Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
8th Apr 2018
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter Year B
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.
But for Thomas the disciple, this was not always the case. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, when the news reaches the ears of Christ that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus as 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.' John 11.16.
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…’ 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
Via Negativa R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
The Resurrection of Jesus was only slowly realised by the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which we have been following this year, is full of their misunderstandings. The disciples are not learned men. They struggle with their own partial understanding. But the Gospel writer is able in this way to make a larger point about the nature of human perception itself. The point is that faith in Christ is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops and may grow deeper and more mature. More vision and trust may be granted. 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. After all, the new relationship which the Resurrection has founded is the one in which Jesus of Nazareth, the rabbi and teacher, the healer, the worker of miracles, the one who died that shameful death on the cross is now risen from the dead! He has become for Thomas and for Christians for all time, “Lord and God!”
In the final analysis, 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 say to myself, ‘Let me go with him, that I might die with him”. Let us go, anyway. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative. He has made his choice and we are now to make ours. But with the caveat that we are not to doubt but only 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.” .