Sermon for HIGH MASS – S Thomas Sunday 3 July 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
While I was working in the diocese of Sheffield I was a member of the diocesan patronage committee. As a result, before I escaped to the wicked south, I was involved in a few appointments of clergy, and had to chair one process, seared in my memory, to the Rectory of Wickersley, a distinctly ‘worthy’ outpost of Rotherham. In spite of my leadership we managed to complete the process and appoint an excellent priest. So now came the Institution and Induction in which I would have to take part. I had one line – ‘I present X – let’s call him Robert – to be the Rector of Wickersley’. Duly drowned in acres of unfamiliar Anglican choir dress I took my place in the chancel, stepped down into the nave at the appropriate moment and, at the cue from the archdeacon, announced,
‘I present Robert to be the Wrecker of Wickersley.’
I enunciated this sentence loudly and with bell-like clarity. The congregation heard me perfectly. There was a small titter as I quickly repeated myself in the correct form. The suffragan Bishop of Doncaster then kindly drew attention to me in his sermon, with some fairly half-baked rhetorical gymnastics about how, in a very real sense, Robert was called, prophetically, to be the Wrecker of Wickersley. The punters, who were already a bit doubtful about this appointment, didn’t take it well. I went home as quickly as I decently could.
None of us wants to be remembered only for our most embarrassing public statement, though no doubt if the diocese of Sheffield remembers me at all this will be the mark I made.
Saying the wrong word in a context like that isn’t of quite the same magnitude as failing to accept the resurrection. It is a mistake. We move on. But that last observation highlights a credibility problem for the Christian faith that gets larger the more we refuse to acknowledge it. We are very choosy about what is just a mistake and what is insurmountable.
There are two things here. One is about forgiveness. There is no hierarchy of forgivability in the Gospel. One sin, and one only, is named as unforgiveable – the sin against the Holy Spirit. The Gospel context tells us that this is the sin of ascribing the works of God to the agency of the devil. All other mistakes are forgiveable according to the Lord. It may be useful to remember that ‘mistake’ is an equally good translation for biblical words for sin (the usual Greek word we find for it in the New Testament is an old word, found in Homer, and means ‘missing the mark’ – as in an archery contest).
Yet Christian ethical teaching, both old-style moral theology of the Thomist sort and less systematised Anglican official teaching, have repeatedly identified uncrossable red lines, which go beyond the teaching of Christ, things which either cannot be fixed or can only be set right by special juridical means. In our day it always seems to be about sex, but there have been other topics: for example slavery and usury. Old distinctions between mortal sin and venial sin do not exist in the Gospels any more than synodical rulings: in the Gospels we find generous forgiveness.
So in Gospel terms Thomas’s doubting is a no more unforgivable a mistake than my mistaken utterance. But it has been received as part of a mystique around faith which has sometimes demonised honest doubt and closed down conversation between Christians. That is, I suppose, the predictable result of the application of human logic to the things of God. As Father Faber wrote, and we shall sing next week,
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he would not own.
If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word;
and our lives would be all gladness,
in the joy of Christ our Lord.
The other thing here is Christian unity. Notions of who is and is not truly the church have preoccupied Christians from early centuries. The Eastern Orthodox churches were struggling with it again last week. But Thomas was not ejected from the circle of his friends: that is a powerful argument against creating divisions in communion. If he hadn’t been with them when the Lord returned, his faith would not have been demonstrated, and his fellow apostles (and we) would have been the poorer. His experience was different from theirs (he hadn’t seen what they had seen) and so his faith also developed differently.
Thomas’s too well-remembered remark about needing to see Christ in person before he will believe in the resurrection has marked him as ‘doubting Thomas’ and made him a byword for failures of trust or vision. But if he doubted, he also believed. He subsequently made the most explicit statement of faith in the New Testament, addressing the risen Christ as ‘My Lord and my God’ and, in so expressing his faith, gave Christians a prayer that will always endure. And he occasioned a commendation from Jesus to any of us in successive centuries who hold to our faith, ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’: we often hear that as a rebuke but we should remember that those words refer us, on our good days.
Thomas remains an apostle with Peter, the impetuous follower, with James and John, ‘the sons of thunder’, with Philip and his foolish request to be shown the Father; with all the apostles in their weakness and lack of understanding.
As Fr Julian was reminding us last week, God starts with us as we are, not as idealised creatures who cannot live up to his invitation. Jesus did not pick worthless men and women, any more than any of us is worthless. The human weakness of the apostles points repeatedly to holiness as a free gift of God, not a human creation; it is given to ordinary men and women with predictable weaknesses. And it is offered freely, without distinguishing the official channels of grace we seek to mark off and protect. If we respond to the invitation, and act upon it, God gradually transforms our weaknesses into the image of Christ, the courageous, trusting and loving one.
S. Thomas is a sign to us that we too can be apostles of Christ.
Holy Thomas, Apostle of Christ, pray for us.