Sermon for Feast of St Thomas 2017, Colwall and Coddington
Habakkuk 2: 1-4; John 20: 24-29
To listen as you read to the sermon recording, as delivered in St James:
Habakkuk was a prophet who lived about 600 years before the time of Jesus, and as we heard, the Lord said to him: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it.’
We’re not told what the vision is, but it seems to be: ‘Carry on waiting; don’t give up; your patience will not be in vain. And write it in big letters so that even someone running by may read it.’
Sometimes we drive by posters staked on verges or attached to walls, and there’s too much on them and the writing’s small, and almost always Jill says, “That’s useless; no one can read that.” And she’s right. A roadside poster needs to have big letters so that a driver may read it.
Write the vision; make it plain so that a runner may read it. What struck me as I read this passage was that this must be the origin of that hymn written by John Keble whose first line is: ‘There is a book who runs may read’. It’s a hymn about nature – the glorious sky, the moon, the stars, the sea and so on. Verse 2 says: ‘The works of God above, below, Within us and around Are pages in that book to show How God himself is found.’
And the last verse: ‘Thou, who hast given me eyes to see And love this sight so fair, Give me a heart to find out thee, And read thee everywhere.’
Well, I really want to subscribe to that. It’s plain; it’s writ in large letters; look around you to read God ........ and give praise and thanks. The world of nature is a wonderful witness for God. But what about our own Christian witness? Is it writ so small that those who pass by are unable to read it? I find this aspect of witnessing to our faith quite a dilemma. You don’t want to parade your faith – that can be so off-putting. But also, you don’t want to hide your faith – that could almost be an act of betrayal or cowardice. I suppose it’s a matter of striking a balance and of being sensitive to the situation you’re in or the company you’re with. But I’m sure some of us – and I include myself in this – should more often make our faith plain so that a runner may read it. The last word from our Habakkuk reading says: ‘The righteous live by their faith.’ That should be plain to see.
Our faith in God ought to be the foundation, the motivation, the mainspring of our life. If it is, we ourselves can be a book who runs may read. Would that people could see in us a reason for believing and trusting in God!
Evidence is required, and that’s what today’s saint, St Thomas said: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
The resurrection of Jesus is of course central to our Christian faith. Without it there would be no Good News, no Gospel, no Christianity. There’s much discussion, indeed much arguing over what sort of resurrection it was. Some, like St John in the Gospels, believe it was a physical resurrection. Others, like St Paul in the Epistles, believe it was a spiritual one. But in the end, does it really matter how it happened or in what form it happened? All that really counts is that it did take place. Jesus, who died on the cross and was laid in the tomb, became alive again and lives for evermore. That fact is utterly essential to our Christian faith.
Yet it takes some believing. It’s very difficult for us, with the idea of the resurrection so embedded within us, to imagine just how astonishing and indeed incredible it must have seemed to those first disciples. You can’t blame Thomas for doubting, and perhaps he wasn’t the only one. In the closing verses of St Matthew’s Gospel, when they all went to Galilee and saw Jesus who told them to make all nations his disciples, it adds: ‘Though some were doubtful.’
But the named doubter in the Gospels is Doubting Thomas – it’s even become a nickname. And yet, within a week it was he who made the most definite, most bold statement of faith in Jesus contained in all the Gospels: ‘My Lord and my God.’
Last Thursday was St Peter’s Day and that day’s Gospel told how Peter was the first to call Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. But it was Thomas who was the first to say that Jesus was God.
It’s interesting that we’re celebrating St Thomas today, though the actual feast day is tomorrow, the third of July. Before the ASB, the Alternative Services Book which came out in 1980, St Thomas’ Day was always 21st December. But inevitably in recent years it had become more and more ignored, because by that date nowadays Christmas is already in full swing. St Thomas deserved something better.
Now according to an ancient tradition, Thomas, following Pentecost, went to evangelize India, and there’s a church in the south at Kerala where that tradition is particularly strong. They call themselves St Thomas Christians, and for them the feast day has always been July 3rd, which they believe was the date of his martyrdom. So that was the obvious choice, and I’m glad that it’s given us this opportunity of remembering him properly because I suspect there’s not a few of us who need the encouragement of a patron saint of doubters.
I wonder where he was that first Easter evening. Why was he the only one of the remaining eleven who was not there in the upper room behind locked doors? He might have been visiting his twin – the name Thomas means twin. But I think a more likely explanation is that he was so totally distraught over what had happened to Jesus that he just couldn’t face anyone: he had to be alone. He was certainly devoted to Jesus. He’d once said, “Let’s go with him even if we have to die with him.” Anyway, when the following Sunday he caught up with the others, the first thing they, full of excitement, said to him was, “We’ve seen the Lord.” But he just couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to believe; he just found it impossible. “I need to see the evidence,” he said, “I need undeniable proof.”
And the risen Jesus offered him that proof which he required, and doubting Thomas doubted no more. “My Lord and my God,” he said.
Well, what about our doubts? Sometimes perhaps they’re doubts about relatively unimportant aspects of Christian faith or church practice. But at other times they may be doubts about more fundamental things, like the effectiveness of prayer, or life after death, or even the very existence of a loving God in the face of a world full of atrocities and dreadful happenings.
The first thing to say is that, contrary to what some Christians maintain, there is nothing sinful in having doubts. If doubts do come into our minds, it’s not as though we want to doubt; we’d rather not. It’s doubting rather than believing that’s uncomfortable. And usually we’re doubting in the same way as Thomas – wanting to believe, but for the moment unable to. Like the man who brought his epileptic son to Jesus for healing saying, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Or in the modern versions, “I have faith; help me where faith falls short.”
We’ve got to hang on to what we do believe, and then as in the vision given to Habakkuk, not give up but wait patiently for the Lord to fill what’s missing.
The righteous live by faith. Despite any doubts we may have, let us persist in putting that into practice, so that people running by may be able to read the faith we do have and find for themselves encouragement and hope.
There’s an ancient story of an old vicar and a young curate. The vicar was taking the service, and there was a long pause. Obviously, he’d lost his place and couldn’t think what came next. The curate leant across and whispered, “I believe in God.” “So do I,” said the vicar. “So do I.”