Preached 27 April 2003 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
So … I wonder how you’re feeling this morning … after last weekend’s “glorious Eastertide”. A bit flat? There was that amazing confirmation service on Saturday night … Family Communion on Easter Sunday morning … Easter Praise. Well, if you are feeling a bit down, you’re not alone. I’m sure we all experience a sense of anticlimax on this first Sunday after Easter. That’s why most people find it very appropriate that it’s known in the C of E as Low Sunday; though I think it’s really called Low Sunday because it’s at the end or bottom of the Easter calendar. But be that as it may, our Bible reading this morning was about someone who, on this Sunday, 2000 or so years ago, was feeling far more low than we. It was about Thomas.
The name, Thomas, sounds very English but it is in fact an Aramaic word. Aramaic was the everyday speech in Palestine in the time of Christ. And it simply means “twin”. But so too does the other name Thomas is sometimes given in the Gospels — Didymus. It’s the Greek word for “twin”. So we don’t know Thomas’ real name at all. And we certainly have no idea who his twin was. In fact, we know very little about him. Though he’s the patron saint of Portugal, tradition has it that he was martyred in India … but that’s pure speculation. All we know for certain comes from John’s gospel and there Thomas makes his own voice heard only three times — all towards the very end of Jesus’ life on earth.
The first time we meet him is when Jesus is lying low in modern-day Jordan — that’s Perea to the East of Jordan — to keep out of the clutches of the Jews who want to arrest him and kill him. News comes that his friend Lazarus, who lives just outside of Jerusalem where Jesus’ enemies are, is seriously ill and needs him. Jesus waits for two days then says he’ll go … and one can almost sense the dismayed silence among the disciples. This will lead to Trouble with a capital T. Should they stay put in Perea, or go back to Galilee? No! One seldom-heard voice speaks out despairingly into the silence. It is Thomas. “Let us go too, so that we may die with him,” he says. All gloom and doom. And maybe we are tempted to think of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh? But Thomas is not really being gloomy like Eyore at all. What he’s saying is simply this: “If Jesus is going to die I for one don’t want to go on living.” It’s not Gloomy Thomas, it’s Loyal Thomas.
The next time we meet Thomas is at the Last Supper. Jesus is gently telling the disciples about the Father’s house. “In it there are many rooms,” he says. “I’m going to get some ready for you, and then I’ll come and take you there. Don’t worry, you know the way that I’m going.” All the other disciples are nodding wisely. But Thomas gives them a “what-are-you-like” look then looks at Jesus. “No we don’t,” he says. “We haven’t the foggiest idea where you are going. How can we know the way?” And we might be tempted to think: “Oh, there’s always one awkward so-and-so, isn’t there?” But no — Thomas is not being awkward and disagreeable at all. He’s just expressing a very real concern that he doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about. He’s not Awkward Thomas, he’s Honest Thomas.
And now, this morning, we meet Thomas for the third and final time. Last Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, he was missing. He was not there when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. Where was he? We’re not told. But we don’t need to be told do we? He was just too overcome with grief to be with other people? When Lazarus fell ill, Thomas had said: “Let us go with Jesus to Jerusalem too, so that we may die with him …” because, once Jesus is dead, there’ll be no point in staying alive. And now … well, so far as Thomas knows, Jesus is dead … So, when he does finally return to the other disciples, and they tell him that Jesus is somehow alive again and that they’ve seen him, he’s in no mood to listen. Ever extreme in his comments, ever over the top, just listen to him … “Look … unless I see in his hands the print of the nails.” Yeah — OK, Thomas. “AND place my finger in the mark of the nails.” Yep, right, OK, Thomas. “AND place my hand in his side,” Fine, we get the message Thomas. “I WILL NOT believe.”
Low Sunday? No … Bottom-of-the-pit-Sunday so far as Thomas is concerned. But then, materialising through the closed doors, Jesus appears again. And turns straight to Thomas. “Here,” he says. “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; stop doubting and believe.”
I bet Thomas’s face was a picture. First, the very words that Jesus spoke showed Thomas that he had been there listening but unseen as Thomas had laid down his conditions for faith. He’d heard every “Unless” that Thomas had spoken. But, secondly, he could see for himself the reality of Jesus now, without the need to touch. So instead of prodding Jesus in the side, he drops to Jesus’ feet and utters that ultimate declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God.”
Faced with the fact of Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas’ faith is restored, and his feelings of despair are replaced by feelings of joy. They follow on from his faith. That’s how it should always be, but we so easily forget it, and get everything the wrong way round.
Let’s keep it short and simple this morning. And let me use again an illustration that I’ve used here before but one that I think we need to be reminded of again and again. It’s that familiar illustration of the old fashioned steam train. Here is the engine … It’s Thomas the tank engine, I suppose! And the engine is FACT. It’s what pulls everything else. Easter Sunday is all about the one FACT that matters … that Jesus IS alive, that “on the third day he did indeed rise again from the dead”.
As the great Bishop Wescott of Durham once said: “Taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no single historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ”. That’s why this Easter card we had from Vera doesn’t say “Jesus might be risen” but “Jesus IS risen”. No … we haven’t seen the risen Christ as Thomas did. But we have the evidence of the disciples, the evidence of Christ’s enemies, the evidence of history, and the evidence of the church. And all say with one voice: He is risen. That is the FACT … the engine that should and must be allowed to pull everything else in the Christian life.
Behind it comes the carriage … and the carriage is FAITH. Faith follows on after that great fact that I’ve just talked about. Detach faith from fact and you haven’t got faith at all, you have SUPERSTITION. You have beliefs that because, for example, you were born under the star sign Aquarius, you’ll meet a rich stranger today or have bad news tomorrow. That if a black cat crosses your path you’ll have a good luck. Runes, Tarrot, the Stars. Faith without fact. Superstition. People do get this one wrong. They think Christians are people who believe in something for which there is no evidence, and that that’s what faith is. It’s not. Faith is believing in things which, though we can’t see them, we know to be real for all sorts of reasons. There is nothing irrational or illogical about faith. It engages the mind as well as the heart. And it follows FACT.
And behind the engine and the carriage comes the guard’s van … and the guard’s van is FEELING. The last thing of all. Put FEELINGS first and we’re in real trouble. Feelings depend on all kinds of things. The state of our health, what we had for supper, where we have to go, who we have to meet, what came in the post … No, the guard’s van can’t take the train anywhere and neither can feelings take us anywhere in our Christian lives. It’s great when we get good feelings. And it’s particularly great when we feel the presence of Jesus. But Faith does not, must not, depend on that. Feelings must be left to follow on behind.
One more word and I’m through. “Stop doubting and believe” says Jesus to Thomas. And you might privately think, “What a silly thing to say.” It’s like when people say, “Stop worrying.” How can you just “stop worrying”? And how can you just “stop doubting”? Well, in a sense, you can’t. But what you can do is increase your FAITH; because faith will always displace doubt. Being full of doubts is like having a glass full of water. If you drop pebbles in the glass the water will be forced out. So, if we drop pebbles of faith into our hearts and minds, the water of doubt will be forced out too.
And how do we drop pebbles of faith into our hearts and minds? We do what we are doing now. “Faith comes from hearing the message,” says Paul. “And the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Romans 10.17. It is as we read the Bible, listen to the teachings of it, and build our lives on it that faith grows and banishes doubt. It is where we learn of that great FACT which pulls the train of the Christian life.
Don’t let’s be hard on Thomas. First he was LOYAL Thomas, then he was HONEST Thomas, briefly he was DOUBTING Thomas. But then he was BELIEVING Thomas, FAITHFUL Thomas. A Thomas in whose life FAITH followed FACT and let FEELINGS come rattling on behind. We would all do a lot worse than be a Thomas-type disciple.