Sunday, 23 April 2017

Easter Week 2 Sunday (Year A) - 23 April 2017

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

All religion, we might think, operates with a distinction between what Saint Paul calls the flesh and the spirit. Religion is concerned with spiritual things and is often referred to these days simply as ‘spirituality’. Paul encourages us to be spiritual rather than unspiritual.

Jesus is often proccupied in trying to lead his hearers from what we might call a ‘fleshly’ understanding of human desires to a ‘spiritual’ one. The woman of Samaria is taught that besides physical thirst there is in human beings a spiritual thirst for living water (John 4). The disciples interpret a reference to food as a statement about physical hunger and Jesus corrects them, pointing out that there is another kind of food to be considered also (John 6).

The man born blind is able to see the one who cured him but Jesus leads him to another kind of seeing whereby he perceives Jesus as the Son of Man (John 9). The Pharisees think they see what is spiritually significant but are actually blind as long as they do not recognise Jesus (John 9).

Chapter 11 of Saint John’s gospel tells of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Once again there is a contrast between life and spiritual life, sickness and spiritual sickness, death and spiritual death. The disciples take Jesus’ reference to Lazarus resting to be an indication that he will soon be better and Jesus is obliged to underline the fact that Lazarus really is dead. Martha and Mary listen to Jesus’ words of comfort and love but still feel that had he come sooner the life of Lazarus might well have been saved.

The desires for food, drink, companionship, sight, life — all these are natural and healthy things in the human animal. But the human being is made for more than these things (which does not mean that the human being should try to live without them). It is relatively easy, I suspect, to think of a kind of ‘second-order’ of desire in us, a higher or deeper level, at which talking about spiritual food, water, communion, vision and intimacy with God seems to make sense. Sometimes people even talk of having ‘spiritual experiences’, of some direct acquaintance with this level of desire and fulfilment.

But just as we must raise serious questions about all our concepts and images of God, subjecting them to reflection and criticism, we must raise serious questions also about any experience which claims to be an ‘experience of God’, subjecting it to reflection and criticism also.

A good friend of mine in the Order died some years ago. He was a slight, shy, quiet and gentle little man, difficult to hear behind a paper bag. Along with a kind of simplicity he had a mighty soul. I asked him once whether we can know that we believe. He answered immediately. ‘No’, he said, ‘we cannot know that we believe. We believe that we believe.’ Because faith is a unique and mysterious contact with God, and is not just an experience of ours, faith itself must fall under faith. It is not an experience in the ordinary sense of the word. This means that Christianity is not just a ‘spirituality’ as that term has become popular, addressing the ‘deeper part’ or ‘higher bit’ of human beings.

In the wonderful texts of John 4, John 9 and John 11, it is not just a simple question of drink and spiritual drink, sight and spiritual sight, life and spiritual life. The spiritual might still refer only to something within us whereas for Saint Paul the spiritual always refers in the first place to the Holy Spirit who unites us with the Father through the gift of faith in Christ. In these gospel passages the focus comes, eventually, onto Jesus himself and onto faith in him as the doorway to the life about which he is teaching us. He says to the woman of Samaria ‘I who am speaking to you, I am Messiah’. And to the blind man ‘You are looking at the Son of Man; he is speaking to you’. And to Martha ‘I am the resurrection. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die’.

Faith then is the central Christian ‘experience’ (for want of a better word). Because faith unites us with God as the truth it is the guarantee that our spiritual aspirations are not just the creation of our own hearts’ longings . By faith we know that what we long for is true and is not just a nice story. But we only know about this believing through believing. We enter Christian life by coming to believe in Jesus as the Christ. We do not come to see and then believe. Nor do we believe and then see. Here, on this life’s journey, believing is seeing.

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