Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Chapters 8-10 of Luke’s Gospel set out a very interesting – what we might call in today’s church jargon – ‘Mission Action Plan’. And it all sounds quite urgent. First, in these chapters, we encounter Jesus himself going through towns and villages, gathering large crowds to hear his stories and see his healing miracles. Then it is the turn of the Twelve apostles, who are given instructions very similar to those we heard in today’s reading. And now it is the turn of the larger group of disciples to try their hand, 70 of them, we are told, sent out in pairs, to proclaim Jesus’s mission. Last week, we heard about those men who said they’d like to follow Jesus, but only after sorting out some pressing matters first, or simply saying goodbye to those at home. But there’s no time for any of that. Today’s 70 are told they shouldn’t even stop to greet people on the road as they travel. There is no time to be wasted: as the Gospels regularly make plain, now is the time of decision. Well, I suppose it is one way of doing mission, even if it has a touch of the ‘clobber them over the heads with the message’ feel. But that sense of urgency certainly fits the context in which the earliest Christian communities developed. Bear in mind the Gospels were written years after Jesus’s death and resurrection and, for those early Christians, his return to earth was expected imminently. It’s reminiscent of that amusing, if slightly irreverent, car bumper sticker that warns, Jesus is coming: look busy.
What about Jesus’s mission today? We obviously inhabit a very different philosophical, intellectual, scientific, social and cultural context, yet that insistent Gospel call to try to live out the kingdom Jesus embodied remains, and we, too, need to make a response, and it, too, needs to be now, because ‘now’ is every moment. Last Wednesday was St Thomas’s Day. Thomas is my middle name – not after the Apostle, but after my maternal grandfather. I never knew him, because he died ten months before I was born. But I do feel something of an affinity with the Apostle, not just because of his name, but, more significantly, because of what we read of him in the Gospels.
The Apostle Thomas has gone down in Christian history as the one who doubted the resurrection when he first heard about it from the other disciples: ‘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’. Often this kind of doubt is seen in a negative light. But I reckon the asking of good questions can be the seedbed of a deeper faith. Many people, me included, have much sympathy with Thomas. To believe that the resurrection has taken place is an extraordinary step of faith. It isn’t unreasonable to demand some evidence. Of course, that evidence came for Thomas just one week later when he, too, encountered the risen Jesus, and ended up addressing him as ‘My Lord and my God’. Initial doubt eventually led Thomas led to the deepest faith. Tradition says he took the Gospel to India and eventually died a martyr for the Faith.
If I may speak from a clergy perspective just for a moment, Thomas remains an important figure in any understanding of the priestly role. All clergy have something of a dilemma (except, perhaps, those who are ultra-sure). At our ordination, we are charged with great seriousness to teach the Faith and to uphold standards of Christian orthodoxy in belief, as expressed in the Bible and the creeds. However, in a world of many viewpoints, we also have to deal positively with the questions and issues of our age. There are important critiques of Christian faith – and religion in general – with which we must engage. It seems to me we can fall into two traps. Either we play safe and use only orthodox phrases and words (which may come across as platitudes, or fail to engage with the reality of our lives), or we can focus too much on our own questions and experience in the here and now (which can fail to see all that in the light of the tradition and faith we have inherited). The aim is (in the words of the Declaration of Assent made before the Ordination service) ‘to proclaim the Gospel afresh in each generation’. There is a real need for this thoughtful, questioning engagement at every level in the life of our Church if we are to encourage lively, meaningful and intelligent faith. We all, clergy or not, need to integrate our experience of life with the received truths of our Faith. It is a two-sided coin, and it is an ongoing task which is not just intellectual – it embraces our prayer and spirituality as well.
We are about to enter the main holiday period for the year, not a bad time to do some reflection about how we might, as individuals, as a church and parish, develop this crucial element of ‘faith seeking understanding’ – so that there is a real freshness and integrity to the way we understand our faith and ‘do mission’ in our generation.
Thomas’s personality, his temperament, makes him ask questions that others are not prepared to ask. The concept of ‘doubting Thomas’ taps into a current of questioning which runs throughout the Bible. Doubt lurks in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent raises questions in Eve’s mind about what God had said to her. Abraham, Jeremiah, the psalmist and Job are just a few among many key figures, who raise doubts and questions about God. Indeed, in Job’s story, it is only his so-called ‘comforters’, gathered at his bedside, preaching their sugary certainties, who have no doubts. Doubt is in the bloodstream of the Hebrew Scriptures. And then think of the terrible history of anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Holocaust, and we can begin to appreciate why the Jewish people have often doubted their status as God’s ‘chosen people’. And as we move into the NT, yes, Thomas certainly has doubts, but he was in very good company. Jesus doubts whether he can put up with his disciples much longer. He wonders whether his own mission will make any lasting impact. And, most remarkably, according to the earliest account we have of his death, Jesus doubted, and his last word was a cry of despair: Where are you, God?
It is Thomas’s doubts and uncertainties that serve as a spur to his discipleship and so, I would suggest, it may be with us. The story of Thomas indicates that doubt and uncertainty add crucial authenticity to whatever stage we may have reached on our own spiritual path, and also validity to the questions we want to ask.
I tend to think of so-called doubting Thomas as a teacher of faith. Because he had doubt, unbelief and questions, he could not just accept the opinion of others. There is something very human, genuine and modern in Thomas’s attitude. I honour him because of his honesty, his critical approach to the stories about Jesus and those seemingly impossible rumours of resurrection, and his ability to change his own views in light of experience. Thomas values that experience more than the accepted opinions of his religious establishment and the traditions of the elders, despite being steeped in them. After all, there was no belief in resurrection in the Hebrew tradition. Who had heard of a resurrected Abraham or Moses? The concept simply didn’t exist. Thomas is not a naive sheep; he does not believe in blind faith, or leaping into the unknown, and he does not accept the truth merely because other people say it is the truth. He needs to verify the core of his faith to check whether this is something worth adhering to, dedicating your life to, and proclaiming to others as a worthwhile way to live your life. In our often sceptical culture, a context in which many are wary of religion, it is a method of ‘doing mission’ that relies less on dogmatic certainty, far more on asking important questions and authentically discovering the significance of Jesus for yourself.