I would like to talk to you this morning about Doubting Thomas, as he is usually known, but before I do so I would like to tell you about a walk Pat and I went on back in the 1980s when we lived in East Sussex.
It was on a bright, sunny November day and we were walking up a north-facing ridge on the South Downs in the shade. There was a strong Northerly wind blowing and it was bitterly cold but the air was crystal-clear and we could see for miles.
As we climbed higher and higher the view opened out below us. To the east I could see a tractor ploughing a large field that seemed to stretch for miles. Not so many years earlier that much land would have needed dozens of horses to plough it, each with a man to guide it. Now, one man on a tractor could do the job in a fraction of the time it would have taken them. I marvelled at the power man now had at his disposal.
To the north I could see a large reservoir which we sometimes walked around so we knew well. It provided the water for nearby Brighton. It had an earth dam that blended so well into the landscape that it was hard to tell that it was not a natural lake. I marvelled at the ingenuity of man and his ability to tame Mother Nature.
Snaking between the field and the reservoir was a train making its way to Brighton. I marvelled at the wonders of science that had come together to enable that train to make its journey: mining the metal to make it, drilling for the oil to drive it, manufacturing the plastics, cloth, lights and cables to fit it out. Man really is very clever, I thought.
With these thoughts in my mind we walked on and in due course we made it to the top of the ridge. Suddenly we were out of the shade and the full strength of the sun’s warmth hit me in face. Set against its massive power the power of tractor now seemed puny.
A couple more steps and a magnificent view of the English Channel opened up stretching all the way from Dungeness in the East to Selsey Bill in the West. The reservoir now seemed very, very small.
Looking down I could see layer upon layer of flint and chalk stacked one upon another to form the cliff, the edge of which we were now standing on. The marvels of the train paled into insignificance.
As I contemplated the scene before me my mind suddenly became as clear as the air around me. I could see everything. It all made sense. To describe to you what I mean by that in the same narrative style that I have used to describe my walk is just not possible, so I shall resort to a favourite technique of the authors of much of the Bible when faced with similar difficulties and switch seamlessly into a more poetic style.
I could see everything. It all made sense. God, the creator of all I surveyed was in his heaven. Jesus, his only son, whom I had invited into my life less than ten years before, was by my side and I felt full of the Holy Spirit. I had no doubts at all. I saw, I felt, I understood. It was a true moment of revelation.
I suspect that most of you here will have experienced similar
moments of revelation in your lives. If
you have, take yourself back to the time and place when one of them occurred.
Try, if you can, to recreate what you saw, what you felt, what you witnessed and what you understood. Hold that memory for a few moments if you can, but if you can’t, don’t worry, stay awhile with me on the top of the Sussex Downs.
It is only in the Gospel of St John that we hear any detail about Thomas. He appears in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts merely as a name on a list of disciples.
His first appearance in John is in Chapter 11. Jesus and the disciples are on the other side of the Jordan in the place where John the Baptist used to baptise. They receive a message that Lazarus is ill and, after two days, Jesus announces his intention to go once more to Judea to see him. The disciples are concerned that Jesus will be stoned again, but when Jesus insists on making the journey it is Thomas who says: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ From this we must conclude that Thomas is both brave and intensely loyal to Jesus.
The next appearance of Thomas is during John’s long account of the Last Supper:
Jesus says: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places and you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas replies: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas was obviously listening intently to what Jesus was saying and asked his question, not because he doubted what Jesus was saying but to seek further information.
His well-placed question gave rise to one of the great ‘I am’ statements from the Gospel of John:
Jesus said to Thomas: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”
And so, as we think again about our Gospel this morning, let us do so with as full a picture as possible of the central character, Thomas. He was a brave man. A loyal follower of Jesus prepared to die with him. He thought hard about the lessons Jesus taught him and his fellow disciples and was not afraid to speak up when he wanted to know more.
As far as we know Thomas was with the other disciples early on the third day when Mary Magdalene came to see them and announced “I have seen the Lord.” They must all have spent the whole day trying to make sense of this seemingly-impossible statement. They knew for certain that Jesus had been crucified yet here was Mary claiming to have seen him some 30 hours or more after he was taken down from the cross and laid in a borrowed tomb. I wonder what went through their minds throughout that day: “She’s just imagining it” they must have thought. “She’s hysterical” they might have surmised.
For some reason, we are not told what, Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared to the remaining disciples during the evening of the same day. For them the difficult period of doubt was soon over. The text tells us: Jesus came and stood among them and said: “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
For Thomas it was not so easy. At some time after the appearance of Jesus to them the other disciples told Thomas: “We have seen the Lord.” First Mary, then the rest of the Disciples, but still not him. That must have been hard to take. He was used to asking Jesus questions when he did not understand something but, of course, that option was not open to him. All the others claimed to have seen Jesus, but it hadn’t happened for him. No wonder he had doubts. The text tells us that it was a week before Jesus appeared again and Thomas was finally put out of his agony. What a long, lonely week that must have been for him. What depths of despair he must have reached.
I think many of us here this morning will readily empathise with the predicament Thomas found himself in. I certainly do. There are times on our journey of faith when we can find it very hard to believe what our fellow Christians seem to be able to accept without question or, indeed, what we ourselves accepted without difficulty only a week before. At such times we too suffer the despair and loneliness that Thomas suffered that week. Doubt weighs heavily on the human soul.
Fortunately for us, by God’s grace, there is a solution to this problem, and it is Thomas who points our way to it. When the other disciples told him that they had ‘seen the Lord’ he said: Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
This is sometimes portrayed as Thomas demanding physical proof, but that makes no sense to me. Jesus was standing in front of him speaking. He said: “Peace be with you.” Mary had been able to recognise Jesus by his voice alone when he spoke but one word to her: her name.
I believe that what Thomas was doing was thinking back to a time when he was sure of what was happening: the crucifixion. That was real. That was certain. That was a shocking and profound event the memory of which would stay with him for ever. The mark of the nails linked what he found hard to believe on that day to the certainty of the crucifixion nine days earlier. Through that link, the certainty of the crucifixion was able to sweep away the doubt of the resurrection.
What a blesséd gift Thomas has given us through this example. We too, when racked with doubt, can employ the same technique: we can think back to a time when everything was clear. For me, I go back in my mind to the South Downs and wait there for the Lord to join me once again. “Where’ve you been?” he says when my eyes eventually clear. “I’ve been waiting here all the time.”