Sunday 5 July 2020

We don't have to be “Doubting Thomases” in a time of coronavirus - A Homily for St Thomas' Day

Homily preached at a Diocesan Family Service of the Diocese of Cape Town for St Thomas' Day, celebrated on  4th July 2020. The full recording of the service appears at the end of the text: 

Isaiah 43: 8-13 ; John 14: 1- 7

I greet you all in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our lives. Amen 

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, after being forced to be physically distanced from one another for more than three months, it is wonderful to be together electronically to celebrate the life of the Apostle Thomas and to rekindle our love for the Lord of the church. 

A special appreciation to Father Mark Long, for hosting this service, to the Vicar General, Father Keith and your team, to the Dean of Studies and to others who prepared the service. And a special welcome to Bishop-Elect Joshua – it is distressing that we have had to postpone your consecration and installation but at least today we are able as a Diocese together to acknowledge and give thanks for your election as the new Bishop of Table Bay. If we were physically together, I would ask for a round of applause, but since you all should be on mute, let us instead take the opportunity to wave our hands as a greeting to him..... Thank you. To everyone who has joined us online, thank you so much – it is always heart-warming when we meet as the family of God, but never more so than at moments of crisis such as these.

It is appropriate that we are commemorating Thomas at this time, since like him and the other apostles at the Last Supper, we are experiencing uncertainty, doubt and fear. 

In our first reading, which has Isaiah writing during a stormy period in the life of Israel, marking the expansion of the Assyrian empire and the decline of Israel, the prophet unveils the full dimensions of God's judgement and salvation. Despite blindness and deafness, the people of Israel are called upon to witness that Yahweh alone is God, that “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord...”

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is speaking to the apostles at a time when they are looking at one another with anxiety and concern, disturbed by predictions of betrayal and denial. The pervasive theme of John Chapter 14 is one in which Jesus seeks to strengthen their faith, turning their thoughts towards God and assuring them of the spiritual provision God makes for them. 

In the time of the coronavirus, our uncertainty, doubt and fear are exacerbated by the constantly changing nature of the difficulties we are going through, buffetting our emotions and the daily paths of our lives. 

When the first lockdown was imposed, we had to get used to being forced to stay at home, many of us deprived of our jobs and income, all of us living in fear of this new, frightening and previously unknown pathogen. As we adjusted, our fears subsided somewhat as we slowly absorbed the lessons of how best we could protect ourselves, our hopes raised by the easing of the lockdown and the gradual return to work for some. Now that the surge the epidemiologists predicted is hitting us, at the same time as restrictions have been eased, we have to accustom ourselves to the idea that we will live with COVID-19 for many months, even years, to come, and that the best way of coping will be to self-regulate, adjusting our responses and our behaviour to the specific contexts in which each of us live our lives. 

Like Thomas, we may well say: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” We can be strengthened by Jesus's reply to Thomas, giving us an assurance similar to that we saw in the Isaiah reading: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

We can also turn this crisis into opportunity, taking advantage of the disruption the virus has brought to the world to think anew about how we want to live our lives, both individually and collectively. In many areas of our lives, the impact of the virus has exacerbated and brought to the surface long-neglected deprivation. I told UCT's Graduate School of Business a few days ago that the virus has opened the lid of a pot under which a cauldron was simmering, a cauldron in which the poor could barely breathe and which had the potential to boil over and blow the lid sky-high.

The loss of income and jobs for people who were already struggling has highlighted anew the poverty that has continued to plague our society since the end of apartheid and the inequality that has only got worse. The poor have erupted into our sight. Gender-based violence is not new, but its incidence has grown, not only in South Africa but across the world, since lockdowns began. While the link between the virus and the continuing racist behaviour and attitudes we experience is not as strong, I have no doubt that the disruption the virus has brought, has played a role in mobilising people everywhere to demand that societies recognise that Black Lives Do Matter. Church and society must seize on the heightened profiles these challenges now enjoy and act in a determined way to address them.

Scientists are telling us that the coronavirus will not be the last new, unknown, life-threatening virus to emerge seemingly from nowhere. We have to  reckon with the likelihood of pandemics to come. In such a world, we have to accept the reality that despite all the progress we have made in the past century, we are weaker than we think as a species. We are not the ultimate arbiters of our fate. That means we need to be prepared to be challenged by completely new paradigms which will emerge, and to be open to adapt without knowing yet what it is that we will have to adapt to. To quote the business leader, Saki Macozoma,  in a recent interchange I had with him: “We have to understand that without a major behavioral change the way we live is not sustainable. Sustainability does not only mean our relationship with and how we use and abuse the finite resources at our disposal. The question is whether we understand where we are and whether we have the capacity to scope and to cope with the new reality.”

As people of faith, my response is that history teaches us that we can and will be able to scope and cope with the new reality. We don't have to be “Doubting Thomases” – as Jesus tells Philip just after reassuring Thomas: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

God bless you. God loves you, and so do I.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you your Grace for your message of inspiration to us not to doubt even in times of coronavirus like Thomas did. You have uplifted our spirits. May we continue to remain prisoners of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in spite of the turbulent times we go through.


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