Sunday 12th February, morning
Revd Kate Tuckett
I don’t know about you, but it already seems to me as if Easter happened about a month ago. The week before last, some of us were in church every evening, singing hymns, sharing food, having our feet washed, sitting in front of a stark cross. Then on Sunday, the church was full as we told the story of the empty tomb. We renewed our baptismal vows, exchanged God’s peace, shared bread and wine: we approached the story with awe and wonder and fear.
Then for most of us it was business as usual: back to work, to the chores, to the news. Today is traditionally known as Low Sunday, and this supposedly refers to church attendance, presumably everyone exhausted by their religious energy last week. I do not say this as a judgment but as a fact of life. It’s hard to sustain the enthusiasm of Easter once Easter is over.
The Easter season may be a disappointment. A week ago we proclaimed that Christ is risen, triumphant over sin and death. Yet a week on, people are still dying, and not even a cursory look through the news suggests that sin has been eradicated from the world. And we don’t need the mass media to tell us that: our own hearts and homes and workplaces offer abundant evidence that sin has not loosened its grip since last Sunday. For all of us in some way or other there is a huge gap between the Easter proclamation of joy and the felt reality of grief, guilt, loneliness, chaos, hopelessness.
It’s good to have the gospel of John here because he takes on directly the disappointment of Easter and the real difficulty of believing a) that Jesus has risen from the dead, and b) that anything has changed as a result. In John’s gospel, Thomas is the one who calls attention to the gap between the Easter proclamation and our present experience. He is stuck in that gap.
It always seems a little odd that we name Thomas ‘doubting Thomas’. We don’t give other characters in the New Testament nicknames, like Hapless Peter or Sleazy Judas. But poor Thomas is stuck with being known by this attribute of his personality.
And the fact is that when Jesus encountered Thomas, he didn’t label him as a doubter. He didn’t judge him. He came to Thomas just as he was, doubts and all, and offered him peace.
And this isn’t just a story about Thomas. Picture what it must have been like in that shadowy room with Jesus’s friends who had denied, betrayed and abandoned him. Judas has hanged himself and his friends are in hiding, terrified of the hostility and bitterness of the Roman authorities. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that they were passing round recriminations, blame and justification for Jesus’ death.
It’s here, among doubt and fear and locked doors, amidst blame and recrimination that the disciples encountered Jesus. He chose to appear to those he loved who had abandoned him.
Thomas comes from the Aramaic word meaning twin. Thomas is our twin. His story is our story. He is a stand-in for all of us who want to see. The gospel writer understood this, addressing people who had never seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. Jesus understands it. He does not dismiss Thomas from the circle of friends for failing to trust what the others had told him. He came to the scene for his benefit alone.
The only people who would seem to be left out are all of us who were not there, and who will never lay eyes or hands on the physical person of Jesus. We are outside the circle of this story by thousands of years, and yet through it, Jesus includes us too. ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’ he asks. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.’ And that, of course, is us.
Atheists will say there is no evidence for God in the same way that there is no evidence for fairies at the bottom of the garden. But perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to faith is our cultural failure to understand and appreciate the power and mystery of stories. Some things cannot be measured under the lens of a microscope but that does not stop them from being real.
We cannot put our hands in Jesus’ side: all we have is the stories. In Thomas we have a story of encounter, of pilgrimage, of spiritual journey. And I believe that if allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of the Divine, if we are prepared to let the magic and the mystery of the story enter our souls, we can too encounter the sacred. If we are prepared to let the intuitive, spiritual faculty within us flourish, and if we are prepared to live with ambiguity, we can give ourselves the opportunity to enter a different world.
‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’ Can we really do that? No. Can the story make us feel as if we can? Yes, if we open ourselves to it. Yes, if we are willing to believe, or try and believe, because believing is all the Holy Spirit needs to bring the story to life. Believing is all the Holy Spirit needs to being us to life, breathing on us in the same way as Jesus breathed on his disciples.
This is a story about Thomas opening himself to the possibility of that encounter, moving from a place where he said no to this possibility. This is a place we have all been and all return to, and thank goodness we don’t call one another Doubting Liz or Doubting Caroline or Doubting Ben or Doubting Kate. And sometimes doubt means that we have not forgotten the story. It’s sometimes through doubt that we can chew over it and question it and arrive at new places of possibility.
The story is alive with or without us. And it’s a story that cannot be contained. It’s a story that breaks through our fear and locked doors and shame and reminds us, whether we like it or not, that we are loved, we are forgiven, we are more than the sum total of our bad choices and even our good choices. Our lack of faith and our low self-esteem won’t keep Jesus out.
But if we can open ourselves to trying to know this, in whatever way we can, we might find that we recognise life more abundantly, more richly, more beautifully. God wants us to be a part of the story – to tell the story, to live the story, and to know Jesus’ risen life on earth, that rudely barges past our locked doors, offering us peace and breath and spirit and then sends us out to do the same for the world.
It is low Sunday. But we have come, perhaps hoping to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead and that something has changed as a result. That is all we need to do. In this belief, in this hope, we are offered life abundant, forgiveness and peace that passes understanding beyond sin and death.
This sermon uses ideas and material from:
Brown Taylor, B. (2011), Home By Another Way, London: SPCK