Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/qkPqVFRizqs.
Easter 2B 15
This morning I want to rename Thomas- I am sick of people calling him “Doubting Thomas”- the word “doubt” is never used in the Greek and this terrible slur has been cast on him down through the ages. How about we call him “Brave Sir Tomas” a la Monty Python? This, I feel, is a much better name for him. It’s a funny thing but actually we know more about Thomas than we do about many of the others. He is listed with Matthew in the synoptic gospels but it is in the fourth gospel that he comes into his own. The first time we meet Thomas in person is in chapter 11, at the moment when Jesus announces that he is going to Bethany as Lazarus has died. “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we might die with him.” This is a courageous statement- he doesn’t seem to have much doubt as to what the outcome will be, and at that moment, at least, he is not running away. He is proved right, so perhaps we should call him Brave Sir Thomas the Wise. The next time we meet Thomas he is being brave again. This time he is voicing something that nobody else is brave enough to say. Jesus is in the middle of a long and confusing speech about what is going to happen after his death, which concerns the ascension and eternal life. Now Jesus either has trouble expressing the inexpressible in words or the disciples are dense but Brave Sir Thomas speaks up, on behalf of everyone and tells Jesus that they really do not understand. Jesus famously says to them that he is going to prepare a place for them and that he will come again to take them so that where he is they will be, then he adds, “And you know the way to the place where I am going”. All the disciples are sitting there nodding their heads and only Thomas is brave enough to say, “Actually we don’t have a clue!” And Jesus responds at that moment by saying “I am the way, the truth and the life”. This statement mde by Jesus is core belief for most of us but even if the disciples recognized that it was significant, they still cannot have really understood what Jesus meant. And if you think about the disciples in this immediate period after the resurrection they would have been still processing this information. In this scene in the upper room the disciples know that something has happened but not quite what it means yet! And Thomas has missed that first resurrection appearance, so he hasn’t had the sensory input that the others have had. All the way through this gospel we have had references to “seeing” starting from that ‘come and see’ that is in chapter one. There have been appeals to other senses as well and even here Thomas is encouraged to not only see but to touch Jesus. The point is that once again he is risking everything by saying the thing that nobody else is brave enough to say. And, really, he is voicing the question of every unbeliever down through history- every person who says, ‘I won’t believe it until I see it.’ Thomas wants to reestablish his relationship with Jesus, which until now, has been based in the concrete and tangible- he has walked beside him, he has listened to him, he has seen him dealing with other people, he has very probably hugged him, and he wants that again. If we are honest we have all had moments I think, when we have just wanted Jesus to speak to us, and to touch us. Has anybody read “Disappointment with God” by Philip Yancey? The premise for the book is the disappointment that one man felt when he called on God to prove God’s presence, to give a sign, and God, he felt, refused. Yancey spends the whole book thinking about the way, in fact, God does respond. And that is the point of Jesus’ words in response to Thomas- but just before we go there let us just have a look at Thomas’ response to the risen Christ.
When Thomas does see Jesus, when he touches him, he perceives something very clearly and that is that Jesus has been revealed as God. This resurrection Jesus, who will shortly ascend, is not simply a man come back to life, like Lazarus that we met earlier in the gospel, no this person is God. The fourth gospel has been pointing towards the dual nature of Jesus- both human and divine, and here, at this moment, Thomas, Brave Sir Thomas the Wise, sees and knows who the risen Jesus is. The others have already believed, but once again, it is Thomas who articulates it for us. “My Lord and my God”. In relationship with Jesus, Thomas understands that he is his master, or Lord, and also God- God who is both transcendent and immanent, God the creator of the universe, is also the Word that is made flesh. The gospel writer has been struggling to convey this all the way through the gospel and here, it is Thomas to whom it is apparent.
But what about us- we cannot put our hand into the wounds, we cannot see the features of Jesus’ face- we have never seen him with our eyes or heard him with our ears, have we? Well, perhaps we have. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says. And that is everyone in this room, and yet at another level we have heard and seen because we have been witnessed to by the body of Christ- not the wounded body that hung on the cross- but the body enlivened by the Holy Spirit. In this fourth gospel, the disciples receive the promised Holy Spirit right there and then. Jesus, in that same long discourse where he promised a many roomed dwelling that we would be taken to and Thomas expressed his confusion, also says that he will send us, after he has gone, a comforter, or advocate, to be with us- all of us! So that we might have life, and have it abundantly, Jesus says. And in the passages that we read from the Acts of the Apostles and the letter, 1 John, written around 100 AD, we can see the evidence of the formation of the body of Christ into the church. Thomas is the very beginning of that process, he represents the transition between the ones who have seen and can testify and those who rely on the movement of the Holy Spirit. God is embodied and can be sensed in the church, in God’s gathered people. And this is the rest of the story- this is what we are waiting for, the good news of the Kingdom of God.
And part of the message is that there is peace for those who are in relationship with God. Jesus repeatedly in his resurrection appearances offers peace to others. And crucially, that peace is connected to forgiveness. How can we have peace unless we know that we are forgiven? And it is part of what is handed on to us- we are to forgive sins and offer peace. It is seen by some, as a very important function of a priest to offer absolution to God’s people, and indeed I consider it a privilege to declare to you, week by week, that God pardons those who turn to him in faith, but the important thing here, I think, is that we, all of us, are given the power to forgive. And I don’t mean power in the sense of “the right” to forgive sins, I mean power in the sense of being empowered, enabled to forgive. Forgiveness is not something that comes easily to us, and many cultures are based on NOT forgiving, but holding on to the wrongs that have been done and that MUST be avenged. We, Christ’s body, are to be characterized by love and part of that love is to forgive. Did you notice that in that marvelous passage from 1 John the idea of God, who is perfect light, is intimately connected with God who forgives sin, who more than that, has atoned for our sin, God’s self. This is what being the body of Christ here on earth looks like so that others can see and believe. We are to be people of love and joy and peace, forgiven and forgiving, and then the image of Christ, God of love, Lord of life, the way the truth and the life, is visible to the world.
Thomas, Brave Sir Thomas the Wise, occupies an important role as the one who can express the things that others are frightened to say to God. Jesus’ response to him gives us permission to ask God about the things that we do not understand. But more than that Thomas represents the transition from one kind of knowing to another, one kind of relationship to another, and one kind of human body pierced and wounded, into the remade and remarkable body of Christ of which you and I are part. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, Halleluia. We are the body of Christ, His Spirit is in us. The Peace of the Lord be always in you, And also in you. Hallelujah!