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.

My name is Thomas (John 20:19-31 and Acts 2:14a and 22-32)

Caravagio's 'The incredulity of Saint Thomas'.  Although today commentators think that Thomas did not in fact touch Jesus' wounds as it is not mentioned in scripture that he did, it was a long-held view that he did. (Wiki Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg)
Caravagio’s ‘The incredulity of Saint Thomas’.
Although today commentators think that Thomas did not in fact touch Jesus’ wounds as it is not mentioned in scripture that he did, it was a long-held view that he did.
(Wiki Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg)

Part 1 (confused, uncertain, slightly hyper, critical of self)

My name is Thomas.

He’s gone. Jesus that is.
Not just dead, but dead and gone. Gone from his tomb.
Peter, Peter said so. John backed him up.

Mary, well Mary Magdalene, she reckons he spoke to her.
Outside the tomb when she hung around after Peter and John had left.
But she told us that he had said he was going.
Returning to his Father. Father God.
His Father, our God.
Our Father, his… him… his God.
So he wasn’t God after all, like we’d almost started to believe.
Was he?

So perhaps he rose from the dead, but he’s gone again.
Jesus is properly gone.

At least that what I thought at lunchtime yesterday.

The rest of them, they met up last night.

The story was out, that Jesus was gone from his tomb and us lot,
well we were getting the blame.
Can’t think why we’d want to steal Jesus’ body,
or how the heck we’d hide it
given the smell of a bloodied copse after three days in this heat;
but I wasn’t going to risk getting picked up by the authorities and taking the blame.
I was more sure of seeing the others in daylight today,
when the risks were fewer.

So, I stayed home, whilst the rest of them got together in that room.
I think the intention was to try and remember what Jesus had said,
and work out what the heck was was going on.
The rest of them?
They’re nearly as unsure as I am!

Anyway, apparently he hadn’t gone.
Jesus that is.
Because he showed up.
That’s what they’ve told me to today.

They’d been careful to lock themselves in.
The shutters were closed, the doors locked.
And apparently, he just appeared.

We’ve been together three years now,
and witnessed a lot of strange things on our journeys with Jesus.
Signs and wonders that would have been beyond belief,
if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes.

I’d actually made us go with him,
when Jesus went to Lazarus’ sisters after the lad died. (John 11)
So yes, I know Jesus raised him from the dead.
But the stone was removed first; I watched them do it.
And when he came out, he shuffled and staggered,
all wrapped up in his death bandages and stuff as he was.
Lazarus didn’t roll his bandages up neatly and leave them on the side,
and then just stroll through a wall, or a door, a few hours later;
which is what the guys are saying happened last night.

Well, they say Jesus came back.
Like he’d said he would, not long ago.
At least that’s what the others reminded me.
It was after we’d got into Jerusalem, and Jesus had us all together.
He did a lot of talking.
We,… we were confused, like normal, and just asked questions.

He’d said something about going,
but not leaving us as orphans,
and coming to us again, (John 14:18)
in a little while. (John 16:18)
It was mixed up with some stuff about who was going to be able to see him,
and who wasn’t.
Who he was, who we were, and how that fitted in with God,
who he insisted on calling Father.
Our God, his Father.
Our Father…

Oh darn it, I don’t know.
I wasn’t there last night, so I don’t really know what happened.
Not really, really know.

It’s not like we’ve covered ourselves in glory, running away and hiding.
I for one had said I’d die with him (John 11:16);
Peter,… Peter had said he’d lay down his life for him (John 13:37).
Neither of us had the courage.
We’ve just hidden, and watched them crucify him.
From a safe distance.
If he could come back,
why would he want to come back to us lot?

I probably I should believe them,
they’re normally trustworthy, about stuff like that anyway.
As long as it doesn’t involve getting killed.

But no, no I can’t.
I will NOT believe.
Unless, unless I see him for myself.
Actually, no.
No.
I need more than just seeing.
I need to know that it’s really, really him,
I need to touch,
touch the wounds,
the things that will make me believe he’s real.

But that’s hardly going to happen, is it?
Because, he’s gone.
Again.

Part 2 (calmer, much more assured, confident, certain)

My name is Thomas.

I had said to the others, privately,
that I would only believe if I touched him.
Jesus.

My Lord, and my God.

He was with us tonight.
With me.
Among them all, all my friends.

Things have calmed down somewhat in town, so I’d felt able to join them.
They’ve been really rather patient with me, all things considered.
My considered, and considerable uncertainty as to what to believe.

So we met again earlier.
To break bread like he’d asked us to.
To remember him.
To try and understand how bread and wine might help us encounter his presence.

(OK artistic license, but some commentators think this is what they’d met to do!)

And suddenly his presence was all too obvious.

He greeted us with words of peace.
Words that became peace, peace like I cannot describe.
It was like something from another world, (John 14:27)
and, even as he spoke directly to me,
I could feel the anxiety melt away,
the fear and doubt evaporate.

Jesus knew exactly what I’d said to the others,
what I thought I needed to believe them, to believe he’d really risen.

His rebuke was gentle, his appeal firm.
His offer clear and beyond anything the others had talked of.
And yet, and yet with him there,
I needed nothing more to confess from the very depths of my being…

My Lord and my God.

They hadn’t said,
when they told me they’d seen him last week,
that he’d given them a mission, and a gift.
What had made the deepest impression was obviously his physical,
risen presence among them.
Hardly surprising,
at least not now I’ve encountered him myself.
What he’d apparently said to them last week was
what I experienced today.

With this overwhelming sense that he is our Lord,
there is a sense of forgiveness,
that I felt before I’d even understood my need for it.
And yet this is depsite him knowing how weak we have been;
Peter, myself and the others.

It was like being made whole again,
having the broken pieces of what had been me,
glued back together again.

But, that’s only the part of it.
I discovered in this brief exchange I was part of something bigger,
a journey that he is sending us on.

We,… all of us,
have to chose what is the trigger to our belief.
Are the words and testimony of friends good enough?
What happens if we can never see Jesus,
can’t touch him, can’t seem to sense how close he is to us:
Does that stop us believing, like it nearly did with me?
I guess this means we have to choose to believe
and in choosing to recognise the risen Jesus as real,
encounter his immediacy in our lives.

Yes, this is what it means to believe.
That there is no classification system for faith,
how, or when we should believe, how much or how little.
There is simply believing, and what we chose to do with that belief.

‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

This isn’t about me.

That beatitude, that blessing poured over us,
like those he’d taught with on the hillside in Galilee, (Matthew 5)
it wasn’t for us,
but for all those who were not there tonight,
had not been there last week,
had not stood at, or hidden from, the cross,
and those who aren’t here now,
will never see him physically in his glorious, risen flesh.

Our Lord and our God.

Part 3 (equally calm, confident, believing, with a degree of urgency).

My name is Thomas, and I am a follower of Jesus.

The work has started.
The journey has begun.

I believe,…
I know,
we’ve made a start.
Here in Jerusalem, today, among the crowds gathered for Pentecost.

Our Lord Jesus has really gone this time,
from our visible presence that is,
ascended to be with the Father, ours and his.

We had gathered together again, as we have daily since he finally left us,
praying, listening, sifting our memories,
tying together what we now know and believe,
with all those things he has patiently said, done and taught us
over the last three years.

We are not alone, we are no longer hiding, and we’re complete.
Yes, we’re complete in that we are twelve again, with Matthias among us.
But we are also complete inside,
made newly complete in each moment,
through the power that he has left with us,
which was so visible today, not just in the flames and the wind,
but in our understanding of the task ahead,
and in the knowledge that this Spirit the prophet Joel spoke of
gives us the strength to do more than we can ask or imagine.

This was the gift that meant many who gathered today for Pentecost could understand us.
The same gift, that gave Peter the strength to speak out
with boldness and authority from among us.

Among our Jewish brothers and sisters there was no point us all talking at once.
Neither was there any point relying on the miraculous
to make the connection with our Lord and God who they,…
we,…
had crucified,
but who had risen again, uncorrupted by death.

King David was the vital reference point.
They know the stories of his sin, his corruption;
they know his words, his prophetic instinct,
the music of his psalms.
His belief should have been their belief, our belief,
in the prophesy that God’s rule would once again come to his people,
through David’s own line of inheritance.

The people of Israel,
the people we’ve met and seen daily for the last three years,
who’ve witnessed and willingly accepted Jesus’ miracles, just as we have;
they knew Jesus.
They knew he was of the line and lineage of David. (Luke 2:4)
That had, after all, been part of the curiosity factor that drew them to him.
Even if he wasn’t quite what they had expected or hoped for.

Their unbelief in the next step of the Davidic connection,
that he was of God, one with God,
meant they were easy prey to the seeds
of doubt and fear sown by the Scribes and Pharisees;
but that made it all the more important, that they understand this prophesy,
that they are given the tools to understand, to make the connection, to believe,
that God had raised the beaten, tortured, tormented, and crucified Christ,
to life.

If the people,
Israelites and Gentiles, everyone,
Don’t have anything solid to believe in,
it makes them unwilling to challenge the corruption of others,
because it might force open the cracks of their own double standards.

We live lives under the burden of our doubts,
our fears and uncertainties hovering constantly
under the surface of otherwise confident actions;
our unwillingness to believe what we can not see,
do, what we might otherwise shrink from.

I know, because I’ve carried this burden of unbelief through all my travels with Jesus,
through the worst of my incomprehension as we listened to him talk
and I asked him dumb questions that proved I hadn’t understood;
in the best of my intentions as we stumbled on his way when he sensed it was right,
through to that day he came and sought me out…

Death couldn’t hold Jesus, and neither can our unbelief,
even when it comes back to haunt us.
It must not be allowed to restrain anyone,
to keep people from the paths of life,
or withhold from us all the joy of knowing
his presence alongside us as we take this journey of faith.

(Delivered as my sermon at St. Peter’s Yateley 27th April 2014 – my last sermon in my sending parish before ordination.)

This is also available as a podcast on the parish website.

Honest Thomas

Saw this on Maggi Dawn’s blog and wanted to make a note of it.

maggi dawn: Honest Thomas

I preached on this a while back, and it also links with fond memories of a local clergyman who died last year, for whom Thomas was very important (partly because he was ordained NSM on St Thomas’s Day I believe). Thomas is in fact the first to proclaim “My Lord and my God” I seem to remember – and in doing so, made a very important connection!

Will try to dig out my old sermon and attach it… tomorrow!

And there’s more at http://maggidawn.typepad.com/maggidawn/2009/04/faith-and-certainty.html

Also St Anselm’s quote “faith seeking understanding”

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