Thursday, 21 April 2022

Doubting Thomas

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Low Sunday, 24th April 2022

The Incredulity of St Thomas, Caravaggio, c.1602

John 20:19-31  
1 Peter 1:3-9  

Some years ago, I found myself part of one of those conversations over the meal-table,
            you know, the ones where you begin to wish
                        that everyone was talking about something else!
The topic had turned to questions of doubt and faith,
            and one of my dining partners had expressed the firm view,
            that a Christian with doubts wasn’t really a Christian at all.
I’m afraid I found myself rising to the bait dangling before me,
            and replied that it seemed to me
                        that the kind of belief which never questions itself
            is not only doubt in denial, but also potentially dangerous.
After all, I went on, who can honestly say
            that they haven’t woken up some mornings,
                        and wondered whether the whole faith thing is just a big mistake,
                        or some figment of the imagination?
“Simon Woodman,” came the reply, “you are a very wicked man!”
            Well, similar things have been said before,
                        and will probably be said again before I’m done with this life.
But on this occasion I stand by what I said:
            Faith without doubt seems unlikely to me,
            and I certainly don’t experience them as incompatible opposites.
And yet, as Christians,
            we are so often afraid to talk about doubt,
            we’re so often afraid to talk about the things we don’t believe,
            we’re so often afraid to own the hesitations, misgivings,
                        qualms, and uncertainties,
            that lie behind the articulation and practice of our faith.
Thomas, or ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he has forever become known,
            isn’t one of the biblical heroes of the faith; he’s a wuss!
He’s the guy who famously doesn’t get it,
            the one who needs a special appearance from Jesus,
                        complete with wounds that he can poke his finger into,
            before he can bring himself to utter his own statement of belief.
Or so we’re led to believe… However…
Firstly, despite the lurid depictions
                        of pretty much every artistic representation of the scene,
            there is no actual record of Thomas prodding his finger curiously
                        into the gaping wound in Jesus’ side.
            Rather, he responds to Jesus’ invitation to do so
                        by uttering the greatest confession of faith
                        to be found in any of the Gospel narratives.
            ‘My Lord and my God’ he declares,
                        putting into words the ultimate truth of the gospel,
                        which is that in Jesus, God has become frail flesh.
            These are not the words of a doubtful prodder,
                        they are the confession of an archetypically faithful disciple.
But secondly, the verb ‘doubt’
            doesn’t even appear in the story of Doubting Thomas
                        as we might think we know it from John’s gospel.
Oh, it’s there in the English alright,
            the translators of the NRSV and other versions have helpfully added it,
            having Jesus say to Thomas, ‘Do not doubt, but believe’ (v.27).
However, in the Greek of the original,
            what Jesus says to Thomas is not, ‘do not doubt’,
            but rather, ‘do not be faith-less’.
And the positive antithesis that follows is not ‘believe’,
            but ‘be faithful’.
It’s not doubt that Thomas must leave behind,
            but faithlessness.
And it’s not belief that he must embrace,
            but faith.
Which, I think, puts quite a different spin on the story,
            as most of us have grown used to it…
Thomas isn’t ‘Doubting Thomas’ at all;
            he’s a man on a journey towards faithfulness.
As, I hope, are well all.
In his letter to the Corinthians,
            Paul lists ‘faith’ as one of the gifts that comes by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12.9)
And it’s surely significant that Thomas,
                        the disciple still on his journey towards faith,
            was absent for the first visit of Jesus to the locked upper room,
                        missing out when Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit the others (20.22).
The other disciples have already had a personal experience of the resurrected Christ,
            they have already received his Spirit,
                        they have already moved from faith-less-ness to faith-full-ness.
But Thomas has yet to make that journey,
            and he struggles to take it on trust
                        from those who claim it to be true.
And I don’t think I’m so different to Thomas on this one:
            I have always struggled to believe things
                        just because somebody has told me that I should.
Apparently, as a small child, my favourite question was ‘why?’
            followed by ‘What’s going on now, Daddy?’
And whilst I no longer have to ask my father to interpret everything for me,
            I think the desire to know ‘why’, the desire to question,
                        the desire to dig deeper, to know more,
                                    remains as strong for me now as it ever did.
It’s one of my fundamental convictions
            that no question is un-askable.
No dogma is unquestionable,
            no truth is unshakeable.
When I went to university in my late teens to read Biblical Studies,
            one of the well meaning elder members
                        of the congregation that I had grown up in
            took me to one side and warned me
                        that going to study the Bible in a secular context
                        might be quite damaging for my faith.
I’m not sure now how I answered him,
            but I can remember thinking that if faith couldn’t withstand
                        the most difficult questions that one could ask of it,
            then it wasn’t much of a faith, really.
The other memory from that period
            was of a former minister, long retired and living locally,
                        inviting me round for dinner a week or two before I set off
                                    on my journey of questioning and knowledge-seeking,
                        and he said something that has stayed with me very powerfully ever since.
            What he said was this,
                        that ‘faith is a relationship, not a theology’.
Faith is a relationship, not a theology.
And what I hear this to mean
            is that faith in Christ is predicated
                        on a relationship with the risen Christ by his Spirit.
Faith it is not predicated on a set of theological propositions,
            which must be assented to in order to ensure orthodoxy.
And it is not predicated on a list of things one must believe
            in order to be a Christian.
Faith is a relationship, not a theology.
This is one of the reasons why I have always resisted
            any attempt to make me sign anything that looks like a statement of faith.
I don’t think we need lists of things to believe in
            in order for us to be in faithful relationship with the risen Christ.
We know the risen Christ by his Spirit,
            not by a carefully worked out and systematic belief system.
And this takes us to the heart of the difference
            between belief and faith,
            and their corresponding opposites of doubting and faithlessness
Belief implies a set of propositions,
            to which one must either assent or dissent.
If you don’t agree with the truth of the propositions,
            you’re a doubter.
But faith, on the other hand, implies a state of being;
            faith is about being "in Christ", as Paul would put it.
Being faith-less, is a necessary part of being faith-full.
So, to return to Thomas, and his journey towards faith:
            According to John’s gospel, he finds faith
            through a personal experience of the risen Christ.
He does not get there
            by believing what others tell him about their experiences of Christ.
And neither does he get there
            by assenting to their propositions about an empty tomb.
Rather, Thomas discovers that faith in the resurrected Christ
            is the product of a relationship with Christ,
            which comes to him as a gift from the Spirit of Christ.
Faith, for Thomas, is about a relationship, not a theology.
And so also with us.
I think that the key question for faith
            is not whether we believe
            in the historical proposition of the empty tomb.
Rather, it is whether the resurrection of Jesus,
            to which the gospels bear testimony,
                        becomes true in our lives,
                        as by faith we discover the new life that is ours "in Christ"
For Thomas, the journey towards faith
            wasn't about him becoming convinced by the testimony of others
                        that the body of Jesus had been reanimated,
                        and could pass through locked doors.
Rather it was the appropriation in his own life
            of the resurrected power of the risen Christ.
It was this experience of resurrection that generated
            the gospel's ultimate and culminative articulation of faith
                        - the naming of Jesus as God.
There is a delicious irony in the fact that the only person,
                        within the narrative of the gospel,
                        to grasp the point of the gospel,
            is Doubting Thomas.
Only Thomas echoes the authorial assertion of the prologue, that Jesus is God,
            only Thomas grasps that ‘in Jesus’
                        the regenerative love of God has taken flesh
                        to become real in the lives of all of those bound to mortal flesh.
It takes the doubter to grasp faith,
            and this is because for Thomas it's not about doubt and belief,
            it's about the lived experience of the resurrected Christ.
It might be worth taking a moment at this point
            to consider the difference between truth and historicity.
After all, this is at the core of Thomas' story.
What does it mean to confess faith in the resurrection of Jesus?
            Is it the same thing as asserting belief
                        in the physical resuscitation of the body of Jesus?
It may indeed be that the two are synonymous,
            and certainly the dominant consensus within the Christian tradition
                        has been that to have faith in the resurrection of Christ
                        is to believe the proposition of the empty tomb.
But the thing is, the Bible itself is somewhat more ambiguous on this point.
Here in our story from John's gospel,
            it is clear that the disciples' experience of the resurrected Christ
                        was of a different order of experience
                                    from that which had characterised their engagement with him
                                    during his earthly ministry.
The resurrected body of Jesus is able to pass through locked doors,
            and moves around despite continuing to be scarred
                        by the fatal wounds of crucifixion.
Mark's gospel, the earliest of the four, originally ended at the empty tomb,
            with the Markan resurrection narratives
            inserted later in that gospel’s tradition.
Paul, who wrote the earliest texts of the New Testament,
            spoke at length and frequently
            about the necessity of faith in the resurrection of Christ,
but never once did so in terms of a physical body resuscitated after death.
Indeed, Paul’s own experience of the resurrected Christ
            had something of the mystical, visionary nature of Thomas’s experience.
For Thomas, the resurrected Jesus appeared mysteriously in a looked room,
            while for Paul he appeared mysteriously in a vision on the road to Damascus.
The stories of physical resuscitation in the New Testament
            are all to be found within the later documents,
in those gospels written a generation or more after the time of Jesus,
            as Christians sought language and stories to express their lived faith
            in the resurrected Christ.
I will put it boldly;
            Thomas did not come to believe in the resurrection,
            he came to faith in the resurrected Christ as his Lord and his God.
I sometimes think we get it round the wrong way:
The truth of the story of the resurrection
            is to be found in the realisation
            that the tomb is empty,
                        because Jesus is risen;
            rather than that Jesus is risen
                        because the tomb is empty.
The empty tomb does not prove the resurrection,
            rather, the experience of the risen Christ
            means that the tomb is empty.
This is the purpose, of course,
            of the original, shorter ending of Mark’s gospel.
Mark deliberately leaves the narrative hanging at the empty tomb,
            because he invites his readers to answer in their own lives
            the question posed by the empty tomb.
Where is Christ? Why is the tomb empty?
            It is empty because Christ is risen,
and he is present now by his Spirit
            in the lives of those who have, by faith,
                        encountered him in life-giving relationship;
            as, by the power of his Spirit,
                        he brings transformation and resurrection
                        to being in the lives of all those who come to him in faith.
How do we know Christ is risen?
            We know this because we know the risen Christ.
And we know him by his Spirit at work in our lives,
            bringing to birth the fruits of resurrection.
We know him as he breathes his Spirit on us,
            and speaks words of peace and reconciliation over and into us.
We know him as we gaze upon his wounds,
            and realise that God-made-flesh
                        has entered into the depths of human pain, and sorrow, and suffering,
            to open the path through death
                        to new life, to new hope,
                        to resurrection, and forgiveness,
                                    to peace, and love.
As Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it,
There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection
            outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness.
We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing.
            We need to add that no amount of apparitions,
            however well authenticated, would mean anything either,
            apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.
Or, as Jesus himself put it,
            in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,
            neither will they be convinced
            even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:31)
Faith in the resurrected Christ is a gift of the Spirit of Christ,
            it is not the product of evidence or theological assertion.
Faith is a relationship and not a theology.
And, faith is not incompatible with doubt.
As Philip Yancey has put it:
I’m an advocate of doubt,
            because that’s why I became a Christian in the first place.
I started doubting some the crazy things
            my church taught me when I was growing up!
Doubt is the skeleton on which faith is built,
            and yet too often churches have taught, either verbally or tacitly,
            that to doubt is to sin.
Well, you have heard it said, that doubt is despicable,
            but I say to you, question everything,
                        and treasure the questions,
            because in the questioning,
                        the resurrected Christ is to be found and known.
As Peter himself puts it in his first epistle,
the genuineness of your faith
            -- being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—
            may be found to result in praise and glory and honor
                        when Jesus Christ is revealed. 
Although you have not seen him, you love him;
            and even though you do not see him now,
                        you believe in him
            and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,
            the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1.7-9)

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