Reading John 19.19-31
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
We don’t have a TV at home so we’re pretty much a radio household – mainly Radio 4 but with a dash of Radio 5 because I have a mild but persistent addiction to football.
Anyway, I was listening to Radio 5 a few days ago – a news programme as it happens, not sport – and they had a little feature about women who regretted the fact that they’d had children. The presenter called it the last taboo.
I was particularly struck by what one of the women had to say. She’d expected some kind of idyllic life – a nice husband, a nice house, a couple of nice children, seeing the children off to a nice school in the morning, nice holidays in the school breaks and so on. She didn’t use those words by the way.
Now, she didn’t tell us exactly why but she came to resent her children. Things hadn’t turned out the way she had hoped and expected they would.
Seen from the point of view of our hopes life can often seem unsatisfactory. This isn’t what I signed up for, we lament to ourselves. But the fact is, life is complicated and precarious. And human beings are egotistical and frequently bone-headed. It’s no wonder that things go wrong.
Not that it’s necessarily always like that. Just occasionally, and especially if we’re going with the grain of God’s will, life goes better than we expected. That seems to have been the case in that passage from the Acts of the Apostles that was our first reading.
Everything is going perfectly for those first Christians. We are told that the whole group of those who believed are of one heart and mind. They share their material goods and there was not a needy person among them. Great grace was upon them all.
Of course, it was never going to last. I doubt, to be honest, if things were quite as rosy as we are told they were, though I’m quite prepared to believe that things were going very well indeed – and that because of the new, burning faith that those first Christians had found.
You could say that there were two negative aspects of life that those first believers in the power of the Holy Spirit had seemingly overcome – namely sin and doubt. They seem to be simply absent.
Sin and doubt are two of the major topics in this morning’s other readings.
Our second reading – from John’s first letter – tells us that, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
A lot depends on how we define sin. Recently, I was having a conversation with my wife – not an argument, I hasten to add. She said that she didn’t like this word ‘sin’. That’s a common sentiment these days. People think the word is too judgemental, too severe, too negative.
I was defending its use and said that it’s just another word for our imperfection. She didn’t sound too convinced and we let the subject go.
Later on I got to thinking that equating sin with our imperfection is OK as far as it goes but it just seemed a bit feeble.
I then thought we could maybe define sin as our failure to love. That seems to me to be much nearer the mark. Sin makes things go haywire. When we fail to think and act lovingly, things go haywire.
Now, as we all know, things can go haywire whatever we do – that’s the way life is – but failing to act lovingly absolutely guarantees that things will go haywire in some way.
Sin – or whatever word or phrase you want to use in its stead – is probably our deepest problem, though let’s not forget that John tells us our sins are forgiven if we walk in the light.
Sin may be our deepest problem but doubt runs it a close second. Lack of conviction can inhibit us in any desire we have to change and to act. That desire becomes half-hearted. Or rather it was half-hearted from the start.
I checked out the church’s lectionary as I was preparing this sermon and my suspicion proved correct, my suspicion being that every year, on the first Sunday after Easter, we always have the story of doubting Thomas. The first Sunday after Easter is in effect Doubting Thomas Sunday.
Doubt does have a positive side: doubt stops us being gullible, and that’s not to be sneezed at, and it can also be a very creative force in human life. Without going through a stage of doubt I can’t see how human beings can change and therefore grow.
I suspect that without that ability to doubt the human race could not have developed as it did – into something truly remarkable. And I believe very firmly that we are very remarkable creatures – though all creatures are remarkable in their own way.
But, undoubtedly, doubt does have a severe downside. Ideally, it should always be a transitional phase. We doubt in order to believe something better, something truer. We do not doubt merely for the sake of it.
Now that’s a very fine line to tread. We need never to lose our ability to doubt and yet we need firmness of belief in order to carry ourselves effectively.
There’s that line from W.B Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
If the best lack all conviction, then everyone’s in for a hard time.
We need doubt and belief, open-ness to other thoughts and a passionate, committed heart. It’s a very fine line indeed and no wonder we often fail.
I began by saying that life rarely fulfils our hopes – at least the hopes that we had when we started out.
Perhaps the key is that we need to align ourselves with the hopes that God has for us rather than with the hopes we have for us.
And God’s hopes for us do not necessarily include a smooth and trouble-free life. We don’t learn much spiritually when life is smooth and trouble-free year after year. That’s a recipe for stagnation.
Perhaps another way of putting it is that we need to accept the world as it is and yet at precisely the same time to work for it to fulfil its potential.
It’s another fine line. Life is full of them.