Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle
What would it mean for you to have proof?
This question is in the background of P. D. James’s novel Death in Holy Orders. A theological college holds a papyrus that purports to disprove the Resurrection. Surely, if this document proves to be authentic, the inspector asks one of the priests on staff, if it is hard proof about something that had until then only been a belief, this would surely be relevant to your faith. “My son,” the priest responds, “for one who every hour of his life has the assurance of the living presence of Christ, why should I worry about what happened to earthly bones?”
Earthly bones very much worry the apostle Thomas, whom we celebrate today. Bones and flesh, blood and wounds—the physicality of Jesus’s body, the fleshly reality of his friend and teacher. “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” (Jn 20:25) Jesus lets Thomas see and feel his body, giving him the proof he seeks. But not without a rebuke: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29).
When I first wrote this piece, in March of 2023, I had no idea of how much the historic scenes of division and violence it remembers would become once again, by the time of its publication, breaking and heartbreaking current events, only in a different content: no longer in Northern Ireland, but now in the Holy Land. With the outbreak of such wrenching violence in the Middle East, the questions that echo through this piece have never been more resonant: How we can hold together our belief in a merciful and loving God when we continue to see such suffering, cropping up in fresh horrors in every news cycle? And what on earth can we, as people of faith, do about it? I hope that the experiences I share here might inspire other to believe in the power of even a few bold, inspired individuals to make significant change in a tragedy that seems, right now, irredeemable. Join with me, please, in praying for the peacemakers. Please consider checking out the additional information and resources available through The Episcopal Church.
It was over fifty years ago. I was a child, but I still remember the week when it all started. Sitting in front of the television I watched the scenes of mangled buildings, ambulance sirens, dead bodies. The armed conflict, the “Troubles,” had begun in Northern Ireland. I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but I knew there were two sides, Republicans and Loyalists, sometimes called Catholics and Protestants, and they seemed to hate each other. And for the whole of the rest of my life in England, virtually every news program, every day, featured the Troubles. Every Sunday in church, for decades, we would “pray for peace in Northern Ireland. We pray for peace.”
The Troubles were for me a daily reminder of a world in chaos. Why did God allow such suffering, such bloodshed? What was the point of praying for peace? As I write these words in April 2023, Joe Biden is in Ireland, as part of the twenty-fifth anniversary commemorations of the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed on April 10, 1998, and which heralded the end of the Troubles. After so many long years of violence, and despite the sporadic signs of continued conflict, there is now much hope for a lasting peace and reconciliation. It perhaps makes one nod in agreement with those famous words, memorably quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Yet there are countless men, women, and children whose lives have been forever shattered by those years of conflict, and who live with the dreadful consequences of loss and bereavement. How can we as Christians hold together a belief in a just and loving God, when throughout the world today we continue to see such suffering, cropping up in fresh conflicts every year?
Most preachers, when they reflect on their preaching, will find that they have a few themes that they come back to again and again. For me, one of those themes is the question of what it means to believe. I return to this theme repeatedly because I want to challenge the popular understanding that believing means holding a certain set of statements or claims to be true – statements, for example, about God or Jesus or the Bible or salvation. When we speak of believing in this way, Christianity becomes a matter of the head rather than of the heart.
We know that faith does not spare us from the pain of human existence. Believing does not guarantee that we will never have cancer, or suffer the loss of a loved one, or lose a job, or watch a business fail. Believing does not solve all our problems or make us rich or popular or successful. It does not exempt us from the experience of pain and suffering. It does not make everything right.
John 20: 19-31
The story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas is one of the most moving in all the Gospels. And for me, the most powerful evocation of the scene is found in that amazing painting by Caravaggio, called, ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas.’. If you don’t know it I really recommend it for a meditation. Jesus is standing in the room with Thomas and two other disciples. He has just said, ‘Peace be with you’. And now, in the painting, (although the text does not tell us whether this happened), Jesus grasps Thomas’ hand and thrusts it deep into the wound in his side. Thomas and the other disciples stare with utter astonishment. But Jesus looks tenderly at the amazed face of his friend, as he first uncovers his wound. As Jesus pulls back his robe to show the wound, it catches a ray of brilliant sunlight, and the whole scene is bathed in this light. It is a poignant moment of enlightenment, and of coming to faith for Thomas.
It was seeing Jesus’ body, in all its brokenness and woundedness which brought Thomas to belief. But this beautiful story is not a story of proof but a story of love. For me, the story of Thomas is not primarily a story of a sceptic who comes to believe because his list of doubts is answered; not an intellectual assent to something proven. The story of Thomas is rather the story of a man who comes to believe not because he has enough proof, but because he has actually touched the mystery of divine, self-sacrificial love.
If you feel you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, you have! No wonder, if you are shaking your head, and thinking, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that. Any number of people are thinking, did I miss something?
Our gospel today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is perhaps the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation, about water, being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
There is a word that is used to describe Christians, a word that sets them apart from others and captures the essence of who and what they are. It is a word that has been with us from the very beginnings of the Church, when those who identified themselves as followers of Jesus began to gather together to worship and to share their lives with one another. The word is “believers.”
Christians became known as “believers” because they believed and trusted
that Jesus was the Son of God,
that he had come into the world to reveal to us the true nature of God,
that after his death on a Cross he had been raised from the dead,
and that he was with us still, and would be to the end of time.
“Believing” is one of the principle themes of the Gospel of John, from which our gospel lesson today is taken. John begins his telling of the Good News by revealing to us, his readers, who Jesus is and why he came into the world. It is as if he is drawing aside the curtain, letting us in on the secret, true identity of this humble teacher from Galilee, letting us glimpse what he and others have come to know over time. John begins his account by telling us that Jesus is “the Word” who was “with God” and who “was God” from the very beginning of time (John 1:1). He tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14), bringing “light” and “life,” in order to reveal to us the nature and purposes of God. “No one has ever seen God,” he tells us, “it is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). And “to all who receivedhim, who believedin his name,” he proclaims, “he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).
Preached at Yale Divinity School
…If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched… (Mark 9:42-50)
Don’t do this. Don’t take Jesus literally – plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand. You take this literally, you won’t finish the term. But do take Jesus seriously. This is hyperbole. My little sister used to say this same thing to me when I was acting out, when I had tried her patience to the extreme. She would say, “Curtis, cut it out!” She got my attention.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-28, 32-12:2
Almighty God, in the midst of your people Israel you raised up many saints who through faith in your eternal covenant conquered kingdoms,did justice, and won strength out of weakness. Grant us to hold in glad remembrance their holy lives and fearless witness, that by your grace we may press on towards the goal for the prize of our heavenly calling;through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Studying history is both illuminating and humbling: illuminating because of the great benefit of perspective. Life in-the-present can leave us quite myopic. What’s going on in-the-now is very close to us – it’s “in our face” – so much so that we often can’t see around it. Our perspective is inevitably blocked in some ways. We could take, for example, the political campaign rhetoric during this past year. Without the benefit of an historical perspective, the long view, we could simply react to various campaign statements just for their “face value,” but miss the wisdom gleaned from history. Studying history can also be quite humbling. It can put us in our place as individuals and as a nation in a very long line as life unfolds down through the centuries. Today’s celebration of the Saints, the holy ones, of the Old Testament takes the long view, and that’s important for several reasons[i]: