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Fourth Sunday of Easter

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 9:36–43; Revelation 7:9–17 & John 10:22–30

Let me begin this morning by posing you two questions. I don’t want you to answer these questions right away; I want you to just sit with them as you listen to the rest of my sermon. Here are the questions: 

  1. Do you believe in the miracles that are attributed to Jesus in the New Testament? 
  2. Do you believe that miracles can still occur today?

Our gospel reading for last Sunday was from the twenty-first and final chapter of the Gospel of John. In that reading, which described the events surrounding the third appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples, which itself is a miracle, we heard how Jesus called Peter to be the pastoral leader of the early Church. Jesus charged Peter with feeding and tending the sheep and lambs of his flock; which in other words meant to provide spiritual guidance and nourishment to the disciples of Jesus.

In today’s gospel reading from the Gospel of John, we actually go back to a time in the ministry of Jesus that takes place well before his death and resurrection. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem during one of the major Jewish festivals, and the Jewish religious leaders are questioning Jesus, asking him if he really is the Messiah. Jesus tells them that they already know the answer to this question, because they have witnessed the miracles that he has performed which could only have been done by God’s power working through Jesus. 

Jesus then continues with the analogy of the Good Shepherd to explain to them why they don’t, or can’t, believe that he is the Messiah. He tells them that they are not a part of his flock; that is, they are not his followers. He then tells them that his followers or disciples, have listened to his teaching and witnessed his miracles, and they have believed that he is the Messiah. The religious leaders have witnessed firsthand the miracles performed by Jesus, but they are sceptical, whereas the followers of Jesus, who have also witnessed those same miracles, choose to believe. They believe because they have faith. 

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the apostle Peter is summoned to the town of Joppa by disciples of Jesus when one of their fellow disciples, a woman by the name of Tabitha, dies. The disciples don’t give Peter a reason for why they are summoning him, they simply say, “Please come to us without delay”. Even though they don’t provide Peter with a reason for calling him to Joppa, it is safe to assume they believed he could raise Tabitha from the dead, and in a scene very similar to the one where Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead, Peter does raise Tabitha. Once again, the key factor here is the faith of those disciples who summoned Peter. They had faith, and believed, that Peter could raise Tabitha, and he did.

I’ve recently been reading a book titled ‘God is Not Great: How Religions Poison Everything’. The book was written by Christopher Hitchens, who could be described as one of the most famous atheists of our time, although he preferred to refer to himself as an antitheist. Antitheism has been adopted as a label by those who regard belief in a god who created and intervenes in the universe, as dangerous, destructive, or encouraging of harmful behaviour. Hitchens said of himself “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”

In his book, Hitchens is damning of the negative impact that religion in general has had on humankind through its history. He is particularly critical of the three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and he provides many examples of events and instances that have taken place throughout history, such as the Crusades, and more recently the 9/11 terrorist attack, where deplorable acts of violence and genocide have been justified in the name of God. I have actually found myself agreeing with much of his criticism of religion, but I have stopped short of agreeing with his position that God, or whatever term one wishes to use to describe the supreme being that is the Creator of all that we know, does not exist.

One aspect of his reasoning against a belief in God in general, and against the validity of the Christian Scriptures in particular, are the claims made by Christians in relation to both the miracles recorded in the Bible, and those reported in modern day times. I don’t have time to go into the detail of the many arguments he provides to refute the possibility of miracles, both past and present, but one of the things he does say is “that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”. Basically, what he is saying, is that if someone can’t produce any evidence to prove their claim that a miracle occurred, then someone else can just dismiss that claim without having to prove that it didn’t occur.

His statement can be difficult to argue against, but I believe that’s basically where faith comes in to the picture. I know in my own case, that I don’t just believe in God because of what I was taught about Christianity when I attended Roman Catholic primary and secondary school, or even what I learned going to Theological College. I believe because of several personal experiences I’ve had where God has been active in my life. I can’t produce any physical evidence that proves what I might say about the different experiences that I’ve had, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t experience them. I also don’t think it makes me delusional to talk about those experiences, which perhaps Hitchens would say I am.

I’ve also heard the stories of many other people who, like me, have had their own personal experiences where God has been active in their lives, some of whom have experienced firsthand what we might call miracles. 

It can be difficult to argue against the evidence that does prove the harmful things that have been carried out by religion in the name of God, Allah or Yahweh, but there is also much evidence of the many good and positive things that have been done by religion to the benefit of humankind. 

If we think of faith in the context of religion, then I also think it is difficult to argue against the personal experiences that people have had of God, Allah or Yahweh, which are ultimately the reason why people believe in God.

So let me return to the questions I asked at the beginning of my sermon:

  1. Do you believe in the miracles that are attributed to Jesus in the New Testament? 
  2. Do you believe that miracles can still occur today?

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