The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s162g07 Easter 4 29/4/2007
'the works testify .. but you do not believe' John 10.25
It is interesting that I was shown a book recently entitled: 'I'll see it when I believe it' in obvious apposition to Thomas' statement: 'Unless I see .. I will not believe!' included in the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter. Thomas' actions are interpreted as an affirmation of a healthy scepticism, and it is quite true that God does not consider gullibility a cardinal virtue. However we are bidden to have faith.
It is also true that we see what we believe. Both optimism and pessimism have a habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has its value along with lots of other therapies. CBT is all about turning negative thinking into positive thinking. We can take as many anti-depressants as long as we like, but the drugs will always be fighting an up-hill battle if we believe that we are not worthy of being happy or we surround ourselves with negative people. And this is important for us as the church to consider, for if we as the church spend our time telling others how miserable sinners they are, we will find that others will be quite happy to leave us to our perceptions and find somewhere else to get some positive encouragement. And I would say: good on them if they do.
However the antagonism that Jesus expresses towards his opponents is not really on this level at all. He is reacting to more than just pessimism. Their pessimism, provided it remained individual, would only affect their own outlook and outcomes. The opposition he faced was about affecting others.
The opposition Jesus faced was all about how God acted in the world and with whom God associated. For the opposition, God worked through adherence to the dictates of scripture and their deliberations on it, on the sacrificial system of the Temple and the ritual purity requisite for it and moral and devotional observances. These were how God acted, and it followed that God acted through them alone. It didn't matter what Jesus did to help others, while he suggested that God worked in other ways or through other people, then they had a vested interest in opposing it. For the opposition these were doctrinal impossibilities.
So bringing this into the present day, do we see God working only through our organisational structures, and through ourselves alone? And if we do this is it any wonder that we find that our preconceptions are 'proved' true. By doing so we deny what Jesus was all about, we crucify Jesus anew.
Do we see God at work in people of other faith, and people of no faith? Do we recognise that God works equally through women and gay people?
In most of the parishes in which I have ministered, the parish has an ethos that has to be maintained. It doesn't matter how many good things the priest / minister / pastor might do for others - belief in a particular leader revolves around how she or he supports the existing ethos and gets others to do so. If this continues to be true, is it any wonder we see few miracles, and that our community has become stale and lifeless - no matter what efforts we put into resurrecting it?
The basis of most opposition in parishes is that the priest / minister / pastor spends his or her time more concerned with helping others, other than the established congregation, or more likely a subset of the powerful people within a congregation. I have said before that one treasurer said to me once; 'you can't please all the people all of the time' by which he really meant: 'you keep me and my family happy and we will see you right'. At the recent chaplains' conference, one speaker commented that even if he worked 28 hours a day in parish ministry he still couldn't satisfy some of his parishioners! No matter how many people a priest / minister / pastor gets to come to church even, if even one of these suggests any change or the priest / minister / pastor him or her self suggests a change - then they might as well be the devil incarnate. The priest / minister / pastor cannot win for when they manage to bring anyone to church and the inevitable change might happen, the existing congregation gets their back up!
There is this conception that God only works through us. We do not believe that God works through others, or works to help others, and I recall, not for the first time, Jesus' first sermon in his home town of Nazareth, that so scandalized his hearers enough to try to kill him that 'there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." (Luke 4.25-27)
They, and perhaps we too, have a vested interest in wanting God to only work through us. If this is so, perhaps we too do not believe?
We have this practice of reciting the Creed each Sunday and we often think that this a standard of membership and a statement of how God works in the world, exclusively through the church and us. If this is what our belief in the Church and the creed is all about, then it is plain wrong, for Jesus was opposed, and eventually crucified, by people with precisely the same views.
Real belief is about God's care for others as the texts about Elijah and Elisha show not just about God's care for us. Real belief is about God working through others as the parable of the 'good' Samaritan shows not just about how God works through us. And it is only this sort of belief that has the remotest possibility of bringing any peace to the world, in contrast to the competitiveness that exists within denominations (and the Anglican Church is no exception here), across denominations, across faiths and across peoples. It is a sort of belief that will be opposed to the death by those who want to monopolize the divine. No matter what miracles God does, while they are done for others, they will be rejected. No matter what good others may do, there can be no suggestion that it could be God at work in them. Look at how the church has opposed advances in technology, time and again. Look at how, time and again, this or that church has proclaimed how 'they' were the true church and everyone else was wrong? If we look at today's text the implication is that both of these means that they actually don't believe! If we look at our gospel passage for today it means that both of these are on the side of those who wanted to stone Jesus for blasphemy!
I often hear people saying that they are Christians and that they believe in God and prayer, and I suppose that this is fine as far as it goes. I don't want to be pessimistic and suggest that this is futile. But as soon as we build fences for God then we are likely to always wonder if we are on the right side of that fence and if we don't find immediate answers to our prayers in the way we would expect, then the seeds of doubt can become huge cedars of Lebanon. And it becomes a very personal religion, something really only between me and God. This is hardly what Jesus was all about, and it is quite likely he was crucified for suggesting something different.
So do we believe and more to the point what do we believe? Do we rejoice when God works through others or are we going to be left 'weeping and gnashing' our teeth? Because whatever we believe, or try to deny it, we are never going to stop God continuing to work through others, and for me I say: 'thanks be to God'!
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