Reading John 20.19–end
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
What must it feel like to be called a national treasure? Faintly patronised, I suspect. It’s a sign that, however bad a boy or girl you once were, you’re now tamed, you’ve lost your bite and become a comfortable part of the public furniture. I can even imagine a day when Jeremy Clarkson will be one, workplace violence largely forgotten, a greying, cuddly figure introducing Songs of Praise. And now – one of the most loved hymns – in the world.
National treasure is the term being used for the cricket broadcaster Richie Benaud, who died on Friday, but I’m not sure that’s quite what he was. He was if anything an international treasure, not the comfortable possession of one country who made it feel good about itself, but someone other countries (including this one) wanted as an asset to make their broadcasting better.
Another international treasure is Neil MacGregor, who steps down shortly as director of the British Museum and has been snapped up to head the Humboldt Forum, the slightly controversial cultural colossus set to open in Berlin in 2019. Looking forward to this new role in a country he loves, MacGregor has said,
What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves … the Germans use it as a challenge to behave better in the future.
Now, there’s something we can discuss over coffee, in this year that sees big anniversaries – the end of World War Two, Waterloo, Agincourt – and also a General Election in which British identity – our culture and history – will be a theme. And good to talk about in the season of Easter, because the Easter stories are about how God uses the disciples’ histories to make them better.
In the gospel reading we meet the disciples late on Easter Day, behind locked doors and scared for their future. Jesus appears to them (how, we cannot imagine). Now Jesus has been very much part of their history, and he shows them his wounds to confirm his continuity with their past, as if to say, ‘Look, it is me’. Their immediate history is one of failure and betrayal and denial, so his appearance makes them rejoice. But these Easter appearances and the reassurance they bring will last only so long.
On its own, a faith based on the death of Jesus and his miraculous return is bound to turn into nostalgia, a comforting tale that becomes wistful as it tells how once (increasingly long ago) there was a time when everything had gone wrong but, miraculously, it all came right. That is not Easter faith, or not the whole of it. Jesus’ comfort, the ‘peace’ he gives them in this scene, is not just the reassuring familiarity of their old master returned to them. He gives them something new: receive the Spirit, he says, and then sends them on a greater mission than any he gave them before his death: a mission to forgive sins, to grapple with the gonewrongness of the world as people who know all about gonewrongness in their own experience.
Jesus will use their history to make them better. And in what he says to Thomas, Jesus gives you and me a place in this dramatic scene. ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ ‘Those’ people – that’s us. But how do people like us come to believe?
I’ve been on a few days’ retreat this week, a thing I can’t recommend enough, and not just for vicars or spiritual athletes. At the Roman Catholic Emmaus Centre, in that well-known place of pilgrimage called West Wickham, I found two other people doing the same as me – a CofE curate from Addiscombe recharging batteries after Easter, and a teacher from a Pentecostal church in Croydon who wanted some ‘quiet time with the Lord’ before the new term.
My other companion was the Revd Richard Coles, in the form of his autobiography Fathomless Riches. As host of Radio 4’s Saturday Live, Coles is in danger of becoming a national treasure himself, but this funny, searing, uncompromising book shows he’s better than that. It’s a story that takes you from a Midlands childhood through sexual and political awakening, a number-one single, large amounts of drugs, money and bereavement (especially to HIV) to the beginning of a new chapter in his life, as a priest in the Church of England. Some of the story is from another world – hands up everyone who’s ever received a crate of champagne from Elton John – but other parts are about us.
Coles came to a point where, like the disciples, he had to confront his history, which – behind the wealth and celebrity – had its own failure, betrayal, denial. He was, as he put it, ‘not raving but drowning’ and needed to change. At this time he felt religious curiosity, a yearning for peace, the gift of Jesus to his disciples, and specifically the peace he remembered sitting in his school chapel as a boy.
But – and there were several buts. How could he have a part in an institution that had been so unwelcoming to so many gay people like himself? And did anyone do this sort of thing any more? Sitting in York Minster he tried to decode its message, but couldn’t get a sense of it as anything more than ‘a museum of how we used to think and feel.’ Still, he stuck to it, and he came to believe through two kinds of encounter that came to him within the life of the church. The first was a conversion experience, in a full-on, smells-and-bells solemn high mass. The second came though other people: the vicar of his church but also a friend of his from music days who had made her own decision to do that terminally unfashionable thing and start going to church; and what began as nostalgia turned into the opening of his heart to what he, like St Paul before him, calls the ‘fathomless riches’ of God. ‘I wonder,’ he writes, ‘if I could have made my leap of faith had it not been for others making it look possible.’
‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Can it happen here? Well, we have as one of our mission priorities an increase in the number of people worshipping here, so it needs to. And we have advantages. Take this church: a local treasure and a symbol of the Church of England as a whole – the local branch of a national treasure. It is a place of memory – of nostalgia even; a place of comfort, as many find who slip in quietly during the week; for some perhaps ‘a museum of how we used to think and feel’, certainly a place of history. But can it be more than that?
That is up to us. It depends on us, with our mess and our histories, being people who make faith look possible for others who know us (who have messy histories of their own). And that will come to us if we are willing to receive what God wants to give us, what Jesus calls the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which (as he says elsewhere, John 16.13) will lead us into all truth. So when we each come up to receive communion or a blessing – let’s each simply ask for that gift, for the present moment and the future. Let’s ask Jesus to use our histories to make us better, both here and hereafter.