Saint Thomas The Apostle


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(December 21) 

Almighty and everlasting God, who… didst suffer thy holy Apostle Thomas to be doubtful…
Ephesians 2:19-22
John 20-24-31

Politicians, artists and celebrities with long and distinguished careers are often remembered for one error of judgment; this is the fate of Thomas. No matter that he urged his fellow disciples (John 11:16) to prepare to die with Jesus nor that he almost certainly did die for Christ, doubting has become associated with his name as firmly as cake burning with King Alfred or philandering with President Clinton. It is therefore particularly sad that we do not know more of Thomas’s career. There are a number of apocryphal writings ascribed to him, including a ‘gospel’, or written about him and there is a tradition that he preached the Gospel in India, was martyred and buried in Edessa.

The Collect prays that we should be so steadfast in our belief in Jesus that we never doubt and as long as our faith is analogous to a sturdy structure founded on rock, as described in Ephesians, this is possible if still difficult; but that is to confuse faith with empirical validation. It was all very well for Paul, who had seen Jesus in a vision (cf The Conversion of Saint Paul) and his contemporaries decades after the event to think of the Resurrection as an obvious, empirical fact and to characterise faith in it accordingly; but when Thomas was confronted with the narrative of the Resurrection he was unsure as the Disciples had been when they received news. Today’s Gospel is very different in tone from the preceding verses; and all three Synoptics describe of post Resurrection disbelief, confusion and fear. As with Judas and betrayal, Thomas has been left, partially in caricature, carrying the can for his brethren. Conversely, we who have two millennia of hindsight are beset by doubts, regardless of the theological significance we assign to it, about the actuality of the event. Thomas was told a story about Jesus which the narrators hardly believed themselves. Their hesitation was understandable. There was no tradition of bodily resurrection in Judaism. They were being asked to believe something right outside their frame of reference. In a different way that is also our state. Our culture is so completely bound up with evidence based phenomena and rational argument—the Logos—that it has almost completely lost any notion of the mysterious—the Mythos—which is a necessary attribute of the divine. In a way that he would not have recognised, Thomas might be a contemporary patron saint of culture.

The doubts which we should suffer, however, are quite independent of intellectual fashion; or, to put it another way, we are involved in a lifelong quest to become closer to God and that quest is not possible if our theology, our attempts to better understand mystery, is static (cf Saint Andrew’s Day). Although history attests to the power of ‘simple faith’, we must be careful of complacency which arises out of a lack of introspection and exploration. When the Godhead becomes a formula and not the ‘senior’ partner in a relationship, then our faith is in danger. What atheists fail to see is that Christianity is fundamentally relational, not doctrinal, and that God is much more like a verb than a noun.

It is therefore vital that we separate atheist criticism from Christian self-criticism. Many devout Christians suffer guilt from doubt because we quite properly recognise that we do not believe in God in the way in which we believe in cheese or China; neither should we. To classify God alongside physical objects is clearly, outside the remarkable case of the Incarnation, a misunderstanding of the issue and is, in the contemporary jargon, a ‘category error’. Put almost naively, if we could prove the existence of God then it wouldn’t be God. Philosophy seeks proof of an object, Christians seek truth in a relationship.

Part of the ‘Thomas problem’ is the growing tendency to see the Bible as a rationalist textbook similar to a work of history or physics where physical objects are central. That has two catastrophic consequences: first, there are so many real, concrete contradictions in the scriptural library that to claim otherwise is to discredit the essence of the text; secondly, because nobody finds it possible to accept every word literally, the picking and choosing reduces the whole exercise to a farce which brings great discredit upon our sacred texts. Simply to claim that the Bible is inspired by God because it says it is, is a circular—and anyway, the wrong— argument. The Bible is the Word of God because we have faith that it is but in having faith we are inevitably subject to doubt. This phenomenon of varying adhesion is similar to the vicissitude of prayer where we sometimes feel that absolutely nothing is happening.

If we have no doubt we have nothing at all. Whatever Thomas thought would happen after the Crucifixion it is hardly likely that he or anybody else was expecting a Resurrection event which had physical attributes. Progress and penetration are the results of doubt and its crowning glory is surprise (cf Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial p15). Jesus, after all, was not harsh to Thomas but He did bless those who believe without empirical evidence. To ask such questions as whether the risen Jesus had a body like ours is the wrong kind of question because the mechanics are insignificant compared with the mysterious reality.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Set the doubts of Thomas in the context of the four Resurrection accounts
  2. What do we mean by simple faith?
  3. Suggest ways of striking a balance between mystery and rationality, between Mythos and Logos
  4. Think of famous people who have been characterised (or caricatured) as the result of one alleged or actual miscalculation, error of judgment or misrepresentation
  5. How do we resolve the circularity that the Bible is the Word of God because it says so?

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