Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
It has been the most extraordinary last 10 days in the political, economic and social life of Britain. Since the result of the EU Referendum it has taken quite an effort each day to keep up with the fast pace of changing events on the political scene in Britain and Europe. Some people have described the situation as the worst constitutional crisis our country has faced for very many years. There has been much confusion, grief and disillusion. Whichever way people may have voted, it has to be acknowledged that upheaval and uncertainty seem to be more prevalent now than order and calm.
As human beings we do like certainty. We like to know that our job is secure, that our friends are trustworthy at all times and that we have a clear idea of where our lives are going for the next few years at least, if not more. But life isn’t like that. We are set in the midst of a very uncertain world. We need only to immerse ourselves in a few good history books to know that upheaval and strife are often more the norm than political peace and security. We are privileged in this nation for over 70 years to have been without war being waged against us in our own land. But the commemorations this weekend concerning all those who lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme in France 100 years ago have been a solemn reminder of the harsh realities of war that bring such unspeakable misery in their wake to so many. And since 2001 with 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York our world has been beset with the spectre of terrorism. Only this last week there were further suicide bombings at Istanbul airport, bringing devastation and grief to many lives, and there have also been killings in Bangladesh. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were killed, injured and bereaved.
The tragedy and suffering that accompanies war and conflict and indeed disaster of any kind can lead the most devout Christians and other people of faith to doubt the God of Love whom we believe is ruler of this world. And doubt – whether it is in God, ourselves, others, the Church or the world is part of what it means to be human. When we have doubts it is better to acknowledge them, rather than suppress them and pretend they are not there.
Today is the feast of St Thomas, apostle and martyr of the faith – hence the liturgical colour of red for martyrdom that we keep today. Thomas was one of the 12 chosen by Jesus to be among his closest disciples. What is best known about Thomas is that he doubted – “doubting Thomas”, as he is often called. Thomas also called “Didymus” meaning “the twin” is mentioned in all four gospels. He impulsively offered to die with Jesus on the way to Bethany, but was dubious about where Jesus was going and the way there – his questioning elicited from Jesus the famous saying,
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”.
Tradition tells us that Thomas went to India to preach the gospel. He was martyred by a spear or lance and buried at Mylapore, near Madras. As many as 46 ancient churches in England were dedicated to him. His feast used to be kept in the West on 21st December. But in the Syrian churches and in Malabar 3rd July – today – was believed to be the date of his death in the year 72. And in the West we now also keep his feast on this day. Above all Thomas is remembered for doubting the resurrection of Jesus, and we have heard the gospel account of this today from John. On the evening of Easter Day, when the risen Jesus had appeared to the disciples in the house where they met, Thomas was not there. It must have been hard for Thomas when he returned to the house and was greeted by the elated disciples with their story of Jesus appearing to them, but Thomas had been absent. Thomas must have felt deeply excluded.
But Jesus does not give up on us. He always gives us another chance. And Thomas was no exception. A week later, this time when Thomas was with the disciples in the house, Jesus appeared again. The previous week Thomas had bitterly declared that he would not believe Jesus was alive until he saw the marks of the nails for himself and put his hand in Jesus’ side, where the lance had pierced him. How good it is that we have this story of Thomas – Thomas the sceptic, the doubter. When Jesus appears a week later he invites Thomas to reach out and touch his scars. But this time there is no need. All Thomas’ doubts and perplexities melt away, and he proclaims,
“My Lord and my God.”
When we have our own doubts – about God, about God’s love, about God loving us, even about God’s existence, we can remember Thomas, and take courage. We can even pray to Thomas, that God may help us with our doubts. And of course even Jesus – the human Jesus – had his doubts. Remember the garden of Gethsemane? What were Jesus’ words?
“My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….”.
And the cup of suffering that Jesus knew lay ahead of him was betrayal and an unjust trial and death by crucifixion. And what was his agonised cry of dereliction from the cross as recorded in Mark?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These words spoken by Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross could not have been uttered unless he had doubts – doubts in God’s will for his life, and doubts in God’s abiding, faithful presence. But although assailed by doubts at these times of extremity, Jesus did not let the doubts prevail. He won through to a place of renewed faith and trust. So it’s normal and ok to have doubts. It is all part of being human. And it is important that we acknowledge our doubts, because it is only when we acknowledge them that we can be on the road to overcoming them. Wars may rage, terrorism may threaten us, but God’s love remains the most important reality in this world.
I was on holiday recently on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. While there one night as I said Night Prayer with the Community of Aidan and Hilda, I flicked through the pages of their book called “Liturgies from Lindisfarne”. I found a liturgy for a Service after an Act of Terror. I would like to close by quoting some words used in the liturgy that were read after the destruction of the Twin Towers:
“There are two possible responses to what has occurred. The first comes from love, the second from fear or revenge…Let us not seek to pinpoint blame, but to pinpoint cause.
The message we hear from all sources of truth is clear: we are all one. Forgetting this truth is the only cause of hatred and war and the way to remember is simple; love, this and every moment.
Ask God on this day to show us how to show up in the world in a way that will cause the world itself to change. And join people in the world who are praying right now, adding your light to the Light that dispels all fear.
If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.
If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe.
If you wish better to understand seemingly incomprehensible things,
Help another to understand.
If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, heal the sadness or anger of another”.