In the famous story read on Easter Sunday, written by St John, he and St Peter run to the tomb. John, being the younger man, runs faster, but then, when Peter comes puffing up behind, he lets him go into the tomb first. It is then when John goes into the tomb that we hear words that for him and thus for us are clearly very special : “He saw and he believed.” (John 20:1-9) But what did he see? Well nothing at all really ; just the grave clothes, and apart from that, nothing. No vision of angels with a message. No risen Lord Jesus. Nothing! He sees nothing, and yet he believes. In what follows in his Gospel John will tell the stories of how others experienced the Resurrection : of Mary meeting Jesus and thinking he was the gardener ; of Jesus appearing to them in the Upper Room ; of Thomas doubting until he actually saw something. But John quietly makes clear to us that he did not need such experiences in order to believe.
This is very helpful for most of us. Occasionally people are given visions of Jesus, or they have some powerful emotional experience of his presence, but most of us simply have to decide to believe without feeling anything or seeing anything at all. Notice I say that we have to decide to believe. I say this because all too often people think that belief is an emotional experience. Indeed I often meet people who actually say “If only I was lucky like you and that God would show himself to me, or speak to me, then I would be able to believe.” I sigh and explain to them that I do not believe because of some experience but because I choose to believe. Yes, I personally have had experiences of God and of his power, but they are not the basis of my belief, because they could just be my imagination playing tricks on me. There is no scientific proof that the Resurrection of Jesus happened or that it didn’t happen, just as there is no scientific proof that God exists or does not exist. In the end we have to choose what make sense to us.
I guess that St John also wanted to tell us about his “belief” because he was surrounded by a lot of doubt. He was writing his Gospel after most if not all of the rest of the disciples had been killed for their belief. The Christian Church was still no more than small groups of people, perhaps 30 or 40, in each of the towns where they existed. The great majority of people were pagans who dismissed these silly groups of Christians as idiots, or as cannibals, or more politely as people with rather weird ideas. Sounds rather modern doesn’t it? Indeed some people accused Christians of being atheists because they rejected the pagan gods and all the superstition that went with them.
Even within the little groups of people who were Christians, there were clearly some who had begun to think of Jesus as no more than a holy prophet who set an example by dying for what he believed. John knows that Jesus is so much more than this, and so he writes his Gospel to make things absolutely clear. He begins by calling Jesus “The Word” who is and was God from the beginning of all things. “ He goes on to emphasise all the sayings of Jesus that he can remember that show that he thought of himself in this way, culminating in the famous words “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
But John knows too that many of his fellow Christians were looking for outward signs, for miraculous events or visions of God, to “prove” their faith in some way. They were even in competition with one another over who had the most important gifts of the spirit – the power to heal, or to prophesy or to speak in tongues for example. So John reminds us, as does St Paul in his great passage on love, that in the end the heart of our faith is simply choosing to allow God’s love to flow through us. That’s why he tells the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and says “If I then your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.”
Love, real love, hurts. We have seen that as we looked at the cross on Friday, and we probably know that in one way or another from our own lives. So, just as the death of Jesus is an eternal moment of victory and glory, so the resurrection of Jesus is an eternal moment of sacrificial love. We look forward from the Cross to the Resurrection only to look back to the Cross without which the Resurrection makes no sense. John saw and believed without there being any glory, any outward show of God’s presence and power. All he had was his love for Jesus, the love that made him stand beneath the cross whilst the others ran away, and, of course, the love that gave him one special gift from Jesus, Mary his holy mother to be our mother too. So to believe is a choice, an act of will. It is choosing to believe that underlying the universe is a power that is love itself, “God is love and whoever lives in love lives in and God in them.” (I John 4:16)