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April 11th Thomas sermon John 20 ( Berwick Curtis)

Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

+In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There are clearly today some things that need saying in the light of the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, but I do not believe either that we should abandon the Easter message and the story of Thomas which is set every for the second Sunday of Eastertide.

I am very grateful for the sound thoughts of Archbishop Justin Welby on Thought for the Day yesterday morning, which is well worth listening to on BBC Sounds, searching for Radio 4 Thought for the Day.

Welby talks of those who have set aside their rights and their status for the good of others, have been an example of service and have left a legacy in those they have inspired. In albeit very different ways this can refer both to Philip and to the early followers of Jesus.

So we think today of doubting Thomas. Or do we?

“Doubt” never appears in John’s text: the word so translated is rather “unbelieving” or “unfaithful”. Rather Thomas’ position is one we can easily understand today. It is the basic argument of logic: if X then Y. If I see for myself; if I touch his wounds, then I will believe. It is not a question of faith but of pragmatism, but Christianity is above all based on a faith which we do not see but can somehow experience. Price Philip struggled with faith. He was encouraged by his mother, a Greek nun, who must have planted a seed there which would take root when cynically he spoke to the new dean and criticised his so-called sentimentality. Yet the Dean was a witness to Jesus Christ and they became lifelong friends. Philip’s attitude, still pragmatic, would become more fully cemented in that life of service, of being, to quote from a royal, a rock to the Queen, or from another royal, using a nautical image, a stabiliser to her through some very difficult waters. And above all, as our Prime Minister intimated, one whose example of service was not always visible but was essential to our democracy.

From the start, it is important to realize our Gospel story today is not essentially about Thomas. Rather, the story is about varied responses to the reality of the resurrection. Thomas' response (though quite vivid) is but one in an assortment of responses presented in the Gospel. These include:

Mary Magdalene’s consternation, Peter who cannot decide what seeing the graveclothes means, Apostle John, who sees and believes but without full understanding, Mary again as a witness – and her a woman whose evidence had to be corroborated in law.

As our text opens, the disciples display an initial response of fear because of the Judaean authorities. They are letting the world, rather than the risen Jesus, control their actions and attitudes. They are re buffeted about in the storm.

The disciples are in lockdown, not out of some government edict but out of uncertainty and doubt and sheer fear for the consequences of having been followers of a proclaimed criminal. Did they get it all wrong? Was this Jesus just another prophet with ideas above his station. And it is into this fear, uncertainty and doubt that Jesus comes and offers them Shalom – not just “hello”, not just “calm down”, but “peace, come and see the truth for yourselves”. There is no hint of condemnation, for those who ran away, those who betrayed him. He offers them a deep peace which engenders faith, and faith engenders joy. They were all doubters and our Thomas was not even with them. But the proof he gets is not what we, or he, expects. Jesus knows that his mere presence is enough: no criticism, no rebuke. Jesus offers Thomas his proof, but Thomas does not need it. His response is intuitive and deeply spiritual. Not what he asked for, or expected. No, it is a surrender to the power, the charisma of Jesus of Nazareth, a surrender to the Word of God incarnate. Ironically for the doubters Thomas becomes the spokesperson for the whole band of disciples who are now equipped to move on, to move out: my Lord and my God.

How does this story relate to us today? I have no doubt that John wrote his narrative with the early Church in mind, a church in fear, in doubt, in persecution, in uncertainty, a church wanting to believe but not finding belief easy. And isn’t this the situation today for so many of us. It was for Philip in those difficult early days. We can offer great theological treatises on the nature of God, inspired sermons, of course, great devotional music, commentaries on the years of Jesus’ ministry, incidents from the early church etc, etc, but what we cannot do for people is for them to see the joy and peace which Jesus offers. We work hard to believe but in the end, it is a gift from God, his grace, that allows us to go beyond the “if – then” argument and find a deep seated sense of the peace of God, which passes all understanding, and an example to follow in our daily dealings with others. To me, the beauty of our Anglican Catholic tradition, is that it offers balanced teaching, liturgy, the Bible, interpreted through tradition and reason, but it adds that essential Protestant understanding: we need to develop a personal relationship with the living Christ. How do we do this 2000 years on? What are our conditions?

The apostles have a unique place in the Church: they experienced Jesus at first hand and were authorised to be his witnesses. And that is where we come in: we are his witnesses, witnesses in each generation, not quibbling over the niceties of theology or church organisation but getting out there and getting our hands dirty in the service of those in need, and not only that but knowing why we so act.

Prince Philp had a unique role which it took him time to grow into: a role of support and service but also of initiative. Like the apostles he set aside his rights, his entitlements in large measure and created a legacy in various areas: his environmental work, for example, and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme from which so many young people have benefitted over the years. The faith which was to develop in him was, I believe, simple and pragmatic. Do your duty. But in doing one’s duty, one becomes an example to others and a witness to the truth as seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

Tradition has it that St Thomas founded a church in Indian which still bears his name. Where might duty take us as witnesses to our Lord?

Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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