St. Mary’s Hadlow
3 July 2016
Trinity 6 – Thomas the Apostle
Readings Ephesians 2:19-end, John 20:24-29
May I speak this morning in the name of God +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As you know I have just returned from a trip to the Holy Land and I wanted to start this morning by sharing with you a story that our tour guide told us on the last day of our visit.
A priest and a rabbi lived next door to one another and the priest noticed that the rabbi had started copying everything he did. If the priest bought a new book then, without fail, the next day the rabbi would come home carrying the same book. One day the priest bought a new car and, sure enough, the next day the rabbi drove home in exactly the same type of car. But when he got home the rabbi noticed that the priest was washing his new car and he asked him what he was doing. The priest responded: “I am just baptising my new car.” The rabbi looked thoughtful, went into his garage and came out carrying a hacksaw. “What are you doing with that?” asked the priest. “Just going to chop the end off the exhaust pipe.”
I am actually bursting to share with you all the things that I saw and learned in just the past week, not just the terrible jokes, but I am also conscious that I need to internally process lots of that stuff before I can share it properly. I also don’t bore you by prefacing every sermon with the words: “when I was in the Holy Land.” You might need to get some red cards to hold up every time I do, just to keep me under control.
However, there is no doubt that being there and seeing all the places that we read about in the bible every week is a deeply profound and affecting experience and I have no doubt that it will influence the way I approach the bible and the preparation of sermons. As, of course, it should.
The main thing I want to talk about this morning, and this does touch nicely on the story of Doubting Thomas, is the sheer physicality of being there.
What do I mean by that?
When we read the bible we are over 2000 miles and 2000 years from the events, people and places portrayed and it is very easy for these things to seem very ‘other’, very far removed from our lives and often no more than a word on a page.
If you remember a few weeks ago I spoke about one of the journey’s of St. Paul and I copied a map to try and give the various place names some context, and I hope that helped, but even a map is still only a two dimensional piece of paper which we look at whilst sitting here in church, far removed from the reality.
But to actually be, say, in the middle of a market place in Jerusalem, to feel the heat to smell the smells, to experience the crowds is to see something of what Jesus saw. To touch the place where Jesus is said to have been born, or the place where he was taken down from the cross, or the place where he commissioned Peter to lead his church is to put those stories in a real physical context. They happened in real places to real people.
However, I have noticed that English people in particular have a scepticism about those places – it is almost a knee jerk reaction amongst some to say, ‘well of course this is not the place where these things really happened.’
Today we are reminded, in the story of Thomas, that God can use even the most strongly expressed scepticism as a route to stronger faith.
Let’s think for a moment about the physicality of Jesus and how that might have affected the faith of those around him.
Jesus of Nazareth was not simply an idea which floated around he was a real, physical man. Yes, he was fully God but he was also fully human. And as a man he inhabited that real middle-Eastern landscape, he spoke with the people around him and he was as physically real and present to them as we are to one another. It was partly for that reason that the people amongst whom he lived found his message so hard to hear: “Isn’t this the son of Mary?”
He can’t be God or even the Messiah because this is a person who we know and have seen grow up.
And although his disciples saw him perform many miracles and demonstrate time and again that God was at work in him and through him they also knew him as a real, physical person much like themselves. A working man from Nazareth who lived and breathed who got hot and dusty, with them, in the Judean heat.
And the disciples saw their friend, with whom they had travelled to Jerusalem, get arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and they knew that he had been executed by the Romans and they knew that the Romans were experts at judicial killing.
So when, days after the killing, the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen the resurrected Jesus you can’t blame him for being a little bit sceptical. Perhaps he had English ancestors. Surely the sun or the wine or the hysteria had gone to his friend’s heads. How could a person killed by the Romans and in the tomb for three days be appearing to people?
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails where, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
This is not Doubting Thomas – this is refusing to believe Thomas. And not only is he refusing to believe he is also making it clear that he is not going to be satisfied with seeing a ghost of Jesus he is only going to believe when he can stick his finger in the nail holes and his hand in the hole left by the spear. You can’t get much more physical than that!
We may sometimes make the mistake of imagining that as soon as those words left Thomas’s mouth that Jesus magically appeared in front of him and his doubt, or his refusal to believe, were taken away. That is not the case. A whole week passed and doubtless for that whole time Thomas simply didn’t believe what his friends were telling him.
“No, don’t believe you. Jesus is dead, talk to the hand.”
Why did Jesus not appear to Thomas at the same time as the other disciples? Why did he leave it another week with one of his closest disciples refusing to believe in the resurrection?
Perhaps just as importantly why did Thomas continue to hang around with the other disciples? He must have thought them out of their minds.
But despite his doubts Thomas did stick with the others and a week later, when they were all gathered together again, at last Jesus appeared to Thomas and we have that incredibly physical and visceral act of Thomas touching Jesus wounds before, finally, exclaiming “My Lord and my God.”
We do live in a particularly sceptical age and in a particularly sceptical part of the world so the story of Thomas should really speak to us. He wasn’t going to be satisfied just with what other people told him – he needed to see and to touch and to experience the risen Jesus for himself.
And did you know that after Jesus ascended and Peter and Paul went West to Rome Thomas is believed to have headed East and to have taken Christianity all the way down to Kerala in India? That encounter with the risen Lord, together with the events of Pentecost, transformed his scepticism into a lifelong journey of sowing the seeds of the kingdom of God.
In recent years I have met three priests whose lives and vocations have been created by encountering God in the way and at the time that they most needed him. One was a bit of a crook whose daughter accidently hanged herself on a swing and as he tried to bring her round he promised God to turn his life around if only his daughter would be saved and he is now a Chaplain in the Prison Service. Another who was a chronic alcoholic who was not even a believer but who one day just prayed a desperate prayer to be healed and who did not notice an immediate flash of light but after a week one of his friends pointed out that he had not had a drink all week. God’s healing was so thorough that he became a committed Christian and is now a vicar. And the third was actually much closer to Doubting Thomas himself – he said to God that I will not believe in you unless I can see you. And after he prayed that prayer he woke up one night to find Jesus sitting on the end of his bed and he is now a minister in the URC.
So when Jesus did not appear to Thomas at the same time as the others, and when he waited another week even after Thomas’ challenging words, I suspect that he knew what he was doing. God knows that we all need to encounter him and his reality when we are ready and in the way that suits each of us.
If you feel that you need to encounter God more closely then don’t be afraid to take that to him in prayer, take your deepest needs, your deepest doubts, your deepest fears and put them before God. There is nothing that he has not encountered before, even amongst his saints. I don’t know how or when God will seek to encounter you, because we are all different, but I do believe that if we approach God with a genuine desire to meet with him, no matter how it is expressed, then he will meet with us in the way that we need.
So thank God for St Thomas who reminds us that the journey to faith and effectiveness can sometimes be via the road of doubt and even scepticism – and like Thomas reaching out to touch the physical wounds of Christ may the sceptical pilgrim reaching out to touch the physical places in the Holy Land be transformed into his disciple and apostle.