Enough faith to go on believing, to go on living

Peter Seal, 2 July 2017

Ephesians 2: 19–22; John 20: 24–29

Today we celebrate the feast day of Thomas the Apostle. It’s a special and important day. Thomas is mentioned among the 12 apostles in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but is in John’s gospel that his significance is revealed.

Firstly, he is heard encouraging the other disciples to go to Judaea with Jesus; then, not knowing what Jesus means when he talks about where he is going, he elicits the answer that Jesus is himself the Way.

But probably most famously, he was the apostle notably unconvinced by reports of the resurrection of Jesus. This led Jesus to show him the marks in his hands and feet and side. Thomas then proclaimed the words that have been described as the great climax to John’s gospel by saying to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God!’

Thomas is to be admired. He had the wonderful quality of being brave enough to say, ‘I don’t understand, I don’t understand’. At school as a child, Thomas would have been the boy who asked the question, however silly it might have seemed – the question everyone was thinking, but no one else was ready to ask for fear of appearing stupid.

Thomas was nicely self-confident. He was honest and straightforward.

Thomas is not with the other apostles when Jesus appears to them, behind locked doors. They’re highly excited and say, ‘We have seen the Lord’. Thomas replies by saying, ‘I don’t believe you. I need proof. I need to see Jesus with those holes in his hands.’

Thomas is honest and real and actually very easy to identify with. In various ways, at certain times, we make similar protests. And those who don’t find the Christian faith credible certainly do – ‘Give me proof!’ they cry.

It’s important to note, in passing, that the post-resurrection Christ has wounds.

Grateful to Thomas, who was honest about his doubts, we can identify with him. This helps us to acknowledge that what you and I call ‘faith’ is necessarily intermingled with doubt. Finding and then growing in faith is a journey; it’s an integral part of our human journey.

Faith is necessarily intermingled with doubt. Finding and then growing in faith is a journey; it’s an integral part of our human journey.

Dostoevsky said, ‘My own faith has passed through the crucible of doubt’. The picture of a refining fire, separating out the dross, leaving just the essential core of faith, can be helpful.

People often say as they get older, ‘I believe more and more about less and less’. Our prayer might be, ‘Lord, please give me just enough faith; just enough to go on believing, just enough to go on living’.

The Lord doesn’t expect us to have no doubts. He acknowledges the place of doubt in our lives. We’re not called to a sort of unshakable, un-listening, impenetrable certainty …

John Taylor, a former Bishop of Winchester, remains an inspiration to many people. Some of you may have met him, heard him preach or read about him. In his biography about John Taylor entitled Poet, priest and prophet, the author David Wood writes:

All in all, John Taylor’s clear and confident missionary theology is characterised by an essential humility, a relentless honesty which refuses ever to claim too much. The enemy of faith is always certainty, for certainty is always driven by human fear. Evangelism is never a burden or a chore, and Christ’s mission is not another problem besetting the contemporary disciple. In humble confidence we can relax and smile and enjoy our faith.

The words that stick with me from that quotation are: The enemy of faith is always certainty, for certainty is always driven by human fear.

We have only to reflect for a moment on the brutal, appalling killings we’ve heard too much of in recent months to see the horrendous suffering that human acts motivated by religious certainty can cause. Extremists are often frightened people: certainty is always driven by human fear. You’ll remember me saying before that part of our calling as Christians is to keep alive the voice of moderate Islam. We need to go on reminding ourselves that very, very few Muslims are extremists.

I’ve been away this week on retreat in Devon. Bishop John and Stephen Adam were there too. We were led by Mark Oakley, who is on the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral. He’s someone who delights in poetry. He led us wisely and imaginatively through a number of poems – some well-known, and others that are not.

He had a rich fund of stories and experiences which he shared with us. He told the story of how quite recently he was interviewing someone under the great dome of St Paul’s. She had been an atheist but was converted to Christianity by attending the Eucharist, the Holy Communion.

At one point she talked about the words of that well-known hymn, ‘Amazing grace’. You’ll remember it includes the line, ‘I once was blind but now I see’. Talking about her new-found Christian faith, she said, ‘It doesn’t feel that clear to me. It’s more like, “I once was blind and now I’ve got poor sight”.’ What wonderful, Thomas-like honesty. Surely we can identify with that?

Canon Mark talked a lot about how poetry can express things that prose cannot. He commented that prose is punctuated by full stops, whereas poetry makes much more use of commas. He encouraged us to hold on to the value of commas in our faith and in our lives; commas leave the next part of the story open and ready for change.

I guess that, like you, I’ve been reflecting on the recent general election and the subsequent ‘fallout’. I’ve been thinking for several years now that party politics no longer works well. Somehow, the problems and challenges we face are too big and too complex to be left to the whims of whichever political party happens to be in power.

Party politics feels a bit like prose-writing, with too many full stops. Perhaps what we need is more ‘commas’ and rather fewer grand claims of having the solution. It all feels too what you might call ‘binary’. This week, Archbishop Justin has called for a cross-party alliance to tackle the complexity of the Brexit negotiations. Well done him!

So, in conclusion: let’s be encouraged to rediscover the value of commas rather than full stops; the freedom of saying ‘I don’t know’ when faced with difficult questions – whether of faith, politics or whatever. We know in our hearts and from our life experience that there are rarely simple, straightforward answers and solutions.

I leave you with these faith-filled words from John Taylor’s poem ‘Man in the midst’:

A turn of the head bent intent on a task,
ripple of light, hem of his garment only,
or lift of the heart suddenly less lonely
is all the Easter evidence I ask.