Justified Thomas - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Justified Thomas

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In one of my Good Friday addresses just over a week ago, I described how the reputation of Judas was increasingly blackened as the tradition around him developed.  Although his betrayal of Jesus was unquestionably terrible, if you look at the earliest Gospel account of the man and his deeds, one is left with the clear impression that his actions are much more likely to have been those of a disillusioned idealist, than of the thief and the liar that he was subsequently judged to have been - and if that were the case, then for me at least it makes far more sense of his place within the inner circle of Jesus, too.

Today I would like to rehabilitate another of the disciples: the one who features in today's Gospel reading: Thomas.  History remembers him as the one who lacked faith; the one who refused to believe in the Resurrection of Christ - hence his famous epithet - Doubting Thomas.  But I have to say that, had I been in Thomas's shoes, I suspect I would have responded in exactly the same way that he did - and, more than that, I think that his need to experience the truth for himself is something that is actually very important, for reasons that I shall explain.  I can't help feeling that perhaps we ought be calling him instead Thomas the Justifiably Sceptical - although admittedly it doesn't trip off the tongue quite so easily.

Just imagine for a moment that you had been one of the closest followers of Jesus; a member of his inner circle.  Like the other disciples, you had seen him arrested and tortured and crucified and utterly and unquestionably dead.  And a few days later, there are your fellow disciples telling you - 'He's alive again!'  Wouldn't you have struggled to believe what they were telling you?  Wouldn't you have wanted proof that this really was the crucified Jesus, wounds and all, who had risen from the dead?  I am pretty sure that I would have done.  And more than that, I think we can perhaps all learn one very important lesson from Thomas.

I once had a fascinating conversation with a man whom I met at a study centre where I happened to be staying, who ended up telling me his life story.  As a young man he had been a professional dancer with one of the country's leading ballet companies.  At the time he was also a very enthusiastic Christian, passionate about his faith.  And it was his faith that eventually led him to decide that dance (which he had always loved) was actually a very selfish thing for him to be spending his life doing.  After all, he thought, if he was really serious about his religious belief, surely he should be out in the world doing good and spreading the good news, not wasting his time doing something as trivial as dance.

So, although it was a terrible wrench for him to do so, he turned his back on the life of a professional dancer and trained to do other things instead.  Which is what makes the thing that happened next so unimaginably awful.  Because, quite simply, he lost his faith.  Completely.  And he was left with ... nothing.  His life was in pieces.  But it was the reason why he lost his faith that brings us back to the significance of Thomas the disciple.  And the way that former dancer described it to me was this:

He had gradually come to realise that the whole of his Christian belief was in fact rooted in other people's experiences, and not his own.  He had always accepted what he had been told, unquestioningly and uncritically.  But at some deep level, by his own admission, he had never really made that faith his own.  He had never experienced its reality for himself.  And so, once doubts began to encroach upon him, he found that the whole edifice upon which he had constructed his new life collapsed, suddenly and dramatically.  He was left surveying both the rubble of the former career that he had loved but abandoned - and the meaningless fragments of what he had regarded as his Christian life.  He was so lost - and I could have wept when I heard his story.

The reason why I like Thomas is because he wants to test the truth of the claims that the people around him are making.  He wants to know the reality of that truth for himself.  He wishes to experience it for himself.  And I, for one, find it very difficult to condemn him for that.

One of the great founding fathers of Anglican tradition, the Elizabethan priest and theologian, Richard Hooker, is very interesting on the subject of the authority of the Bible.  How do we know that the Bible is authoritative, he asks?  And his answer is that we do so by a two-stage process:

First, given that we have the evidence of centuries of Christian witness going before us, testifying to the power of the living word of Scripture, we can begin by suspending our disbelief, and giving it a go.  But the really important stage comes next, the second stage: which is when, through our own reading of the scriptures, and our own prayerful reflection upon them, we discover that truth for ourselves.  That is the bit that really matters. 

And so it is with faith: start by suspending your disbelief, and giving it a go.  But it is essential that, through living it, through experiencing it you also discover its truth for yourself.  We may not have the benefit of the Risen Lord appearing to us in person, as Thomas did; but we can most certainly discover its reality for ourselves, once we learn to open our eyes to see it.

But what on earth does that mean now?  Here?  Today?  In the midst of this pandemic?  I have heard more than one person ask the question, 'Why is God allowing this to happen?'  On Easter Day we proclaimed the dawn of new life and new hope - on the very day that the death toll from coronavirus exceeded 10,000 for the first time.  Where on earth is the Risen Christ in all this?

The priest and poet Malcolm Guite is well known to us here at St Bride's, through his involvement with the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists, whose annual service we host here each year.  He has both preached and read his poetry in our church.  And he has just written a new poem - so new that it is entitled Easter Sunday 2020. 

It is a poem that tackles this question head on, during this strange Eastertide when all our churches have been locked and bolted; and you will hear, too, reference to the applause that rings out each Thursday evening for our amazing health care workers, and carers.  Where is the Risen Christ?  Now?  Today?  Here is Malcolm Guite's take on the matter:

The poem Easter Sunday 2020

And where is Jesus, this strange Easter day?
Not lost in our locked churches, any more
Than he was sealed in that dark sepulchre.
The locks are loosed; the stone is rolled away,
And he is up and risen, long before,
Alive, at large, and making his strong way
Into the world he gave his life to save,
No need to seek him in his empty grave.

He might have been a wafer in the hands
Of priests this day, or music from the lips
Of red-robed choristers; instead he slips
Away from church, shakes off our linen bands
To don his apron with a nurse: he grips
And lifts a stretcher, soothes with gentle hands
The frail flesh of the dying, gives them hope,
Breathes with the breathless, lends them strength to cope.

On Thursday we applauded, for he came
And served us in a thousand names and faces
Mopping our sickroom floors and catching traces
Of that virus which was death to him:
Good Friday happened in a thousand places
Where Jesus held the helpless, died with them
That they might share his Easter in their need,
Now they are risen with him, risen indeed.

Amen.

 

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