Today, the feast of St Thomas, happens to be the thirty-fourth anniversary of my own ordination to the diaconate, which took place in the Diocese of Oxford back in 1988.
It has often struck me since then that the festival of St Thomas the Apostle (famously known as ‘Doubting Thomas’) is in fact a singularly appropriate occasion upon which to be launch one’s career as an ordained minister– but probably not for the reason that you might assume. It is emphatically not because I regard ministerial life as being a constant struggle between faith and doubt – not a bit of it. Indeed, I don’t think there has been a single occasion during those 34 years when I have doubted the existence of God – not for a moment. I certainly find myself, on a very regular basis, wondering what the heck he is up to – but I don’t recall ever having doubted God’s existence for a minute.
No, my reason is a rather different one. You see, it seems to me that Christian tradition has been monumentally unfair to Thomas, who, as we heard in our gospel reading a moment ago, refused to believe that Jesus really had been raised from the dead – until, that is, he was able to touch the wounded hands and side of his Lord and Master himself. As a result, Thomas has always been regarded as the great sceptic who was proved wrong; the one who was lacking in faith when all the other disciples were ready to believe; the one who resisted recognising the truth until it really was, literally, staring him in the face; the one who was way behind everyone else.
Whereas I have always inclined to the view that Thomas in fact gives us an exceptionally good model both for Christian discipleship in general, and for Christian ministry in particular. Let me tell you a story to illustrate why this is.
Some years ago I met a man who, as a young adult, had been a professional dancer with a leading classical ballet company. At the time, he was also a very religious young man, who was passionate about his Christian faith. And it was this that eventually led him to decide that dance was actually a very selfish thing for him to be doing – after all, if he really was sincere about his Christian faith, surely he ought to be out in the world doing some good, serving God, 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 went to do other things instead.
But what happened next was unimaginably appalling. Because having sacrificed the thing that he loved doing most for the sake of his Christian belief – he then lost his faith. Totally and absolutely and devastatingly. And he was left with … nothing. His life was in pieces. And when I asked him what had caused this dramatic loss of faith, he said that he suddenly realised that the whole of his Christian belief was in fact rooted in other people’s experiences, rather than his own. He had always simply accepted what he had been told. He had just swallowed it, hook, line and sinker, as he thought he was supposed to.
But at some deep level, by his own admission, he had never really made that faith his own. He had never truly experienced its reality for himself. And so, the minute that doubts began to encroach upon him, he found that, just like the foolish man in the parable of Jesus, who built his house upon sand, the whole edifice upon which he had built his new life collapsed, suddenly and devastatingly. He was left surveying the rubble of the former career that he had loved and abandoned, and the meaningless fragments of what he had regarded as his Christian faith. I could have wept for him.
And that is precisely why it seems to me that what is so good about Thomas is precisely that he wants to test the truth of what people are saying to him; that he wants to know the truth for himself. The verbal testimony of others – even those whom he loves and trusts – is not enough for him; he wants more than that – he needs to experience it for himself. And I, for one, find it very hard to condemn him for that. Like Thomas, I simply cannot be doing with the kind of faith that requires us to stop thinking; to stop asking questions; to stop testing what we believe against lived reality, and instead simply to accept what we are told and to do so unquestioningly. Because any faith that is worth having will always be strong enough to cope with the toughest questions that we can ask of it. And only a faith that is deeply rooted in the hardest realities of human life, and is unafraid to face them, has the power to speak words of hope, and light, and new life to those who are in the deepest darkness.
Having said that, it is certainly true that the starting point of any journey of faith may well require us to suspend our disbelief long enough to give it a go – but the really important stage is what comes next: which is when we discover its truth for ourselves by living it. By testing its claims against lived experience. And lived experience is, of course, the most challenging territory of all for the life of faith. And it needs to be.
My great hero Richard Hooker, the Elizabethan priest and theologian, and former Master of the Temple (just down the road from here), was one of the great founding fathers of Anglican tradition. And even though he was writing centuries ago, back in the 1590s, he has some very insightful and very instructive things to say to us today. For me, he is particularly interesting on the subject of the authority of the Bible.
How can we know that the Bible is authoritative?, Richard Hooker asks. He dismisses out of hand the answer to that question given by his puritan opponents – namely that the Bible is authoritative because it says it is – because, as Hooker points out, that is simply a circular argument that gets us absolutely nowhere.
No, Hooker’s answer is that it is a two-stage process. First, we have before us the evidence of centuries of Christian tradition to go on, testifying to the power of the living word of Scripture. So we can begin by suspending our disbelief for a bit and just giving it a go. Trying it out. Taking that testimony on trust and seeing what happens. But that is merely the starting point. The really important stage is what comes next – which is when, through our own study of the scriptures and our own prayerful reflection upon them, and the connections that we make between that and lived experience, we discover that truth for ourselves.
And it is that that truly matters: the point at which we make it our own. In the Deacons’ ordination service, those who are to be ordained are instructed ‘to seek nourishment from the Scriptures … to study them with God’s people, that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world.’
In other words, it is not enough simply to believe the Good News of Christ; you also have to discover its truth for yourself through studying the Word of God, through living it, and through equipping others to do likewise. And that is true for all of us, not merely those of us who happen to sport clerical collars. We are all charged to live out our faith in the world, to do all we can to make the love of God visible. Because the world is transformed by Good News – not by good advice. And the most powerful and persuasive proof of that good news is to be seen in the transformed and liberated lives of its ambassadors, lay and ordained.
Thomas the Apostle was, it seems to me, perfectly justified in his scepticism. He needed to know the reality of that truth for himself. Learning to live the resurrection life sometimes requires us to suspend our disbelief for long enough to let God begin to undertake his transforming work in his own way. But that will only ever be the beginning of the journey. Because we also need to make that experience our own: to let faith and experience weave their realities together, in a seamless robe that will assuredly outlast all else that is simply mortal. Because in time that which is mortal will simply fade away. It is, of course, the eternal that lasts into eternity.
And thanks be to God for that.