May 26, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Richard Lindley using Matthew 28.1-0, 16-end at Mattins on Sunday 26th May 2019, the Sixth of Easter.
Have you noticed how the four gospel writers often have different accounts of the same event? It’s particularly noticeable with the discovery of the empty tomb at Easter.
The basic Easter morning story is the same in all four gospels, but the detail is mostly different. There are some things in common: in all four gospels, the tomb is found empty, and it’s women making the first discovery, before going off to tell the rest of the disciples. Mary Magdalene is named in three out of the four gospels, and there’s some sort of angelic appearance in three of the four.
The gospel reading this morning comes from St Matthew’s gospel. And what is distinctive in Matthew is that there’s an earthquake, with an angel rolling the door stone away, and then Jesus himself meeting the women, and telling them to go and tell the disciples, rather like St John’s gospel telling how Jesus met Mary Magdalene.
So what are we to believe? We can accept the general gist of the story, as it is consistent. But it’s difficult to know what detail to believe. And there’s more to come. The gospels go on to recount different stories of the risen Jesus appearing to the disciples. These are difficult stories for some people, particularly with Jesus sometimes seeming to pass through locked doors and yet on one occasion eating broiled fish.
All this stretches the credulity of some people more than they can cope with. And it can stretch our faith. So I want to explore a different tack with you.
What is faith? Some people think it involves believing a series of facts. But would God want us to believe facts, even if they seem to contradict each other or are, quite simply, unbelievable as facts? I don’t think so. God has given us brains to think with, and he wants us to exercise our brains and apply commonsense and intelligence. Reciting the creeds of the Church, as we did a few minutes ago, can easily lead us to believe that faith is believing a series of facts. But that, in my view, is to misunderstand the creeds and to misunderstand faith.
The Queen said to Alice, in ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’, ‘I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’ ‘I can’t believe THAT!’ said Alice. ‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’ Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one CAN’T believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’
Well, longevity has increased since Lewis Carroll wrote that, and living to 101, five months and a day is far from impossible nowadays. And, in any case, Christian religion is certainly not impossible. On the other hand, it’s easy to reject religion because some stories at first sight are difficult to stomach with our modern mind-sets. But let’s remember that our obsession with facts, scientific facts and everyday facts, is a fairly modern tendency, and has been reinforced by the scientific and technological revolutions.
So I wonder if faith is something different from believing doctrines or facts. I wonder if faith is more to do with attitude than with facts. I wonder if it’s more to do with trust: trust in God and in God’s love, as shown us in Jesus. I reckon it’s to do with fidelity, loyalty, faithfulness. That is, faithfulness to God and trust in his faithfulness to us: a reciprocal relationship. And this must be grounded in attitude, that is, an overall grasp and appreciation that is not based wholly on bare facts.
The four Gospels were written some years after the events described – a generation or two later. They were written on the basis of what the authors heard from people who’d witnessed the events or who’d themselves heard stories of them, and in some cases had written them down. So the stories were at least second-hand, and – this is most important – they originated in the new Christian community. So they were coloured by the first Christians’ enthusiasm, by their desire to communicate the immense impact that Jesus had on them, and by their conviction that Jesus was the Son of God.
So the gospel accounts don’t consist wholly of the factual sort of description of historical events that we expect today. The writers wanted to communicate things much more important than exact historical facts. They wanted to communicate divine truths, and there are other mediums for conveying truth apart from literal description. Poetry and drama and music remind us today of how much can be communicated artistically. And the same can be said for the imaginative descriptions that emerged in earlier societies. So the descriptions in the gospels are sometimes partly figurative, and in a loose sense of the word, ‘poetic’. They were the way these enthusiastic early Christians communicated the huge impact Jesus had had on them. There are different kinds of truth apart from factual truth, and other ways of describing truth apart from facts.
Now back to this morning’s reading from St Matthew’s gospel. The real story is that Jesus’s death was not the end: rather, it was the beginning. It is a story of new life for all of us. It’s the story that, in our imagination, we can apply to ourselves, or, more accurately, find God has applied to us. Let’s not worry about how an earthquake opened the tomb, or how Jesus walked through locked doors and yet ate fish. Let’s align ourselves with the first disciples and share their conviction that, despite having died, Jesus, with his words and his example, lives on now. Quite how, we’ll never fully understand. But it includes Jesus living in the persons of those who follow him. Jesus frequently said he was bringing in the Kingdom of God. And on that basis, he lives whenever human beings take a stand for true love, for justice, for unity, for peace, things that are what the Kingdom of God is all about.
Jesus lives, no terrors now. He is alive in his Kingdom, he is alive in his Church, and he is alive in us, as we realise the significance of that empty tomb.