Second Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 12 April 2015 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 12 April 2015

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie 

 

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.

 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

I don’t know whether you are familiar with Dudley Moore as a jazz pianist. I’m fond of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore as a comic duo, but I really enjoy Dud’s piano recordings. Some of you will know that he was organ scholar at Magdalen Oxford, under Bernard Rose, and was well-trained in the sort of music we sing at Choral Evensong. I’m thinking today of a particular joke piece of his, first performed on Beyond the Fringe, which he called ‘And the same to you’ (which will be the people’s response to ‘The Lord be with you’ in the next revision of the Roman Missal).

It was an obvious musical joke but wonderfully performed: he took the core musical phrase from the Colonel Bogey March and riffed on it in various classical styles. At the end he finished the piece about 15 times, with every possible type of resolution, frustrated at the very last minute, as if he was unable to escape the keyboard. The actual ending was a throwaway single chord, unrelated to what had gone before, followed by him running away.

Perhaps it is dangerous to say this, but some sermons can be like that: just when you think it’s safe to stand up for the creed, off the preacher goes again, sometimes with an all-too-predictable catch-phrase (the priest who prepared me for confirmation, who was in every other way a saint, always defaulted to the dreadful ‘and in a very real way…’).

And perhaps it is yet more dangerous to say this, but St John seems to do a bit of that in his gospel. What we’ve just heard is clearly an ending. But then he starts up again and goes on for a whole chapter. He finishes the last chapter with yet another coda –

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.

 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

This partially recalls a verse at the end of the crucifixion narrative

(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)                               19.35

As Sarah Maitland wrote this week, it is difficult to finish this story, perhaps, as she says, because

As a writer I sense that what we are seeing is the very outermost limit of what narrative prose can be asked to express.

Or perhaps there is a little more to it than that.

Professor Morna Hooker, the best writer on Mark in English, used her farewell lectures at the University of Cambridge to look, aptly enough, at the endings of the gospels. The lectures are published in a slim volume: Endings – Invitations to Discipleship. The title gives away the thesis. This is what the gospels in their different ways are trying to do at the end – hand over the story to us. That is the meaning of Tradition – not a fixed deposit of neat propositions from the past, but an organic continuity of life with God.

Mark’s ending (which we heard last weekend at the Vigil) is like the throwaway note at the end of Dudley’s musical joke – ‘for they were afraid…’; after which he metaphorically runs off stage. Matthew and Luke do try to finish the story; they patch together various well-remembered encounters with the risen Jesus. This is easier for Luke, because he is writing a bridging passage into his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles: he leaves us with a small cliff-hanger at the Ascension, and then the Tradition, the handing-over, happens in Acts 1 & 2 where the Ascension story is reiterated, Matthias is chosen to replace Judas and Pentecost completes the transition to the era of the Church as the body of the Risen Christ: all very neat. Matthew, who hasn’t that easy narrative way out, goes for a big finish – a sort of Ascension story, concluding with the great commission and promise to us who come after:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”                     Matthew 28.16-20

But John, from whom we heard this morning, does it differently. There is the repeated, post-modern-seeming intrusion of the writer into the text, and the explicit self-conscious acknowledgment that this is a book, something written down, and that there is so much more that could be said. The end of today’s gospel is his statement of purpose, which is twofold: that we may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and, following from that, we may have life (in his name). It’s a perfect resolution to the themes of the Gospel.

That programmatic statement from John is, like Matthew’s ending, explicitly for us who come after, but it is linked much more subtly into the story than Matthew’s. It follows hard on the heels of Thomas not believing, then meeting the risen Jesus after all and being given the privilege of being the first to acknowledge Jesus as ‘My Lord and My God’. After that,

29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”                           20.29

Unfortunately we often stop reading there and hear this as a rebuke to Thomas. But if you finish the chapter, as we have just done, you can see that it is an explicit invitation to us, an invitation to discipleship:

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.                                                                                                                           20.30-31

Whether it is Mark, who leaves us at the empty tomb, Luke with his careful movement into Part 2, Matthew with his big finish, or John, with his explanatory notes and his inability quite to let go of the narrative, this story is difficult to finish for a very good reason, because it isn’t finished. It is alive in us; and we are nourished to live and grow in it by the presence of the risen Lord at his altar today.