A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 12, 2015, by Christopher L. Webber.
What can I believe? What can you believe?
Suppose a friend tells you, “There’s a sale at the Safeway today: sirloin steak at 5 cents a pound!” Now, you trust your friend, but you have to ask: “Are you sure? Did you see it yourself?” Is there some trick to it, some qualification: the first five customers, until noon yesterday, if you buy five six packs of beer first? We just instinctively, and out of long experience, weigh what we hear by a number of factors: past experience, importance to us, probabilities of various sorts – and then we believe or not, depending.
If someone tells you later today that Hillary Clinton is running for president, I expect you’ll believe it with no questions asked. Some things are not a surprise. So: what can I believe and how firmly can I believe it? I think these are fundamental questions we deal with daily. But Thomas in today’s gospel reading was asked to believe something on which life depends and on three grounds: first what he heard from others, secondly what he could see for himself, and thirdly what he could actually touch. Three senses: hearing, seeing, feeling.
The first sense, hearing, he was sure was not enough. I don’t think it ever is when something’s important. Hearsay evidence doesn’t carry much weight and it shouldn’t. If you ever played a game of telephone as a child – you know: you whisper something to someone who whispers it to the next who whispers it to the next and what started out as potatoes winds up as baloney. Who knows what will come out at the other end of the chain?
I remember a news report, probably five or six years ago, when Barack Obama was running for the first time and reports were being spread that he was a Muslim. A television reporter was shown asking some men in a midwestern diner who they would vote for and why and one of them said he couldn’t vote for Obama because Obama was a Muslim. And the reporter said, “Well, but he isn’t a Muslim.” And the man in the diner said, “But what’s what I’ve heard.”
So hearing isn’t very reliable and Thomas knew that and wasn’t about to rely on it, nor was he even ready to be satisfied by seeing. “Seeing’s believing” is the old saying but any magician knows that the hand is quicker than the eye and we can think we see something that’s not really there at all. In an age when virtual reality is a familiar idea, when we can project holographic images and show someone as present who’s actually in Bangla desh, when we can go to the movies and be shown special effects that are totally unreal and untrue, seeing is not believing.
The result is that touch and feel become more important than ever and especially because of what we are as human beings. I am a flesh and blood, material human being. I may see things, hear things, imagine things, but it’s touch that brings me into relationship with what I am: flesh and blood, material, capable of banging into things, being hurt by the collision; that’s reality as we experience it. That’s what we can believe. When I pound on this pulpit (which I don’t often do!) I know this is real, it’s here, I can feel it.
Now, this story about Thomas tells us several things but one that’s important is the place of the sacraments in our lives. Our worship is not just sight and sound as some worship is. We don’t come here just to listen and speak as some worshipers do but to taste and touch and feel. To make new members of the church we don’t just announce it, we pour water over them. We don’t just pronounce two people husband and wife, we join their hands at the altar and wrap a stole around them. Today we use bread and wine to know Christ’s presence here. Jesus says to us as he said to Thomas, “Reach out your hand and feel this bread, touch my body, and know that I am with you still.” Christianity is about God’s relationship with the material world.
At the center of our faith is the fact that God came into this material world that God created and lived in it in real flesh and blood. It’s an incarnational faith. God is real for us in a way that no other faith can claim: God took human flesh, became real for us in the ultimate way, and the celebration of Easter is about the resurrection of that flesh, that human body. I keep meeting people who think that Christians believe in the immortality of the soul and I guess some do, but that’s not what the Creed says. It’s about the body, the resurrection of the body. It’s not about a soul that we can’t even see or hear let alone feel; it’s about a reality that we can understand, that’s tangible, that we can touch and taste and feel. Easter is not about spiritualism; it’s about materialism.
Spirituality is very popular these days but fewer people are going to church. They’re two different things. Spirituality is what it is, but Christian faith is something much more. I like to quote the former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, who said, “Christianity is the most materialistic of the world’s religions.” And it is. It’s a religion that has to do with God here, known to us in flesh and blood and therefore concerned with flesh and blood, concerned with problems of poverty and hunger. It’s not a religion of escapism.
So I could simply preach about the sacraments today and how central they are to Christian faith. But what I want to do is to look more deeply at the whole question of matter and spirit and ask what we mean by that classic division between spiritual and material anyway. And what I want to suggest is that this standard division between material and spiritual is really out of date, in a post-Einstein world. I don’t believe we know anymore where the border is between the physical and the spiritual. When scientists talk about quarks and mesons and subatomic particles and fields of force and dark matter that may be the commonest substance in the universe and yet is undetectable so far by human intelligence, where would you draw the line between what’s physical and what’s not?
The Prayer Book defines a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace as if there were two kinds of reality, the material one you can taste and touch and the spiritual one you can’t. In the middle ages, there was a clear line between material and spiritual and everything had to be one or the other. Christianity with it’s talk about incarnation and sacraments tried to cross that line but it still left us in a divided world in which the things that we knew about from every day experience were the material things while the things that mattered were the things we couldn’t know directly. But we live after Einstein and we know that the material world isn’t all that solid. The solid walls of this church, this seemingly solid pulpit. we know now, are made up of atoms that are made up of electrons and even smaller particles some of which we know only as theory and have never really been seen and certainly not touched.
Worse than that, not only is there no way to taste or touch or see the ultimate elements but they can be turned into immaterial energy, because E = mc2 as I’m sure you know and mc2 = E. The wood of the pew you sit on can burn and become heat energy and the energy of the sun can be transformed into the green plants that push up out of the soil. Worse still than that, the material universe includes what science calls “forces.” We all know about gravity but then there’s the electromagnetic force and there are two types of nuclear force. And at the cutting edge of science you actually find them using terms like “weird” and “spooky” as technical terms as the scientists try to reduce the material world to something they can understand. But the physical world keeps escaping from their experiments and leading them out into a world that sometimes seems more spiritual than material.
What kind of world is it in which scientists use terms like “weird” and “spooky?” I saw a book review in the New York Times some while back that talked about “wildly imaginative” new ideas about the basic structure of matter. It said that the fundamental problem with these ideas is that there’s no way to test them. But science is about testing and if you can’t test it, how can it be science? The boundary between the material and the spiritual seems to have disappeared. Which takes us back to Thomas, because that was Thomas’ problem too and the problem of the Christian church when it tried to understand and explain the eucharist and the sacraments.
But isn’t that what we should have expected to learn as we explored God’s world? Shouldn’t we have expected to learn that it was all one and that the hard cold rock in our garden which God made is ultimately simply one more expression of the ultimate reality which is God? Isn’t love one form of reality and aren’t rocks another? And aren’t both of them evidence of the creativity of the same God? When we take the bread of the eucharist in our hands, that too can be analyzed as matter: It’s composed of flour and water; but those ingredients are composed of atoms of carbon and hydrogen and so on, and that’s potential energy. If you burn it, heat is created. If you eat it, the body absorbs the energy. This bread is material, it’s physical, but that means it’s also potential energy and it’s transformed into energy when we eat it. But if you come here with faith, there’s another kind of energy at work as well, as Christians have always known even though they have often disagreed as to just what that energy is. But whatever language you want to use, it has to do with the way Christ comes to us here renewing our lives by his life. You, a child of God, are joined with God and your life is renewed.
Thomas didn’t know all that when he tried to understand what the other disciples were telling him. He thought he had it all figured out: He thought there was matter and there was spirit. He thought that when matter died that was an end of it. Thomas didn’t know about Einstein. And Thomas didn’t really understand that the world is one, that God is one, that all life and matter and creation exist only because of God and there are no boundaries except the ones we make in our heads. Thomas, you might say, was the original scientist, doubting and questioning and looking for the proof. And that’s what he was made to do. It’s what we were made to do. God made us to do that: God made us to explore and to test and eventually to understand; it’s part of our job as human beings; we are here to explore and to learn and to grow in our understanding of the mystery of life. And if we are doing that at all well, we ought to be better prepared than Thomas was to understand that bodies can be raised and life can be transformed and that the piece of bread we are given at the altar is not simply a mystery beyond understanding but just one more of those places where the simple divisions break down and the things that separate us from God are overcome and the material – if we still want to use that language – reveals the spiritual, reveals deeper levels, other dimensions of God’s creation.
If you read about saints and poets, it’s surprising, I think, how often they see evidence of God not in some great burst of light and glory but in simple, material things: a rock, a stream, a daffodil, a leper. A sacramental faith should do that for us: it should send us out into a world “alive with the grandeur of God.” I stop often on the way home to take out m y iPad and take a picture of someone’s small front yard garden: the glory of God on Moraga. I don’t take a picture but I see God also in an occasional homeless person huddled against a wall on Noriega Street or 19th Avenue: God present in the material pain of this world as well as the glory.
We need to go out from here ready to have our eyes opened like Thomas’ to see God here and to see God there, to see God again and again in this world God made, in this life God entered, and to say again and again the same words Thomas said: “My Lord and my God.”
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.