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Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter

“A little while and ye shall not see me;
and again a little while and ye shall see me.”

What on earth does it mean? Peek-a-boo with Jesus? What kind of game is this? Well, it is a profound and important part of our thinking about the meaning of the Resurrection. It relates as well to the various forms of human knowing and the way those are challenged by the God who creates and redeems; in short, by the Risen Christ.

Seeing is believing, it is commonly said, and surely that point-of-view has ample confirmation, it might seem, in the story of doubting Thomas. And yet, the whole point is that the truths of religion go far beyond the physical and the material yet without denying them; the whole point is that human experience, too, cannot be reduced to the empirical, to the sensuous and experiential. Perhaps, no thought is harder for our church and world, and, yet, perhaps, no thought is more necessary.

The stories of the Resurrection are full of the questions of wonderment and awe. There is confusion and uncertainty, to be sure, like the disciples huddled in fear behind closed doors or fleeing in dismay and terror from the Jerusalem of their crushed hopes. There is sorrow and grief, like Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb in the early morning. There are the stories of strange things, like the suspicion that the disciples might “come by night and steal” the body of Christ away, like the empty tomb with the stone rolled away, like the rumours of angels, like the report of the women; all the strange, strange dawnings of an awareness of things seen and unseen.

The Gospel readings for the remaining Sundays of Easter are full of a different sort of questioning. They are taken from the so-called Farewell Discourse of Jesus in John’s Gospel. In a way, Jesus is preparing for his going from them in two senses: his crucifixion and his ascension, itself the culmination of the meaning of his Resurrection. The meaning of these gospel readings is captured for us in the memorable mantra, “because I go to the Father.” Through the images and the reality of the physical and material world, Jesus opens us out to the greater reality of God, of things spiritual that embrace but cannot be reduced to the physical and the material. This is the great teaching and central idea of the Christian faith: the Incarnation gathers us into the mystery of the Trinity.

It can only happen through the inescapable realities of suffering and death, through what I can only call the necessary dialectic of sorrow and joy. This is Christ’s lesson to the disciples and us this morning. “Ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” It is the strong answer to the genuine puzzlement of the disciples, the strong answer to the human dilemma about knowing, about seeing and believing. There are things seen and unseen, to be sure. But the greater meaning is found in what is understood and grasped in the mind through what is seen and unseen.

The Gospel readings for these three Sundays provide, it seems to me, a telling counter to the popular forms of atheism in our world and day. They challenge the simplistic assumption of the atheisms of our culture which dogmatically assume that there is only a material reality randomly assembled and that mind is merely matter. I am not unaware, too, of course, that what drives the popular atheisms of our day is a reaction against all and any forms of authority. What greater authority than the author of all reality, God himself?  The late Christopher Hitchens’ book, entitled “God is not Great,” is an obvious slam against Islam. It reminds me of the not untypical outburst of many a child to many a parent or teacher, “you’re not the boss of me!” It is, in short, part and parcel of a kind of arrested adolescence.

The counter to this is found, I think, in Jesus’ farewell discourse. Far from being, as atheists would insist, mindless dogmatism about God and what you must and must not think and do, there is an encounter and an exchange. There is the whole business of an idea coming to birth in our souls. It can’t be forced or coerced but neither can its power be denied. Such is the power of the Gospel which so greatly disturbs the atheists of our day. Once an idea is out there, once the Word is spoken, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, it can’t be taken back. It remains active in its sovereign freedom and in the power of its truth and in the unfolding of its logical development through our minds. I repeat, through our minds. It can’t be any other way.

Later in John’s Gospel, in the twentieth chapter, there is juxtaposed, side by side, two contrasting encounters with the Risen Christ which illustrate this morning’s text. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in her early morning grief and bids her, “touch me not.” Jesus appears to Thomas with the disciples who are again behind closed doors, and says, “put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” To the one, don’t touch; to the other, touch. Each according to the capacity of the beholder to behold, to believe or know, we might say. The Risen Christ is more, though not less, than the body and likewise we are more, though not less, than our bodies, too. And in that encounter, there is an awakening to a new and deeper understanding of ourselves and God. “My Lord and my God,” Thomas exclaims. It has to be said, that we don’t know whether he did reach out and touch the Risen Christ. “Go to my brethren,” Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God and your God,” words which echo Ruth’s words to her mother Naomi in the Book of Ruth; words, too, which enfold the old into the new.

In the biblical and theological understanding it will not do to reduce God to some sort of vague spiritualism, the God of whatever adjectives we might choose to use, the God of x and y, as it were, which is really only about ourselves. Our prayers are not addressed “to whom it may concern.” As the philosopher, Roger Scruton, observes, the line between theism and atheism is actually very, very thin. No name religion is no religion, at least not one worth considering. In the Christian understanding God is named as Father, Son and Holy Ghost and it is Jesus who teaches us the most about this new and deeper understanding of the meaning of God’s engagement with our world and our humanity. He is Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier only because of what he is in himself which has been revealed to us in Jesus as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The divine communion is the one in which we are privileged to participate, especially through our Liturgy.

The Resurrection does not ignore the realities of the finite and physical world. It does not ignore the realities of suffering and sorrow. But they have become the means of a greater joy, a joy known in and through and not in spite of suffering and sorrow. It is a joy that no one can take from you. It is about our life with God through his Son, the risen Christ, who says to us:

“A little while and ye shall not see me;
and again a little while and ye shall see me.”

Fr. David Curry
Easter III, 2012