Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Second Sunday of Easter: King David and Thomas - Positive and Negative - which are we?


Acts 2: 14, 22-32
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:
‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”
‘Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
“He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.”
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20:19-end
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
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.

Have you ever noticed how there are some people for whom everything always goes right? And likewise there are others for whom it always seems to go wrong? Even as I say that there are probably some of you sitting there knowing which one you think you are.

Well there have been some interesting experiments done about luck over the last few years by Professor Richard Wiseman. Now personally I don’t believe in luck. I just think life happens to us and we have to try and do the best we can with what comes to us. Not everyone agrees though and there are plenty of people who genuinely feel as if nothing ever goes right for them, and likewise there seem to be those who feel they must be very lucky because they always seem to get what they’re hoping for. These were precisely the kinds of people Wiseman worked with.

What he found is that apparently it’s actually nothing to do with luck, either good or bad. Good or bad luck doesn’t seem to exist. He found that it was all down to the attitude that his subjects brought to their lives. Some people saw opportunities and others didn’t. Or for a more extreme example, someone who had been shot during a bank raid might think they were lucky because the bullet didn’t kill them and now they have a story to sell! It seems that it all boils down to how we see life.

People who are expecting good things to happen to them see the positive side to what happens to them. The result of that is that their outlook is reinforced and they become quite happy. Their positive natures seem to make the best out of pretty much whatever happens to them. It may look like they have very good luck but the reality is they have the same chances as everyone else. The difference is in their focus. They see good things in their lives, are perhaps grateful for them, and focus their attention on them.

And you can spot them a mile off. We have plenty of them in the parish. Their lives light up other people’s lives because they are content with what they have since it seems good to them. But by contrast there are those who seem to always have bad luck, but once again the experiment suggested that it is not that they have bad luck, just that they don’t see the opportunities; their view of life is different from those who claim to have good luck.

Apparently, so the research went, their outlook on life reinforces their attitude that nothing ever goes right for them and so gradually they slip into a life of being discontented. That in its turn can affect how other people relate to them which may have the tendency to drive people away, thus perpetuating the cycle. But the truth is that there is neither good nor bad luck, there is just life and how we perceive it.

Now you may be wondering what all this has to do with Easter and the resurrection. It is simply this; I think that we have in our two readings a couple of examples of people from each end of this spectrum.

Let’s think first about King David. St. Peter quotes him when he tells of how David wrote, ‘I saw the Lord always before me.’ I saw the Lord always before me, and yet he didn’t actually ‘see’ the Lord; he can’t have, because, as is pretty well attested elsewhere in scripture, you can’t look on God. So think about it for a moment; let me repeat what David said,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.”

David looked for God and he saw him; he saw God everywhere and was therefore convinced that God was always with him. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a moment suggesting that David’s view of God could all be explained in a laboratory because David viewed himself as a lucky person. But I do think that David was someone whose spirituality and general state of mind meant that he was more able to see the presence of God in life because he was looking for it!

Consequently, because his faith helped him to grasp this, it made him deeply contented and full of hope. He had never seen God, and yet by faith wherever he looked he saw God.

Now let’s contrast that with poor old Thomas. He seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. Do you remember the episode when Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to go to Lazarus after he’s died? Thomas’s comment was, ‘Let us go that we might die with him.’ Does that sound like someone who looks for what is positive? Not at all. I get the distinct impression that Thomas would have been a bundle of laughs to have around. Not.

So after the resurrection, all of the other disciples have quite clearly seen Jesus. Thomas is the only one who hasn’t. Have you ever wondered why? When I was talking about women being ordained to the episcopate, to be made bishops, I pointed out that Jesus made his first risen appearance to Mary Magdalene.

What was so important about that was the timing of it. Peter and John had been there moments before, yet Jesus waited until they had gone before he appeared to Mary. In other words there was something quite deliberate and planned about that appearance; it was no accident that Jesus waited for the men to go - he wanted first to appear to Mary, a woman.

Jesus was fully in control of his appearances, and so it seems unlikely to me that he would have appeared to ten disciples accidentally at a moment when Thomas had nipped out to buy some teabags. There would have been a clear reason for it and I suspect that it may have had something to do with Thomas’s attitude and the Lord’s gracious desire to try and open his spiritual eyes to be able to see the presence of God like King David could.

Not only did Thomas not accept the words of his travelling companions for the last three years, but he declared he wouldn’t believe until he saw it for himself. Everyone else had seen Jesus but Thomas would not accept it himself. David said he could see the Lord always before him but Thomas couldn’t make that leap.

So I think Jesus was trying to get Thomas to look at the evidence differently; to see life through different, more open spiritual eyes. By his grace he allowed Thomas literally to see him. Thomas got his own way but only so that Jesus could teach them all, and also us, that there is an even greater blessing to be had from believing even though we haven’t seen Jesus.

So why do we believe? I expect it’s because in some way we have seen something that’s convinced us. Maybe it’s been in the lives of others around us. Maybe it’s been something else, but we’re here because we’ve seen something. But I wonder how much it has made us believe?

You see it’s still all about how we look at the world around us. I know of plenty of scientists with no religious belief who look at the universe around them, and whilst they may feel a sense of awe at its size and complexity, they are not moved to any kind of sense of worship.

But I find, as I’m sure that many of you do, that when I look up at the night sky and begin to contemplate the vast distances I’m looking across, then I’m moved to worship. It’s all down to how we see the world. I actually wrote this sitting by the french windows with my computer on my lap on Easter Sunday evening.

Ali noted that I had a blanket wrapped around my legs because it was getting chilly and asked if I wanted to the doors closed but I didn’t simply because the birdsong was helping me write. They lifted my spirits because their sounds made me feel closer to God.

This, I think, may have been what Jesus was trying to get at. Life is going to throw us a lot of difficulties. That is true for everyone. Sadly there are even other people, particularly those who want to pull others into their misery, who will try and pull us down. But by God’s grace we can still rise above even that. David committed adultery, lost a new born baby son and suffered tragedy through betrayal, even by his older son Absalom. Yet he was able to write, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken.”

Yet Thomas couldn’t see the truth of the resurrection even though all his friends testified to it. He couldn’t see properly. So Jesus came to him to open his eyes. He revealed himself fully to Thomas but used that episode to teach us about how we ‘see’.

And this episode was life changing for Thomas. You see once he could really see the truth it changed his life. The grace of Jesus active in his life altered his perspective and the route he was then to take. Now we don’t have scriptural testimony about Thomas after Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, but there are a number of written traditions that agree that Thomas was called to an evangelistic ministry in India.

Many people were converted through him, and because of that he became a threat to the rulers and was consequently martyred sometime around 72AD.

I think Thomas is important because his life revealed a miraculous change from someone who could only see the worst in life to someone who could see God active in his life around him and could therefore learn to live a life that made a real difference.

So what about us. Are we like King David? Are we apt to see God everywhere? Or are we like Thomas used to be? If we are the kind of person who struggles to see God we can take heart. By God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit we can be changed, just as Thomas was changed, so that we can begin to see how God is at work all around us.

Now I don’t know about you but I find that very appealing. As someone who has traditionally fallen towards being a glass half-empty kind of person it comes as a great relief to know that I don’t have to remain like that, and that, by God’s grace, I can begin to see him in all sorts of unexpected places. I need only ask. I, for one, would much rather look at the world through King David’s eyes. Amen.


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