The Outdoor Christian
—Rev John Quick, Low Sunday (23 April 17)
John 20. 19–end.
+ May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit
I begin with a story. A tale is told of a Jewish Rabbi who asked his servant every morning if the Messiah had come. The servant went to the window and observed the people who passed by on the street. Every morning he returned to the Rabbi with the news that on the evidence of what he had seen in people, his conclusion was that the Messiah had not yet come.
Of course, the Rabbi was asking his servant to look for something he was unlikely to see through the casual observation of people in the street. We are all familiar with the saying 'seeing is believing'. But seeing is not sufficient for believing: for seeing only touches the outer, physical evidence, whereas believing belongs to the interior, invisible areas of life.
In today's Gospel, we have the story of Thomas, who had not been present when Jesus had made his first resurrection appearance to the disciples. He is quoted as saying (v25) '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'. Yet there seems little doubt that Thomas was a faithful follower of Jesus. In John 11.16 when Jesus hears of the death of Lazarus, Thomas says to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we might die with him.’ Hardly the words of someone who doubted Jesus's authenticity.
You should also notice that when Thomas does meet the post Resurrection Jesus, and is challenged to fulfil his demands, no mention of him actually doing so is recorded. Instead Thomas makes one of the most definitive statements of faith in the whole of the Bible, when he proclaims in verse 28; ‘My Lord and my God.’
Perhaps Thomas’s doubts were not so much about Christ's Messiahship but about the nature of physical resurrection?
Whatever the nature of Thomas’s doubts, Jesus takes them and turns them on their heads by returning the question to Thomas: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (v29).
So, filled with the Spirit (v22) the disciples went out and preached the message of the risen Christ and many came to faith. The book of Acts bears testament to the facts. The Spirit, in time, inspired four evangelists to write down the church's memory of Jesus Christ for teaching all down the ages.
Four gospels, one for each compass points N, S, E and W: but even four gospels are not enough to convince people the Messiah has come. A fifth gospel is needed; the gospel written by you and me in the evidence of our lives.
Of course, we all know that there is more to faith than the outer physical evidence that the misguided Rabbi in the story was looking for, but hasn't he got a point?
Before each service clergy and choir in this parish pray this prayer together:
Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.
But do we, I wonder, it's easy to say but more difficult to put into practice?
As we once again celebrate the timeless glory of Christ’s Resurrection, it is perhaps a good time to review what Cardinal Newman called the 'outdoor' Christian life. Towards the end of his life Newman said to William Ullathorne, the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Birmingham: ‘l have been indoors all my life, whilst you have battled for the Church in the world.’ Unlike Newman who always been a man of books, Ullathorne had been a missionary in Australia and was famous for keeping a baked human head in a bandbox above his bed. Ullathorne was definitely an outdoor Christian!
At the beginning of today’s gospel, the disciples were, you will recall, behind locked doors for fear of the Jews; but after Jesus’s Resurrection appearances they burst out into the world to preach the gospel to all nations.
Many could rightly say that the Rabbi in our story was not looking for evidence of the Messiah in the right place. He and his servant needed to get ‘outdoors’ and assisted by a little reading of the New Testament, look in more likely locations.
Christian history is full of examples of people lived the ‘outdoor’ Christian life. People who like Thomas found the mission of Christ through seeing his wounds. The wounds of the poor and needy often ignored and marginalized by the rich and powerful. Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta; John Vanier (l'Arche) in the wounds of the handicapped; Martin Luther King in the wounds of discrimination and injustice. Not to mention all those thousands, maybe millions of people, who because of their belief in Jesus Christ deep in their hearts, have been inspired to take their faith outdoors and be a neighbour to their fellow human beings.
It would be wrong, however, to devalue the ‘indoor’ Christians. We need the theologians, the scholars and especially the pray-ers in convents and monasteries. They embrace in their hearts the afflictions of a broken world and support all those who are called to the ‘outdoor’ ministry.
As we move into the fifty days of Easter 2017, it is good to take stock of where we are on our Christian journeys. You may find it helpful to spend a little time reflecting on the wonderful message of Easter as we hear it proclaimed anew.
As the Summer approaches, it is an opportune time to think about whether you can offer some time to what some have called ‘Outdoor Christianity’. There are many organisations that need volunteers—helping at a Day Centre, working in a charity shop, perhaps just visiting a housebound neighbour? Only you can decide if you are prepared to accept the vulnerability that Outdoor Christianity can bring. Outdoor Christianity carries a health warning:— you may be challenged about your faith from time to time and asked to explain it to others; but almost certainly the joy and satisfaction from helping others will far outweigh any negativity.
Whatever you decide, let us rejoice in the fact that we are blessed because although we have not seen, yet we have come to believe.
I end with another story:— A Third World bishop related that in his country during the exchange of the Peace, what is said to others is not, ‘The peace of the Lord be always with you’; but rather, ‘I love the face of Christ I see’. In order to see Jesus Christ, we don’t really have to look any farther than the face of our spouse, partner, child our neighbour or the person next to us in church.
Love the face of Christ you cannot see, and take your Christianity outdoors. There, love the face of Christ you see in each of our brothers and sisters: difficult though it can be, at times! Perhaps then those who look into the eyes of Christians to see if the Messiah had come will be reassured by a reflected—Yes?
+ In the name of the risen Christ, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.