Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thomas: doubter or visionary. Sunday Sermon.



Well, Easter has come and gone and I am sorry I wasn’t here to share any of it with you. I would have preferred to have been here but the organisers of my course decided that we would all be away for Easter week – all 70 or so of us, from all year groups and from all three sites, Manchester, York and Mirfield. We stayed at Sneaton Castle in Whitby with the nuns of the Holy Paraclete - and I have some good memories: the nun wearing rabbit’s ears on Easter morning, only revealed as the sun came up; the very affirming response to the Lutheran vespers I led; the fellowship of my fellow students; the day on the media and the exercise we were given to write a “pause for thought” on Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as if for a Radio 2 broadcast; the Taize service by candlelight and so on.

But now we are in that in between stage: in between the Resurrection and the Ascension but where we know the outcome: we have already sung our Easter Day Hallelujahs as the solemnity, sadness and the desolation of Holy week turned to the joy of new life and hope. In our in between stage we already know and rehearse in our liturgy the return of Jesus to his followers and anticipate the Ascension.

But for those affected by the events as they happened: well, that is another matter. Imagine in your minds that you are there now.

The palms are gathered away, the crowds have dispersed, the Jewish religious authorities have regained some authority after a particularly difficult Passover, the Roman civil authorities are congratulating themselves that a spot of local insurrection in a volatile outpost of empire has been nipped in the bud, the plotting is over, the threat has been removed, the followers of Jesus have scattered, one is dead by his own hand and at least one has publicly denied knowing him. There is disbelief and shock and a strong sense of betrayal. How could things have gone so badly wrong? Rumour is rife: will the authorities now tidy up the loose ends by searching out Jesus’ followers and subjecting them to the same fate to really close that chapter? It is hardly surprising that most of them cower indoors, fearing every footstep outside and every knock at the door, as they deal with the trauma of the death of their leader and the end of their hopes.

And in to this heady mix of fear, emotion and conspiracy theories come the women with their perplexing story of an empty tomb and Mary Magdalene’s preposterous story of talking with the risen Christ. So Peter and one of the others pluck up the courage to go and take a look and confirm that the tomb is indeed empty. What on earth does that mean?

It would hardly be surprising if the disciples didn’t exhaust all the rational explanations before giving Mary’s account more attention and it probably says something about everyone concerned that they aren’t all celebrating and proclaiming: “He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!” and sharing it with all and sundry.

This is a story characterised by fear. Whether or not their attitude is justified, it is clear that fear dominates this group. And that, of course, puts them in the company of so many people today. Those dominated by fear include many of the people we see around us every day and perhaps some of us here this morning. These disciples have plenty of company on the evening of the first Easter Day when fear keeps them inside a locked room.

The period after Easter represents a return to the old routines: the break - the “holiday” if you like - is over and the return to what for many of us is the tedium of the everyday sinks in, with all the problems that may be associated with it for some. That may be illness, relationship problems, concerns about children, money worries in the current climate together with fears about job security and any number of other issues.

Encounters with reality are hard to take because they destroy both the hopes and illusions on which we often rely. It is such an encounter with reality which our Gospel reading today describes: the disciples cowering in their self imposed prison because they believed their hopes had been shattered.

And then – and John describes this in a very matter of fact way – Jesus came and stood among them. Disappointingly John doesn’t say how. Did he just walk in through the door as he must have done a hundred times before or was he just suddenly amongst them one second, when the second before he had not been? John also, tantelisingly, doesn’t tell us their first reaction: wouldn’t you just love to have been a fly on the wall?

“Peace be with you.” And they knew him at once and rejoiced. Well of course they did! John is so deadpan in his recount of this event. We’ve just been through the resurrection experience, but the emotion we felt last Sunday must have been a pale shadow of the joy felt and expressed by those gathered in that room then. Just think about it for a moment: a shattering experience just dealt with by John in a couple of sentences.

And who misses it? Poor Thomas misses it. When he turns up on the scene Jesus has already departed and Thomas is greeted by a crowd of lunatics all giddy with overexcitement claiming that Jesus is risen from the dead. Not that he somehow survived the crucifixion – although that would have been unbelievable enough – but actually risen from the grave: alive today when yesterday he had been dead.

Spare a thought here for the folk we speak to: it is the same message of resurrection and I suspect that, like Thomas, many we speak to think we are deluded.

Don’t you have sympathy for Thomas? I know I do. I am sure there is a little bit of Thomas in all of us. Actually, there is a great big dollop of Thomas in me. He knows he’s missed out on something significant but he can’t quite bring himself to accept what the others tell him at face value. He can not take it on trust: at least not at first.

This isn’t the first time Thomas has stood apart from the other disciples: remember when Jesus had been asked to go and heal Lazarus and the disciples had warned him that it would be dangerous to go because the Judeans were out to stone him. Thomas then speaks up. He says something which is odd, confusing but brilliant: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Is this the voice of a pessimist or is there more to Thomas?

He cuts across the cautious approach of the others. He knows the risk of returning to Judea with Jesus and his comment was intuitive and brilliant. Looked at in the longer term, from the perspective of the post-Apostolic church, he was right because years later, long after Pentecost, many of the disciples would be martyred.

This is the same Thomas who seemed a bit further on in his understanding of Jesus than the other disciples. "Lord”, he asked on another occasion, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Thomas wasn't doubting at this point, just seeking direction, knowing Jesus would tell him. And how did Jesus answer?
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John gives us one of Jesus’ most famous sayings as a response to the growing perception that Thomas has.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Is his famous response but this is not Thomas the doubter, but Thomas the visionary. He has been unfairly categorised through history as a doubter. There really is something of the visionary in Thomas: Thomas required no more proof than the other disciples, after all Jesus had already shown them the marks of his crucifixion. Is it possible that Thomas' incredulity grew from his understanding that, if what his friends told him was true, then this man Jesus, with whom he had spoken and eaten and travelled, must be God? And at his moment of greatest need, Thomas had run away. No wonder Thomas, having missed the first post-resurrection appearance, is feeling raw and vulnerable and quite probably hurt. But he has something that the others have overlooked in their excitement: a growing realisation of an earth-shattering revelation.

Thomas is left a full week to mull this over, to think and contemplate on the reality of the resurrection in the lives of the others before he discovers for himself the truth of the resurrection. When Jesus appears again he does not rebuke Thomas for being different from the others: Jesus must know that Thomas is already ahead of them. So much so that when Jesus does appear again to Thomas he provides a direct answer to the question that Thomas had asked, but at an unexpected moment and in an unexpected way. For Thomas the appearance is a gift of grace and in a moment of wonderful intuition confirmed, Thomas cries out “My Lord and God” and in doing so voices a new title for Jesus, God, not one of the more common ones the other disciples regularly used. And in identifying Jesus this way, Thomas points the way for the church in an understanding of Jesus as God which it would not fully come to for some hundreds of years. And did you notice something else about Thomas in this incident? So overwhelmed is he in the moment that he does not attempt to touch Jesus wounds even though invited to. He doesn’t need to. He knows.

So, what has this to do with us?

There are so many themes in this passage. If you take comfort from the disciples being released from the bondage of fear, because for whatever reason you too feel fear, go with that. Rediscover and accept the strength and power that comes with the resurrection and the possibility of a renewed life in the peace that Jesus offered his friends.

Or perhaps this says something to us of the ways in which people come to faith: the resurrection stories that conclude the four gospels are a bit of a scramble, testifying to how people come to faith in different ways. The beloved disciple believes when he sees the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene believes when the Lord speaks her name, even though her report is not accepted by the others. The disciples believe for themselves once Jesus appears alive among them and Thomas has an intuition he needs to struggle with and work through.

Have we come to the Easter stories afresh in one of these ways?

It was interesting being with the nuns in Whitby. Seventy of us closeted together for a week acting out and living the Easter story together at the same time as discussing “Communicating the Gospel”. People experience Easter in different ways. People come to faith in different ways. They did then. They do now.

Jesus often startles us, as he did those disciples in the upstairs room, and one week later, Thomas. He may come to us afresh when and where we least expect him. Jesus returns and promises us our resurrection. He comes to break the chains of fear and we have different ways of recognizing him. He comes back to reconcile us with God, and make us instruments for reconciliation in the world.

How ready are we to share that joy with others?