A Sermon that was NOT preached at the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas,
in the regional municipality of Apokoronas, on the island of Crete, in Greece
on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020, 11:00 am
because of the Great Pandemic of 2020.
“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.” John 20.25b
The Valorization of Thomas the Sceptic
Thomas has become, I think, more popular in the past few centuries than he might have been before, and that is because he is seen a First Century sceptic (skeptic in the US spelling). “Sceptic” has several meanings, as the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear. The first is a reference to a philosophical school:
1. Philosophy. One who, like Pyrrho [365/360 BCE – 275/270 BCE] and his followers in Greek antiquity, doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any kind; one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever. Also, often applied in a historically less correct sense, to those who deny the competence of reason, or the existence of any justification for certitude, outside the limits of experience. Emphasis added.
However, it has a broader, more popular sense:
2. One who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular department of inquiry (e.g. metaphysics, theology, natural science, etc.); popularly, one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement. Also, one who is habitually inclined rather to doubt than to believe any assertion or apparent fact that comes before him; a person of sceptical temper. Emphasis added.
In discussions of Christian beliefs and teachings, it is used as the equivalent of an agnostic, or even an atheist:
3. spec. One who doubts, without absolutely denying, the truth of the Christian religion or important parts of it; often loosely, an unbeliever in Christianity, an infidel. Emphasis added.
Since the Seventeenth Century we have viewed scepticism more positively thing than in earlier eras. It became a tool of the scientific method, in which physical evidence for facts was required and tested.
- René Descartes (1596-1650) his First Meditation decided to doubt everything he knew, and determined that the one thing he could not doubt was his own existence: cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” This approach to philosophy, emphasised pure reason and certainty over sensations and acting on common sense. This was a radical breach with medieval philosophy, and while Descartes in his Third Meditation concluded that there was a God, philosophers who followed afterwards felt no such need to do so.
- The great Scottish Empiricist David Hume (1711-1776) was deeply sceptical about any claims to knowledge that went beyond experience and sensations, and so called into question miracles and all religious claims.
- During the Age of Enlightenment many challenged the Church’s teachings and took refuge in Deism, believing in a God but not necessarily in anything like the Christian God.
- New Testament scholars in 19th Century Germany began to treat Holy Scripture as if it was any other ancient text, and distinguished between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, arguing that “the preacher became the preached.”
- In the wake of the development of geology, archaeology, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, it became obvious to many that the narrative of the Bible could not be taken literally.
- Whereas religion had been seen as necessary to political life, by the end of the 19th Century it was seen by many as irrelevant, and perhaps an impediment (at least by the ruling classes), something that had led to the Thirty Years War in Germany and the Civil War in England.
- With the rise of individualism and personal economic power, religion was seen as a personal think, a kind of hobby, like gardening or stamp collecting.
Thomas, then, is sometimes held up as an Christian prototype of the sceptic among us. “You say you cannot believe in everything we teach in the Church? Well, that’s okay – neither did Thomas the Apostle!” But this is not what the story about doubting Thomas is about.
The Incredulity of Thomas
While researching the resources for the second Sunday of Easter I came across this hymn by Thomas Troeger (music is on the previous post):
These things did Thomas count as real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
The last frail twitch of flesh and bone.
The vision of his skeptic mind
Was keen enough to make him blind
To any unexpected act
Too large for his small world of fact.
His reasoned certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
Until his fingers read like Braille
The marking of the spear and nail.
May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.
Both the painting above by Carravaggio and the hymn suggest that Thomas touched Jesus’s wounds, but I am not sure that he did so. The passage in John reads:
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” John 20:24-28.
The passage does not actually say that Thomas touched Jesus, much less put his hand in his side. Rather, upon being invited to do so by Jesus, Thomas realizes he was wrong, and was overcome by his presumption. His response is one of faith: “My Lord and my God” – an affirmation that bookends the beginning of the gospel which affirms Jesus as divine: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The passage carries on:
Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. John 20:29-31
This would be a great place to end the gospel – the reader, who presumably has not seen the resurrected Jesus, has faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and is living the life of Jesus in her or his own body by the power of the Holy Spirit. A blessing is given by Jesus: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is a blessing for the reader and those who hear the good news – and it suggests that they have greater faith than Thomas. From a reader response perspective, we are supposed to identify not with Thomas or the other Apostles who are witnesses, but with those in the community who have not seen Jesus. Presumably this was the situation when and where this gospel was written – which would be mainly second generation Christians, and not witnesses to Jesus in his risen state.
“Blind to Any Unexpected Act”
Even though I am not sure that Thomas’s fingers read like Braille / The marking of the spear and nail, I still like the hymn by Thomas Troeger. The earthly quality of the death of Jesus is caught masterfully in The warmth of blood, the chill of steel, / The grain of wood, the heft of stone, / The last frail twitch of flesh and bone. There is an appeal to reasoned certainties that are so much a characteristic of the modern age in which we have lived.
But the old certainties are now not so solid. “Reason” itself has been pulled off of its pedestal. We live in a society where the GDP and the freedom of the markets was everything, but now as we suffer through a lockdown we know that some things – life, health care, friends – are far more important. Covid-19 seems to hit people without warning, killing here on Crete a 48 year-old professor visiting from Germany, afflicting the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and several of his his aides, infecting the heir to the throne, and working its way, despite precautions, into vulnerable nursing staff and physicians, janitors and stock clerks. The usual reasoning around the economy no longer suffices, and years of austerity in health services are being questioned. What is most important to us?
In the midst of mourning, solitude, and boredom, some of us find ourselves turning to the divine, so that we, O God, by grace believe. Denied entry into churches, many find the Body of Christ over the internet and by quiet prayer. We may not have been to church during the past Holy Week, but Holy Week came to us by various media and in the silence of of the days and nights. We may not have certainty, but we have faith.
My hope and prayer is that in the midst of this strange time, you, by grace, may have belief, and that through believing you may have life in his name.