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St Thomas the Apostle

30 June 2016

Habakkuk 2.1-4; Psalm 31.1-6; Ephesians 2.19-end; John 20.24-29

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Habakkuk 2.1-4; Psalm 31.1-6; Ephesians 2.19-end; John 20.24-29

Almighty and eternal God, who, for the firmer foundation of our faith, allowed your holy apostle Thomas to doubt the resurrection of your Son till word and sight convinced him: grant to us, who have not seen, that we also may believe and so confess Christ as our Lord and our God; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

THE writer of John’s Gospel does not explain why Thomas was not with the other disciples on the evening after the resurrection (John 20.19-23). It would be possible, but ultimately unproductive, to speculate. Whatever called him away, he was back with his friends a week later, dealing with the consequences of having missed an important meeting.

The Gospel narrative gives very little information about Thomas up to this point. We know that he was loyal, because although he foresaw the danger that Jesus would risk by returning to Bethany to the scene of Lazarus’s death; he was ready to share it, even if it meant death (John 11.16).

We know, further, that his loyalty was logical, as his misunderstanding of Jesus’s assumption that his followers knew that he was going to the Father (rather than to some physical destination), reveals: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14.5).

Loyalty and reasoning ability can be great strengths and great limitations. On the one hand, they combine forces to guard against irresponsible (as opposed to calculated) risks, and to develop plans of action. On the other hand, they can limit the possibility of intuitive and imaginative approaches to situations that may require more than an interpretation of the presenting evidence.

Jesus works with the grain. His invitation to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,” (John 20.27) is just ambiguous enough to suggest a new way of knowing which employs more than rational faculties.

The scene has affinities with another great drama of recognition, Shakespeare’s King Lear. Much has been written about Lear’s journey to self-knowledge, as he is progressively stripped of power, possessions, and the pretended affection of those who exploited his vanity and need for adulation as a means to gaining their own ends.

The theme of vision is sickeningly explored through the fate of his faithful courtier, Gloucester, as Lear’s vicious daughter Regan and her husband, Cornwall, put out his eyes, and expel him from his own castle to wander in the open countryside.

To the man who accompanies him, and wishes to stay with him because he cannot see the way, Gloucester replies: “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw” (Act IV, scene i). Later, in conversation with the deranged king, who remarks that Gloucester has no eyes in his head, and yet “see[s] how this world goes”, he replies: “I see it feelingly” (Act IV, scene vi).

For a moment, Thomas has the opportunity to prove by physical means that the Jesus who stands before him inhabits a real, living body. He does not take it. Instead, out of a subtler kind of “seeing feelingly”, comes his acclamation: “My Lord and my God.”

This puts into words something that he had not fully understood about Jesus until then; it also frees him from his dependence on being able to work out his relationship to the world through verifiable facts. Does this make him more than the model of faith — which is not in any way an inconsiderable thing to be — that the accompanying readings from Habakkuk, the letter to the Ephesians, and the collect of the day promote?

Habakkuk’s challenge to God, as his people faced the advances of the Chaldeans and Babylonians at the end of the seventh century BC, drew the oracular divine reply of Habakkuk 2.1-4. It was the fourth verse — “the righteous live by their faith” — that was taken up by Paul in the letters to the Romans and Galatians (Romans 1.17, Galatians 3.11), and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 10.37-38).

That claim is, however, underpinned by the promise that precedes it (Habakkuk 2.3): “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”

Thomas discovers in the amazement of recognising Jesus that there is still a vision, and it is a vision for life, and not for death (John 11.16). Hope for a new order did not end with the crucifixion, but neither will it be completed in the lifetime of the disciples.

It belongs also to those who have still to hear the good news, “who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20.29). The radiant realisation of his love for the risen Lord takes Thomas beyond the evidence of sight and reason to the deepest foundations of faith.

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