Sunday, 3 July 2016

A Saint for our Time

This sermon was preached on the morning of 3rd July, when we celebrated the feast of St Thomas. In the news recently had been the EU referendum and the ensuing Tory leadership contest. The Gospel was John 20:24-29.

Today, we celebrate the feast of St Thomas. I have preached on him before, and I will try my best to not repeat myself today! That is difficult, though, because there is only ever one event from the gospels that is read out when we talk about Thomas; the one which gives him his nickname of Doubting Thomas, the familiar story we have heard again today where Thomas refuses to believe Christ has risen until he has seen with his own eyes.

I wonder what Thomas himself would make of it? Every year, the same story being told of him, over and over? “Not this again!”, he might cry, “Must they only ever talk about that moment of weakness? I was the first to take the Good News of Christ to India and converted thousands of people there!” 

And then, turning to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and raising his hands in despair, he would say, “I’ve got two gospels credited to me! Two! Ok, ok… they didn’t make it into the Bible, and I might not have written them myself, but still, can they not talk about something else other than my doubts?” 

(At this point, Luke and John might look at each other and think about pointing out that they themselves had written two books, which did in fact make it into the Bible, until they catch sight of Paul over in the corner, giving them a wry smile, and think better of it.)

Caravaggio's Incredulity of St Thomas

I digress, but you get the point. Thomas was one of the twelve disciples, and a great apostle, but his moment of doubt is what we know him for. Can you imagine what it would be like to be known only for something you yourself might rather forget?

It happens to our politicians. Ed Miliband will be forever primarily associated with eating a bacon sandwich incredibly badly; John Prescott, with punching a man during the 2001 election campaign; and Boris Johnson, with not only dangling precariously above London on a zip-wire for several minutes during the London Olympics, but also, no doubt, for his leadership of the recent Leave campaign, which many commentators believe he only supported in order to then become the prime minister, only to pull out of the Tory leadership contest at the last minute.

Now, don’t worry – I’m not going to preach on the referendum, but I am going to refer to it, as I believe something that Michael Gove said during the campaign was very interesting, and has a link to our Gospel, and to the saint we celebrate this morning.

During a referendum debate on Sky News, talking about the economic predictions of the Remain side, Gove claimed that the British people had “had enough of experts”. I happen to think he was right.

We live in a post-modern culture, and with that, we instinctively distrust what people tell us. We believe they must have an agenda. Nowhere was this more evident than during the referendum, with both sides claiming the experts on the other side were biased. I do not actually believe this mistrust is a bad thing; it is right to question why someone is telling you something; in our society, it’s necessary. Can you imagine if you took everything you heard at face-value? If you believed every piece of junk mail you got telling you that you’d won a holiday, or every internet advert saying you’d won a prize as the millionth visitor to that page? If you believed every scam-artist and every sob-story? Not only would you end up being conned, you would end up worn out, completely drained of everything you could give; money, time and love. That mistrust protects us.

Many years ago, a congregation would hold everything I said from this pulpit as “God’s Truth”. The Church at that time carried all the authority, and people believed everything it proclaimed. Not so very long ago, up until around 1960 or so, Truth was then claimed by the learned; professors and scientists. Tweed jackets and white lab coats replaced the cassock and alb as the signifier of knowledge and Truth. Perhaps you can remember (or have seen on clip shows or in museums) the billboard and TV adverts from the '40s and '50s, with scientists pointing out the benefits of their products, and how their superior technology had made them better than their competitors. From the middle of the twentieth century onwards, the media began to take on that authoritative role, with people putting their trust in the opinions of the editor of their morning newspaper, or the latest piece of investigative journalism that showed that science did not always mean progress, with such tragedies as the Thalidomide scandal and the Chernobyl disaster. And now, as we move into the twenty-first century, with the advent of the internet allowing us to realise that news companies filter and choose the news they bring us, the media is beginning to lose its authority, with ‘bias’ being shouted at everyone from Fox News and Russia Today to the BBC. Instead, we have moved into an era of personal authority; where we distrust what we are told, and discover Truth for ourselves through our own experiences. It is common to hear people saying such things as “I don’t care what the facts say, that’s not what I have experienced.”

And this is why I love St Thomas. This is why he’s a great saint for our time. In previous eras, he may have trusted the religious authority of Peter when he was told the disciples had seen Christ raised from the dead. Or perhaps he’d have asked his friends to show him evidence of Christ having been there; a warm chair, some broken bread and half-drunk wine. Perhaps he’d have even believed their reports of the account, with all statements matching up and his friends being eye-witnesses to the event. But no, Thomas dismisses all that. He wants to see and experience Christ for himself: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hands in his side, I will not believe.

Isn’t that the cry of our society too? They know what we have to tell them about Christ. Most people have heard it before, but until they can grasp him and see him and experience him for themselves, they will not believe. I don’t blame them. I want that too.

Thomas got what he needed. He saw Christ, his body with the nail marks and the hole in his side, broken for him. He put his hand in his side. Maybe when he drew it out, there was a trace of blood, shed for him, left on his hand. Thomas saw and believed. He experienced Christ.

We’re invited to experience Christ too, alongside Thomas, this morning. To partake in the bread and the wine; holding that body and drinking that blood. For some of us, with God’s grace, that will be all we need to hold onto our faith, to see and believe with St Thomas. I pray that you’ll find that this morning if you choose to come and receive those gifts.

For others of us, and for others outside of this church, more may be needed. Not expert opinion, or religious arguments. Not even first-hand accounts. The American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Christians can be very good at talking about our faith, about the God of love. We’re not often so good at helping others experience that love.

This country – especially now, in the aftermath of our referendum, with political chaos, a great deal of hurt and animosity, and rising hatred – needs to experience, to see, Christ. Like Thomas, they are unable to believe unless they reach out and experience him for themselves.

And so, I leave you with that question – this week, how will you let the people around you experience Christ through you? How will you enable people to see Christ not just in the things you say, but in the things you do, and in the way you make people feel, so that, after an encounter with you, someone might exclaim, with Thomas, “I see and I believe”?


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