It is great to be back with you at St. Peter’s. I don’t remember all the sermons I have given here over the years—I hope you do!—but an incident last week reminded me of one that ties in with the theme of this first Sunday after Easter—a time when we can reflect on the meaning of the great events of Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter, and what they all mean for us.
The sermon was on the last Sunday of July in 1988. The subject was the death of the innocent child who was the result of King David’s sinful lust for Bathsheba, the wife of his general, Uriah. The message was how innocent people suffer as a result of the sins of others. I recall using the opening words that “Sometimes the stories in the Bible are more up-to-date than the headlines in tomorrow’s newspaper”—not knowing that before the end of the week, the newspaper headlines would be of the murder of my daughter, Catherine, by a person then unknown.
What brought this to my mind was a questionnaire that I received last week from a representative of a victim’s organization, who was preparing a Master’s thesis on the reaction of victims to crime, particularly in connection with how they were treated by the justice system. It was an enormous document, twenty foolscap pages long, with, I believe, seventy five different questions. One of them, however, stood out in my mind as being especially interesting:
“Have your views on God or religion changed as a result of this tragedy. If so, how?”
It seemed to me that this question did not only apply to my own situation, but also to the church. It is so easy in the church to take the Cross simply as a symbol, and forget the horror and the injustice of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the man who had spent his life teaching, healing and caring for others. The goings on of Good Friday were indeed a tragedy, and we could well ask ourselves how they have affected our views on God and on religion.
The answers I gave to this question did not take me long, but they rather surprised me by how definite they were. The first part of my answer ran as follows:
“Yes – a really terrifying appreciation of the depth of the love of God for sinners who don’t deserve it.”
Perhaps that needs some explanation. All of us in our lives are faced with tragedies of some sort or another—times where, if we really believe in a God who is “Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible”—including human history—we think he hasn’t done a very good job. In our first lesson, Peter talks about Jesus as being, “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”, and it is easy to wonder in such a case what God is up to. Perhaps he doesn’t care. Perhaps he’s simply powerless against evil. Perhaps he is hostile to his own people. Perhaps he simply doesn’t exist at all. All these are thoughts that can well run through a person’s mind when some disaster strikes us and we try to make sense of it.
One other explanation is possible, however. It is that God has such an incredible love for sinners, that he is prepared to put the life of his own Son on the line, in order to be reconciled to them. As St. Paul puts it: (Romans 5:7)
“Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person, someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”
It is hard to believe in such an incredible love. If this is the love that God also expects us to show to the undeserving, it makes following in Christ’s footsteps a very painful thing. Which brings me to the second part of my answer:
“A really terrifying appreciation … of my own hatred of God and Jesus Christ for having such an attitude.”
There’s a story behind that reply. Some eighteen months after the murder I was talking about, I found myself depressed and restless, without knowing exactly why. I followed some advice from my second daughter, to connect depression with suppressed anger, and try expressing that anger in physical action and see what came into my mind. So I started shadow boxing, and before long, got taken up in a fury I had never known in my life before. But what surprised me the most was the object of that fury—it was not the perpetrator of the murder. It was Jesus Christ himself. If the soldiers who flogged him before the Crucifixion had not done their job well, I would gladly have taken over. I punched and I punched and I punched.
After a while, I calmed down and reflected what was going on. It was something that Jesus had himself talked about in the parables. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it was the anger of the elder brother against the father who loved his wastrel son enough to take him back, when he had spent half the family fortune, and left the elder brother to do all the dirty work for a very long time. It was the anger of the vineyard workers who had received their wages for a day’s work in the hot sun, and then found those who had come at the last hour were being paid just as much as they were. It is so easy for us to pride ourselves on our religious observances, all the services we have attended, all the sacrifices we have made, and think we are entitled to something better from God than everyone else. But when we are dealing with infinite Love, that doesn’t happen. As the Psalmist says, “His compassion is over all that he has made.” As the landowner said to his workers, “Is your eye evil because mine is good?” It is a very humbling thing to find that one has in one’s heart that attitude of the Pharisee, that God owes us something for all our good works—and realize that not only is that concept completely false, but it puts us on the side of the enemies of Christ when we come to the events of Good Friday.
So let us examine these concepts in the light of our readings today. We hear about Thomas—the disciple who was convinced into belief by the risen Jesus. It’s worth noting that there is more than one lesson here. First, of course, that Jesus’s presence and his wounds convinced Thomas that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But secondly, in his words “My Lord and my God”, we know that he has recognized, in the Jesus he had come to know, the character of God himself. So, thirdly, there is a new view of God the Father, not as an angry old man casting thunderbolts on the earth from Mount Sinai, but as infinite love, sacrificing his only Son for the sake of the salvation of humankind.
This theme of faith continues in our Epistle from St. Peter. This letter was written to Christians ‘of the dispersion’—refugees from religious persecution who had set themselves up in the modern Turkey, perhaps having fled from Rome as a result of the ban on Jews living in Rome made by the Emperor Claudius. This was the situation of Aquila and Priscilla whom St. Paul had met in Corinth. (Acts 18) We hear that they are, “Protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.” That faith, knowing that Christ was the Son of God and had risen from the dead, would carry them in confidence through all the trials of persecution, even through death itself.
But faith is not all. In this passage we also meet hope. Peter’s readers have “A new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” And thirdly, love. St. John says “We love, because He first loved us.” For the same reason, Peter says “Although you have not seen him [Christ], you love him.” God’s great love for us and for mankind, once we recognize and understand it, is the fire that lights a flame of love for God and our neighbour in our own hearts.
So as we go forward from the great events of Holy Week and Easter, can I put four questions to you?
First: Have your views on God and on religion changed as a result of this tragedy—and if so, how?
Secondly: Are you prepared with Thomas, to acknowledge in this risen Jesus “My Lord and my God?”
Thirdly: Are you jealous of the fact that God is “kind to the unthankful and the evil” just as much as to yourself, or do you celebrate this as an expression of the infinite depths of his love, and pass on this good news to those who could profit by it?
Fourthly: Do you, right now, enjoy that “living hope” of the resurrection into the “life of the world to come”?
In the Gospel story of the “Day of Questions” in Holy Week, we hear how the Sadducees tried to trip Jesus up, and prove that the resurrection idea was foolish, by a story of a woman who had seven husbands in succession—“In the resurrection, whose husband will she be?” Jesus points out their ignorance: points out that even in the Old Testament, God appears to Moses as the “God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob” … “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him.”
So may this resurrection Faith inspire us with Hope and fill us with Love for both God and neighbour, as we go with renewed courage into the world, filled with the joy and power of the good news of Easter.