Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 3 July 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, and now my eye sees thee.
How is faith going to change the way you live? On the Feast of St Thomas we face the old questions of doubt and faith. St. Thomas, the man with the greatest doubts about the Resurrection becomes the man with the greater faith when he declares to the Risen Jesus, My Lord and my God. How can we make that journey, from a life of doubt to a life of faith? What I think we can hope for is not one or the other, doubt or faith, but a healthy tension between the two. If we doubt our faith, maybe this just shows that we want to understand it all the more. Rather than thinking that we’ve got it all worked out, the sign of a too confident faith, doubt propels us towards a deeper investigation of our religion, a more personal experience.
This is probably why we read that little passage from the Book of Job as the first lesson tonight. Sunday evensong is not the occasion for any deep study of that complicated strange book which traces the story of the man Job, without explaining the suffering he goes through in his life. To keep it simple, the Book of Job shows how faith can survive in spite of suffering, and what is left at the end of it all, the residue, as it were, of this experiment with fire, is communion with God. I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, and now my eye sees thee. That is an expression of faith very similar to that of St Thomas. Faith is a different way of seeing. Faith is more than belief. Just believing something doesn’t change the way we live, the way we see. Faith is a choice we make. We choose to remain free, free for a life of transcendence, seeing beyond what is there, hearing what is not spoken, tasting what is more than bread and wine, trusting a relationship with someone we can not touch. Belief is straightforward. Faith is risk, as risky as any act of love.
Faith is the risk we have to take, because as we heard in the second lesson: “…you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
All spiritual vision, the conclusions that Job came to, the sharpened vision of St Thomas, our own small steps towards being free people, all come down in the end to the same matrix, which St Irenaeus described: the beginning is faith, the end is love; and the union of the two is God.
This being St Thomas’s day, perhaps we should let him give us some directions for our faith pathway. We can recognise our minds in his, for he comes across as a modern seeker after truth. We hear only of him as a disciple of Jesus in the Gospel of John. You might remember that on the way to raise Lazarus from the dead, there’s an argument among the disciples, because they have to go through Judea and that’s quite dangerous. Jesus is determined to go. So Thomas makes a decision, makes a conscious choice, as we often have to do: Let us also go, that we may die with him. Another time, Jesus says he is going to his father’s house, and he will prepare rooms for his disciples there. It’s Thomas, practical like us, but also very lost as we can often be, who says: Lord we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way? All this leads to Thomas’s great scene when he does not believe in the risen Lord until he has touched Jesus’s wounds and side. So practical, waiting for proof, sticking to the modern principle that “to see is to believe”.
Thomas’s experience shows us that, whatever we think, whatever we’ve done, whatever we don’t understand, the secret is to stay with God, remain with Jesus, and not turn away. So often we put the relationship in peril, stop the communion. But Jesus alone can help us towards the life we are seeking above all, a life with God. So we must put the relationship first, and stay with Jesus as Thomas did during Jesus’s ministry.
Thomas shows us how to get our faith and doubt into a healthy tension, the right balance. It’s all there in his great scene with the Risen Jesus, a scene which we can replay in our lives today. Jesus allows us, doubtful though we are, to touch his wounds today, not of course in the physical sense, nor in some mental recreation of the Gospel scene, but in the living images of the wounded Jesus we see around us in the world and in our own lives and relationships. The wounds are there, the undeserved suffering, the pain we know, see, experience, there is no end of it in this life, as the Book of Job described for us, and Christ is not separate from it. These are his wounds which we see, and which we tend to. We might doubt what we do, whether our prayers and actions do any good at all, but faith keeps us going, trusting that the end of it all is love, and binding this all together is God. By His wounds, ye are healed. There’s a sermon or two in those few words, but the best sermon is the witness of St Thomas.