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19th April 2020

No Going Back

Passage: John 20: 24-29


Monica Dickens, when training as a nurse, came across a skin condition known as Dhobie’s itch. “Poor Dhobie,” she thought to herself, “or might it be better to go down in history for your itch than not to go down in history at all?”
I am wondering much the same thing about Thomas- who has gone down in history as Doubting Thomas. Is it better to be remembered as a doubter than not to be remembered at all? I can think why bearing a two thousand year old label of “Doubting Thomas” sounds like a bad idea.
First: it implies that to doubt is wrong and that is not true.
Second, it suggests that Thomas never did anything other than have doubts. And that is not true either.

A very wise Minister once suggested to me that the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. Think about it……
And I would say that certainty in religion has caused far more trouble than doubt. It is certainty in religion that has been at the root of persecutions, inquisitions and massacres. We are right and you are wrong!
All truly great Christian leaders, thinkers and activists have experienced doubt. Even Mother Teresa of Calcutta, it has recently come to light, went through agonies of doubt.
Yet, without doubt- in any field- we would never move forward. We would never discover anything new because it would not occur to us to doubt the knowledge we already had. Doubt is a natural and creative human function.

We don’t hear much about Thomas in the Bible, other than this one story about his doubt. But another time where he is mentioned by name is when Jesus is determined to go to his dying friend Lazarus, despite the fact that he would be walking straight into the place where his enemies were waiting for him. The other disciples tried to persuade Jesus to stay away. It was Thomas who rounded them up and said, “Come on, if he is going to walk into death, we have to go with him.”
Tradition has it that Thomas eventually travelled all the way from Palestine to India, where he is acknowledged as the founder and the patron saint of the Christian church there.
So actually, “Doubting Thomas” sounds like a deep-thinking, bold, brave and totally committed disciple of Jesus Christ.

Looking at the story again, I wonder if Thomas’ “problem” was that he wanted to go back. He wanted get back to how things were before Jesus died. He wanted Jesus as a physical presence again, a man who could be touched and heard and seen. He wanted life to “get back to normal.”

And don’t we sympathise with him right now?
Are not we all longing for life to get back to normal; to be able to live as we were living before the virus? When we could be with our families, travel abroad, go to the pub, celebrate birthdays, ride on trains?

And is not our fear, deep down, that this might not happen? That we might not be able to go back? There will be grief and anger to be dealt with; there will be a huge economic impact and years of austerity; there will be businesses which will never recover and jobs which will be permanently lost; relationships that will not have survived the strain; health issues which will remain permanent. People keep demanding reassurance from our Government that life will get back to normal but this is not a reassurance which honest leaders can give and trying to go back can prevent us from moving forward.

Thomas’ relationship with Jesus hit a wall because Thomas was determined to go back, which meant that he could not move forward.

I have noticed in the church how the past can hold people back.
Yes, of course there are those who insist that “we’ve always done things this way,” and whose hopes for the future basically consist in trying to get the church back to where it was fifty years ago because that was how they liked it.
But there are also those whose past experience of faith and church has been disappointing and they declare that they are never having anything to do with “all that” again, rejecting even the slightest notion that things might just have changed since their bad experience fifty years ago.

There are clocks where you can only move the hands forward. Trying to turn them backwards breaks the clock. It is a concept worth remembering.
TAKE A LOOK AT THIS CARTOON (11 disciples holding an online zoom meeting. Jesus’ name appears on a screen and Thomas says “unless I see him on that screen, I shall not believe.)

I hope you thought that as funny as I did. There are a lot of these going around, and having a good laugh makes everything more bearable.

But it struck me that if you had told the real Thomas, two thousand years ago, that proof of someone’s existence was found by seeing their image on a screen, he would have said, “No way. You cannot be serious.”
We believe that if we can see someone’s face on a screen and hear their voice during a skype or zoom or facetime call, they must still be alive even if they are hundreds of miles away. But Thomas could not have believed that possible in a million years.

Life has moved on. Our whole experience and understanding of reality have moved on. Because life is never static. And this is why trying to go back and re-create the past is both dangerous and disappointing. We simply cannot do it.

But in the story, Thomas moves on.
Did you notice that even though Jesus invited him to touch the wounds and the scars on his body, Thomas did not bother?
Instead, he cried out “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas’ relationship with Jesus moved forward dramatically in those words.
No longer was Jesus simply a good friend, an inspired teacher, a great example, plus something of a miracle worker. To Thomas he had become Lord and God- the one to be worshipped at the very centre of his life.
No longer was Jesus simply a physical man, living a physical human life. He was the eternal God, the power behind all life, the living Word of which St John had written right at the start of his Gospel. Now, almost at the end of this Gospel, it is Thomas who has reached the point John had wanted everyone to reach: acknowledging Jesus as Lord and God.

My Lord and my God: a relationship which could never be destroyed because it did not depend on flesh and blood; on life or death.
If Jesus was Lord and God to Thomas, then he would be the guiding light, the supporting power, the inspiring wisdom and the deathless love for Thomas right through life, through death and into eternity.

Jesus said that “Blessed/ Happy are those who reach this point; who worship him as Lord and God without demanding some kind of physical proof.
Was he having a go at Thomas? I don’t think so. I think it was more of a challenge and a reassurance to the rest of us. No spectacular miracles or physical signs will ever be enough to convince human beings of the existence of God. It is only as we learn how to worship, how to offer our lives up to God, how to place our hand in God’s hand and trust him to lead that we truly become God’s children.
In naming Jesus Christ as Lord and God, we move forward from being mere spectators or even sympathisers to committed followers.

Maybe right now does not seem like a good time when there is so much inexplicable suffering in the world. We probably feel more like screaming at God than singing praise songs.
But I happened to read a poem by someone called Edward Shillito, writing at the end of World War One, saying that it is only as we contemplate those scars on Jesus’ body, as Thomas did, that we find it possible to recognise him as God.
“the other gods were strong, but you were weak;
They rode but you did stumble to a throne
yet to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak
And not a god has wounds but you alone.”

In Jesus Christ we see that ultimate sacrificial love, asked of our soldiers then, asked of our NHS staff now. He is called the “sacrificial lamb” not because God demands blood sacrifice but because life demands it and because he was willing to pay that price for, “To our wounds only God’s wounds can speak and not a god has wounds but you alone.”

Committing ourselves to Christ as our Lord and our God does not mean that we skip through life singing merrily. It can involve plenty of screaming and plenty of doubting. What is does mean is that, despite everything, we trust Him to make sense of our lives and to lead us forward through the ongoing process of resurrection.