Sermon for High Mass – Low Sunday, Easter 2 Sunday 8 April 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
It seems that after Good Friday Thomas had cut himself off from the other apostles and walked alone. People who are grieving, as he must have been, after Jesus’ death, have a tendency to isolate themselves. This is, of course, understandable, but it doesn’t help; the story of Thomas is a powerful example of why.
Fortunately, Thomas didn’t cut himself off for good. When he did meet his friends again, they told him they had seen Jesus. As we know, Thomas refused to take their word for it. As a result he gets a bad press, as ‘doubting Thomas’. We can sympathize with him: he was merely echoing a human cry for certainty. Such certainties elude us in this life; which is why we walk, as St Paul says, by faith, not by sight. But Thomas did the most important thing; he rejoined the apostles; now he had the support of his community. His story reminds us of why we need to be part of the church; why we can’t be Christians on our own.
Thomas is like most of us a good deal of the time: struggling a bit, uncertain, even agnostic. But there’s something especially significant about Thomas for the church; or rather something about the other disciples. Thomas doubted, openly expressed scepticism, about the central doctrine of the Christian faith, the resurrection. The reaction of the Christian community to his doubt is a rebuke to most churches today.
Our gospel today is the last scene in John’s book: (the next chapter, 21, is an appendix). Thomas calls Jesus ‘God’. Nowhere else in the New Testament is Jesus directly named as ‘God’, (though his divine identity is elsewhere implied). So, in a way, this acclamation of the Risen Christ is the climax of the whole New Testament (something the Irish RC bishops understood when, in place of ‘Christ has died, Christ is Risen…’ they allowed ‘My Lord and my God’ as an acclamation in the Eucharistic Prayer).
It is also striking that Jesus’ final blessing is of peace and forgiveness. Throughout the bible God is a God of forgiveness. The Old Testament reports a series of covenants of forgiveness, each in turn broken by God’s Chosen People. The Covenant with Noah after the flood, the Covenant with Abraham, the Covenant with Moses after the worship of the Golden Calf; finally the New Covenant promised by Jeremiah, when unfaithful Israel is being exiled to Babylon. Christianity is not for the perfect but for the sinner, surrounded by sinners. Forgiven sinners must bring forgiveness to those around them (as the parable of the unforgiving servant in teaches us, in Matthew 18). Thomas is not an unforgiveable sinner but a model of reconciliation.
As St Paul had already written when John’s gospel was composed, ‘if Christ be not raised then we are of all people most to be pitied’. Without the Resurrection, without the good news of new life which the Easter gospel offers, we have little more to offer than being nice to each other. And there are plenty of people outside the church better at that than we are. The cross isn’t much use without it either: it doesn’t make much difference that Christ died for us if that was the end of the story: it only makes a difference because of what happens next, the new life that issues from that death. Because of the Easter faith we do not face a full stop, but an open invitation to continue. Because of the Easter good news, we don’t need to be better than other people, indeed we begin every Mass by acknowledging that we are not better, in the full confidence that God can make something of us in spite of ourselves.
Thomas doubted this core truth of the faith, the resurrection of Jesus and asked for proof. Yet we call him a saint, an apostle. More significantly, his fellow apostles did not cast him forth for this doubt, this refusal to be carried away by others’ enthusiasm. There was no excommunication, no impaired communion, no suggestion of withdrawal from councils and conferences.
No issue before the church today is of comparable importance to the truth of the resurrection; there can be no issue of comparable importance to Christians. And it was only when Thomas rejoined, and was welcomed into, the community that he encountered the risen Jesus and so found his faith again. That wouldn’t have worked if he’d stayed away or the community had reacted by finger-wagging and condemnation.
Christian life is inherently relational; it needs a community. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the unity of God consists of essential relationships, between Father, Son & Holy Spirit. We cannot be Christians on our own. When we try to do that our own poor resources of faith inevitably run dry and desert us. I know I’m saying this to the wrong people, because you’re all here. But perhaps it isn’t such a mistake: perhaps it is a reminder and an encouragement that we can be the best evangelists in the detail of our daily lives. If you know someone who has a sense of God but, for whatever reason, has fallen away from church or never much joined in worship, you might want to try and see whether they would find their faith extended and enriched by joining us.
We see the kind of community the first Christians enjoyed delineated in our first reading, from Acts. They supported one another by praying and worshipping together, and by looking out for each other. Above all they did it by welcoming those with whom they disagreed to fellowship at the one Eucharist: the story of Thomas is a parable of that. Our ministry to one another consists not so much in doing things for one another, as in travelling together.
The Church has mostly got its teaching about family the wrong way round, exalting the human nuclear family as an ideal, even a perfect institution. Jesus did not teach that the nuclear family was the perfect community; on the contrary most of what he has to say about it requires us to leave it behind. Rather, he taught that the Church is to be our family, one in which we are necessarily related. Speaking in a culture where blood ties were understood as primary, he said that our church relationships were more important than those; but also that they work in the same way. As in the most functional families, the church is to be a family where we can disagree profoundly and remain bound together, inextricably. That is the Gospel.
As we pray for our fellow Christians, especially those from whom we are separated or with whom we disagree, let us remember Thomas, who was just like any one of us, and pray that the church may respond to honest differences and doubts with the generosity of those first apostles, who were so close to our Lord.