Reverend Martin Johnson
Acts 5.27-32; Psalm 118.14-29; Revelation 1.4-8; John 20.19-31.
Are you somewhat reticent to speak on matters of heaven with those outside the community of faith, or even inside! If you are you are not alone. Such things are not often discussed with any seriousness, let alone preached about, even at funerals. At the Thursday Eucharist, I quoted the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who wrote: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” The same could be said for our religion. Our readings today are something of a counter to this Platonic thinking. We know that a Platonic relationship is a nonphysical one, the same can be said for a platonic religion, but is this the religion of the early Church and the New Testament, our religion?
To Thomas and to all those sceptical about the resurrection, Jesus says you’ll learn nothing, be convinced of nothing, simply by seeing or hearing; you need to ‘get physical’ (in the words of Olivia Newton John) you need to engage in my wounds, feel them, be moved by them and at some stage make a decision whether you are prepared to live with them and in them. Because as strange as it may seem, amidst all the celebration, the joy and the peace, our calling is to new life with wounds. When we recognise the wounds of Jesus, when we recognise our own, when we recognise them in others, when we see them in the world around us . . . then and only then are we able to live the new life that we are called to.
For many folk ‘resurrection’ is simply ‘what we say happened to Jesus after his death,’ or perhaps ‘a sign of what awaits us, our own future hope.’ But ‘resurrection’ in the first-century world where Christianity was born meant nothing short of ‘new creation’ — the reaffirmation, by the creator God, of the goodness of the original creation, starting with the crucified body of Jesus himself. That great outburst of Thomas ‘My Lord and my God’ was a recognition not just of the person of Jesus, his divinity, but a recognition of God’s creative power. Once we grasp this, we see that many lines of thought in the New Testament, particularly in John and Paul, point not just to the resurrection of Jesus, and Jesus’ people, but to the restoration of the whole creation, all of it.
There is a great story about heaven and the great heavenly banquet. A woman saw in a vision the wedding feast of the lamb. The tables were laden with food, at some tables the people were emaciated, starving, at others they were filled and satisfied. She enquired with her guide why this should be so, and he showed her the cutlery. The knives and forks were so long you could not put the food into your mouth. Those who were starving could only look at the food spread before them. Those who were enjoying the feast were those who had felt the wounds of Jesus, they were those who had felt those wounds in themselves and in others…they were feeding each other.
I think we are embarrassed quite often to speak about our hope. And naturally many folk will look at the world and struggle to see anything in which we can be hopeful. But our readings today, all three of them, are far from simply ‘pie in the sky’ stories of the afterlife. From the Book of Revelation: To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and from the Acts of the Apostles: The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand… And from the Gospel: Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. He invited Thomas to touch him. It is all very physical, there is nothing Platonic about it.
There is no sense that in God’s kingdom the wounds of Jesus are not present, and it is so with all of us. In the Book of Revelation John asks the elder about those dressed in white, the ones carrying their palm branches: ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; he says, they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ St Augustine echoed this thought when he wrote: ‘we shall see in the bodies of martyrs the traces of the wounds they bore for Christ’s name because it will not be a deformity, but a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them.’
This new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, is one that bears his wounds and ours, it is not like the first creation. Augustine is part of the problem for us as Christians in the West. His idea of the first creation was one in which there was disobedience and original sin. In Jewish thought Adam and Eve grew up and made decisions, and yes, their lives became more difficult, painful but this is what we do, isn’t it? And therefore this new creation is more real, it bears all the hallmarks of a life fully lived, a life in which we have touched the wounds of Jesus and in doing so our own, the wounds of others and the wounds of creation. And we can see it around us but as yet it is not yet fully redeemed, because we struggle to find purpose and meaning in it all. A woman in Ukraine, weeping inconsolably cries out what kind of God allows this happen? It is a cry from the cross, a cry we barely find a response to. Except to know that this kind of God hung on a tree and gave us a glimpse of the meaning behind it all, and encouraged us to keep on carrying our crosses in the knowledge that we will understand and that our wounds will be like his glorious wounds. As one writer put it: Our griefs, shamings, betrayals, disabilities are so much a part of who we are that they will not be simply discarded and left behind. They will become essential to the beauty that awaits us.
We can speak about heaven because it is all around us when engage in each other’s wounds, our own and those of the world; and we can dare to do so, because Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Amen.