Monday, 19 July 2010

Doubting Thomas or Questioning Thomas?

An edited version of the sermon preached for the Patronal Festival of St Thomas' Church, Rondebosch.

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today we have the opportunity to honour St Thomas with proper attention. St Thomas really is a fascinating character. It is only recently that I have come to appreciate how much we have to learn from him, in the twenty-first century.

‘Doubting Thomas’ we call him – because of the of the account we heard of his response to the other disciples’ report that they had seen the risen Jesus – the Jesus who most certainly had been crucified, dead and buried. And yes, he had his doubts, because, as we know, resurrection is impossible.

But I think that labelling him ‘doubting Thomas’ is giving him an unfair press. I think we should rather call him ‘questioning Thomas’, and see him as a good role model for ourselves, and an encouragement not to shy away from difficult issues. And as such, he is certainly someone whose example we need to take very seriously in our contemporary, multifaith, pluralist, and often very secular world.

Let me explain. Thomas is mentioned in all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – among the twelve appointed by Jesus to be his apostles. Those gospels do not mention him again. But in St John’s gospel, there are three different occasions when Thomas is mentioned. And his presence makes a significant contribution to our understanding of who Jesus is, and what was to happen to him.

The first occasion is in Chapter 11. Jesus had been hounded out of Jerusalem, and crossed the Jordan. News arrives from Mary and Martha in Bethany that Lazarus is ill. Jesus says to the disciples ‘Let us return to Judea’ – that is, to Bethany and the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem. The disciples, unsurprisingly, respond ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?’ But Jesus insists, and speaks of Lazarus being woken from sleep – then refers explicitly to Lazarus’ death. ‘Let us go to him’ says Jesus – and it is Thomas who responds ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

This is not the stance of a man who has fragile faith, or wavering loyalty. This is someone who has clearly read the signs of the times. He knows that if Jesus returns to Jerusalem, the odds are that he will be killed – and his followers risk the same fate. But such is his devotion to Jesus that he is prepared to go too; and encourages his colleagues to do the same.

He has made a level-headed judgement about what is at stake – his life indeed – and fully aware, fully knowing, he makes his wholehearted commitment to keep following Jesus. Well, that is certainly something where we can learn from Thomas, and follow his example.

Our second encounter with Thomas is in Chapter 14 of St John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, and called on them to serve one another in the same way. After Judas’ departure, Jesus begins to tell them that he will shortly leave them, and they cannot follow. Then come those famous words that we so often hear read at funerals:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going (Jn 14:1-4)

Now, in the previous verses, Simon Peter had already asked Jesus where he was going – and I doubt this explanation left him any much clearer. But it is Thomas who dares to ask the question that I am sure was on the mind of all the disciples. ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ And he receives that marvellous response ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life.’

What I particularly like about Thomas is his honesty. He was honest and level-headed as he judged the risks of returning to Jerusalem. And he spoke about them starkly, not glossing over them. Now he is honest in speaking up when he does not understand. He is not afraid to face the issue head on, and ask questions about it: ‘What is going on here? What are you saying, Lord? How am I to understand you?’

If he had never dared to ask the question, I wonder whether Jesus would ever have uttered those words – I am the way, the truth and the life – which have been a source of comfort, strength, guidance, to so many of us over the centuries since? So, we must say Thank You to Thomas, for daring to seek this clarification on behalf of the rest of the disciples, on behalf of all the followers of Jesus of subsequent centuries.

It is his preparedness to be blunt in this way that earns him his unfair nickname of Doubting Thomas through his third appearance in St John’s Gospel – our reading this morning. We do not know why Thomas was not with the rest of the disciples on that first Easter Sunday evening. Gallons of ink have been spilled speculating that it was some lack of solidarity and commitment on his part – though that doesn’t seem to fit with the Thomas of whom we read in Chapter 11. Perhaps he was the only one brave enough to go outside, to balance the risks, and judge that he could handle it, while the rest hid together behind locked doors, ‘for fear of the Jews’.

I doubt we will ever know the reason. But, as so often happens, if we are prepared to let it, God uses the little circumstances of life as opportunities to reveal the truths we need to know. And so, luckily for us, if not for him, Thomas was not there when Jesus appeared to the disciples, saying ‘Peace be with you’ and showing them his hands and his side. The disciples then tell Thomas that they have seen the risen Lord. And he asks the question that people have asked in every generation since – whether openly or in their hearts.

He asks the question to which we all need a good answer. ‘How do you know that you saw the risen Lord? How do you know it was not a ghost, not an illusion, not a corporate delusion that you cooked up together in your highly emotional state?’ Like any of us today, when we hear an unlikely story, he wants proof; he wants irrefutable physical evidence. Is that so bad?

St Paul warns Christians against being gullible, or misled, by false teachings or claims that Jesus has returned here or there. We are to test the spirits – not everyone who claims to speak in the name of the Lord is accurately doing so. Thomas certainly was not gullible – and therefore, he is our man, whenever we have doubts about the resurrection. He is the forensic expert who gives the measured testimony, that we trust because we know he is not a man to be fooled – he has the living encounter with the living Lord.

And he finds that he is overwhelmed by the experience – the mere presence of Jesus is more than enough, without him needing actually to feel, to touch, for himself. He can see with his own eyes – the physical truth is right before him, and so is the more profound spiritual truth to which it points. ‘My Lord and my God!’ And we are blessed, though we have not seen, because we can trust in the testimony of Thomas, who was there for us, asking the difficult, but necessary, questions.

Thomas is a wonderful saint for the church in our time – a time of much scepticism, but also of many genuine questions about what it is to be a person of faith today. Contemporary society raises lots of questions for us, and it would be dishonest to pretend it is not so. It is also dishonest – intellectually dishonest, emotionally dishonest – if we deny that within ourselves we also often have questions.

One of the great strengths of the Anglican faith is that it tells us we must look to Scripture, but interpret it guided by reason and tradition. This means we do not take refuge in simplistic application of Scripture, as if it were to be understood literally at all points, and that to ask questions is to have a lack of faith. But it does not mean that we toss the Bible aside if we cannot find an immediate clear response to the situations that face us. No, God gave us the Bible, and he also gave us brains, and he expects us to use them! More than this, he also promises to help us use them better.

For example, St Paul says in his letter to the Romans, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God’ (Rom 12:2). And St James assures us, ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you’ (Jas 1:5). And of course, Jesus himself promised us that ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth’ (Jn 16:13).

This is how we are to read scripture, and wrestle with faith, with the greatest possible integrity that we can muster. We read Scripture asking, ‘What do we learn here about God, about his dealings with the world, about the principles of Christian life?’ And then we can grapple honestly, seriously, with matters that are not directly addressed within the Bible – questions raised by modern technology; medical ethics; business practices; political policy-making; xenophobia …

We may be faced with other, more personal challenges – not least the difficult questions about why some people suffer so much; why there is such injustice and inequality in society; and why life doesn’t always come easy to good people.

The glib answers that some people give often fail to provide an adequate response to meet the deep concerns that people have in these areas. Let us face the hard questions honestly. It is through not being afraid to ask difficult questions that the Church came to realise that slavery was wrong; and to understand that the Bible has far more to say about the equal place of women alongside men within the body of Christ than a superficial reading might suggest.

Both St Paul and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews speak of the need for Christians to grow beyond ‘spiritual milk’ and move on to ‘solid food’ (1 Cor 3:2, Heb 5:13,14). Milk is something we swallow whole – solid food requires chewing. St Thomas encourages us not to be afraid of chewing on all that the Bible has to say for us; on all that Christian tradition over two thousand years has to offer us; on all the questions and the insights and the challenges that the world today has to put before us.

We do not have to protect God from difficult questions, by denying their existence, by saying that all doubt is wrong. No, asking honest questions is the sort of doubt, doubting with integrity, which the Church needs; and which every Christian needs if we are to mature in faith.

So let us do as Thomas did, and bring to Jesus the difficult questions, the things that trouble us, the areas where we know our understanding is lacking. Then, like Thomas, we will find that he is the one who truly is the ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. And we shall come to know for ourselves the fulness of Jesus promise, ‘you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). And, like Thomas, we can bow before him, knowing that in every area of our life, no matter what our questions, our doubts, our fears, Jesus truly is, ‘Our Lord, and our God’. Amen

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