Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
23rd Apr 2017
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
Then (Jesus) said to him “Do not doubt but believe”.
Thomas answered him “My Lord and my God!” John 20.27b,28.
In the painting ‘The Incredulity of Thomas’ by Caravaggio, Thomas is a gnarled old peasant, who, with furrowed brow and inquisitive and amazed eyes, has placed his dirty index finger into a wound in Christ’s side. Two other disciples look down at the implanted finger as though medical students at an examination in a teaching hospital. But they are not young medical students but rough old peasants. In a fascinating detail, Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the wound. The effect is spine tingling. You are a witness to a startling scene, and you feel its effect viscerally, with your nerve endings, and it makes you want to shudder!
The painting takes the dialogue between Jesus and Thomas and involves us to the extent that it is WE who are made to feel the finger going into Christ’s wound. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is to be experienced in the flesh. The Resurrection of Jesus presents for the mind of all of us a demanding level of understanding. In this context Thomas becomes the hero of the piece, for he echoes that all too human incredulity which invites ‘seeing and believing’. But Jesus will invite Thomas to a new kind of seeing. Jesus is the one who with guiding hand, allows us to see that the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, are all things become one in him. As the hymn says ‘Only believe and thou shalt see, that Christ is all in all to thee’. But firm belief is not so easy.
Doubting Thomas was I think, always a believer. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, when the news reaches the ears of Jesus that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus being asleep, and that he must go and wake him. The apostles are concerned that Jesus will be stoned if he returns to Judæa. What follows tells us more about Thomas, and surprises us:
‘Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him. Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go with him, that we may die with him.'
Here Thomas is far from doubting, he is the one who is willing to follow Jesus unto death and to risk the consequences. It is the believing Thomas who cries ‘Let us go with him!” John 11.6. No wonder then, that in the eastern orthodox churches, Thomas is known not as a doubter but as ‘Thomas the Believer’. If we are honest, we might say that Christian Faith finds its centre of gravity somewhere between a kind of certainty and a kind of doubting. Many of our well-known hymns express this kind of faith, in which God is seen in hiddenness and inaccessibility. ‘Immortal Invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’, we sing. And in the hymn ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ comes a ringing endorsement of the existence of heaven with the admission that ‘I know not, O I know not, what solid joys lie there…’ RS Thomas sets before us the existence of faith and doubt as part of the one offering to God. This is his ‘Via Negativa’:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
Via Negativa R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
The Resurrection of Jesus was only slowly realised by the disciples. The disciples were not learned men. They struggled with their own limited intelligence and partial understanding. Theirs was a ‘faith seeking understanding’ one which unfolded and gained strength as it was revealed to them and became real for them. Just like us, really. Faith is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops. The fact of the resurrection is not just a romantic adjunct to the life and death of Jesus. It is the arrival at an understanding of the identity of Jesus in all its fullness. Jesus is a truth that can only be apprehended by faith. After all, the new relationship which the Resurrection has founded is the one in which Jesus of Nazareth, the former rabbi and teacher, the healer, the worker of miracles, the one who died that shameful death on the cross is now (incredibly?) risen from the dead! He has become for Thomas and for Christians and for us for all time, “Lord and God!”. John tells us that he believed only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eyes and not by word of mouth, but my understanding is that he was a witness to something he had known all along.
An understanding of the Christian faith does not rest on belief and doubt in a theory. It is not about supposition but about reality. It is about us and what we are and why we are alive and what we are doing with our lives and whether we are becoming what we were made to be and whether we acknowledge that we are chosen and cherished by a loving Maker, who has sent his son to live among us, to die for us and to raise us to new life. This is the belief that the Christian risks. The risk as I may now say to myself, ‘Let me go with him, that I might die with him”. Let us go, then. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative. He has made his choice and we are now to make ours. We are not to doubt but only believe what we see with our own eyes and in the very depths of our being.
It is all too easy to forget that God has always known us, and God has chosen us – even when we slide into self-doubt and self-rejection. Knowing that we have been and are known by God, and that we have been chosen, This is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.