Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Easter 2016
Start Date 3rd Apr 2016 11:15am
Description

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner

'Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe'. (St John 20: 25)

On this Low Sunday we traditionally hear the story of Thomas, the one who missed the risen Lord's first encounter with his disciples. When Thomas hears what has happened to them, he says he will not believe unless he can touch the very wounds of Jesus with his own hands.

One week later, Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the opportunity to do just that. Thomas responds to this invitation by crying out: 'My Lord and my God'. Thomas' initial refusal to believe is couched in strong language, but this shouldn't prevent us from recognising in Thomas' words, the doubts and uncertainties that each of us may bring to the Easter proclamation.

Last week this Abbey was filled with worshippers, huge numbers attending both the Sung Eucharist and Evensong and it was easy to believe in Christ's resurrection.

But life goes on. That same evening we heard with dismay of the atrocious suicide bombing in Lahore. We remembered again the old worries about health or finance, the same problems at home, the same conundrums at work, the same risks and ambiguities on the world stage.

Life goes on in all its uncertainty, with its mix of joy and sorrow. When we're in the middle of our ordinary lives 'Alleluia! Christ is risen!' can sound a little far away, a second-hand message that may appear to have nothing directly to do with us.

If that's the case, then Thomas's inability to believe is our inability to believe and his story is our story. But if the beginning of the story is ours, so is the end. Jesus seeks Thomas out and lovingly challenges him for his unbelief, and Thomas, overcome with relief and adoration makes the profession of belief that is the cornerstone of Christian faith: 'My Lord and my God'.

But if we look a little more closely at this passage it's also possible to see something of ourselves there as well. We usually think of Thomas as the kind of person who won't believe anything unless he sees it.

In some ways he's anticipating the modern enquiring mind, insisting on empirical evidence and careful methodology. He insists on touching the wounds of Christ in order to be certain that the risen Jesus is not merely a ghost or a hallucination.

But even this way of seeing Thomas as a very modern man doesn't explain all; for even when Jesus offers him the opportunity to gain first-hand evidence of his physical presence but he doesn't take advantage of it.

The real question for Thomas isn't about bodily resurrection it's all about whether Jesus is really alive and has conquered death. And of course if he is alive he's completely alive and fully present, both spiritually and physically.

Thomas' problem isn't a scientific problem. His difficulty in believing isn't about empirical evidence; it's about believing that God really can be that powerful. When Jesus set off towards Jerusalem to tend to Lazarus it was Thomas who said 'Let us also go, that we may die with him' (St John 11: 16).

Like so many good men and women, Thomas isn't convinced that goodness really will win out because he's afraid that goodness doesn't, in fact, lie at the heart of reality. Thomas is the type of person who yearns for righteousness but like many of us sometimes finds it difficult to believe.

Since 2010 I have had the privilege of being charged with assessing the ethics of research within the Social Sciences and Humanities Divisions at Oxford University.

Five years ago a major world-wide research project found that human thought processes were 'rooted' to religious concepts. The project involved fifty-seven academics in twenty countries around the world, and spanned the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and theology.

It set out to establish whether belief in divine beings and an afterlife were ideas simply learned from society or integral to human nature. The co-director of the project, Professor Roger Trigg, argues that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived precisely because human thought seems to be fundamentally rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of God, and belief in the resurrection.

In the light of this research, Thomas, encapsulates, in a rather positive way, that creative interplay between human thought and religious enquiry. Some believe that an enquiring approach to faith is corrosive or destructive, but in actual fact it's a very constructive place to be.

I say this because critical enquiry allows us to address those difficult questions: Is Jesus really alive? has he conquered death? how do we know he is risen? or indeed, how can we believe it?

This is crucially important for us because firstly we should all be able to defend our faith, and talk reasonably and rationally about it to sceptics and unbelievers; and secondly, since Christianity isn't just a philosophy of life, but rather an historical religion it's vital that we're able to analyse the historical evidence before us.

The real question for Thomas isn't so much about bodily resurrection; it's about believing that God really can be all powerful. Here Thomas helps us to understand just what Jesus was teaching his disciples during his post-resurrection appearances.

Those who had loved him on earth had to learn to live without the physical appearance of Christ, the actual seeing, touching, and hearing him. There would be no more sitting at the table with him and filling the mind with his words, but now they would learn to walk by faith, not by sight.

Following his resurrection, Jesus would walk with them, sit with them, eat with them, but in a more profound manner not limited by space and time. This was a tremendous lesson for Thomas, but also one we too are called to learn.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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