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Reverend Canon Michael Smith (York Minster)
10.00am Sung Eucharist
I think poor old Thomas gets a bad press! I know he was doing something else when the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples (I often wonder what he was doing?) and I know that he didn’t believe his best friends when they told him that they had seen the risen Jesus – but I think it’s a bit unkind that he has gone down in history as ‘Doubting Thomas’. In one sense this title is accurate – he did doubt that Jesus had risen – but he did do something about his doubt. He was honest about his doubt, he said he needed proof, he needed to actually see Jesus and his wounds to believe in the resurrection. And he stayed with the disciples – he didn’t walk out, saying that he thought they were all mad for believing such a crazy thing. And they didn’t kick him out for not believing what they believed, because a week later they are still all together, holding the tensions of their questions and doubts and different beliefs and Jesus appears to them again. He goes straight to Thomas, not to berate him for doubting but to invite him to look at and touch his wounds and Thomas, who had been ‘Doubting Thomas’ for one week, makes a profession of faith, he kneels before Jesus and says ‘My Lord and my God’ and thus becomes ‘Believing Thomas’ for the rest of his life.
I think that there are a number of things we can learn from this incident and the first and most important thing we learn is the importance of honesty in our faith, and in our doubt. Jesus does not condemn Thomas for doubting, he responds directly to his doubt. Doubt, lack of faith, is not a sin, it is part of growing up in faith. What is a sin is to have doubts and questions and not do anything about them or to fix our beliefs so firmly in certainty that we close down any possibility of learning more or seeing things from a different perspective. There is a wonderful scene in the TV sitcom Rev when the shambling but faithful vicar, Adam Smallbone is talking to a young successful trendy vicar who fills his church because he makes faith overly simple and straightforward. Adam says, ‘Faith must encounter doubt and all I get from you is certainty’. If the story of Thomas teaches us anything it is that faith and doubt can and must live together.
Think about that week between the first resurrection appearances when most of the disciples had seen the risen Lord and Thomas hadn’t ……. they stayed together, talking, discussing, arguing perhaps, but they stayed together – I think the Church is in that state continually. We need to learn to be more gracious, generous and accepting – we need to hold together people with sophisticated and sure faith and people with emerging, doubting, questioning faith and everyone in between. The Church is sometimes called ‘the community of the faithful’, I think it should be called the community of the faithful and of those exploring or even struggling with faith. Good Friday in York Minster exemplifies this extremely well. On Good Friday we have one of the most difficult, powerful and beautiful services of the year at 10am. The Passion Gospel is sung, a huge cross is carried down the aisle, lots of people kneel in silence before the cross, many touch it, some kiss it. We say prayers and at the end we receive communion at the foot of the cross. In all of this we confront the problem of suffering and God’s place in it head on. This Good Friday there were over 300 people of faith sharing in this service. There was stillness and prayerfulness. At the same time, the Minster was open as usual, and all the time this beautiful, challenging and evocative service was taking place, visitors walked around the side aisles and watched. Many stood for long periods to listen and to absorb the atmosphere. On this most holy day the Minster held the tension of profound faith with doubt, of questioning and mystery ……. and the atmosphere was electric.
One of the other things the story of Thomas teaches us is that we shouldn’t label people and categorise them. As I said, Thomas was ‘Doubting Thomas’ for one week, but then he encountered the risen Lord and became ‘Believing Thomas’, he remained ‘Believing Thomas’ for the rest of his life, until he was martyred for his belief and yet we still always refer to him as ‘Doubting Thomas’. We have a tendency to do that with others, we do it with celebrities, with politicians, we do it with friends and family – because of one incident, one mistake, one failing we label them and though they may change, they may move on, in our minds we make them retain the label we once gave them. We have to allow people to change and accept that people do change.
Finally, we have to remember that asking questions is great. Asking big questions about big issues is fantastic. Questions are how we learn and grow. One of the great things about children is that they ask loads of questions. Unfortunately they never ask the really big questions when you are ready for them or have time for them, but we should always respect their questions and answer them honestly, even if the answer is ‘I don’t know, but let’s try and find out’. I remember a child once asked me what I thought God looked like. I could have referred to the huge number of images of God described in the bible. I could have talked about Jesus and that he was the image of God. In the end I got hold of a children’s story book, a version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and found the page which showed the Dad in the story, a large smiley man running helter-skelter towards his wayward son, arms outstretched to embrace him, ready to tell him he loved him – ‘that’s what God looks like’ I said. The questions children ask are blessings because they make us think and they make us think carefully about how we can answer the questions in a way the child will understand. Responding to the child who asked me what God looks like helped me think about what I think God looks like. We both grew in faith. The questions children ask, the questions we all ask, are potentially blessings for all of us, as they lead to deeper thinking and eventually greater understanding of and insight into God. Remember that wonderful scene in John’s gospel chapter 14 when Jesus was talking about leaving the disciples one day. He said, ‘you know the way to the place that I am going?’ I imagine them all nodding in agreement, without really understanding what Jesus was actually saying. The one with the courage to ask the question they probably all wanted to ask was Thomas, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?’ Thomas asked. This question led to Jesus saying ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no comes to the Father except by me’ In other words, follow me, live the way I live and the kingdom will come. If Thomas hadn’t asked the question Jesus might never have said this.
As we reflect on the story of ‘Believing Thomas’ let’s be honest about our faith and about our doubts, let’s learn to live respectfully with people who have different faith and different doubts to our own, let’s not categorise people, let’s allow others to change, and let’s rejoice in questions – because questions are blessings that can help us grow in understanding and in faith.
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