Low Sunday

This week’s DIY all age service is brought to you by the Diocese of Bristol.
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Revd Rod Symmons reflection on John 20:19-31Open Link in New Window

Once you have got a nickname it can be hard to escape it.

Thomas has got landed with a reputation that has stuck to him for two thousand years—we still say to people “Don’t be such a doubting Thomas.”

When we put together the accounts of Easter Day in the different gospels, we find that there are a total of five resurrection appearances, the last of which is described at the beginning of our Gospel reading.

v19 says that the Disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews. Luke describes the same event in chapter 24—where he speaks of Jesus appearing to the Eleven and those who were with them.

It is an undefined group of Jesus’ followers, possibly gathered in John Mark’s house, at the end of an emotionally draining day. Neither Luke nor John tells us how Jesus did it, but they both describe Jesus coming and standing in their midst. Not surprisingly, it almost tipped the already emotionally overloaded disciples over the edge—Luke tells us that they thought they were seeing a ghost.

Jesus utters the opening words “Peace be with you!” and then, to reassure them that it really is him, he shows them his hands and side—and for good measure, according to Luke, he ate some fish just to prove that he was not a ghost.

It was an extraordinary and dramatic climax to the most remarkable day in human history, but unfortunately one man was missing—Thomas.

When he got back, the disciples attempted to persuade him that they had seen Jesus, but he simply wouldn’t take their word for it—v25 “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Who knows how many times they had that conversation over the following seven days—but on the following Sunday, when they are again in the same room, and this time Thomas is there, Jesus again appears and graciously invites Thomas to check for himself—v27 “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

How do you read that last sentence? Is it a rebuke?

It seems to me that Thomas was not being difficult. He wanted to believe, but he realised that the stakes were very high and he refused just to be carried away on the tide of other people’s emotions. He needed to have his own questions answered before he could believe.

This helps us to understand what doubt is about.

A friend of mine wrote a book called Doubt, in which he uses the analogy of courage. If you found yourself in a burning building, there might be no other means of saving yourself and others but to jump out of the window and onto a ledge. You might be afraid, but your courage would enable you to overcome that fear and take action.

On another day, if you came to the same window and decided to jump out of it for the sake of it, that would not be courageous, it would be reckless.

Fear plays a useful role—it raises questions and stops us doing something stupid—but fear doesn’t have the last word. When we have addressed those questions courage calls us to action. The opposite of courage is not fear, it is cowardice. If you know the right thing to do and refuse to do it because you are afraid, that is cowardice, but courage is not genuine unless it has understood and overcome fear.

So, to move back to Thomas and his doubts—Thomas realised the seriousness of the claims that the disciples were making.

He was willing to make the jump—but he needed to know that it was true. His faith will not be genuine unless he has addressed his doubts and made his own decision.

When Jesus appears to him, and invites him to put his finger on his hands, and to feel the wounds in his side, he shows that he has heard Thomas’ question and is inviting him to trust him.

While Thomas might have been the last of the disciples to be persuaded of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, his response shows that his understanding of it has overtaken theirs.

John’s gospel began with the statement—(1:18) “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

The gospel has come full circle—this is probably the original ending of it—and its climax comes with Thomas’ proclamation—“My Lord and my God!”

Tradition has it that in the years that followed Thomas went to India and finally died there as a martyr. When Western Missionaries arrived in India centuries later they found indigenous Christians from the Mar Thoma Church who claimed to trace their roots back to Thomas’ mission—there is a congregation of the Mar Thoma Church that used to meet at St Anne’s church in Eastville and now has its own building in South Bristol.

I want to rehabilitate Thomas—not just the later Thomas, but the doubting Thomas. I want to see the importance of the questions that he was asking and value the importance of addressing those questions—above all I want to take the cue from Thomas that having been persuaded of the reality of the resurrection of Christ, we are ready to invest our lives living in the light of that resurrection. The urgency of that is all the greater in this current season where we have been faced with our mortality as never before in our live times.

This painting by Carvaggio illustrates the appearance of Jesus to Thomas. Look at the concentration on Thomas’ face and the way that the heads of Jesus, Thomas, Peter and John come together in their quest for truth and the gentle way in which Jesus guides Thomas’ hand. The painting invites us in to draw our own conclusions.

There will be a video version of the service and a podcast of the sermon.

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