Our trust in eyewitnesses

June 1st 2014 - Sunday after the Ascension – St James’ and All Saints’

Imagine that you have met up with a friend in the village and she tells you something which you are not sure whether to believe. She says that she was walking through the Churchyard on the evening before – it had been warm and sunny so she had walked across the fields and was coming back past the church when she heard a nightingale singing in one of the trees. Now you are surprised by this but your friend is not a member of the Flat Earth Society and is usually reliable. Nightingales as far as you know are mainly found in the south and east of England and not as far north as Herefordshire. You’ve heard that there are nightingales in Highnam Woods near Gloucester, but that is thought to be at the most northerly point of their range. So you treat your friend’s account with some doubt. But then a day or two later a couple tell you that they have heard a nightingale singing its heart out in Flapgate Lane and you begin to wonder. Soon after you hear that a group of Colwall bird-watchers had staked out the area around the church and the ale house because they had heard the rumour about a nightingale and, guess what, two of them are sure that they heard the thrilling sound of what Keats described as an Immortal Bird.

So what do you think now? Are these witnesses enough for you? Your friends are trustworthy but perhaps you need to come and listen for yourself.

Eyewitnesses provide evidence – some are more reliable than others and the more eyewitnesses the better.

This is an argument which St Paul used when he was writing about a much more significant and vital event when he wrote his first epistle to Corinth. He was writing about the various accounts of Jesus’ appearances after his death and this is what he says:

“First and foremost, I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: that Christ died for our sins; that he was buried, that he was raised to life on the third day according to the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Peter and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive. Then he appeared to James and afterwards to all the apostles. In the end he appeared even to me.” (A reference, of course, to his personal encounter on the road to Damascus)

Now it is important to know that Paul wrote this in about 55 AD which is well before any of the Gospels were written and also that Paul was hardly likely to be a gullible man. He was a highly educated rational Jewish scholar not, surely, given to fanciful notions and now he had accepted the preposterous idea that a man should rise from the dead and this had radically changed his life.

The Gospels come later in time. Mark tells us that the tomb was empty but has no appearances of Jesus, but then Matthew and Luke and later John give us accounts of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and other women, then to Peter and the eleven five times and in various places – in Jerusalem, in Galilee and on the road to Emmaus. And finally the event which we celebrated on Thursday which we call the Ascension and which is the last of Jesus’ Resurrection Appearances to his disciples. The Ascension is the moment of farewell and Jesus promises his friends power to bear witness to these events and to let people know in Jerusalem, all over Judaea and Samaria and away to the ends of the earth – one of our readings for today, the Sunday after the Ascension.

Since those early days millions upon millions have not only accepted the accounts of these eyewitnesses but also numbers of them have experienced the risen Jesus in their lives – either as a spiritual presence or, in some cases as a physical presence. You may be one of them.

But let me give you briefly an example of how one man, a Russian doctor, had his life transformed by an experience of the risen Christ.

His parents had fled from the Russian Revolution and he found himself aged seven living in Paris in 1923. As a teenager life seemed to him full of hardship and anxiety. He joined one of the Russian youth organizations in Paris and one day the leader told him, ’We have invited a priest to talk to you, come…’ This was met with anger – as he said, “I had no use for Church. I did not believe in God. I did not want to waste my time” but the leader explained that the whole group were reacting in the same way and he would be shamed if no one turned up. All he wanted was for some members to be there – they did not have to listen. So Andrei reluctantly sat in the audience and this is how he recalled it.

“The man spoke to us of a vision of Christ and Christianity that was profoundly repulsive to me. I hurried home in order to check the truth of what he had been saying. I asked my mother whether she had a book of the Gospel, because I wanted to know whether the Gospel would support the monstrous impression I had derived from his talk. I chose the shortest of the four Gospels, not to waste my time unnecessarily. Thus it was the Gospel of St Mark which I began to read.

“I do not know how to tell you of what happened. I will put it quite simply and those of you who have gone through a similar experience will know what came to pass. While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and ill-will. This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist and that he was alive. He was the Risen Christ.”

It was a life-changing moment and Andrei Borisovich Bloom went to Paris University where he read medicine and became a surgeon in the French Army. In 1939 he took secret vows as a monk and chose the name Anthony, but continued to work as a doctor with the French resistance. In 1948 he was ordained a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church and by 1962 had become Metropolitan Archbishop overseeing the Russian Church in Western Europe and based in London. As Anthony Bloom, he wrote many books on prayer and the spiritual life and he died just over ten years ago – a remarkable, saintly man and one of our recent witnesses of the Resurrection.

So at this Ascensiontide we can look back on the Resurrection of our Lord. Our experience might be rather muted compared with Anthony Bloom’s, but we can take comfort in knowing that we are supported and surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses past and present which no one could possibly number.