1st Sunday after Easter; Acts 5.27-32; John 20.19-end

The verses we've just heard from St John's Gospel, were also read almost three hundred years ago, on the first Sunday after Easter, in Germany, in the Lutheran Church of St Thomas in Leipzig. We know this because the cantor of St Thomas was the great Johann Sebastian Bach, who with his singers and instrumentalists performed a cantata or musical offering during Sunday and Festival Day services. Many of these cantatas were composed by Bach himself, including one for this Sunday in 1725, in which the first words sung, after an instrumental introduction, were the first words of our gospel reading today: they were sung, of course, in German, in Luther's translation of the Bible, roughly contemporary with our Authorized or King James Version:
Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst.

These words were sung by a tenor, followed by an alto, the words of whose aria were:

Where two or three are gathered together/in the precious name of Jesus/Jesus comes into their midst/and utters His Amen.

This aria has been described by a modern interpreter of Bach as 'serene and consoling', suggesting that 'Bach's accumulated experiences of grief and disappointment lie at the heart of the [aria's] calm acceptance of the power of prayer and forgiveness "where two or three are gathered together"'. Bach certainly had a very great deal of personal and professional 'grief and disappointment' in his life, and all the evidence suggests that his artistic creativity was grounded in deep Christian faith.

Today, three hundred years later, the intimate relationship between Bach's music and his Christian faith is sometimes discounted. The programme notes for a recent concert performance of his cantatas, comment on the uncompromising way in which Bach continually reminds us of our mortality, our sinfulness and our need for redemption: but they then remark that while modern people can no longer share Bach's firm Lutheran convictions, the 'austere power' of his music can still 'soothe our uneasy souls and give a sense of protection and spiritual peace'.

I wonder if Bach himself would even have understood that remark. The uncompromising nature of his Christian beliefs may have taken their particular form from the austere Lutheran tradition: but probably they also owed a great deal to the 'accumulated experiences of grief and disappointment' which characterised the life not just of Bach but of almost everyone, at a time when war, poverty, disease and death, not least of children and women in childbirth, were far more familiar and regularly recurring aspects of everyday life than they are for us today, at least in our relatively peaceful and prosperous part of the world. In that respect, Bach's apparently unquestioning Lutheranism is perhaps closer to that of many Christians today in continents other than Europe, where war, poverty, disease and death are more familiar aspects of daily life. It may not be true that 'there were no atheists in the trenches', but it does seem true that when faith is all that people have left, it can grow stronger and simpler.

Having said that however, I suspect that Bach's church cantatas do often have this 'austere power' to 'soothe… uneasy souls and give a sense of protection and spiritual peace' to many people today who may not believe in what the words are actually saying about sin, death and redemption. Perhaps their being sung in German rather than English helps that; and people may want to say that this can be a valid aesthetic experience without being a religious one.

But perhaps it's not so simple; perhaps something deeper also is involved. One of the most moving of Bach's cantatas is Gottes Zeit is die allebeste Zeit, 'God's time is the very best time'. In this cantata, the chorus solemnly sings 'This is the ancient law: man thou must die' and the soprano joyfully responds Ja, komm, Herr Jesu, komm - 'Even so, come, Lord Jesus.' Musically this is thrilling. But hearing these words sung, is not just an aesthetic experience. All I can say, is that when I hear them, they are true. I know that, although I know also that the truth is true beyond my understanding.

What kind of truth is this? Clearly it is not the kind of scientific and historical truth that during the last three hundred years has helped to make many Europeans reject or ignore the faith that Bach professed. And simply to reject or ignore the scientific view of the world is mistaken. If God is our creator, scientific creativity also is God's gift; and although the findings and projections of science are always provisional and can change, they must be allowed to stand as our best understanding so far of the physical universe. But science also tells us that we humans have evolved into creatures who are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, only just sufficiently knowing and powerful to survive, and sometimes with luck to flourish. It is not in our nature, that is, to have, or ever to have, a clear and comprehensive view of everything that is. And if that is correct, there will always be dimensions of reality that cannot be comprehended within the essential limitations of the human point of view, truths that pass human understanding.

And that, it seems, is what we must say about the truth of which our Gospel reading tells us. The truth of what happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago is not something that can be demonstrated scientifically or historically. Historically it does seem to be a fact that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus in a variety of different ways for which there has never been any satisfactory natural explanation. But that in itself may in the end be less important than the fact that Christians ever since have continued to sense the spiritual presence of God in Christ - especially when, as Bach's aria put it, 'two or three are gathered together/in the precious name of Jesus'. The presence of Jesus, who 'comes into their midst/ and utters His Amen', has been experienced by countless Christians over the centuries, as forgiving and reconciling, as encouraging and challenging, as giving life meaning to live up to.

There is however no single way of spelling out what that meaning is: different people experience Christ's meaning in different ways and in different words, according to what, in the Wisdom of God, seems right for them at that time. Bach's uncompromising Lutheranism may have been right for him in his time, as may be the many varieties of Christian worship and practice worldwide today. It may even be, that in the 'austere power' of a Bach church cantata, to 'soothe… uneasy souls and give a sense of protection and spiritual peace' even to unbelievers, the Wisdom of God, who gave Bach his gift, is at work.

In such circumstances, in our awareness of the enormous variety of Christian and other religious beliefs and practices historically and today, perhaps what we need is something like what the poet Keats called 'negative capability', the capability 'of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason'. We are not, simply, in a position to judge others or ourselves; and if, as Keats also put it, this world is a 'vale of soul-making', our souls are being made for eternity, not by our now knowing, let alone doing, everything aright, but by what we undergo in our experience of failure as well as success, of suffering as well as achievement, of the dark as well as the light. In today's Gospel Jesus 'utters his Amen', even to you and me, when he says "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe". But first of all, recognising how needy, how ignorant and often confused, we, his all-too-human children are, he tells our troubled, half-made souls what they most need to hear - his first words, repeated again and again until they really sink in: "Peace be with you" "Peace be with you".