A sermon preached on
The Patronal Feast of St Thomas the Apostle
(transferred from July 3)
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
on July 5, 2020 11:00 am
I Commend My Spirit.
‘בְּיָֽדְךָ֘ אַפְקִ֪יד ר֫וּחִ֥י (Biyadhka aphqidh ruechi)
Into your hands I commend my spirit. Psalm 31:4(5).
These words were spoken by Jesus, we are told in the Gospel of Luke (23:46), as he was dying on the cross. Today we read it as part of our commemoration of Thomas and his faith in Jesus as his Lord and his God. Let us muse of this juxtaposition.
Let’s start with what is being committed. In the Hebrew the word is, interestingly, ר֫וּחִ or “ruach”. This word can mean breath. It can also, mean wind, and finally, spirit. It is typically translated into Greek as πνεύμα, and we get words like pneumonia from it. Hebrew writing is usually pretty concrete, although in this psalm ruach functions as a metonym, where a name substitutes for a larger whole; the hands of God also function as a metonym for the divine. Thus, the psalmist is not entrusting just his breath (as such) to God, nor is he just commending his spirit to God when he dies. Rather he is committing his whole self – mind and body, whatever it is that makes us human – to God.
It is an appropriate verse for today. While Thomas is often celebrated for his scepticism and doubt, he can also be celebrated for his confession to Jesus – “my Lord and my God.” In Jesus he saw what it was to be divine in human form, and what it was to be fully human. What his confession was, is ours as well.
What does it mean to commit one’s life to God?
Types of Commitment
There are a bunch of ways to go at this.
In more liturgical forms of the faith, it involves other people committing you to God in your baptism, when you are an infant. You then spend the rest of your life reaffirming that commitment, or running away from it. So you can be a good Catholic or a bad Catholic, or a non-observant Orthodox or a pious Orthodox, but you never really stop being a Catholic or an Orthodox. You might be an agnostic or an atheist, but you remain, somehow, an agnostic Orthodox or an atheist Catholic.
When Christianity became more common and general in the fourth and fifth centuries, when these islands became fully Christian in the sixth and seventh centuries, new forms of commitment arose, namely the monastic movements for men and women. People would retreat to the desert or mountains, sometimes as hermits, but more often in communities. They would take special vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. In time the three orders of the clergy were also seen as a kind of commitment for serious Christians, and so were seen, not just servants of the people, but as their leaders and overseers. When one “went into religion”, one would be ordained or take vows as a monastic, or both. In time, in the Western Christian tradition, some religious orders moved from the contemplation of God to special service – education, preaching, nursing and medicine, and so forth.
With the Reformation a focus was made on the laity as needing to be educated by the clergy. The Bible, through the miracle of the printing press, became more common and accessible. Starting in the 16th century, in the daily services of protestant churches large chunks of scripture were read. Beginning in the 17th century, peasants and labourers were taught to read in Sunday schools – Sunday being the only day they had off from work – and the text was always the Bible. The origin of Sunday Schools were not so much in religious education for children, but in teaching the lower classes. It is not an accident that Evangelicalism and various types of Protestants arose in the era, supported by ordinary people. Evangelical circles emphasized that ordinary Christians needed to accept Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Saviour. It is what Charles Wesley would call a warming of the heart, a realization that one was saved by one’s faith in Jesus, and that nothing could come between God’s love for us. In Baptist circles this would be evidenced by a testimony of what God has done for you, and then Baptism. In Charismatic or Pentecostal circles, it was evidenced by speaking in tongues, and other gifts of the Holy Spirit. The commitment of the believer was seen by extraordinary works and signs.
I have committed my life to God on at least three separate formal occasions – when I was baptized, when I was made a deacon, and when I was ordained a priest. But I have done so on many other occasions – such as when I was licensed to a parish. Perhaps more mundanely, I commit myself to God, with you, every Sunday when we gather to praise God in word and song, when we read the scriptures together, reflect on what God is saying to us, when we are led in prayer to God, when we gather around the table as Jesus commanded us, and when we are sent out into the world. Commitment is not a once in a life thing. It is not a three-time thing. It is weekly, if not daily. It is like a marriage. If the commitment in a marriage is made only on the day of the wedding, it is not a marriage that is going to last very long. It is a commitment that needs a regular, perhaps daily renewal. It is a commitment that thrives on loving action.
We never really hear of Thomas again in the New Testament. Pious legend suggests that he went east, and preached the gospel in India. When the powers of Europe arrived in India in the 16th century they found Christians there already, claiming to have been founded by Mar Thoma many centuries before.
I asked Tony Lane as to why he named the Chapel in honour of Thomas. He wrote me, and I quote with his permission:
Initially, I thought and prayed for some time concerning who we should adopt as our patron saint. Names like: Peter, Paul, Christ, All Saints, along with others were considered, and then (other than it being God inspired) I suddenly found myself thinking about St Thomas.
If honest, in the past, I seemed to have held him in rather low regard, looking on him as someone lacking in faith and doubting Christ, as many still do. The more I deliberated the more I became convinced just how misjudged he is. I do not see him as doubting and certainly no more than any of those other Apostles. In fact I think he was the only one brave enough to express what the others were probably thinking.
Add to that once Jesus revealed himself he was the first one to acknowledge him as ‘My Lord and my God!’
As I thought further about Thomas the more admiration I had for him, as I saw him as someone who was brave enough to express his feelings, and yes at times have doubts, as we surely all have if we are honest with ourselves. It often amazes me just how many people have asked me ‘Why St Thomas?’ A rather curt reply could be ‘Why not!’ But that is not helpful, so my real reason for adopting Thomas is that he seems to give me permission; to have doubts; to ask God why, when things are not working out; and like him to take great comfort and reassurance that God allows me to make the same mistakes, again and again, and as with Thomas, I know that I am forgiven once more.
My hope and prayer is that this place and this community will be known for its commitment to God, and for service to our neighbour. That it will be a place welcoming of people like Thomas, with doubts and questions, but also a place where people, as Thomas did, will encounter Jesus, and perhaps confess of him as Lord and God. As it has was in the year 30, as it has been since the founding of this congregation, so may it be in the future. May we join with Jesus and the saints, including Thomas, and say, “Into your hands we commit our spirits”, our selves our souls and bodies. Amen.