A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 19 April 2020, the Second Sunday of Easter, by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this address: John 20: 19-31
I’m guessing most of us wake up in the morning with the thought ‘This can’t be happening: this lockdown, this perpetual house arrest, this orchestrated nothingness is some kind of prank that everyone’s playing one me. It’s not real.’ Then we go into a kind of paralysis, overwhelmed by the global size of the problem, the seemingly endless and obviously inadequate plan for overcoming it, and our own powerlessness to change the reality around us. Sooner or later, in seconds or hours, when the pillow’s failed to provide the escape we deeply seek, we turn to the tasks of the day, humble or grand, onerous or pleasant, by which we break down the impossible into the humble, the unassailable into the simple, the daunting into the achievable. Three levels of waking up: denial, depression, and resolution.
Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague is set in the town of Oran in French-occupied Algeria in 1948. The action takes place in the late summer, as bubonic plague sweeps the town causing it to be sealed off. As the population faces danger, disease and death, the novel studies the reactions of various characters as the situation becomes more desperate.
The central character is Bernard Rieux, a doctor in his thirties. He’s the first to diagnose the plague, and he sets up a hospital to treat patients. The tragedy and grief get to him, and he suppresses pity and withstands tiredness through pragmatic resilience and dogged perseverance. In contrast to Dr Rieux is a smuggler called Cottard. Cottard comes to life as the plague strikes. It’s clear he operates best in times of danger and suspense. He cashes in on the crisis, spiriting away those who wish to flee the town, and selling illegal cigarettes and alcohol. When the plague abates he loses his mind and starts shooting people randomly from his balcony. A third character is a Jesuit priest, Fr Paneloux. He preaches sermons that say the plague is a punishment and the death of an innocent child is a test of our trust in God. He joins the volunteer workers resisting the plague and dies soon afterwards.
Finally there is a playboy called Jean Tarrou and a journalist called Raymond Rambert. Tarrou is jolted out of his wealthy, idle ways by the onset of the plague. He establishes the teams of volunteers and is among the last to die, seeking to become a saint, even though he doesn’t believe in God. Rambert tries to escape the city when the plague descends, using Cottard’s smuggling network. But he has a change of heart and joins the fight against the plague, recognising that a private happiness in the face of others’ suffering is no true happiness at all.
Through these five characters the plague reveals who we are and displays how we respond. The plague is a time of judgement and revelation. Dr Rieux shows pragmatic determination, but at the cost of human feeling. Cottard is a cynical manipulator, but his gains are only short-term. The other characters make and find meaning more successfully in small gestures of kindness than grand claims about truth.
Camus turns out to have written an extraordinarily prophetic book about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. People in 1947 thought it was a critique of the French capitulation to the Nazis in 1940 and the subsequent occupation. But it turns out it was about events that didn’t take place till 73 years after it was written. Just as in the novel, we find in ourselves and those around us the same three levels of response to the virus. Some doggedly plod on through it, bravely doing what must be done, medically or economically, putting feelings to one side and incurring a huge personal toll. Others exploit or manipulate the situation, finding personal gain in the distress of some and the despair of many. And in between lie many who don’t know what to think or how to behave, captivated one moment by thoughts of sanctity, another by armchair philosophising, another by longing for escape, and eventually dragooned into solidarity finding we’re all in this together.
Albert Camus’ novel The Plague is showing us a world without resurrection. Whether living for themselves or for others, each character embodies an existence without hope. Even the priest speaks of a distant God making judgements and setting tests without tenderness or passion. What the novel deftly describes is how the same event can be interpreted differently by a variety of people, so much so that it’s almost a different event. That insight gives us an important interpretative tool for understanding Jesus’ resurrection.
The story of Thomas seems originally to have concluded John’s gospel. The sentence or two that follow it sound like they’re wrapping up the whole story. John 21 seems to have been added as an epilogue. You can see why the Thomas story was considered a fitting conclusion to the gospel when you look at the three dimensions of resurrection the story shows us.
The first dimension’s political. When Thomas says ‘My Lord and my God!’ he’s using a title, in Latin ‘Dominus Deusque,’ habitually accorded to the Roman Emperor. It’s common for Christians to refer to God, or more specifically Jesus, as Lord. But it’s less common for Christians to realise that in doing so they’re making a political statement. I don’t think right now our political leaders are too bothered if the odd Christian says ‘Christ is my master in all things,’ so long as we pay our taxes and keep two metres away from each other. But in a totalitarian state like the Roman Empire, you could be executed for less. Thomas is saying, ‘If you’ve been crucified by the Romans and have been raised, you are my leader.’ In a way we don’t often dwell on, Jesus’ resurrection is a dethroning of the Roman Empire and a transformation of all allegiances. Resurrection is political.
The second Dimension’s cosmic. Thomas is quite right to tell the other disciples he doesn’t believe them. We’d be just the same as him. They’re asking him to suspend his whole understanding of how life and death work. They’re challenging him to believe that the most crushing disappointment in their lives has been reversed. He thinks it’s a cruel joke. It’s an illusion, simply wish-fulfilment, a hallucination born out of grief. When Jesus appears and invites Thomas to touch his hands and side, it’s not just a restoration of Thomas’ relationship with the disciples. It’s a transformation of everything that today we’d call science. If a person can rise from the dead, anything’s possible. That’s the point. If crucifixion can’t separate us from God in Christ, nothing can. If death can’t bring Jesus’ story to an end, death won’t bring our story with Jesus to an end. Resurrection is cosmic.
The third dimension’s personal. This is the part we relate to most easily. Thomas has a chance none of us get: he sees the nail marks; he touches the wounds. He speaks with the risen Jesus. Around 200 years ago Christianity changed. It changed because the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had convinced educated people that the grand quasi-scientific claims of faith were unsustainable, and that the public claims of faith led to endless conflict. So Christianity reinvented itself as a personal experience – something out of the reach of science or political manipulation, that was just about me and my God. We’ve already seen that the Thomas story is saying this is nonsense. Jesus’ resurrection was political and cosmic from the word go. But it’s also personal. It’s also about experience, relationships, and trust. It’s about Thomas touching Jesus, and seeing in him something beyond the wildest dreams of Galilee and the shattered hopes of Calvary. Resurrection is personal.
The crisis triggered by the coronavirus has many levels to it. It’s medical, most obviously, because in the absence of a cure or even a vaccine it’s pushing medicine to the limits of its capability. It’s political, increasingly, because the best balance between limiting the spread of the virus, sustaining the global economy, limiting individual freedom and putting countless people at risk of poverty is almost impossible to achieve. And it’s acutely personal, for those most at risk, for their carers at home and in hospital, and for everyone whose life has been turned upside down.
The virus has confronted us with a transformation of reality on multiple levels. It’s revealed our characters and demanded our response. It’s shown us that the same reality can look different from what kind of person you are, and where in society you find yourself. But the story of Thomas is challenging us to believe that there’s a reality larger, deeper and truer than the virus. That reality operates on political, cosmic and personal levels. It meets us every which way.
The virus is telling us a political story of chaos and confusion. Jesus’ resurrection is showing us a political story of confidence and solidarity. The virus is telling us a cosmic story of death and meaninglessness. Jesus’ resurrection is showing us a cosmic story of being touched by Christ and being with God forever. The virus is telling us a personal story of anxiety and despair. Jesus’ resurrection is showing us a personal story of trust and faith.
The true plague that stalks us is not a physical contagion. It’s an infection that impoverishes our notion of power, limits our concept of God, and dismantles our ability to trust. That infection didn’t start with the virus. It’s been around a good while. When Jesus meets Thomas a week after Easter Day he transforms our perception of power, expands our understanding of God, and restores our capacity to trust. He meets us on every level. He’s above, beyond and outside our imagination, our limitation, and our comprehension. He’s our Lord and our God.