The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s105g06 Second Sunday of Easter 23/4/2006 St Barnabas Orange East.
'Blessed are those who have not seen .. ' John 20.29
I have recently heard reports of the WCC conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil in February on our Radio National, giving the current state of ecumenical debate. I gathered that the growing numbers of Pentecostal churches are getting impatient with the ecumenical agenda forever focusing on the old euro-centric debates around admission to the Eucharist. Interestingly for me some are now looking at the issue of global warming as something that might bring the Churches together.
As I listened to the reports, I thought how our church and churches project to one another and to the world, our certainty that we have seen in some way denied to others. We assert that we have a particular handle on the truth, and we are going to defend this to the death.
But right at the very time of our Easter proclamation we hear the risen Jesus say: 'Blessed are those who have not seen'.
How precious do we hold those other beatitudes of Jesus: 'Blessed are the poor', 'Blessed are those who mourn', 'and Blessed are the poor in spirit', (Matthew 5) yet here is the risen Jesus pronouncing a blessing on those who haven't seen ..
I am reminded of the interchange between Jesus and those who claimed to see. Jesus tells them: 'Now that you say 'we see', your sin remains.' (John 9.41) So I wonder if, in the certainty of the truth and reality of our own perceptions, we too will find, not just as individuals, but as congregations and denominations, that our sin remains.
Again, I have often had cause to reflect that my sins, negligences and ignorances, my personal deficiencies have hurt perhaps a few around me, as well as myself. But the corporate sin of this or that institution, that seeks to be the church universal, is likely to be far more far reaching. I am not at all trying to diminish my own culpability for my own wrongdoing. Even John Macquarrie, in his "Principles of Christian Theology" (p243) says: "We are inclined to take these matters far too individualistically .. both sin and responsibility are communal as well as individual; and does not each individual confirm and reinforce the wrong orientation of the society into which he (or she) has been born?"
Our sin remains, because we remain aloof from others, we excuse ourselves from listening to others, and by logical extension we dismiss others as irrelevant, as expendable. Indeed, if we do this, our sin remains.
And I say this, not especially in the ecumenical context of Christians of the various brands not listening to one another; but of Christians not identifying with those who 'have not seen' -- people who do not share our faith at all.
If I were a gay person, I would happily testify that I really hadn't seen much of the good news of God through the proclamation of the church. I wonder if we would consider this person as being included in Jesus' blessing of those who did not see ..?
And it might be thought that I am here being a bit radical, but it is of the essence of both the Jewish and the Christian faith that God acts in blessing and only then bids us act appropriately. God never waits for us to act appropriately before choosing to bless us.
This same truth is expressed in the 10th of our 39 articles: " .. we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God preventing us .." (Prevent here is used in it's original meaning: 'venio': go and 'pre': before).
One of the classic instances of this difficulty is in the recitation of the Creed during worship. We have been brought up to think that here is a statement of our faith and when we understand and assent to it, we become a 'Christian' in some ways denied to others. But this is actually to neglect the whole reason why the Creed was composed -- it was composed to refute those who had an easy understanding of God. The person (or the Church) who pretends to understand the Creed and therefore can explain God is indubitably heretical and wrong. It is a lovely word -- indubitably -- made famous by Daffy Duck.
As an aside I was interested to read the passage in Hebrews 5.14 recently: "solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil" and I recalled that the tree in the garden from which our first parents were commanded not to eat was "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2.17). Perhaps knowing and seeing are, at best, mixed blessings.
To me it is not at all surprising then that, when Cain and Abel came in the course of time to present their respective offerings, and we are told that Cain was angry because the thought that "the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering" but not for his own -- that perception may well not be accurate. In fact we are told soon after that the Lord asked Cain "If you do well, will you not be accepted?" (Genesis 4.7)
So if our "seeing" comes at the expense of others; that we can dismiss them as irrelevant and expendable, then when we speak in the name of the church and pretend that we are able to dispense eternal salvation to some and eternal damnation to others, at will, then we are just as much terrorists as any we hear about on the news. Those words of St Paul, known just as much to you as to me: "If I hand over my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing." (1 Corinthians 13.3.)
Blessed are those who have not seen -- primarily because they have much less occasion to dismiss others as irrelevant and expendable.
I am reminded of St Paul's account of the appearances of the risen Jesus: 'For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.' (1 Corinthians 15.3-8) St Paul doesn't say that the times when the risen Jesus appeared to these others, people with whom he actually often quarreled, that these were defective appearances and it was only his that was authentic. The risen Jesus appears to all sorts of people in all sorts of ways, and none of them provide any guarantee of infallibility.
I wonder what our Christian proclamation might sound like if we were to say: "Blessed are those who have not seen" to others -- to say that it is less important to have seen -- to have some sort of experience of the risen Christ -- and it is more important to know that you are loved despite this lack of experience, this lack of knowledge, this lack of certainty. To say that it is less important that others have seen in the way that I have seen, so they do not have to join in my form of worship, and it is more important that people accept one another as they are -- beginning with us as Christians.
Indeed I wonder if we can actually call ourselves "Christians" without implicitly implying that others are blessed as well as us.
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