An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Beyond Doubt?

A sermon on John 20:19-31 by Nathan Nettleton

Conventional wisdom says that the Resurrection and Pentecost experiences were so profound and overwhelming that they transformed a group of frightened and disillusioned disciples instantly into a fired-up bunch of fearless witnesses. The experience was so undeniable that their lives were instantly turned upside down. There is no doubt that their lives were turned upside down, but was it really as sudden as we have usually assumed, or does it just seem that way because we are reading an edited summary of the highlights?

There are some things in the gospel accounts that give cause for some doubts about this. And the doubts themselves may prove quite helpful and inspiring because they make the first experiences of the resurrected Christ sound a lot more like our experiences of the resurrected Christ. One of these things is in tonight’s story from John’s gospel, but let’s look at another one first.

In Matthew’s account of the resurrection, only the two Mary’s have encountered the risen Christ before we read of the disciples gathering on a hill in Galilee and Christ meeting them there. And it says, in chapter 28:17, “when they saw him, they worshipped him, even though some of them doubted.” Some doubted! He was right there before their eyes, wasn’t he?! Whatever the nature of this experience of the risen Christ, it wasn’t something that left no room for any possible doubt. When Josh McDowell wrote “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” to argue that any legal weighing of the evidence would prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, he must have got it wrong. Even those who had the evidence of their own eyes and hands were still a mixture of faith and doubt.

This, of course, fits with what Garry preached at the Vigil last week. If Jesus had simply been resuscitated, everyone would have been sure, one way or the other. But resurrection is totally different and completely unprecedented. Experiencing the risen Christ is quite unlike any other experience, and because you have nothing to compare it to and no category to put it in, it is mind blowing in a way which creates as many doubts as it dispels. And not only is it mind blowing, but it is simultaneously subtle and even ambiguous. The Christ appears and disappears. We catch sight of him, dancing on the edge of our awareness, and just as we think we’ve got him, he’s gone again, leaving us wondering whether we’re kidding ourselves. We sense him among us, breaking bread at the table, but the minute we try to step back and be objective about what we are experiencing, there is only bread again. We see him appear in the face of the stranger bearing a word from God, but the minute we try to confirm our hunch, there is only a stranger again, and often one who we find difficult to even like!

Perhaps it wasn’t so different for those first witnesses to the risen Christ, because whatever the nature of their experience that day, it wasn’t something that swept away all doubts and filled everyone with unshakable faith. And that’s kind of exciting because not only does a little community which is a mixture of worship and doubt sound a lot like us, but it is precisely that little community, with its mixture of faith and doubt, that Jesus regards as being worthy of being his representatives on earth and entrusting his mission to: “Go into all the world and be my witnesses.”

There’s a similar thing going on in this week’s reading from John’s gospel, although it’s not spelt out in quite the same way. When we picked up the story, Jesus had already appeared to Mary Magdalene, but no-one else, and interestingly she didn’t recognise him until he spoke to her, so there was something a little ambiguous about that encounter too. He even told her not to try to hang onto him; this is not an experience that can be clung to. Now on the evening of the day of resurrection, the disciples, who have heard from Mary, are locked away behind closed doors when suddenly Jesus appears among them. “Peace be with you,” he says and then shows them his nail scarred hands.

Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive Holy Spirit.” This is John’s account of Pentecost. It’s quite different from Luke’s because John doesn’t separate the experiences of resurrection and Pentecost. When you encounter the risen Christ you receive his Holy Spirit. The debate about the relationship between receiving Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit has been running ever since and we’re not going to try to sort it out here. We’ll just take it as written for now — both happen. Jesus breathes Holy Spirit into them and commissions them as the continuers of his mission of forgiving and exposing the sin of the world.

But what happens next? Jesus disappears for a week, and when he next appears, where are they? Locked in the same room again! The community that received the Holy Spirit and was commissioned to take on the world is still locked in the same room. And they’ve only grown by one – Thomas has turned up! And what’s more, their experience of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit hasn’t even changed them enough to convince Thomas, so the mission of being witnesses to the world is looking to be in shaky hands.

If you are still unclear in your own mind about whether or not you have experienced the presence of the risen Christ, join the club. You’re in good company. It seems to me that for most followers of Jesus, and even for these foundational few, the experience of Christ didn’t suddenly wipe out all the doubts and fears of their pasts and turn them into unstoppable world changers. But does that mean that we’ve been conned; that it is not really something that will set you free and change your life? No it doesn’t. What it does tell us is that the experience of the first disciples probably tells us a lot more about the reality of our own experience than we might have cared to imagine.

Even though quite a few of us could name the time and place when we were converted, others of us can’t, and none of us found that everything about our life was utterly transformed on the spot. We look back on it now as a turning point rather than as the moment when we were miraculously changed into the perfect people we were supposed to be. It was the turning point, from which faith and hope and love began to take root and grow. Faith took root along side our doubts, and gradually grew stronger. Hope took root alongside our despairs and gradually grew stronger. Courage took root alongside our fears and gradually grew stronger. Love took root alongside our apathies and gradually grew stronger. Like the first disciples, we may well have still been huddled behind the locked doors of our fear and doubt a week later. But within a few years those few had carried the news to the ends of the known earth, and we are not the same people we were either.

Conversion to a faith which conquers the powers of death and despair often, but not always, has a sudden and memorable beginning. But whether it does or not, it is always, always, an ongoing process. As we continue to seek the risen Christ — in prayer, and in hearing the word and sharing around the table, and in serving the broken and needy among whom he was and is so often found — our faith and confidence continues to be nourished by the earth-shattering and yet strange and indefinable encounters with this one who lives and yet who remains both ever-present and ever-elusive.

In a moment we will celebrate a short rite of passing on the faith to our catechumens. Such a rite, and the whole catechumenate is an acknowledgement that conversion is a process and a journey. Some of our catechumens are new to the journey. Others have been on the road for a long time, but are exploring it anew with a different band of travelling companions. But all of us are on the journey, and no two of us will experience it exactly the same. As Thomas experienced, Jesus comes to us in our fears and responds to our doubts and touches us where we need to be touched so that we might have the faith and courage to take the next step. And just as happened for Thomas, the conversion of our lives leads us into the mission of transforming the world, for we too, with all the uncertainty and ambiguity of our experience of the risen Christ, are the ones to whom he gives his Holy Spirit and leads us into healing, reconciliation and mission.


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