Sermon for Easter 2 2019
28th Apr 2019
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 bloodied 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 with dirty finger nails. In a fascinating detail, Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the wound. The scene 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 the Christ’s wound ourselves. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is to be experienced in the flesh. The Resurrection of Jesus presents for the mind of the sceptic a difficult or even impossible level of understanding. In this context Thomas becomes the hero of the piece, for he echoes that all too human incredulity which befalls the one for whom faith and wonder exist on the unreachable or neglected side of the human imagination. But Jesus is there as the abiding reality, for Caravaggio he is bathed in light. He is the one who with guiding hand, allows us to see that the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, have become one in him. As the hymn says ‘Only believe and thou shalt see, that Christ is all in all to thee’. But belief is not a simple business. Thomas makes it look very easy. And so 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 itself situated 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. Thomas sets before us the existence of faith and doubt as part of the one offering to God. This is echoed in the poetry of R S Thomas as he describes the idea of faith as both presence and absence, and as the confounding of that desire as TS Eliot put it, to ‘verify, instruct yourself, inform curiosity, or carry report…’:
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 we miss the reflection.
Via Negativa R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
The Resurrection of Jesus was only fully realised by the disciples gradually. The they are not learned men. They struggle with their own partial understanding. But despite this, the Gospel writer is able to make the larger point about the nature of human perception itself. Faith in Christ may be established only in relationship its being unfolded as it is revealed itself to us. It is never comes to us as final. It grows and develops and as we live and move and have our being. The hope in the life of faith is that further vision and a sense of deeper trust may be granted.
The fact of the resurrection is not just a romantic adjunct to the life and death of Jesus. It is a realisation of the identity of Jesus in all its fullness. The brief and pithy dialogue between Jesus and Thomas tells us that Jesus’ identity as ‘Lord and God’ is recognised only in the light of his Resurrection from the Dead. He has now become for Thomas and for Christians for all time, “Lord and God!” Remember that it was Mary Magdalene and not one of the twelve disciples who understood this first as she was witness to a resurrection which immediately superseded the sight and experience of the empty tomb. Remember too that Thomas had not been any kind of immediate witness to the Resurrection. John tells us that he came to believe only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eye. He like us, was like us only too human, and he could not at first take that leap of faith, but Jesus, his Lord and God then took the initiative and showed him the resurrection glory through his the sign of his wounds, the marks of his suffering which are also shown for us in the five grains which have been speared into our Easter Candle.
Christian faith does not rest on the acceptance or doubt in a theory. It is about reality. Our 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 leap of faith. The risk as we say to ourselves, ‘Let us go with him, that we might die (and rise) with him”. Let us go with him. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative which is his love for us. We are no longer to doubt but to believe.
“Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God's loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love.” Claiming and reclaiming our chosenness is the great spiritual battle of our lives, for in a competitive, power-hungry and manipulative world, 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, is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.