Sermon for High Mass Easter 2 Sunday 28 April 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
From today’s Psalm (and the alleluia verse for Easter week): ‘This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’.
At my first Mass, almost 27 years ago, the preacher began by quoting Karl Rahner:
The priest must be in a good and true sense a happy man. A short time ago, in Freiburg, the mother of a priest was dying. She drank a glass of champagne with her son and then said: “Go home now and sleep well, and I shall sleep into eternity. Don’t be too sad about it. If priests look sad, nobody believes what they preach.” Et factum est ita.
Karl Rahner, Meditations on Priestly Life, 162 [fn 107]
‘If priests look sad, nobody believes what they preach.’ In those few words the dying mother expressed a very deep truth about Christian priesthood, that the priest is first and foremost a sign to the people of his own generation. The Mass, which I was about to celebrate for the first time, 27 years ago, contains within it the risen life of Christ, not just the death, and that is a cause of joy. Some Christians get hung up on the death of Christ to the point where Easter never seems to happen. We believe it does happen. And every time we gather to offer the Mass and receive communion and are given the new life which God offers us in this sacrament it happens afresh for us. And that word ‘believe‘ is very much to the fore as we hear from Thomas in this morning’s Gospel.
Thomas, who features so prominently this morning, is surely the patron saint of our ‘humanity’, in the sense of the imperfection we all know in ourselves. All the apostles displayed weakness and lack of understanding, but to Thomas alone it was given to doubt the very basis of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Christ. It may seem odd to describe that as a gift, but it was.
The story of Thomas’ doubt has two messages, I think. First, the church welcomed him back. You’ve heard me say this before, but I see Thomas as a powerful judgment against those in the church who are always wanting to excommunicate other people, or deny that they are proper Christians. The apostles did not break communion with him although he doubted the core of the faith; so we should not presume to promote division with our fellow Christians for whatever lesser reasons any doctrinal thought police try to promote. To put that another way, if you listen to this Gospel carefully, it is not Christ whom Thomas doubts: he doubts the Church. Every worried doubter should immediately feel more comfortable: we are allowed to doubt the Church, thank God. Even better, Thomas won’t buy the resurrection just because the others say so. He wants his own experience (he’s in that sense a modern person, like us). And because his brothers and sisters remain faithful to him when he distrusts them, because the Church doesn’t thrust him out of fellowship in self-righteous anger, he has his own beautiful encounter with the risen Christ.
John’s Gospel is very interested in Thomas. In the other three gospels he is merely named as one of the Twelve. In John, however, he appears three times in the narrative and even has a nickname, Didymus, ‘the twin’ (we aren’t told whose twin: I like to think of him as mine).
It is Thomas who says, recklessly, to the others ‘Let us also go that we may die with him’, as Jesus leaves for Lazarus’ tomb (no hesitation there: he certainly trusts Jesus). It is Thomas who responds in affecting puzzlement to Jesus’ statement, ‘you know the way to the place where I am going’, by saying ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’. And then it is Thomas who features as a notable absence when the rest of the Twelve – now an Eleven – gather on the evening of Easter Day.
John’s portrait of Thomas is of one who never seems to get what Jesus is on about and is in the wrong place when something miraculous happens. But that is to focus on his weaknesses. When he does get it, he really gets it. The title that John records Thomas as using to address the risen Christ tells us everything.
Around the time this Gospel was written, Domitian was the Emperor in Rome. The title which Thomas gives to the risen Jesus is what a loyal Roman citizen was expected to call the Emperor: ‘Dominus ac Deus, (Lord and God).’ It is hard for us to imagine how politically and socially subversive this phrase, applied to anyone other than the emperor, would be at this date. This is a slogan of revolution, a revolution that finally occurred, 229 years after Domitian, when the Emperor Constantine was baptized. That day he professed that it was not he, Emperor of the world, but Jesus, who was wounded, crucified and raised from the dead, who alone is worthy of worship, ‘My Lord and my God’.
So while Thomas may console us in our doubts, he doesn’t leave us there, as though doubts were a cause for hand-wringing celebration in the manner of 60’s liberal protestantism. Thomas also challenges us to seek out answers, or at least be patient as they come. And Thomas is the patron saint of those of us who are prepared for the consequences of whatever surprises we might find on the pilgrimage of faith. When, like him, we join our brothers and sisters in Christ, we also meet, and recognise, the risen Christ in the community and in the Blessed Sacrament: our lives are nourished and changed, and so is our world.
We are also reminded this morning that seeing is not identical with faith. There is a gentle reprimand here in Jesus’ words, ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’. That’s a challenge to us. For if we recognise the presence of Christ in this sacrament, if we can say ‘my Lord and my God’ as we receive communion, then, tho’ we haven’t seen the risen Lord, we are on the path of faith. That’s why, in some parts of the world, instead of ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’, the people simply respond, ‘My Lord and my God’, making the words of Thomas our own.
‘This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’.