Foreigner… citizen. Doubt… belief. John 20:24-29 Eph 2:19-end

 

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The Chancel at St. Lawrence, Weston Patrick – the ceiling is stunning!

It was THAT passage again. It might have been in 3 completely new contexts, but St. Thomas seems to follow me around, and here he was again. Not in Easter Season, but for his Feast Day, post-referendum, not just post-resurrection! 

Last Sunday was my first adventure in multi-parish rural Sundays: 4 hours, 3 churches, 2 forms of worship, 1 priest! It was also another of my Sunday’s covering parishes in ‘vacancy’ in the North Hampshire Downs, specifically Weston Patrick 8.15am (BCP no hymns), Tunworth (9am BCP with hymns & coffee), Herriard 11am (CW Family Communion with portaloo!)

They were all lovely places, frequented by lovely welcoming people, who were eager to chat where appropriate, gracious where timings don’t (with the best will in the world) quite work, and treated the roving priest with a great sense of humour. In Weston Patrick I was greeted by a warden dashing off to find a Bible that didn’t collapse and a Red Kite calling over-head (and for those that know me, you will know how much that will have meant to me), in Tunworth I was greeted with the chance to catch my breath and let my heart rate slow down after a close encounter with an obdurate pony and it’s care-worn rider, and in Herriard I was greeted by an ancient Masey Ferguson tractor & apologies for the lack of bells and after service coffee; there was an agricultural show secretaries gathering that demanded the attention of those involved in both activities! 

I absolutely loved it, and am so pleased they seem happy to have me back – especially since they don’t have much choice between now and the arrival of their new Rector in mid-August!!

For what it’s worth, this is what I said to them. As you’ll see, the brief was to speak for only 3 minutes in the first parish as there isn’t time to speak for longer. I will let you be the judge of whether stopping at the point I did was helpful, or not.

Foreigner (KJV) Alien (NRSV)… and citizen.

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The tiny Chancel and stunning Belinda Scarlett altar frontal at All Saints, Tunworth (and my Dad, photographing the frontal – look her up, she’s done Lambeth and Winchester too!)

Doubt… and belief.

Pairs of words taken, not from our media news of the last 10 days, but from the scriptures set for today.

It is tempting to think that these pairs of words are opposites: mutually exclusive. But they aren’t.

These pairs of words, these scriptures, speak not of borders but of belief, proclaim peace rather than prejudice; they are not so much about judgement as about journey.

The foreigners of Ephesians 2:19, who we know biblically as Gentiles, though still not circumcised and thus unaltered from their previously alienated state, find their circumstances so changed that they are no longer strangers to their Jewish neighbour’s, but belong with them as fellow citizens of God’s kingdom.

The doubting disciple Thomas, more accurately described as honest Thomas, the disciple who had the integrity to say what he could and couldn’t believe, to stay around to find out the truth for himself AND be willing to admit a change of understanding, though seeming foolish among his friends, finds faith.

Journey’s from alienation to citizenship, from doubt to belief. Journeys of reconciliation.

What makes the difference in both these stories, is the presence of the risen Jesus.

Thomas finds that Jesus knows, without being told. Knows Thomas’s questions, and his honesty. Faced with the risen Christ, Thomas doesn’t need to probe wounds inflicted by prejudice, jealousy and hatred, for Jesus’ very presence in and of itself, is an encounter with love. Thomas journeys from doubt to belief.

In Ephesians, the risen Jesus is described as the cornerstone of a holy temple, one that replaces the physical Temple of Jewish tradition. A group of ordinary people build on the witness of the prophets of the Old Testament, and the apostles of the New, around the cornerstone that is Christ, to create a community where all have equal status, both Jew and Gentile. A journey of reconciliation from the status of alien, to full citizenship.

The presence of Jesus leads people on a journey. For Thomas and the first Gentile converts to Christianity, it led them from places of emotional pain and confusion to a place of peace and community. This journey with Jesus, is perhaps more needed now in the world, and dare I say it, in this country, than perhaps at any other point since WW2.

It is participation in a journey of reconciliation to which we have all committed by our very presence here this morning with Christ. (I ended my reflections here at Weston Patrick.)

We might be hidden within the walls of an ancient building, just as Thomas was hidden with the other disciples after the crucifixion, but we are part of that new community that was being spoken of and built in Ephesus, a community based on the resurrection of Jesus; he broke down the barrier of death to offer new life, a life marked by healing, justice and equality.

Neither Thomas and the other disciples, nor the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, stayed hidden for long. Thomas after all, declared aloud: “My Lord and my God” and went on to share that testimony as far away as India! They all went out, and filled with the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, shared the message of Christ’s resurrection, the love that overcame suffering, so that others could become citizens, be blessed by belief, share the journey and be part of a growing community Christians.

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The view from St. Mary’s Herriard

Just as we see the journeys of reconciliation that Thomas and the Ephesians took, from alien to citizen, from doubt to belief, if we are looking to apply the lessons of these scriptures, then the impact of the risen Jesus in our lives needs to be recognisable. Among the many challenges we find ourselves faced with today, this is perhaps the greatest: how, in our social lives, our businesses, our economic or political aspirations or decisions, how does the presence of Jesus affect what we think, and say and do? How are we contributing to the world’s desperate need to take a journey of reconciliation?

Being Brave and Honest – like Thomas (John 20 v19-end)

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

 

We say that so easily, don’t we?

Like Pavlov’s dogs, I said four words, and to mix my metaphors you parroted the response back.

It’s easy to do isn’t it, when we’re absolutely certain that the crucified Jesus, his body bound in cloths and laid in the tomb, rose again to life – not like Lazarus who would die again, but to a life like no-one has experienced since.

It’s easy to believe because people we trust wrote that we should believe. It’s easy to know we believe because we’ve had a profound experience or experiences of our risen Christ. It’s easy to say we believe because we simply can’t face admitting – especially in church – that it isn’t, or we don’t.

Except it isn’t, is it. Easy, that is. Believing that Jesus rose again and can meet us in our daily lives, in answered prayer, in extraordinary encounters, in another’s pain, in our own pain… None of that is easy at all. Having faith in the risen Jesus, and holding on to that faith, can be really, really tough. Especially, when we’ve not necessarily seen or encountered him for ourselves.

But we do believe don’t we. We share this thing called faith in the risen Jesus, or we are at least intrigued by the possibility of that fact, else we would not be sat here this morning. We base our hopes and/or trust in the fact that the beatitude of the risen Christ that we heard this morning is: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. We rely on the fact that Jesus responded to what we so easily assume were Thomas’s doubts, and returned to a locked room to reveal his risen self, his scars, his love.

I don’t believe the hype about Thomas, or at least about his doubts being such a bad thing. We should not be derogatory about these doubts, but rather celebrate their worth: for me he is Brave and Honest Thomas, someone we need to seek to emulate, not look down upon.

When Thomas said to his friends “Unless I see him face to face and put my fingers in the hole of his and hands and his side, I shall not believe”, he was most likely just seeking “clarity”. He needed “to get to the bottom of things”, to check whether his friends had reached a point of hysteria in their grief, or whether something significant that he really needed to get his mind round had just happened. Thomas knew he had to “find his own way to be faithful to God” that involved not simply blind faith, but his intellect, his mind and a firm grasp of the reality of the situation.**

We know that “It’s… hard to own up to being the odd one out among a group of friends, and [we should recognise that] it was brave [of Thomas when he] found that he was the odd one out, not to go off, be by himself, [and give up on the last three years of following Jesus].  For a whole week he went on meeting up with the other disciples. Their faith and stories… must have made him feel uncomfortable and left out. But he still hung around.”*

It was his honesty, and that willingness to hang around with those for whom the risen Jesus had become a reality which meant that “eventually, Jesus came and met him in person. His integrity paid off; when faith came to him as a gift, it was his own and not someone else’s.”*

“Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe, whereas doubt is an honest owning up to not being convinced”, and finding that the people and ideas we encounter in this life can knock holes in our faith. “In Judaism, according to Dr. Jonathan Sacks,… ‘To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but [suggests a] lack of depth [to our faith].’ Sacks encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, [he says], “not because we doubt, but because we believe.”*

Like Thomas, we need to risk making our ourselves look foolish among our friends, ask apparently awkward questions, confess our doubts and confusion, because even when we can’t see him, Jesus is listening.

Like Thomas, we need to hang around in the places that we are most likely to encounter Jesus. In our private devotions, our public worship and other forms of fellowship with Christians, our participation in the sacraments, in our commitment to serve others, to make time to be in holy places (both natural and man-made), we need to be doing the things that mean Jesus can show up and reveal himself to us – scars and all. That may mean we’re behind closed doors at times, though that doesn’t mean that’s where Jesus wants us to stay.

Like Thomas, we may find that when we are faced with the risen Christ, we will not need to touch or “probe” his wounds, for his presence in and of itself, the encounter with his love for us, will be enough to convince us that it is Jesus.***

Like Thomas, and the other disciples, we need to be reminded that there are many people in this world who believe in the risen Christ without having seen him, and we need to honour and encourage that faith, in ourselves as much as in others: for “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Like Thomas, we are called by Jesus to be brave and honest. Jesus, appeared in the disciples hideaway the first time to commission them to go out into the world – sending them out as they were, but with the power of the Holy Spirit as their guide, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins that comes to those who believe in him as their Lord and their God. St. John’s account of these resurrection encounters gives the disciples, Thomas included, little time for hesitancy. There is no waiting around for Pentecost, no more time to struggle with doubt and uncertainty, for questions to be answered. They have to take those with them.

Acknowledging that we are both ‘Like Thomas’ in his doubts and also blessed by God whatever stage our belief in the risen Jesus has reached, means accepting our uncertainties and the questions that seem to remain un-answered, and yet STILL going out into the world to live as Jesus wants us to – as those who proclaim his name in words of forgiveness. What we watch and read on the news, shows us that there is no more time for us to remain hidden – the world needs to hear that in Jesus there is forgiveness, in that forgiveness there is reconciliation with each other and with God, and in that reconciliation, there is peace.

Lord Jesus
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
We acknowledge before you our doubts, as well as our certainties.
Help us this week to be bold in what we do,
and honest about our search to meet you;
that in thought, word and deed
we will be encouraged to
proclaim your resurrection, your forgiveness,
and the hope of peace it offers.
Amen

Sources: 

*Maggie Dawn http://maggidawn.typepad.com/maggidawn/2009/04/honest-thomas.html

**Rachel Mann ‘Thomas’ in “The Risen Dust” Wild Goose Publications

***Paula Gooder “Journey to the Empty Tomb” 

This is one of those sermons that was excruciatingly painful to preach, though it always is when I speak of Thomas. It has been significant for me to realise that Thomas, and the other disciples in this account, do not meet the risen Lord in the breaking of bread, but hidden behind closed doors. But that doesn’t mean that is where we should stay.