MORLAND & GREAT STRICKLAND:
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
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
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