Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church, April 11th on the Second Sunday of Easter
Together with a small group from our church, we spent a wonderful few days on the Island of Iona, taking part in the life of the Iona Community. We shared meals together, we set the table and washed dishes together, we took long walks together, reflecting in our pilgrimage on different significant spots on the island. We also we joined in worship in the Abbey every morning and evening. I can probably say for all of us who were there, that we did experience what Celtic spirituality calls ‘thin places’; those places where heaven and earth meet, and you feel close to God in a special, indescribable way.
I can probably talk about this all day, but as I said, this is something that you have to experience for yourself. It is not something I can describe in words. There is something special and otherworldly to find yourself in one of these ‘thin places’ where the presence of God is experienced unlike anywhere else. It is not a case of being lifted up into the heavens and leaving earth behind, but rather it is a case of heaven and earth coming together, which is actually what we are hoping for in the future, at the Second Coming of Jesus, when God will make a home with his people.
It is not a spiritual experience in the sense that you are removed from the physical world, but rather a spiritual experience that connects the spiritual with the physical. You feel God’s presence in your whole being: in your body, AND in your soul. As we were walking in our pilgrimage around the island, we could smell the sea air, we could feel the cool breeze and warm sun on our faces, we could hear the sheep and the lambs, we could be in awe of the emerald green waters separating Iona from Mull.
This is why it is not enough for us to tell you about it. This is why you need to experience it for yourself, in order to fully comprehend what it’s about. And in many ways, this is exactly what Thomas wanted to do. It was not enough for him that the ten disciples had seen Jesus standing in their midst. He wanted to have that experience for himself. When we tell you about how wonderful Iona is, you may not believe what we’re saying, because words cannot describe it accurately. In the same way, Thomas could not believe what the other disciples told him. He needed and wanted to have his own encounter with Jesus.
Thomas is one of my favourite of all the disciples. He is often referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas’ – the unbelieving disciple. And this is based on the passage we just read from the Gospel according to John. I heard many sermons in the past about how we should be like the ten disciples, not like Thomas. We should believe what the Bible says, and not doubt. We should all have faith, we should all believe, and not doubt, like Thomas did. After all, Jesus did say to Thomas: “Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”
I think what we sometimes tend to miss is that the ten disciples also disbelieved until they came face to face with Jesus. If we remember a week ago, in the Gospel according to Luke, when the women went to tell the disciples the good news of the resurrection, their words ‘seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them’ (Luke 24:11). We are not dealing with ten believing disciples, and one unbelieving disciple.
They all needed evidence in order to believe. Peter had to go to the tomb and see it for himself. Thomas needed to have his own encounter with Jesus, he needed to see the resurrected Jesus face to face in order to believe. He demanded to see the evidence before he could believe.
And eight days later, John tells us that when Jesus appeared to them again, he ‘focused his attention on Thomas’, and gave him the evidence he needed. We are not told if Thomas actually did touch the hands and side of Jesus; we are only told that he said: “My Master! My God!” When he was faced with the evidence, he acknowledged the divinity of Jesus and declared his allegiance to him.
It is interesting to me that this passage about Thomas is the most well known biblical reference about this disciple. But Thomas appears earlier in the Gospel according to John, when Jesus and the disciples receive the news that Lazarus had died. Jesus wants to return to Lazarus in Judea, where his life had been threatened before, and Thomas is the only disciple who says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16).
I like Thomas very much despite his undeserved reputation as the ‘doubting’ disciple, a reputation mostly generated by misunderstanding. For years I have heard many talks about how it is so bad to doubt, and so good to believe. In this kind of thinking, no wonder Thomas comes out as a bad example. Nobody talks about his willingness to die with Jesus, at least at that time, but they all talk about his unbelief.
Thomas is one of my favourite disciples because I can certainly identify with him. I also need evidence in order to believe. I am not willing to accept what others tell me unless I can verify it for myself. Just because someone had a wonderful experience with God, that is not enough for me. I need my own experience. Being told about how good a certain type of food is doesn’t do it for me. I need to taste it for myself and make up my own mind.
I noticed the same thing in my children as they are growing up. More and more, they are unwilling to believe what I say to them just because I was the one who said it. They demand to see the evidence. They want to experience it for themselves. This is not something I am very happy with, of course. I would prefer it if they just believed what I said and moved on. My life would be so much easier. But they wouldn’t grow if they believed everything I said without asking questions. They would not develop as individuals.
When children are very small, it is sometimes enough for them to just do as they are told, even though they do not understand why. When they are very small, they do not touch the hot stove because daddy said so. When they grow up, they do not touch the hot stove because they know, possibly from their own experience, that touching a hot stove is bad. That is how we grow and mature as human beings.
The Scriptures teach us to exercise judgement, and to distinguish between the spirits. We are taught to discern between good and evil for ourselves, as we grow in maturity. In Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians he writes: “We must stop acting like children. We must not let deceitful people trick us by their false teachings, which are like winds that toss us around from place to place.” (Eph. 4:14)
I can probably safely assume that we have all experienced doubt in our lives, and probably continue to experience it. It is so tempting nowadays to seek out and rely on certainties in order to cure our sense of anxiety. It is certainly not easy to have a restless mind that constantly asks questions, a mind that constantly enquires, doubts and wrestles with ideas. It is so much easier to rely on certitudes than to live with questions.
It can be quite painful when we realize that we have doubts about various Christian ideas. We may experience a sense of loss or a sense of fear that we are losing our faith. It is not easy to doubt, to enquire and reflect. It is not easy to look at the world and see the suffering brought by war and natural disasters to millions of people, and still believe in a loving God. It is not easy to be constantly tormented by impossible dilemmas, and unanswered questions.
But this is exactly what we are invited to do as we grow in faith. It is important to not confuse faith with certitudes. Faith is about trust and commitment, not about certainties. People who have lots of certainties and no doubts tend to huddle up in elitist groups, and judge those who are not like them. That is not what we are called to do.
Our challenge is to step out into the unknown by trusting God with our lives, despite the lack of certainties and guarantees. We are invited to ask difficult questions, to enquire and reflect – this being the only way to seek God and grow in faith. God is not afraid of our questions. He made us this way. He welcomes our questions and focuses his attention on each one of us, according to our own individual needs, in our own time, just as he did with Thomas.
And as we encounter him individually and in community, as we follow him on our journey of faith, we learn to trust him despite our doubts, so that we can also say, like Thomas: “My Master! My God!”