Posted by: owizblog | April 8, 2013

Frameworks of Faith Sermon UCB 7 April 2013

Acts 5:27-32

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

That’s a complicated little reading, from the fifth chapter of Acts!

The apostles are preaching that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. But it’s just too much of a challenge to a powerful group of men, who happen to sit on a court. They are thrown in prison. And in no time, they are out again, and preaching as before, and that’s just much too much. In a marvellously chilling phrase, Luke tells us that: “…the captain with the officers went and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.” (Darn these pesky witnesses…”)

What follows isn’t a trial. It’s an interview. A rather rough interview, with a threat at the end.

And it’s worth asking: why do a group of powerful, influential people see a bunch of enthusiastic weirdos as such a threat? Why don’t they have the ability just to brush them off and ignore them?

It’s interesting, what’s happening here. The young Church is preaching the Resurrection. And that’s the challenge.

We tend, nowadays, in a world steeped and saturated in a culture of the worship of technology and science – which isn’t at all the same thing as being steeped in the understanding of science and technology – that the biggest challenge the resurrection presents is that it’s somehow a difficult or intrinsically incredible thing to believe in in a scientific, technological age.

The resurrection isn’t a challenge because it’s an incredible thing we have to believe, a sort of test set by God, before we can say that we have faith. Faith isn’t “believing six impossible things before breakfast” as Lewis Carroll’s White Queen told Alice she could do, in Alice In Wonderland…

Which is why you shouldn’t worry if you have problems and difficulties with the idea of the resurrection. Faith in the resurrection is faith in Jesus Christ, not faith that, had there been CCTV cameras in the garden that first Easter Sunday, they would have captured a huge flash, as one particularly silly bishop said a few years ago.


No, the resurrection is a challenge in far deeper ways than that. It’s a challenge to believe that, living in the world as we know it to be, we are living in a world that shall be as God will have it be.

For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

Faith in the resurrection is faith in the Kingdom. It’s faith that with Jesus Christ, the Kingdom is breaking in, even though we look around us and see a whole world, of economic injustice, of financial imbalance, of the blasphemy of vast wealth and vast poverty coexisting, a world of wars fought on political whim, and disengaged from because of the pressure of opinion polls as much as politicians’ discovery of the insanity of the original impulse, a world in which food is wasted and children die of starvation.

It’s a challenge, in the world the way it is, to believe in the world the way God wants it to be, and it’s a challenge to believe that God’s will shall be done.

For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

Believing that, in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God’s will was done, is in many ways the easiest bit of faith in a world like this.

The resurrection is a challenge to the way the world is, in the name of God and his kingdom – which doesn’t mean a state with borders and a flag, but the rule of God, which, as the Jewish tradition has meditated, richly and deeply for two thousand years, means things as they should be, the wholeness, completeness, the shalom, the unbroken peace, the rule – kingdom – of God.

So the resurrection is bound to be a challenge to the thinking of these powerful, traditionalist religious men who have hauled the Apostles before them. They can’t get their heads round it. They don’t live in a world in which something like this could happen. Dead is dead, they believe. These, remember, are the Sadducees. Luke tells us that, in the course of telling us this story.

Who are they?


You’ll remember the Sadducees, along with the Pharisees, from the Gospel stories. The Sadducees didn’t accept the books of the Prophets as fully scriptural; they didn’t believe, as the Pharisees did, that there’d be a resurrection. It may strike us as odd, but two thousand years ago it was the Sadducees, not the Pharisees, who were the guardians of old religion, the traditions.

We sometimes speak of the Sadducees as a Jewish “sect” – but actually, they are more than that, they are the custodians of tradition, the old ways of doing things, the Temple worship in particular. The Sadducees had aristocratic connections and venerable roots in the Jewish community. They stood over against the Pharisees, because they tended to see power as lined up with God and the status quo, whereas the Pharisees tended – like Jesus himself – to understand God’s radical demand, God’s ethical demand, as something that could put faith in conflict with the status quo.

It was just that the Pharisees tended to see God’s radical demand as a radical demand to keep the Law in all its particulars. They fell out with Jesus when he said, in essence, “Guys, that’s not very radical, edgy thinking. In fact it’s safe, nervous, small-minded thinking, certainly the way you do it.”

In many ways, the Pharisees and Jesus clashed because they had so much common ground between them. But what Jesus managed to do, historically – and this may well have been connected with his cleansing of the Temple, that huge challenge to the whole of contemporary Jewish religion – was to pull the Pharisees and the Sadducees together into a brief alliance against him in Holy Week, which got him crucified.

But we need, too, to remind ourselves of this. It was neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees who crucified Jesus. Neither group could do that. It was the Romans who crucified Jesus, not the Jews. The Sadducees and the Pharisees got the Romans interested in him as a political figure, a political threat, the only thing that would register on the Roman radar, and once they did that, the gears engaged, and the great apparatus of Roman political power started turning, drawing Jesus in to suffer the fate of an agitator.

Oh, they all are complicit. They all contributed components of the machine that engaged its gears and drew Jesus in to his death on the cross. The Romans, who built the infernal thing, and switched it on, the Sadducees with their Chief Priest and their court, that tried Jesus in the middle of the night, and the Pharisees, and the disciples who fled, and Peter who denied him… There’s enough complicity to go round.

No wonder the Sadducees are sensitive about this.

“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

What’s getting to them so much?



We told you not to teach in his name. We told you to treat him as dead, and let him stay dead. We told you to leave him entombed in the past.

Why are these tin-pot preachers of a strange message winding up the guardians of religious tradition so?

We’ve already reminded ourselves that the notion of resurrection wasn’t one that these Sadducees worked with. They don’t live in a world in which something like this could happen. Their religion, their framework for understanding their existence, doesn’t let them contemplate a risen Christ.

But it’s dangerous nonsense. People are listening. Power is flowing away from this elite band, sitting in their court, and they have a very keen sense of how power flows –and a keen desire that it always flow their way.

But there’s a much deeper level to this. These powerful, power-brokering people are threatened by a man on a cross – and they suddenly sense his power. But as we’ve already said, they can’t make sense of it. He doesn’t fit into their framework. He doesn’t fit into their religion.

Jesus of Nazareth lived in such a way that people – these people, these Sadducees – wanted him dead. He said things, did things, that unsettled them, and challenged them, and pointed beyond things as they are now to the coming Kingdom, and said that that’s how we should understand God, not as present arrangements, as the existing dispositions of power, and as the status quo, but as what breaks in from the future and turns the present on its head, and everything upside down. That’s what they were killing, along with the Jesus who embodies the presence of God, the parousia of God, in this way.

The trouble was the faith in the Resurrection, which is what the Apostles have been preaching, and why they are hauled up in front of this court, for this “interview”.

Because what they are preaching is that God validates the life of the one who lived like this. Which means that lives lived like this are the lives God validates.

A life like this is what God calls us all to live. Risky, open, daring to trust, to trust radically in God for everything, to trust other people, even when their track record isn’t great, or they have “form”.

For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

A willingness to look beyond how things are now, when God’s will isn’t done on earth as it is in heaven. To look to the rule of God, which turns everything upside down. To look to the kingdom.

For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

A willingness to forgive- and forgiveness itself is a radical attitude to the past, because if I forgive someone, it means that I’m not willing to be held captive by the past, by what happens, and I’m not willing to hold you to that – to what you did – either. And if you forgive me, then that’s also what you are saying. We aren’t defined by the past any more.

For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

And these are people who are wholly defined by the past, whose religion, and whose God, is wholly defined by the past. Everything about Jesus threatened them, so they connived, with others, to have him killed. He has to die so they can keep their religion, and the God who fits into its framework. He has to die so that they can carry on making sense of the world the way they always have.

And now these people, these ignorant, intractable people, are going around preaching his resurrection.

And that’s a threat. To established order. To the world the way it is, the world the way we can understand it and make sense of it in our terms.

What Jesus said was “These terms are not God’s.” The world that makes sense to you, doesn’t make sense to God. Therefore the world that makes sense to you isn’t the way the world can be, or should be, or will be.”

The Sadducees saw that, and, with the leaders of the Pharisees, they persuaded the Romans to see it that way, and they killed him for it. And now these ignorant, intractable people are telling them that they didn’t do a good enough job, and that the Jesus they killed is the Christ who won’t stay dead.

For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

The one who lived out the life of the Kingdom – open, loving, risk-taking, accepting, forgiving, reaching out, rebuking judgmentalism, chastising – the one who didn’t fit, couldn’t be made to fit, and the one who had to be killed because he threatened to burst apart the framework.

And the question for the Sadducees is always the question that the proclamation of Christ-risen-indeed raises. It raises it for us. Do we believe in our framework of belief more than we believe in God?


And maybe this gives us a key to understanding Thomas. Every year on this Sunday, the Gospel reading is about Thomas. Most years, preaching, I dwell on him almost exclusively, and always in ways that cast new light on what his doubting, his insistence on not accepting what he can’t just accept, might mean for our faith. This year, I’ve hardly spoken of him yet. But he’s there. He’s been at the back of my mind since I started this sermon. Thomas is the man whose framework of belief had collapsed. He’d seen Jesus violated and crucified. For some reason – despair, perhaps – John says he wasn’t there that first Easter Sunday evening, when the disciples were behind locked doors, and Jesus stood among them.

And we judge Thomas, because he represents to us a lack of faith, and we are all terrified of what he represents, because we worry about our own faith, and want to be different to Thomas.

Jesus says “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen, and believe.” And we take that as a rebuke. And we forget that all the other disciples, soon to be apostles, had seen before they believed. All of them except the Beloved Disciple, and he’s a separate issue. Thomas has asked for no more than what the others had.

No, Thomas is the man who comes to faith because his old understanding had been torn from him, and he’d been left wandering for days, which must have seemed like years, with nothing at all. Haven’t we sometimes been there? It’s possible some of us may be there now. Thomas is the man who comes to faith because his old understanding had been torn from him. And then he’s confronted with the Risen Christ. Now he can trust. Perhaps faith, too, the old, unsustainable faith that we cling to because we are terrified that if we let go, there will be nothing, must die to rise again, otherwise faith itself becomes a tomb. And the God who raises Christ from the dead is the God who leaves such tombs empty.

And doesn’t that suggest that sometimes, what feels like the death of faith is, in fact, its birth? Faith is not a looking-back. He who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is unworthy of the kingdom of God. Faith is present encounter: Christ stands in the midst, we meet him in the word read and preached. And then, faith is looking forward, and up to the horizon of the kingdom.

For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

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