Posted in Church of England, Croydon

Not so doubting Thomas

This is the sermon I preached today at the ordination of priests in Croydon Minster.

Our readings today are those for the saint whose feast it is – Thomas, sometimes called ‘doubting’. It might be more courteous to use the title he is otherwise known by, ‘Thomas of India’ – from the tradition that he was the apostle who went furthest, beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, with the good news of the gospel. Poor Thomas! All the other disciples had seen the risen Jesus, and he’d been left out. Surely it wasn’t unreasonable for him to want the same proof of this incredible story, this unbelievable resurrection? And when Jesus does appear, he doesn’t wait for Jesus’ command to believe – before Jesus says or does anything, he cries out in joy and recognition, ‘my Lord and my God’. Joyful, believing Thomas, whose story is told for our own benefit: it all leads up to the punchline: ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’.

Thomas illustrates a pattern which is at the heart of all Christian faith – in fact it may be one of the things that characterise Christianity as different in kind from other faith traditions. Our faith is paradoxical: we understand its greatest truths most clearly when we look at them through what might seem their opposite. It was the depth of his doubt and scepticism which opened Thomas up to the profundity of the resurrection. Knowing what an unbelievable thing this was, when he saw that it was true he also realised that this must mean that Jesus was not just Lord, not just teacher, but God – and so he is the first to directly address Jesus as God.

That paradoxical pattern is shown most profoundly right there, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in the cruel death of a human being that we see most deeply into the nature of God. It is only through that lens of powerlessness and pain that we be led into the infinite love which is at God’s very heart. The coming together of that love and God’s creative power in the miracle of resurrection reveal to us who is the God whom we worship.

And that pattern of paradox is repeated through the life of God’s people, the church. It is the nature of our fallen condition that we can only see the truth when we recognise that we are always trying to split in two, things which God sees as one. Power and love are not contradictory but united in the heart of God.

So as you come now to begin your ministry as priests, I would like to reflect with you on how that pattern of paradox works out in the ministry of the church, and in its ministers. Because it is by demonstrating in yourselves that same pattern of being, far more than in the activities you do day by day, that you will demonstrate the love of God to those whom you serve.

Firstly, you will be teachers insofar as you are learners. Your calling is to lead others into the truth. You will only be able to do that insofar as you yourselves are still exploring. Do not be afraid to ask the difficult questions – and first of all, to ask them in your own studies and in your own prayers. The church needs preachers and teachers who are able to speak authentically from their own experience of faith, and with conviction from their understanding of the tradition. When you speak, the truths of the faith that will resonate in other peoples’ lives will be those which come from both your heart and your head, together.

Real thought can’t happen, though, when the answer is already decided. The possibility of changing your mind has to be a real one. Some might see that as faithlessness; I see it as the precondition of an informed faith. Keep your minds open to the new things that God does, and sharp to discern what is of God and what is not. And remember that you don’t have to have all the answers; if that was a requirement, no-one would be in ordained ministry. Your role is to encourage your fellow pilgrims, guiding them yes but as someone walking alongside, on the same journey.

That is the second paradox: you will be able to guide others only insofar as you are walking alongside them. The church does not need any more Messiahs; it needs more disciples. In your own life, in your own ministry, give space then for your own relationship with God, and allow it to grow and develop. The life of prayer changes as we change, but the God whom we are seeking through it does not. Have the confidence to allow God to be present, and even more challenging, have the confidence to speak of your own walk with God. Not just the wonderful bits! One of the conditions of the present age is that people have hyper-sensitive hypocrisy detectors. You don’t need to share everything about yourselves – in fact you really shouldn’t – but let everything you share be the truth.

When Thomas saw the risen Jesus he realised that in the resurrection God is showing us that we are personally loved, personally invited into a relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Not to be bowled over by gratitude at that love would be strange indeed. I’m sure you will already have had times in your spiritual lives when it hasn’t felt like that, though – times when you’re more full of anger, or questioning, or grief. And sometimes it all just seems to shrivel away, as if it were nothing at all, and that is the worst. But when your experience of prayer becomes dry, remember that your own feelings are not all that there is. If faith were just an interior, private thing, the absence of experience might be a real problem. But what each of us is invited to receive as individuals is a promise of redemption for the whole of creation. Christian faith is public truth, for the whole world, or it is no truth at all.

And that is the third dimension of which Thomas reminds us: Christian faith may be individual, but it is anything but individualistic. The revelation of the resurrection comes to him in the context of the disciples gathered together. You are called to an office of leadership in the church. You will only be able to exercise that ministry authentically if you do so as servants. Remember that you will always remain what you still are for a few minutes: deacons, servants of God and of God’s church. In order to help the church be the church, you will have to be the servants of the church for God’s sake.

The church is not just an organisation that happens to have existed for a long time: it is a divine institution, through which the Holy Spirit is at work. And despite all its manifest imperfections, we cannot just ignore the tradition and teaching of the church if we don’t fancy it. The church is the body of Christ; what the church believes is part of what we believe too, if we count ourselves Christians. Your calling as leaders and servants in the Christian community is to enable the church to be a healthy and safe place, in which the good news of Jesus Christ is authentically lived and continually renewed.

You are called to enable the church to be itself, the community of the brothers and sisters of Jesus. And if the church is to be itself, it exists in turn for the sake of the world. As those who stand at the centre of the Christian community, it is your responsibility above all to make sure that the church’s focus is not on you – that the people of God gather to meet God, and are sent out with and in God into the world. Those who preside at the eucharist do so precisely because they are called to stand at the heart of the church; they are trusted with the responsibility of bringing the people together in God’s presence. And those same people are given the responsibility of blessing the people in God’s name so that they go into the world knowing that they do not go alone.

Faith is not something we attain, and then stop; it’s a pilgrimage of becoming a new creation in Christ, of growing into God’s gift to us of new life. You will in a moment become a priest; you remain a deacon; and you are along with all God’s people a disciple, a worshipper, a follower of Jesus. That baptismal identity is the one which is the very heart of you as of all of us. Never forget that. As you listen again in a few moments to the responsibilities of the priesthood, accept them as a gift, knowing that you also have the gifts to fulfil those responsibilities, knowing that all we have is given to us to give back to God in a wonderful exchange. Let your faith remain wrapped up in wonder, and in joy – the wonder that led Thomas to cry out ‘my Lord and my God’. And you will receive abundantly the promise with which our gospel reading ends, the promise of God’s blessing.