St Thomas the Apostle St Mary Magdalene, Evensong
Reading 1 Peter 1.3-12
Preacher canon Robert Titley
‘Without having seen him you love him.’ Those words from our second reading sound like an implied rebuke to tonight’s hero, St Thomasthe Apostle. Thomas belongs to that elite group of characters who have passed from the pages of the Bible into the common tongue: Job’s Comforters, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Doubting Thomas.
So what is Thomas’ problem? According to John’s gospel (the only one in which he appears outside the bare list of disciples) Thomas was not there when Jesus, raised from the dead, appeared to his friends; and now he wants proof that the person they saw was the same person who was put to death on the cross: ‘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’ (John 20.25). Show me, give me something I can grasp. Then I’ll believe. Not an unreasonable position, and a pretty common one among people who have a problem with all this – ‘You say there’s a God: give me some hard evidence.’ And those who know something of God say, ‘Well, it’s not like that,’ and struggle to convey what is in their hearts. Tonight we see that this is how it has been since the dawn of Christian faith.
John tells us that Jesus offers Thomas what he needs, but then says that the people who are ‘blessed’ – who are really on the right path – are the ones who believe without that crude proof, who have not seen and yet believe. Our reading tonight agrees, as we have already seen: ‘although you have not seen him you believe’. That is how it is with that congregation long ago, that is how it is with us; and, even at the first Easter, that was how it was going to be before long with the disciples. Their experiences, those amazing encounters with the risen Christ – they defy explanation and equally defy theories of composition that relegate them to mere stories, and they are quite beyond us, and may make you say, in the words of the Christmas carol, ‘O that we were there.’ But even for the Disciples they will be only a temporary thing, for soon Jesus will no longer be with them in such palpable encounters. But Jesus has been the presence of God among them, the word of God ‘made flesh’ (as John puts it, 1.14), so that sounds like bad news. No, says John: when Jesus appears to the disciples on the night Thomas is away, he says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20.19-23); he breathes his Spirit into them, and from now they will have the presence of God inside them, in their hearts. Easter is just a first stage to get the rocket of Christian faith off the ground. Thereafter, the fuel is to come from within: the Spirit of God will not seize them from outside but breathe their very life within them.
So it was for the church that first heard our reading, which talks about the Spirit of Christ in prophets long ago and the Holy Spirit sent from heaven upon those who brought faith to his audience. And so it is for us. You and I will receive just so many ‘Thomas moments’, just so many decisive experiences of God, as we need in our lifetime; and that will probably be not as many as we want. For the rest, it is the task of attending to the pulse of the life of God which is quietly, persistently trying to establish itself within you; listening to the still, small voice which the many other voices can drown in ‘this twittering world’.
Ever since those first days, a mark of true faith has always been when men and women and children are set free from depending only on what is around them, and even from who is around them, set free because of the strength of God within them. Soon after the Christian faith got going, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. A terrible thing, but not the end of the world, because the followers of Jesus could say – we are the temple, it’s in our own hearts that we meet God. For the church that receives this First Letter of Peter, things are changing around them: we hear that they are suffering ‘various trials’. We do not know just what the trials are, but it seems to be some kind of persecution: loss of security, of reputation, even loss of freedom. And the writer assures them that God has placed within them what they need to withstand all that is around them.
Looking within yourself to deal with what’s around you. It is a universal human experience which we have seen acted out on our screens with great drama over the last fortnight. Sport shows us in the most dramatic ways what happens in all of life, and in the gladiatorial encounters of the tennis court we see people looking within themselves and finding, or failing to find, what they need to deal with what comes at them – a moment of brilliance from the other side of the net, or just sheer bad luck – that leads to a lost point or lost game. Such moments of loss may find echoes in ordinary life, which matters rather more: someone close to you dies; or a relationship goes wrong; someone you depended on isn’t there now – at least, not in the way they were – and it’s tough. You look into yourself, you look to others, and find that you can survive and perhaps thrive, and even smile and laugh again. Where does that resolve come from? Some say it is purely ours. Christian experience is that we are given a strength that is not our own. 1 Peter talks of the ‘protection’ of God, and the knowledge that the path of suffering is one that Jesus has trodden before us.
For Thomas and his friends, the life of discipleship required them to come of age, to discover and put their trust in what they could not see, the energy of God within and among them. It is that adult faith into which God has invited you and me: to be fed by the scriptures and the sacraments; to be bolstered by the company of others, as we are here tonight, looking to our right or left and realizing that this not a journey we have to make alone; and above all, trusting that the God who raised his Son from the dead, cares just as much about you and me and the life that is ours.
Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow;
The same everlasting Father who cares for you today,
Will take care of you tomorrow and every day.
Either he will shield you from suffering
or he will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.
St Francis de Sales