Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2019

What does it mean to believe in the resurrection when there are no more resurrection appearances?

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist

Sunday, 2nd June 2019 at 11.15 AM

Ascension Day passes, Pentecost approaches, and we are in that final week of Easter, when we might well wonder, with the disciples, what it means to believe in the resurrection when there are no more resurrection appearances.

To confess, in polite company, (at a dinner-party, perhaps) that you believe in the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, could well leave you feeling that you have committed a social faux pas

At best you might be treated with polite concern, having clearly admitted to some strange weakness of mind; some eccentric personal opinion which should be treated like any other lapse in taste – with a faint smile, and a rapid change of subject.

At worst you may find yourself under attack, assumed to harbour prejudices of medieval proportions; an enemy of all things progressive, rational and liberal.

Worse still, you may find yourself being vocally supported by a fellow Christian who conforms magnificently and precisely to that stereotype.

It is a perilous business, believing in the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Joking aside, of course, it is indeed a perilous business for many who live in places where to be Christian is to be a target of violence, but forgive me if I try and address in this sermon the less physically-threatening context of liberal secularity, where believing in the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ may not be to risk persecution, per se, but presents to the average punter, schooled in western secularism, a profound (almost laughable) intellectual and emotional challenge.  How, in this kind of context, do we come to believe?

In the reading from Acts this morning we heard the dramatic and heart-warming story of Paul and Silas; thrown into prison for depriving some slave-owners of their lucrative and exploitative fortune-telling business, and then being miraculously released from their chains.  The hapless jailer thinks he is done-for, but the prisoners haven’t gone anywhere, they are still sitting there.  The truth is, despite their chains, they were always free, and the jailer inevitably wants to know where this liberty comes from: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ he asks.  ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus’, they reply.

Brought up, as most people in richer, more secular nations are, with only the faintest of ghostly references to the Christian faith, actually getting to the point of belief in the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, indeed believing in most of what is affirmed in the Creeds, can feel like a whole  series of massive intellectual and emotional hurdles.

Getting people across these hurdles is, needless-to-say, a rather urgent matter for a declining Church, hence the constant, frenetic, anxious talk about mission plans and everything having to be mission-shaped.

Most efforts at evangelism remain, for most people, completely toe-curling, and heavily-tainted by a history of being intellectually coercive, emotionally manipulative, and rather patronising towards the ‘not-yet-believer.’  

Given that getting people across the intellectual and emotional hurdles appears to be so difficult, it’s no surprise that approaches to evangelism so often veer towards the heavy-handed – bluntly emotional and sometimes alarmingly anti-intellectual.  But I wonder if some of the apparent difficulty of believing might be of our own, by which I mean the Church’s own making.

If we look at the reading from Acts today, when the poor jailer is on his knees before Paul and Silas, wondering what on earth it might take for him to have a share in their extraordinary freedom, their answer to him must have been pretty astonishing.  He might have thought that a heavy penance would be due, or that he should be sent on some lengthy course of instruction, but no: Simply believe and you will be saved.

Simply believe in the Lord Jesus – that he will show you what real freedom, what salvation means – that he is who he says he is and does what he says he does.  ‘I made your name known to them’, said Jesus to the Father - ‘and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

I think many people, people outside the Church and probably a good number of us in the pews, imagine that believing must be about suddenly having an overwhelming inner sense of certainty – a particular kind of emotional response which overcomes whatever intellectual questions we might once have had; that everything should suddenly make sense, and never not make sense ever again.

Even if powerful moments of assurance like these do come, they do not come to everyone and they do not last forever, and so they cannot be the essence of belief.

I do wonder whether we, the Church, haven’t created a massive stumbling-block for many people by over-emphasising these moments, these feelings of emotional and intellectual assurance, and trying too hard to coerce or manipulate people into having a big experience of that kind.

Simply believe – Paul and Silas told the jailer – simply believe.  Believe, as a former Bishop of Durham once said, ‘that God is, that he is as he is in Jesus, and so there is hope.’ 

There is surely no necessity for any great intellectual struggle, nor any particular type of feeling that we have to wait for or conjure-up from somewhere.  We make belief sound too much of an effort, too much emphasis on us, on what we are thinking or feeling, when in truth belief, faith, is a gift that is always given, by the Spirit.  What is required of us is much more like acceptance; a simple receiving of something freely and continually offered.

A picture comes to mind…  Most of us will have witnessed a hapless parent offering a spoonful of some kind of mush to a reluctant toddler.  The parent knows that what they are offering is entirely wholesome, perhaps even delicious, but no matter how much assurance the parent gives, the lips remain stubbornly pursed, and the head moves emphatically from side to side, evading the approaching spoon.  Finally up comes the hand, and the puree is forcibly distributed across the wall, over the floor, and quite possibly all over the parent too.  It might be a picture of God dealing with us.

The gospel is offered to us, by the Spirit, persistently, patiently – and of this, the Eucharist is the perfect sign.  There is no force-feeding, neither do we need to conjure-up any kind of feeling or swallow-down our intellectual uncertainties.  We need only accept what is offered – to taste and see that the Lord is good – to receive it, and to let our changeable emotions and our restless thoughts do what they will, but not take them too seriously, certainly not as seriously as the gift that is being continually offered, and which we need only accept.

God knows that there will be moments of stubborn refusal, when we don’t get it, can’t accept it and throw it all back in his face, but God, our good and patient Father, knows that this is only overcome by patience and persistence.  We may well have to taste and see again and again, and again and again.

At the risk of confusing the metaphor, perhaps we need to make less of a meal of belief; to make it sound less like a deep, anxious, existential crisis, an overwhelming feeling, and certainly not a deliberately anti-intellectual exercise – not a forcing of hearts and minds into a mission-shaped sausage machine.

As a Church can we demonstrate the kind of freedom that the jailer saw in Paul and Silas?  Can we emphasise the patience and persistence of God and deflate some of the anxiety about what we might need to think and feel?  Can we show to the world that believing in the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is, in truth, something extraordinarily light and simple – that, in the end, as George Herbert realised, we need only ‘sit and eat’?