Easter 2 John 20: 19-31
In my days as a teacher, if you were feeling mischievous and you felt the need to liven things up a little in the staff room, one of the best ways of doing so would be to announce that you thought all teaching next school year in, let us say, Year 6 or Year 7, should be topic based. The world of education contains within its vaults examples of some extremely effective topic-based teaching schemes and not a few unmitigated disasters. You will be pleased to know that I am not going to dwell on this subject for too long but I would like to draw from its debate the difference between two distinct approaches to teaching and learning: nibbling round an apple and serving slices of cake.
Nibbling round an apple involves revolving it five or six times biting just a little deeper each time. By the time you reach the core you have covered the same ground many times, but you have never been asked to bite off more than you can chew. Serving slices of cake, by contrast, involves dividing the material to be devoured into slices each one of which includes material from every level from the outside to the centre. To eat the whole cake you only need to go round it once, but some of the slices can look daunting indeed when placed in front of you on a plate.
The truth is, each of these approaches has its advantages and disadvantages. Some subjects lend themselves more to one approach; some to the other. What inspires one class may leave another cold and what works for one teacher may not work for another. Good teachers in good schools learn what works for them and adapt it day by day to suit the children entrusted to their care. Failure strikes when well-intentioned enthusiasts try to impose what worked in one set of circumstances upon an entirely different scenario.
Much the same applies to our learning about God and developing our Christian faith. We are all different. What works for me may not work for you. Indeed, what works for you or me today may not necessarily work for either of us tomorrow. What we each need to do is to learn what works for us and have the confidence to know that God will walk with us as we travel the journey, no matter how convoluted our personal path may be.
At this time of year in particular it is important to remember that we do not have to understand and accept and believe everything all in one go. Some of the concepts we are confronted with at Easter are difficult so we do not need to despair if we find them so. We do not need to devour the whole slice of cake at one sitting; we can nibble around the apple a little at a time taking as long as we need to reach the centre. On some issues that may take a lifetime.
For me, our reading from Acts this morning comes very much into this category. Listen to a couple of phrases from it again:
This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.
And later, in the quote from Psalm 16:
“He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.”
I still struggle with both of these verses, so how do I deal with that? How do any of us deal with verses in the Bible or aspects of our faith that we find difficult? Do we hide our doubts lest they somehow betray us as a lesser Christian? Or do we just ignore the bits that we don’t like and cherry-pick our way through the Bible accepting the bits that we understand and simply disregarding the rest?
Whilst both of these approaches may offer a way out of an immediate problem, neither of them will increase our knowledge or understanding of God. Like Thomas in our Gospel reading, we need to confront our doubts for, in doing so, we give God the opportunity to reassure us. There are various ways in which we can do this. If we are gregarious by nature we can discuss our doubts with others, maybe over coffee after church or by attending a course or by joining one of our Home Groups. If we don’t feel comfortable in a group situation we can approach a trusted person and discuss the issue on a more personal basis. And, whoever we are, we can talk to God in prayer taking our lead from Thomas who was never afraid to ask questions of the Lord. God understands our doubts and frailties so we need never be afraid to lay them before him.
But what if we do all of these things and we still have doubts? What then? I would suggest that this is the time to remember that we do not need to devour the whole slice of cake at one sitting; we can nibble around the apple a little at a time taking as long as we need to reach the centre. Furthermore, if the going gets tough, we can turn the apple around and nibble at it from the opposite direction. This is an approach I have personally found helpful in dealing with doubts about the resurrection. Rather than dwell on the account of the resurrection in the Bible
I start with the here and now: I know for certain that Jesus Christ is alive today because I have a relationship with him. If he is alive today something very special must have happened after his death on the cross to make that possible. I don’t need to understand the precise details of what that was: it is the reality of his presence in my life that is important.
If our doubts persist we need to find a way to set them aside for a while, not, I would like to suggest, by placing them in a box labelled Impossible or Ignore but in one labelled In God’s care. Over the years, as we continue to pray and nibble around the apple, new insights will hopefully enable us to remove previous doubts from God’s care and place them firmly in the box we label as our Faith. As Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.