Friday, 15 April 2016

My Lord and my God


Today we are looking at the last in the cycle of very early C6th mosaics that can be found in the church of St Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, which depict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

We see Jesus appearing to the 11 disciples. This is the second meeting that the resurrected Jesus has with his disciples – a week after his appearance to them on the first Easter Sunday. Jesus is showing his wound (we only see the wound on his side, presumably where he was stabbed with the spear), but in so doing he points us to our right. All the way through this cycle of 26 mosaics, there has been a movement to our right. In most of the mosaics, one of the figures moves us on to the next. Now here at the end, Jesus himself moves us on, but this time upwards, to heaven.

On the first occasion when Jesus appeared to his disciples, Thomas was not present. And when the disciples told Thomas that they had seen the Lord, Thomas made his famous statement: ‘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.” (John 20.24) He is demanding evidence that is very physical: he won’t be satisfied, he says, with just seeing Jesus. He needs to feel, to touch his wound.

So now a week later Jesus appears. He shows Thomas his wounds. He invites Thomas to touch. ‘Do not doubt’, he says, ‘but believe’. And Thomas – who is here shown bowing before Christ, in an attitude of service (the robes are like a towel covering his hands: this is a symbol of service which later icons make us of; for instance in the icon of Jesus' baptism, the angels 'who minister to him' are shown in the same posture) - makes the great declaration of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.28).

This confession of Thomas, which we read about in John 20.24-29 is critically important.

We learn from it the truth at the heart of the faith:

1.      That Jesus Christ can be called God.

Thomas’ declaration is the final climactic statement of John’s gospel – and it echoes the very beginning of the gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God’ (John 1.1)

Jesus, who turns water into wine and makes things new, who brings healing, who has authority over nature, who has come to feed people spiritually, who opens people’s eyes literally and metaphorically, and who brings people back from the dead is not just a prophet, is not just the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is not just the Messiah, is not even just the eternal Son of God (although that is the preferred title that John uses for Jesus). He is, as Thomas confesses, our Lord and God.

So when we listen to Jesus we listen to God; when we obey him, we obey God; when we trust him, we trust God; when we pray to him, we pray to God; and when we worship him, we worship God.
People sometimes ask, ‘To whom should I pray: Jesus or God?’ Well ultimately we are praying to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But Thomas' declaration means that when you pray to Jesus you are praying to God. If you pray to God, you are praying to the one who has revealed himself to us as Jesus. Eric Delve, an evangelist, put it this way: ‘Everything that Jesus was doing, thinking, saying and being on earth, was what God was doing, thinking, saying and being in heaven’.

It is not just Eric Delve! Paul describes Jesus as the visible image of the invisible God. The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the reflection of God’s glory, and ‘the exact imprint of God’s very being’.
In the creed we declare at communion we declare belief in:  
‘The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father’.

As an aside, the church of St Apollinare Nuovo began its life as an Arian church. The Arians (not to be confused with the Nazi idea of an Arian master race) are so called because they followed a teacher called Arius who said that Jesus was not God. He was created by God, the first of all God’s creation. He was human, and more than human, but he could not be called God. So they would actually have a problem with Thomas’ declaration that Jesus is ‘Lord and God’. 

The Arians, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses today, could not say that. For them, it was not God who came down from heaven to earth, but a celestial being. So Jesus is an inspiring example for us to follow, a great teacher for us to listen to, a pioneer who has led the way – but not God.

But if Jesus is not divine then:

1.  The death of Jesus does not show us the full extent of the love of God: God does not give us his own being and his own heart to be crucified – but he creates something, a sort of demi-god, and then that something is crucified for us. It doesn't really cost God that much, and it does not make sense of 1 John 4.9-10, ‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for ours sins.’

2. There will always be a gap between God and men and women. We can never really fully know God. With the Arians we can serve God as our Lord (it is not that much different from Islam), but we can never participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1.4), never be filled with the fullness of God (Ephesians 3.19), and never have the true life, communion or intimacy with God which Jesus offers us because he is both fully human and fully God. In 1 Corinthians 13.12, Paul says that one day we will know fully as we are already fully known. If Jesus was not both fully human and divine, then we will never be able to fully know God as God fully knows us.

That is why Thomas’ declaration, ‘My Lord and my God’ is both important and precious. And it is why Thomas is remembered in many Christian traditions not as doubting Thomas, but as believing Thomas.

2.      Faith does not come from sight.

Jesus reacts to Thomas’ declaration by asking him a question: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’
We assume the answer is Yes. Thomas only believed after he saw the risen Jesus.

But we need to think again.

There is a chain of seeing in John 20.
When Mary Magdalene sees the risen Jesus, she says to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ (v18).
When the disciples see the risen Jesus, they say to Thomas, ‘We have seen the Lord’ (v25). 
But when Thomas sees the risen Jesus, he says, ‘My Lord and my God’ (v28).

Where does that come from? As Gregory the Great, who wrote in the C4th about this passage noted, Thomas ‘saw one thing, and he believed another. Divinity could not be seen by a mortal person. He saw a human being, and he confessed him as God.’ (Forty Gospel Homilies, 26)

OK, a person who did the sort of things that Jesus did and who then comes back from the dead is pretty impressive, but it does not make them God.

How do you see if Jesus is Lord and God? That is a declaration which requires far more than sight. It is a declaration of faith and trust. It is declaration of ultimate allegiance.

And that is why Jesus goes on to say: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (John 20.29). It is the final beatitude.

That is us!

We haven’t seen the risen Jesus. We learn about him; we hear what he said; we consider the evidence for the resurrection. But even if we are totally convinced that he rose from the dead, that in itself will never convince us that he is Lord and God.

Sight obviously makes people sit up and take notice. We are told in Acts 8.6, that ‘the crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did’. 
But it is not the clincher. I remember hearing Michael Green tell of an astonishing healing. A girl, most of whose bones had been broken in an accident, in complete traction, was dramatically and suddenly healed as some people prayed for her. Her parents saw it, but it did not bring them to faith.

Faith, that ability to confess Jesus as Lord and God, is a gift. Faith comes when what is spoken to us speaks to the depths in us, and the depths stir us to respond

So people who have not seen but who have come to believe are blessed because

1.      God has spoken to them, and they have heard.

A voice, a word has spoken to their depths; and it has come with conviction: conviction that God exists, that sin and judgement and forgiveness is real, that the good news about Jesus is true, and that this man really is worth serving and worshipping as our Lord and our God.

I'm not necessarily talking about something dramatic. That conviction can come suddenly, or it can come gradually over years. Perhaps you are on the way now, but you are not quite yet there with Thomas. Or perhaps you are. You do believe, and you can fall down with Thomas at Jesus Christ’s feet – the man who lived 2000 years ago, who died and rose again from the dead – and declare that he is your God.

2.      Their faith is not dependent on what they see.

They have come to realise that ultimate reality is not about what is visible in this world. It is not about power or wealth or status here. It is not about experiences, even spiritual experiences, in this world. Instead it is about another world.

And that means that they are not always looking for new evidences or new experiences that God really is there. I was very struck when I read Henri Nouwen. He wrote that he expected that as he grew older he would enjoy greater communion and intimacy with God. But in fact the opposite happened. He felt more and more remote from God. He found it harder to pray. Some spiritual writers speak of it as ‘the dark night of the soul’. But he did persevere, because he had this sense that God was moving him on beyond sight and touch and even feeling – so that his faith rested simply on the word of God.

So Thomas bows down at Jesus feet. He declares him, ‘My Lord and my God’.

For Thomas it was not just words. Tradition, and it is a strong tradition because it comes from several different sources, tells us that he travelled to India and preached that Jesus was alive and was ‘Lord and God’, and that he was martyred.

So we leave the last word to this mosaic. The disciples see the crucified but risen Jesus. They praise him, But Thomas really sees what is going on. He does not just see a risen Jesus; instead he sees with faith the one who is his Lord and his God, and he bows before him in worship. 

[Revised 18 April, 2016]

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