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

Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 12th April 2015

A sermon preached at Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 12th April 2015 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

Acts 4.32-35; John 20.19-end

The last two sentences of chapter 20 of John’s gospel read like this: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’

Which is a very clear ending to the gospel. The writer’s purpose is stated, and also that the book makes no attempt to be a complete record. So it's a little strange that we are then given an additional chapter, 21, which gives another resurrection appearance by Jesus, and finishes with a further ending, rather similar to that we’ve just heard.

This rather untidy way in which John’s gospel concludes is symptomatic of a pretty untidy understanding of the resurrection, not just in this gospel, but in all the biblical accounts.

It is evident that the writers really struggle to describe these events. And of course both these events and the accounts of them do invite scepticism. For an analogy think of an international news story: Louis Jordan – a lone sailor off North Carolina, apparently lost for 66 days at sea until found during this last week.  Amid general rejoicing some pertinent questions have been aired: if he had spent more than two months sitting on the upturned hull of his father's boat, how come he wasn't seriously sunburnt and desperately malnourished?       It's not in human nature to take stories of unlikely comebacks without applying some proper scepticism.

So the evangelists and Paul, who each go to some lengths to describe the resurrection of Jesus, go in for quite a lot of circumstantial detail to reinforce their narratives. Many names of people involved are given; the state of the grave is described; we're told that Jesus ate; many things that he said are related; we're told that his body was still horribly damaged from his execution.   

This last one is interesting: in the same passage we are told that Jesus somehow got into a locked room, but equally it's obvious that the writer wants to make it clear that he wasn't a ghost - that after the resurrection Jesus still had a real physical body.

A problem is that the various accounts we have - the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, various letters of Paul - are all very different. In fact there are very few points where any of these accounts agree, and that is not the case in any other part of what they say about Jesus. This lack of agreement rather reinforces the instinct for scepticism.

It's the very strangeness of what these writers seek to describe which made it so difficult for them to do so consistently and convincingly. Taken as a whole, they don't succeed very well, to be honest, and the way in which John's gospel stutters to a conclusion in the appendix of Chapter 21 is rather a good demonstration of that unsatisfactory character in these narratives.

But - hang on! What am I saying? - That these stories are not satisfying, they aren't perfectly consistent, the narrative is not rounded off nicely.  And all of that indicates the most important fact of the resurrection, and one which is commonly understood by all who wrote about it. The story is not over. This life goes on; there is no conclusion. What was encountered in Jesus is alive today - alive in those on whom he breathed and whom he sent, alive in the community which gathered around the apostles and which is described in our first reading (Acts).

Paul is so convinced that this is where we should be looking for the resurrection that he describes the believers as 'the body of Christ' - the most important evidence of Jesus is there in their vibrant life, and not in some detail of what Jesus looked like or said or how he got from A to B. 

If we want to understand and explain the resurrection, we have to look at life: meaning where life is renewed, transformed, redeemed. Where evil is overcome, where sorrow is not forgotten and yet is overcome by joy, where people's loving kindness spills out to the good of those around them. These things best explain the new life of Christ.

This story is not over; it's ragged because it goes on; it has all the untidiness of life. It’s yours and mine, and is best understood not in some literary or doctrinal perfection, but through the transformed goodness of our lives, rooted and grounded in our risen Lord.