Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Wednesday 3rd July 2019 (Thomas the Apostle)
Habakkuk 2.1–4; Psalm 31.1–6; Ephesians 2.19–end; John 20.24–29
Although Thomas appears in every list of the twelve men appointed by Jesus as apostles, it is only in the Fourth Gospel that he steps forward into the action. The first occasion is when Jesus hears news that one of his dear friends Lazarus is seriously ill. Despite the fact that the disciples had moved north to avoid the growing hostility of the Jewish authorities, Jesus decides to return south to Judaea to see Lazarus. The disciples tell him to be careful. He has already faced a murderous mob, ready to stone him. It is only Thomas who speaks out: “Let us go as well, even if it means dying along with the Master.” A forthright man of courage, then.
The next time Thomas shows his outspokenness is at the Last Supper. Jesus tells his friends that, by now, his time with them is drawing to a close. He goes ahead of them into his Father’s Kingdom. They must realise that this is the only path he can tread by now. He has told them often enough. Thomas expresses the staggering lack of awareness Jesus’ followers always seem to have.
“We don’t where you are going,” he bursts out.
This opens the way for Jesus to sum up all that he has been trying to reveal to them over the last three years. He asks them to look to him for the way forward into peace: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Then, in what looks as if it was the original ending to his Gospel, John tells us how Thomas missed out on the first appearance of the risen Lord on Easter Day. Now, a week later, he is with the others in the upper room, refusing to believe that Jesus has risen unless he has proof, being able to prove the identity of the Master by pressing his fingers into the wounds in his hands and side. It is this moment which gave Thomas his nickname – Doubting Thomas. And yet the sight of the risen Teacher provokes an even more intense outspokenness. Jesus takes his hand and draws it towards his open side. Thomas can only resort to blasphemy – describing his friend now as God and Lord. Unthinkable language for any Jew to use of someone else, unthinkable to express out loud even for God himself, so Holy is his name.
St Gregory the Great makes the following reflections: “Thomas’ unbelief has benefited our faith more than the belief of the other disciples; it is because he attained faith through physical touch that we are confirmed in the faith beyond all doubt. Indeed, the Lord permitted the apostle to doubt after the resurrection; but He did not abandon him in doubt. By his doubt and by his touching the sacred wounds the apostle became a witness to the truth of the resurrection.”
Then Jesus is moved to call down a blessing on those who have faith, despite never seeing their risen Master. The closing words of Jesus encourage us: “Blessed are those who have not seen me, and yet believe.”
We too are called to be witnesses of the resurrection. Thomas, we are told, travelled as far as India in his determination to spread the good news, meeting his death as a martyr near Madras, his own side now pierced with a lance a the hand of the local ruler’s soldiers, for having converted so many of his subjects to the faith.
We cannot eradicate uncertainty. In times of our own darkness and doubting, the times when we are desperate for certainty, we do well to remember Gregory’s words: “The Lord will not abandon us in our doubt.” Remember too those words of Jesus at the Supper table, when time was apparently running out, and failure seemed imminent: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
In a poem (turned hymn) by W. H. Auden (from a longer work, A Christmas Oratorio), Auden deliberately takes that affirmation of Jesus at the Supper table that he is the way, truth and life, and places it alongside the harsh reality of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Apparent certainty and surety is placed alongside the realism of fear as Jesus, Mary and Joseph become refugees.
Auden asks us to understand that certainty is the opposite of faith and that we travel through ‘the Land of unlikeness’
Although Jesus is the Truth we ‘seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety’;
Although Jesus is the Life, we have to follow him and ‘Love him in the World of the flesh.’
Those affirmations are put firmly alongside the everyday realities that all of us face:
The Land of Unlikeness: the times when our life seems to have lost its bearings and direction, and we feel abandoned and alone
The Kingdom of Anxiety: where everything we had once thought certain seems to have given way, and we find it hard to see the path ahead
The World of the Flesh: with all its limitations and frustrations
And yet Auden tells us that if we follow the Christ-child with Mary and Joseph into the place of exile we will discover that in companionship with him our life takes on a new dimension and vitality (‘unique adventures’).
We will have set our feet on a path that will lead us to our true home (‘the great city that has expected our return for years’).
And despite the apparently unfinished and imperfect things we attempt to construct there will be a final perfection and completion of those partial things in God’s good time. All those little occasions will be gathered up into the celebrations at the banquet of the kingdom of God.
“And all its occasions will dance for joy.”