jesus means, any more than do the rest of the disciples. But he does know the way the world works. Or he thinks he does. What this actually means of course – and you’ll see, I hope, the connection with what we were talking about earlier – is that Thomas thinks he sees the world the way it is. And the way the world is, Jesus is heading into danger, and the excursion will probably kill him. In fact, it will probably kill them all.

And still, he says “Let’s go!”

It’s fascinating to compare the Thomas who appears here with the Peter of Peter’s Confession in the Synoptic Gospels. There, you remember, Peter says “You are the Messiah – the Christ!” And Jesus immediately starts talking about the inevitability of suffering and death when he goes to Jerusalem. And Peter – who hasn’t heard anything of this before – starts protesting. This mustn’t happen! This can’t possibly happen!

Thomas is the polar opposite of that. Not only can Jesus get himself killed, that’s exactly what he’s going to do. And that being the case, Thomas says, it’s the disciples’ job to go with him and get killed too. Peter is full of dreams. Thomas is full of realism. Peter wants the world to be a certain way. And that is potentially catatstrophic for faith, because it involves living in a world of make-believe. Thomas is determined to live in the world the way it is. Thomas’s problem, as we shall see, is that he is pretty sure that he knows how the world is…

You could put it like this. Peter – and in this the other disciples were probably somewhat like him – had the kind of faith that couldn’t face Good Friday. It shattered into a million pieces.

Thomas – loyal, dogged Thomas – has a different kind of faith. It’s an intensely personal loyalty to Jesus. Even when everything looks absolutely hopeless, this loyalty is still there. And it’s what explains the curious shape of Thomas’s Easter Week. After the crucifixion, he is somehow so separated from the other disciples that he isn’t there on the Sunday evening when the Risen Christ appears to the others. Oh – he hears about it. But he doesn’t believe it. He can’t.  That’s not the way the world works. He doesn’t live in a world in which such things happen.

Now, we need to remember that, until a week ago, neither did any of the others. The kind of faith that Peter seems to exhibit, in the Synoptic Gospels – that has no room for anything like this, either. Peter’s faith is the easy faith that everything will go just fine, because we are God’s people and he is on our side. And nothing can stand against us – until something does. Nothing can stop us – until we are stopped in our tracks. There are no difficulties – because up to now we haven’t met any.

Now this is a really pernicious sort of faith, and it’s around us in spades in the twenty-first century church. You only need to pray, and it will all be fine. And if it isn’t, you don’t have enough faith. It’s a faith that is nourished by endless numbers of stories about people saved from death by faith – but basically, their salvation consisted in the fact that they didn’t die. It’s sustained by any number of stories of happy endings, of things turning out OK, because God intervened. And it’s the kind of shallow faith that turns even the great central story of Christianity into a “happy ending” story, in which things look bad for a while, but turn out OK in the end.

But what can a faith like that make of situations in which things don’t turn out OK in the end? What about the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis when the Americans were only six miles from the concentration camp at Flossenburg? What can it make of Auschwitz? Or Srebrenica? Or Rwanda? Mark’s gospel tells us that faith like this didn’t survive even the first hint of Good Friday, let alone the reality of Calvary itself.

But Thomas’s faith isn’t like that. I suspect that Thomas’s faith is a great deal more like the sort of faith that millions of people quietly profess in the pews of the churches every Sunday and in real life every week. A sort of puzzled holding on to Jesus in a world that they know only too well can be harsh, and unfair, and cruel.  Where – to use a cliché simply because of its richness, “bad things happen to good people…” A world that will crucify you for trying to do the right thing.

Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

But it’s a faith that can only make sense of the world from the perspective it has. If this is our faith, a determination to hold on to Jesus and see where it leads – or, as we suggested a few weeks ago, a feeling that somehow this Jesus has a hold of us, and won’t let us go – then it’s a faith that clings on where it can’t see properly, where all it can see is the world as it presents itself to us.

And that, it seems to me, is Thomas’s faith through that first Easter Week. He hears about the appearance of the Risen Christ – but he missed it. He wasn’t there.

And it’s worth asking at this point the odd-sounding question – where wasn’t he?

He wasn’t where the disciples were gathered together. He wasn’t where the bread was broken and the wine poured and shared. He wasn’t where the Risen Christ stood in the midst.

In other words – and it may sound slightly weird and odd, but when the penny drops, it’s so obvious that this is what John’s Gospel means – he wasn’t in church.

The faith he was trying to profess was his own tiny, weak but tenacious faith. His loyalty to Jesus Christ in daily life, in a world without miracles, without special cases, without much hope, of any kind. He clung to Jesus Christ in the world as he knew it, the world the way it looked from where he was seeing it. And he managed it.

What people forget when they deprecate Thomas is that Thomas had faith enough to come back, on that second Sunday.

And what he came back to was the Church. The community of faith. Of people who live life in the real, hard, unforgiving, grey, depressing down-grinding world of 24-7 reality, but who come together on one of those seven days, for one of its 24 hours, and are the Church. And together we believe. Because here, Christ stands in the midst, here we understand that he is risen, he is risen indeed. Here we see things that we simply can’t see when we’re immersed in the quotidian world of 24/7 living. But having seen, we, too, can believe.

We asked earlier on – what would a world in which the sun didn’t rise, because the earth went round the sun, look like?

And the answer was – it would look like this.

Well here’s another question.

What would a world look like, in which Christ is risen, he is risen indeed?

And the answer is – it would look just like this.

Because this is just such a world. That is the faith of the church. More than we can ever see or grasp on our own. Yet a perspective from which we can see things as they really are. That takes desperately seriously the world as it looks from here. But sets it in a transforming context, a huge new reality.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.


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