Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Second Sunday after Easter, 23rd April 2017.
We live in a largely scientific orientated world. Knowledge abounds as researchers discover more about how our bodies work, how to harness the world’s resources to produce enough energy and how to increase economic stability. I, for one, am astounded how a mere piece of calf can keep my ticker going! We hear of new drugs, new procedures, great strides in the realms of neuro-science. What a time to live in! So much new knowledge!
When I was teaching research to psychotherapy students I used to get the whole process going by asking them to answer the question, ‘What is truth? And what is reality?’ You will be pleased to know I am not going to get you to discuss this right now, but simply to reflect with me on the challenge which confronts Christians when we are asked this question. If you want to sleep now please do! Whatever it is we seek to know we only know partially-it is how it appears to us. The poet Wordsworth said our knowledge is half what we create and half what we perceive.
What I mean is, that when we talk about the resurrection, we have only earthly images in which to talk about a profoundly mystical and transcendent reality or truth. And that, dear friends, was the dilemma with which the disciples and Thomas were confronted in that upper room in Jerusalem when the risen Christ appeared to them. The disciples believed they had experienced the Risen Christ, Thomas needed a different kind of experience before he believed. He needed a different kind of knowing to the other disciples.
Last Sunday was not just a moment of ‘ecclesiastical excitement’. The atmosphere was dramatic and perhaps momentarily exhilarating – but today it is routine. Maybe that is why it has been traditionally called ‘Low Sunday’ And today’s gospel reading confronts us with maybe something of a routine for us, the dance between faith and doubt. St John paints a picture of a band of ‘believing disciples’ who we are told ‘were glad when they saw the Lord’, and one disciple, Thomas, who was ‘non-believing’. A dance of faith and doubt: two sides of the same coin.
The story is familiar. The disciples give testimony through the words of the St John the evangelist that they had seen the Risen Lord. He had appeared to them in an upper room recalling the moment on Maundy Thursday when He broke bread and shared wine at His Last Supper before his crucifixion. Now the disciples were in hiding, ‘for fear of the Jews’-it wasn’t safe to go around acknowledging themselves as His followers-not yet anyway! The Risen Christ appears to them all except Thomas. He shows them his hands (probably his wrists) and his side, the marks of crucifixion. ‘This is me, your Lord, the one who was crucified on Golgotha’s Hill; I am Risen!’ He seeks to quell their fear and encourage them in the first scary steps of their mission to the world, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so send I you.’ St John conflates Easter and Pentecost all in one and so he records Jesus as saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’- the promise of his Risen Spirit being their strength and motivation particularly in time of suffering and persecution.
Faith and doubt! Strange bedfellows? I think not! So what is faith? It is easy to confuse faith with certainty and thus forever be repressing doubt. Certainty without doubt leads to a fanaticism such as we see with fundamentalist movements in many world religions with such disastrous destructive consequences-the creationist teaching of children in the mid-west of America, the terror struck actions of Isis, the legalistic view of the Renaissance Jew.
The faith of the disciples and eventually of Thomas is borne from the crucible of the cross. No cross, no crown: no doubt, no faith. It is a tension with which the mature Christian lives. And faith here is not about the correctness or incorrectness of doctrine or theological belief but about the very essence of ourselves, our true identity, everything we are and prepared to stake our life on. Christ was not beyond experiencing the tension of doubt-the temptations, the garden of Gethsemane, the words of dereliction on the cross. We need to make a friend of our doubt in order that it may feed our growth in faith. It is not an enemy to be overcome.
The believing disciples and unbelieving Thomas: they are both parts of me and I suspect maybe of you. Like the affirming disciples there are times when I feel really alive with every fibre of my body, mind and spirit-the moments when I feel life and love coursing through my veins-times of appreciation, and loving, seeing a way through a conflict, gaining new insight and understanding, a new truth about me and others. As pilgrim in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ I reach the Delectable Mountains and am granted a glimpse of the Celestial City-these are moments when I feel and glimpse resurrection and I believe it truly to be the power of the Risen Lord’s love enabling this.
But then like Thomas I sulk in sheer disbelief. The news of deaths and violence resulting in a refugee population of 22m million, the unnecessary death of a police officer in Paris, the despair at watching a child dies from a rare disease. Or the times when deadness and aridness and sometimes depression creep into our relationships which often result from the avoidance of facing reality together because we know it is too painful to bear. Where is the Spirit of the Risen Lord then? I see a number of bereaved people in my work as a therapist. They tell stories of feeling isolated, grief stricken, being so unhappy and disorientated when the known world of intimate relationships are broken as death and many forms of separation rob them of love and friendship.
John Humphrys of Radio 4 fame has written a searching book entitled, ‘In God we doubt’, the result of a series of interviews with leaders of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and the Muslim faith. When talking of the letters he received after the interviews he writes this about belief, ‘The pulse is still strong. However empty the pews may be in parish churches on a typical Sunday morning, there are plenty of people with a sincere and passionate belief. That much is evident. There are also plenty of people who think it’s all a load of nonsense……….What surprised me is how many think of themselves as neither believers nor atheists but doubters. They, too, are sincere. Devout sceptics, if you like. And many of them feel beleaguered. I’m with them.’
Thomas and the believing disciples: doubt and faith-both belong to us and take us to the very depths of ourselves in both sadness and joy, despair and hope, hate and love. They force us to face the truth about our lives. In reality we live quite a lot of the time in a space between the extremes. But Christ doesn’t ask us to sign up to belief before meeting him. ‘Peace be with you’ is his prayer for all of us.
An attention to what is happening to me in the routine and ordinariness of life when hate turns to love, separation to unity, unrest to peace, destruction to creativeness, may give us the cue and clue to a Risen Christ who is flowing through lives often unrecognised but is faithful to his promise that He will be with us to the end of the age. His encouragement is for all of us to relax into the mystery of his love and peace always present, always dancing among us, even in the greatest moments of our doubting.