02 May Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year A
The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.
Sunday 16th April, 2023
As I’ve been exploring our readings this week, the part that has particularly lodged in my brain has been the very ending of our reading from John’s gospel, when he as the author turns to address us, the readers: “But these [signs] 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.”
One thing I was interested to discover, in my linguist/grammar nerd-y sort of way, is that the word ‘believing’ in the final sentence carries a sense of movement with it. Belief here, and more generally in John’s gospel, is not about holding an opinion; it might be translated as something like “believe into”, “may continue to believe”. In a similar way, “that…you may have life” might also be understood as, “that…you may continue to have life”. The essential point here is that belief in and of itself is not the end product nor the final goal. The crucial thing is to “have life – that is, continue to have life – in his name.” This for John is the point of writing this narrative down: to have life in Jesus’ name. And so it’s at this point that he puts his pen down. It’s as though he says, “here it is, here is Jesus, contained within these words to the best of my ability. But don’t just take my word for it, and stop there. Believe in Jesus, and then live into, out of, through him. Let him change your fear into peace, your doubt into worship. Abide in him and have life.” We may have reached the end of John’s gospel, more or less – it’s generally thought that chapter 21 is a later addition – but the adventure is only just beginning.
And adventure is perhaps a good word to describe life with God, containing as it does a thrill, an excitement, but also a knowledge that most every adventure worth having involves some hardship, or fear, or doubt. Let us not forget that to get to Easter day, and the joy of the resurrection, we have had to live, and die, through Good Friday.
We are all aware of this Christian life being one that holds before us various tensions, and in our reading from 1 Peter we heard this morning we see some of these tensions laid out for us. Here again the grammatical structures help us to orient ourselves: we heard verses 3 to 9 this morning, which in the Greek, along with verses 10, 11 and 12 are one very long sentence. This speaks to me of a fundamental unity; these ideas – a living hope, an inheritance, salvation, rejoicing, trials, testing, praise, glory, honour, love, joy – all belong together and indeed can only be understood in their togetherness. Already we begin to see the tensions at work.
One of the most familiar and enduring of these tensions is the ‘now and not yet’ of the kingdom of God, which Peter explores in the first few verses of our reading: “by [God’s] great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope…and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…for a salvation ready to be revealed in to the last time”. This is both wonderful and frustrating: the promise is real and actual, it exists in this very moment, but we do not inhabit it fully, not yet. It’s like building on a foundation that we can’t completely see, but one that we can be sure is there. This hope, this faith is one which Peter describes as living: things that are alive change and grow, and so it is with our hope. The more we come to know and to love God, the more we are filled with this hope, and the more secure is that foundation given us by God.
If we skip ahead slightly to the end of today’s reading, we see another aspect of this now-and-not-yet: “Although you have not seen [Jesus], you love him…you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Again, I think the grammar is important here: “you are receiving”, not ‘you have received’. Peter seems here to be pointing to salvation as something ongoing, which might surprise those of us more at home with the idea of salvation as something ‘once and done’. In reality, I think it’s both – hence the tension. Yes, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension constitute the saving act of God in history, but it would be a bold person who would dare to claim that that salvation has been fully realised in their life. As Peter makes clear, this is something which awaits us only in heaven, when we come into our full inheritance as children of God.
And what about today? More tensions, more now-and-not-yet. Looking at the middle verses from today’s selection, we hear Peter talking about “various trials” and about our faith being tested in the fire, like gold. The issues of suffering, pain and evil are not ones that can be satisfactorily wrapped up in a sermon on a Sunday morning, or indeed any morning. A few observations, however, seem appropriate. Firstly, we have just walked through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Suffering, alienation and pain are not foreign to God. Secondly, the painful experiences of our life have a place in God. In Holy Scripture we see pain and suffering writ large: they belong as part of our story. They are emphatically not an indication that we are doing or have done something wrong. Thirdly, as Peter points out to us, they are not the end of our story, for we have been “given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Our suffering and trials must always be held up against this most fundamental of truths. The one cannot extinguish the other, in either direction, in this life, but through Jesus, we know which will ultimately triumph.
And one final bit of grammar nerdery. In both John’s gospel and Peter’s letter, the ‘you’ being addressed is not you the individual. It is you the group – if we were from the south of the USA, we might say y’all. Our life of faith is a group sport, something that we here at Mucknell, living as we do in community, are particularly called to live out. When my light is dim, my brothers and sisters hold out theirs to me, and I to them when needed too. When hope seems far away, the simple fact of our coming together in chapel seven times a day is a tangible reminder of the God we serve and praise. When love is at low ebb, the kindness of others, even in the tiniest details, can be like manna in the desert. The life that Jesus calls us to, and that John shows to be the ‘end of all our searching’ is not something I or anyone have to build alone. Above all, we are in this together: alleluia!
Image: LeCompte, Rowan and Irene LeCompte. Christ shows himself to Thomas, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54879 [retrieved May 1, 2023]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maryannsolari/5119341372/