Readings Deuteronomy 5:1-10 and John 20:19-31
Do you have an event in history you’d have loved to be present for? A concert, a theatrical production... perhaps you've listened to a live recording of it, or found grainy video footage... maybe you've been lucky enough to find someone who was there and ask them to recount every details, the feels and the smells! Even with all those ways of connecting you to the event, it is still evident that there is a gap, a gap between the experience of those who were there in the flesh, and you, who have come to experience it later via witness and media. No matter how familiar you became with the event, you can't say: "I was there"
Both our readings today stress that the experience of God’s revelation is not diluted with time. Those of us who have come to believe and follow in the years since the Bible are no less the recipients of grace and truth as those who stood before Sinai, or pressed their hands into the wounds of our Lord.
Deuteronomy serves as the last book of the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Israel has already been liberated from Egypt, they have already made the covenant with God and received the law at Sinai, they have already failed – catastrophically – and have buried an entire generation wandering in the wilderness, and now stand on the precipice of the promised land. To prepare them to enter the land, Moses recounts the law and how it came bed to received. So Moses is talking about events that happened some 50 years previously, and happened to those who are no longer living… and yet he says:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire.
Moses does not talk about this event like something that happened in the past, to those now dead, but to the present company, who were not there. Moses tells them that not only is this covenant with them, but they received it face to face from God. Later rabbinical tradition will learn from this noted choice of tense to remind all later Jews that they too were there at Sinai, that all who come to be part of the covenant were – somehow – present at Sinai, and received Torah directly from God, not via the passing on through human witness. And since God is eternal, and by that exists in an entirely different relationship to time as you or me, why shouldn’t this be possible?
It is then not surprising that in John’s witness to the resurrection of Israel’s messiah, we find a similar spurning of any kind of privileging of the first, of the ‘historic’ eye witness.
Jesus said to Thomas “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
In Jesus’ words a hand reaches out to the audience who are hearing John’s gospel read in their congregation, that says “you, here, you who have never met Jesus – in the flesh – who were not there where you could reach out and touch, you are not a lesser disciple, your experience of Jesus is not diluted or diminutive of the real thing that “the twelve” got to experience.” For blessed, Jesus says, are you (and me) who have come to believe without having seen. Indeed, as John sums up at the end of the reading: these words are written [not that you might understand what the disciples experienced, not so that you might come to trust their account, but] 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. That through believing, through following we too become a disciple, and we too have life in Jesus’ name, we too come to share in Christ’s life directly.
This is in part why Paul is so against Christians talking about who baptised them (as if they can find some lineage back to the twelve, and through the twelve to Christ in such a claim). As Paul reminds the people, we are baptised into Christ, that is all that counts. Paul himself has no problem speaking of his own encounter with Jesus, his own standing as one of Jesus’ apostles, even though he did not encounter the ‘earthly’ Jesus in the way that Peter or Thomas could claim. Paul sees no distinction between Jesus calling Peter out of his boat and Jesus calling to him on the road to Damascus – even though one was a man leaving footprints in the sand, and another a voice and light breaking through the heavens.
Because a relationship with God is not, and has never been about being first, or being an eye witness to a ‘historic’ event, it is about an encounter, an interruption, a meeting in which our lives are touched by grace, in which we are set free from that which binds humanity in misery, and in which we are called to witness to what God has done, is doing, and will do. This is a moment – a transformation – that is there for all, in whatever age and whatever place, it is there for young and old, and it is there for you and me. God meets us, personally. We might learn what it is to recognise and understand and order our lives in light of this meeting in community and conversation with the witness and experience of the past, but the encounter, the meeting is a personal one – there is no intermediary, no dilution, Christ speaks to us, the Spirit wells up in us, God claims us in our own moment… and in doing so, God (holy and eternal) weaves us into the grand story of God’s history with humanity, weaves us into the tapestry of revelation and salvation, so that we too might say we were there when God spoke at Sinai, we too were there when Christ breathed out his Spirit.
To be a Christian, here today, in C21st Forestville is to be someone that Christ has sought, called, redeemed, and commissioned in just the same way as those Christ gathered up throughout his earthly ministry. It is just as strange, just as holy, just as terrifying, just as joyful, just as transformative.
To be a Christian, here today, in C21st Forestville is to be someone God has rescued from oppression and misery, someone God covenanted with, someone God has called into a life ordered after God’s own heart for justice, in just the same way as the crowd standing before Sinai. It is just as strange, just as holy, just as terrifying, just as joyful, just as transformative.
No matter the distance from there to here, it is nothing to an eternal God. Who meets us, personally and intimately, and weaves us into the great story of redemption, calling us to follow with hearts full of joy, into the work of Easter, into the resurrection and the life!
Image: Poplars, Claude Monet (1891)
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