This month

Sermon by David Matthews.   7th April 2024

Readings:  cc John 20.19 to the end &. 1 John 1.1 to 2.


“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them…” 

And here we are, also a week after Easter, re-visiting that extraordinary moment. Hearing again, what Jesus had to say.

First of all, let’s just note that Jesus is at pains to pacify his disciples when he appears to them. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says. This maybe a standard courtesy but John emphasises it, making sure we have understood that Jesus is not seeking to bring emotional turmoil, despite the inevitable upheaval that his disciples would be feeling – which anyone would feel if a beloved friend, newly dead, suddenly popped up in the sitting-room. Jesus is bringing peace which means that what he intends to communicate will ultimately be calming and satisfying. The response he hopes from his disciples is a deeply felt: Ah! we understand.

But, like the disciples, we probably have some way to go before we get to that point of understanding. Because we have been thrown into the realms of the impossible. The man is dead. The house is locked. The doors are shut. Yet here he is. “This can’t be happening,” we say. And yet it is. 

What we are experiencing is a collision between two realities. We are fixed in our own physical bodies, using our own senses (indeed, commanded by Jesus to see and to touch) but yet what we are ‘seeing’, ‘perceiving’ is something ‘other’, outside our normal experience. Somehow, we have to find a way to reconcile these two colliding realities.

Jesus makes two appearances because this reconciliation which he wants us to grasp is huge – too huge, he probably realises, to be taken in one go. Firstly, the disciples have to be made aware that the crucified Jesus is no longer subject to the physical laws that govern mortal bodies. Jesus is no Lazarus. He has not merely (merely!) woken from death. He has passed beyond death. He is recognisable corporeally but there appear to be no physical barriers that he cannot transcend. Locked doors present no obstacle to this body.

What Jesus wants to do, during this first appearance, is to transmit to the disciples the Holy Spirit. He breathes on them. We can imagine him standing in a close huddle with his friends, clustered around him. What he breathes out, they breathe in. It is the opposite of passing on an infection. It is as if, by inhaling his breath, the disciples are injected with a sharper vitality. I believe I am right that the Greek word used for ‘spirit’ in this passage is pneuma. [spell it.] The same word is used for ‘breath’. So, while the disciples are still breathing mortals, they are now breathing in a deeper, more profound way. This means that Jesus can convey to them the clarity of vision to recognise sin – those obstacles which we erect to barricade ourselves from God’s grace – and to challenge sin in order to clear the route to God. That now is the task before them. 

As if all of that were not enough, a week later, Jesus is back, ostensibly to gather Thomas into the fold.

Thomas has admirable qualities. If he were living in the 21st century, he would be reliably hostile to all conspiracy theories, every deep-fake creation, every manipulated Mother’s Day greetings card, every intrusion by the virtual world into real life. He would not fall for an on-line scammer. He would not take anything on trust. We could all rely on Thomas to keep us grounded, telling us how it is. He’d probably be a Yorkshire man.

But, despite these worthy qualities, grounded in the concrete, the physical, the mortal sphere, Thomas needs something more. And Jesus provides it. He gives Thomas the hard evidence he needs, forcing him to look through those certainties which gave him security to something brighter, more brilliant. And Thomas gets it. His exclamation is spontaneous and – crucially – it is a surrender. He hails Jesus as his Lord and his God, and, by implication, recognises his own position as that of a vassal. But he also owns this new relationship: ‘My Lord,’ he says. ‘My God.’

Jesus uses Thomas to speak to every aspiring Christian, down through the ages. He speaks to us. And what he says, in effect, is ‘see more clearly’. Look at the world differently. Don’t just stop at physical evidence. Come at things from a new perspective. You don’t have to limit yourself to looking in the way that a mere mortal looks. In effect, Jesus says, “You do not need to touch the holes in my hands and feet, or finger the gash in my side. Open your eyes more widely; take a deep breath and start breathing with the breath of God. Then you will begin to apprehend the abundant signs – the real evidence, if you like – of God’s saving grace.”

The passage which we heard from John’s Gospel ends by making the clear point that, although Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, they do not particularly matter. What Jesus demonstrated through Thomas is all we need, in order to believe.

Right. Let’s push on.

There is little doubt among scholars that the John responsible for the Gospel which bears his name is the same man who wrote the three letters by John. John tells us that, like Thomas, he has heard, seen and touched that which concerns eternal life. He has taken his mortal senses and stretched them until they have become the medium through which he reaches fellowship with the Father and the Son. His mortality has been grafted on to immortality.

By grafting ourselves onto Jesus, we can be knitted, like him, into an indissoluble union with God. Committed Christians have been able to take this step: they have not seen and yet they have believed. But what of those millions, perhaps with no religious heritage to support them, who struggle to put their human faculties to work to this end? What does John offer to guide them?

In his letter, John advocates walking in the light. We are reminded of the opening of John’s Gospel where Jesus is described as the life which is the light of all people: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.’ If we walk in this light, John writes, we shall have fellowship with one another and, if there are obstacles getting in the way of that fellowship, Jesus, through his death, removes them – he clears away the obstacles or, if you like, cleanses our sin. John gives us ‘light’ and ‘fellowship’ and the ‘saving blood of Jesus’. And, as John explains in his letter and as he has made clear in his Gospel, the mechanism by which we are able to walk in the light, is, of course, love.

Love.

If you are tempted, as I am, to throw up your hands in despair at being told this over-used, four-letter word is the answer to everything, John helps us out. He defines the love he is talking about. It is not primarily about attraction or fondness or delight. No, it is bigger than all those things. It is a dissolution of self, a sort of blending. Listen to these sentences taken from chapters 14 and 15 of his Gospel.

I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also [14.3]

Do you not believe that I am in the father and the father is in me? [14.10]

This is the spirit of truth…You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you [14.17]

Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them, and make our home with them. [14.23]

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love. [15.9]

I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. [17.26]

To love in this way is to move to a oneness, where self, the ego, is surrendered. This oneness, unites the apostles to Jesus and to the Father.  Just as Jesus breathed on the disciples, empowering them with the Holy Spirit, Love can be described as energy travelling from one source to another. For is not, that stepping back from self out of love for, care for another, a flow of energy? That energy which we might have directed towards our own ends, is re-directed to benefit another. The more we love, and the more that love is reciprocated the closer we get to an equilibrium, a ‘perfect uniformity’ at one with God: Father, Son, Spirit.

But perhaps we are no nearer to closing the gap between our colliding realities; we are still on too ethereal a plane.

So allow me to risk a digression. 

When writing those words, ‘perfect uniformity’, I was jolted towards an image in the Bible which I have always found troubling. It is the description, first encountered in Isaiah, which John the Baptist picks up when he is proclaiming a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. He tells us that, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.” Although he is describing a route to God, free of all obstacles, I have always pictured a disturbing scene of desolation, wondering how this can possibly be a metaphor for anything wonderful and inspiring. But then it occurred to me that, from another perspective, the levelled, uniform scenery could be a metaphor for a perfect, even union with God. 

So, if (as Thomas was taught) we are obliged to look at things differently, where else might we look?

While asking myself this question, I found myself staring at physics. I am no physicist. I studied it at O level and got a respectable pass but that was more than fifty years ago. But it was while reading a book on Artificial Intelligence given me by my youngest son (“Come on Dad this is something you need to understand”) that I was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics. Is anyone looking blank? No? Good. So you don’t need me to remind you that this states (simply) that heat flows spontaneously from hotter to colder regions of matter. We know this: a hot liquid will always cool until it is the same temperature as the surrounding environment. Apparently, in a closed system (like the universe) everything moves towards entropy (sometimes described as heat death) where everything is (as the author of my book on AI put it) “spread out in boring perfect uniformity, with no complexity, no life, no change.”

Well , that’s the AI expert talking. 

For me, confronting the concept of entropy, I saw “every valley lifted up and every mountain and hill laid low.” I imagined a network where reciprocated love is flowing evenly from one source to another until a perfectly balanced uniformity is achieved. I found in the second law of thermodynamics a beautiful metaphor for the absolute equilibrium that is oneness with God. 

I wanted to grab the lapels of Thomas, our dour ‘call a spade a spade’ Yorkshire man and say, “And another thing, the physical laws of the universe are also an expression of the love of God.” I want to touch the sleeve of every person who struggles to see beyond the concrete evidence delivered by their own senses and say, “You don’t have to take a leap of faith to grapple with the incredible, you just have to dig into the natural world to discover God’s imprint already there. Love is knitted into the very world we inhabit and the universal laws that shape it. What we have to do is stretch our senses to perceive the signs and move in the direction they’re pointing.

Now I do not expect everyone to get excited by the second law of thermodynamics. For me the connection I made (which may be naïve and entirely fanciful) gave me a thrill because I am always looking for common ground with my determinedly rational youngest son. Indeed, in our ferociously secular age, I think we should all seek out new ways to elucidate the manifestation of God, just as the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio are both mathematical and natural: wonderful examples of order and patterning.

The logarithmic spiral that describes the nautilus shell conforms to the same pattern that governs the arrangement of seeds in sunflowers, cauliflowers and pine cones, the formation of hurricanes and our ever-expanding universe.

A lone note played on a keyboard has additional relevance when it forms part of a chord or contributes to a melody; and the harmonics which please our ear are physical properties of sound.

The DNA of a caterpillar is the same as that of a butterfly. Metamorphosis is no miracle.

To surrender one’s ego in love is to conform to a divinely ordained law. We do not need to see Jesus’s wounds to believe. The signs are all around us. And, I suspect, as we come to understand more and more about the universe, as more wonders are revealed to us, we shall perceive  – if we stretch our senses to see more clearly – more and more signs teaching us how to love like Jesus and live like God’s children.

“A week later, his disciples were again in the house…”

A week later and his followers were again in church…

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Amen.