This Sunday's readings: St Thomas the Apostle

30 June 2011

by Martin Warner

Habakkuk 2:1-4
Ephesians 2:19 to end
John 20:24-29

THOMAS is passionate about the truth. Although famous for doubting the resurrection, this is the disciple who refuses to assent to what he himself does not believe. “Unless I see” is a statement of protest against blind conformity. What, in conscience, Thomas had been unable to do was to proclaim a truth that was not within him.

In his book, A History of Christianity (Allen Lane, 2009), Diarmaid MacCulloch tells an instructive story about how we report good news. The writer Jan Morris, working in Sudan after the Second World War, was advised by the Sudanese Minister for National Guidance to report “thrilling, attractive and good news, corresponding, where possible, with the truth”.

Some might think that at least this honestly represents the expectation from a politician that journalists should spin the news rather than tell the truth. But it is one thing to record events as they unfold; it is quite another to account for the truth of why they have occurred. This latter task is what the Evangelists seek to undertake.

Professor MacCulloch goes on to explore the Gospels as a unique form of literature. Superficially obvious terms for describing the four Gospels do not necessarily serve us very well. The Gospels are not biography, though they tell the story of a life. They are not history, though they narrate events in time.
 In some areas of vital importance, they reveal inconsistencies of detail, such as the timing of the crucifixion. None the less, we regard them as the standards of our faith, and the truth about God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Doubting Thomas asserts that faith is about conviction, not conformity. Faith cannot be sustained at a level that touches us only externally. It cannot survive as convention: it has to reach the core of our internal being, in mind and heart, in order to spring into life.

Thomas shows us that conviction builds on allowing oneself to be the recipient of grace and revelation rather than being in control of how to process information and knowledge: “unless I see . . . and put my finger in the mark” (John 20.25).
 In celebrating the festival of St Thomas, we honour him for his commitment to truth which comes from the conviction of faith purified in the fire of doubt. But we also honour him for being one of apostles who articulates this truth by lending his name to an important document.

In December 1945, farmers at Nag Hammadi, on the Nile in Egypt, found a collection of Christian documents that dates back to the second century. Among them is the Gospel of Thomas, known about from the writing of St Cyril, the fourth-century Bishop of Jerusalem. There is no evidence to suggest that it was actually written by St Thomas. To claim authorship by a revered person was an accepted way of ensuring that a text would itself be revered.

The Gospel of Thomas has many sayings of Jesus which we find in the Gospels in the New Testament: it might have been used by Matthew and Luke in writing their Gospels. It also has much material that reflects a strange variation of Christianity known as Gnosticism. This elevates the spiritual world and despises the material one, and that strikes at the heart of the Christian conviction that Jesus is fully God and fully human.

This ancient text indicates something that is important for our contemporary evangelisation. It provides evidence of distinctive collections of the recorded sayings of Jesus from which the four Gospels were compiled. Clearly, some compilations, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were spun in a way that the wider Church regarded as distorting. But the lesson for us today lies in understanding how the Nag Hammadi discoveries illuminate the context in which the Gospels were formed. They are four authorised presentations of what Professor MacCulloch calls “the multiform, restless story” of Jesus Christ.

The Gospels speak to us of texts formed in, and formative of, the earliest Christian communities of faith. Translation into modern idiom must not distort the reality of their origins in places and cultures different from our own. The Nag Hammadi texts are testimony to the continuity of faith in the Coptic Church that is older than almost any other.

Today, we should pray for our Coptic brothers and sisters as they face persecution. Equally, we should be ready to learn from their ancient, apostolic tradition, and its history of continuity and reform. They can remind us of wisdom that is ancient and yet fresh in its freedom from the need to respond to obsession with the modern self.

Finally, John points us to the primary context in which the Gospels become live and intelligible as the source of our evangelistic life: the Church at worship.
 There are two clues. “A week later” tells us that we again encounter Jesus on a Sunday — resurrection day. We are in a house, behind closed doors: this is the primitive Church.

Second, Thomas responds, not with definition, but with doxology: “My Lord and my God.” Worship is how we encounter the truth of the resurrection.

This is the Gospel of the Lord: Praise to you, O Christ!


Habakkuk 2:1-4

1 I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. 2 Then the LORD replied: Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. 3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. 4See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous will live by his faith.

Ephesians 2:19 to end

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

John 20:24-29

24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, We have seen the Lord! But he said to them, Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it. 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you! 27 Then he said to Thomas, Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe. 28 Thomas said to him, My Lord and my God! 29 Then Jesus told him, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.


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