St Margaret’s Church, Binsey, Eucharist on Sunday 28th April 2019 [Easter 2]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Acts 5: 27-32; Psalm 150, 14-24; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31.
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’, [John 20:21].
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You do not need me to tell you that in many places in the world it is hard, indeed dangerous, to proclaim Christ crucified; and sometimes it is more dangerous today than it was in the days of the Roman Empire where persecution was for the most part fitful and sporadic. I came back from the Mass of the Dawn here last Sunday, switched on the radio, and heard about the horrors of the church bombings and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka, aimed at Christians at prayer or celebrating the great festival of the Resurrection at breakfast. For me Christianity, whatever the denomination, has always been -when true to its founder- a faith of peace and love even before I had any right to call myself a Christian. These are also, of course, essential Jewish qualities, Jesus being after all a Galilean Jew.
The problem for many of us, living our lives in a sceptical secular society, especially if one is based in an academic institution, where knowledge is based on scientific proof, lies in the very nature of faith and today I want to explore the difference between factual scientific fact and the wisdom that comes from faith. Unless one is a fundamentalist, one realises that all the Biblical texts, those of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha as well as the New Testament, were written at different times, by a wide range of authors and are as much subjects for criticism and analysis as any other literary text. I read the Gospels analytically as I would contemporary and near contemporary works, on contemporary Judaism amongst them Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities and Jewish War as well as material found in the Talmud; or, to take Roman writers, the works of Tacitus who wrote Histories and Annals and Suetonius, author of Lives of the Caesars . Of course, these writings are very different and all of them require careful scrutiny in their original language. Josephus provides some local background together with a few references to the Christian narrative, some perhaps most later interpolations. The Roman writers provide a wider imperial backdrop but Suetonius’ mention of an expulsion of Jews from Rome as a result of disturbances instigated by Chrestus in AD 49 ( Div.Claudius 25:4) ties in with the presence of a Paul’s friends Aquila and Priscilla at Corinth (Acts 18:1-2), while Tacitus in a more certain reference, has Nero blaming Christians for the fire of Rome (AD64) and crucifying some and burning others alive, cruelties which even aroused pity in people who regarded Christianity as a pernicious superstition (Annals 15:44).
Employing such approved historical methods, most scholars would accept that Jesus was an itinerant Galilean preacher. Geza Vermes has compared him in his healing miracles and exorcisms with another Galilean, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (see Geza Vermes. Jesus in his Jewish Context, London 2003, pp.7-9). There was some sort of connection between the Jesus movement and that of John the Baptiser (known from Josephus). On the Roman side we recognise Pontius Pilate as certainly the governor of Judaea at the time of the crucifixion, and he is attested both by historical sources and by an inscription from Caesarea. Other aspects of the story, are generally accepted as plausible, that he was a teacher who had a school of disciples, and that although he wrote no book, many of the Parables were his authentic preaching, surviving through oral tradition. None of these really touch on Faith, which has to be of a different order from factual knowledge.
Our earliest clear testimony comes from the Pauline Epistles written within a couple of decades of the Crucifixion and attesting the Resurrection, and fuller details come in the Gospels basically late 1st century. The firm belief of Jesus’ followers before Paul, who as a persecutor of the new movement required a dramatic conversion allows us to at least see the Resurrection as something other than idle speculation, but it must be emphasised that this is not susceptible to scientific proof, and colleagues at work or amongst one’s secular friends may still look pityingly at one as deluded if one expresses a belief that Christ was raised from the dead, though this is the central tenet of our faith .
And, indeed, such scepticism is not new but went back to the time of Jesus’ burial. St John in our reading presents us with the Apostle Thomas who requires proof-the evidence of his senses, and in the event is given it. But Jesus implies that this analytical, historical testimony was inferior to Faith. We cannot run back the clock; we cannot know for certain if this particular showing actually happened or not, but that should not really matter. Thomas in his response seems to have made a transition from the material evidence of his own eyes and hands, to faith and indeed was so convinced that, according to tradition, and I believe it to be true (there is now archaeological evidence of 1st century Roman trade here), we went to Kerala on the Malabar coast of India in order to spread the Good News, and this forms the basis of what one might regard as the earliest Christian novel, the 3rd century Acts of Thomas( see J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford 1993,pp.439-511).
Thomas, and indeed all or almost all the Apostles ,were martyred and others who proclaimed Christ experienced great danger and many were killed as early as the Neronian persecution, as we have seen. Their faith in divine love and mercy does not to our eyes have any of the hallmarks of fanaticism, but to the Roman State it was a secret society; Christians were ‘atheists’ who lured people away from worshipping the gods on whom the safety of the Empire depended. Even the enlightened Elder Pliny governing Bithynia in the early 2nd century , in correspondence with the Emperor Trajan finds himself following this line in attempting to supress what was believed to be a dangerous Christian superstition (Pliny X: 96 and 97). But for many of us (and certainly for me), the test lies not in some sort of archaeological ‘proof’ of the existence of Christ, or speculation on ‘who moved the stone’ as so often purveyed by a certain sort of evangelical, but, as Our Lord said to Thomas:
‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. [John 20:29]
I have spoken of factual knowledge, and we all have a duty to pursue truth of all sorts including whatever enlightenment we can find in the critical examination of the Biblical and post Biblical background to Christianity through the study of theology, textual criticism, history and archaeology (including archaeological science). However, none of this is the same as faith! Faith, which is achieved through prayer and contemplation, in dialogue with the divine, inevitably belongs to a different order of truth; it is a trust, an acknowledgement of being in God and loved by God. Faith, above all, requires humility, the wisdom to accept human limitations; faith acknowledges that we cannot know everything; it reminds us that we cannot ever usurp the supreme wisdom that belongs to God alone.
Faith is not some sort of magic talisman leading to prosperity in this world- the heresy of a ‘Prosperity Gospel’. Often, indeed, faith in Jesus leads in quite another direction. Accepting the Lordship of Christ still angers others for the same reason as it angered the Romans; thus, not only have Christians in many parts of the world been scorned, derided or persecuted, but the horrors of last Sunday, Easter Sunday, with which I began this sermon, are by no means unique in our violent world. Faith in Christ draws us to a life of love and service, to metaphorically or in fact wash the feet of others (as we do ritually on Maundy Thursday); faith calls us to respect God’s Creation and aspire to the Peaceable Kingdom of Christ, who is ever with us as friend and saviour. Faith leads us to exclaim with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God!’. Beyond that, what need do we have of ‘proof’?
Christ has risen! He has risen indeed: Alleluia, Alleluia.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.