8. April 2018

A Week is a Long Time in…

Service Type:

‘…Eight Days Later…’ (John 20, 26a)

Thomas has become something of a caricature as far as the Easter story is concerned – ‘Doubting’ Thomas we call him, - the one who wasn’t prepared to take the other disciples’ word for it, the one who wanted to see for himself. Jesus said, in effect, fair enough Thomas, I get where you are coming from; here see my hands, touch them if you wish, and my side, see the gash, go on, put your hand right inside. But just remember, and this a word for all of you, you are a very privileged minority because only a small number, a very small number of people will see me as I am now, raised from the dead, before I go to be with The Father. Paul refers to a crowd of 500 on one occasion, but even then, compared with the tens of thousands who had crowded into Jerusalem for Passover, just a drop in the ocean. And don’t for a moment think that Thomas was the only one who had doubts – even amongst those who had already seen the risen Jesus – there were those who doubted. Matthew describes Jesus’ appearing to the disciples in Galilee: ‘When they saw Him they worshipped Him; but some doubted’ (Matt. 28, 17). And who can blame them. Thomas wanted to see for himself before he was willing to believe; even some of those who had seen were finding it unbelievable – a dead man alive. The German atheistic philosopher, Nietzsche, who manages so often to deliberately, or maybe not, misrepresent what Christianity is all about is at his ‘best’ when discussing doubt;

“Doubt as sin. — Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality).

Nowhere does Christianity declare doubt to be sinful; it is an entirely appropriate emotional state that is directly consequent on our being human, because we are, after all, only human. If anyone here this morning dares to suggest that they have never doubted anything concerning what they believe about God, about Jesus, about the world, about themselves, then I say to them, to you, to us, to me; beware the arrogance of misapplied certainty; pride really does go before a fall – Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the Cross, capable of being interpreted in so many ways, has found its echo in the experience of every believer across the centuries, from then until now – ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?’ –all of us, without exception I hope have been in that place where we have found ourselves blurting out, “ God where the **** are You?

“You will all be assailed, my dear friends, by the very real temptation to believe that you have been forsaken by God – that your priesthood is in vain, and that the weight of mortal grief and sin is more than you can bear. In the midst of your anguish you will ask of Him a sign, some visible ray of His unchanging light in a world of hideous darkness. I am sorry to say that this visible sign will rarely be given. The light will be interior; you must look for it within”  (Henry Morton Robinson, The Cardinal)

…And some of us may well be in that place right now; surrounded by religion; wrapped up in its ritual, suffocated by its sentiment, overwhelmed by its emotion, yet still stubbornly unmoved by its appeal. Why? Because to believe, to live by faith, to forego the certainties that hitherto have underpinned our lives is a big ask. Because right now, to be told that ‘God loves You’, that ‘Jesus is alive’ is what you imagine is the last thing you need to hear; its meaningless, its patronising, its irrelevant. Yet,the old certainties are dissolving before our very eyes; that of which we were once so sure, not so sure anymore; Matthew Arnold, in 1851, wrote the poem, ‘On Dover Beach’, the 3rdstanza of which reads thus…

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world…

    All of us have stood at the water’s edge, questioning, wondering, doubting. Resurrection makes a virtue of doubt, consecrates unbelief, dethrones reason, defies explanation. It makes room for faith; a faith made stronger when tested by doubt…

“Jesus' willingness to accommodate Thomas' unbelief is a reminder that God can handle our doubt. And that [there is no] need to see, touch, or run a lab test in order to believe in the resurrected Christ. Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me” (Jn 20:29 Not a plea to accept what goes against reason, but an invitation to discover a faith that goes beyond it. The example of Thomas is for the stubborn sceptic in us all.” (David D. Flowers).

Resurrection dares us to see the world differently. Thomas, was able to see the world both ways; as it would have been described – seeing is believing – and as it now is to be described – believing is seeing. Don’t be afraid to doubt. But be careful. Be honest about it; honest with ourselves, honest with God. Doubt, cannot disguise disbelief, or dissatisfaction, or denial, or disaffection. When we find ourselves crying out, ‘God, where the **** are you?’ We do it because we really do want God to make Himself known to us in the situation. Thomas really wanted it to be true, one senses he wanted nothing more than for it to be true that Jesus was alive, and if doubt is to prove itself virtuous, it must be true for us too.