Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Doubting Philip – Sermon 30th March 2008

John 20:19-31

Before this sermon we heard the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin. You can read this poem by clicking

I’ve asked you before, I know – but now we can discuss it on the smashing new Forum that Alan has put on the Website. When Jesus invited Thomas to touch, to put his fingers in the wounds, to feel – did Thomas actually do it?

Philip Larkin is a very English poet, and that was a very English, even Anglican, poem in its details – our experience is that churches in Scotland have to be kept locked! And we tend to have less of a sense of the importance of sacred space than the Anglican tradition – which is very much our loss. In the days of Andrew Melville, it was to the kirk that people came midweek to think and pray. That said, a lot of the churches you can get into in this informal, slightly furtive way in Scotland do have an atmosphere that’s recognizable from Larkin’s stanzas – even down to the forbidding Authorized Version Bible, with its “hectoring large-scale verses”. I find myself thinking of Dunkeld Cathedral…

What I get from Larkin’s poem is the sense of a soul surrounded by something holy, yet cut off from it, desperate for all this to mean more to him, yet unable to believe that it might, because “the world’s not like that”. Whatever it is that is holy, whatever it is that is touched by all this ancient meaning, in such a place, it has less and less – already almost nothing – to do with the world where the poet has to live every day. Larkin believes he is in a place where few of his secular contemporaries would ever think to come. Maybe he’s right.

Our experience is likely different. When we come to church, the congregation’s there, and the whole place is in use. Worship is about to begin as we enter, and it unfolds and comes to an end, and we are dismissed, and “go forth to love and serve the Lord”. This strange borderland between the sacred and the secular, the place where Larkin’s poem is written and spoken from, is not somewhere we find ourselves on a Sunday morning. We stand, sit, bow in prayer, in a space of faith, which is marked off at its entrance with the Call to Worship, and at its exit with the Benediction.

We maybe feel like strangers to that strange in-between zone that Larkin, entering the old church, seems to be seeking out. Maybe we’re frightened of it. But we need to understand it, because it’s where millions of our contemporaries live. And truth to tell, it’s a place we can’t avoid either.

For us, there’s the world out there, and there’s worship, with all its affirmation and proclamation and joy, in here. We’re very much like the ten disciples (and whoever else might have been with them) on Easter Evening, and then a week later.

Who we’re not like, is Thomas. Thomas, you see, finds himself that first Easter Week, in a very strange, uneasy place. When you think about it, it’s very like the place Philip Larkin’s poem comes from. A place somewhere between a faith which he can’t profess, and complete indifference, which clearly horrifies him; between the overwhelming warmth of “in here” and the bracing secular chill of “out there”. A place of “What is this?” and “Why am I drawn to it?” And also; “Why can’t I give up on it?”

So. Today’s Gospel reading. Thomas.

Last Sunday, we made the proclamation, vast, resonant, simple yet world-challenging and world-changing, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” That is our faith. That’s what we believe about Jesus Christ, and about the universe in which we live. The world has been turned upside down! We don’t agonize, the way Larkin does. We proclaim. This is how things are, now.

And we do that every Easter Sunday.

And every year, the following Sunday, we come face to face with Thomas.

Thomas wasn’t here last week. He can’t make sense of what we said, last Sunday. Oh, he knows what we said – Christ is risen – he heard about it, he knows that that’s what the church proclaims. And he would love to believe it. But he can’t. Thomas measures the distance between where we are now, in this space of faith, and where the life of the world around us is lived. That’s where Thomas has been, you see, since last Sunday.

And yet – here he is. Drawn to this place, unable if he wanted to – which he doesn’t – to break away from its gravitational pull. He reminds me so much of Larkin’s church-sampler. He knows that there is something here. But he doesn’t know what.

Down the centuries, so much attention has focused on Thomas’s doubt. Doubting Thomas, we call him, and so many strands of the Christian tradition treat that doubt as a flaw, a fault – a sin. Faith is believing what you are told to believe, and everything you are told to believe, and all in the way you are told to believe it!

But the difference between Thomas and the other disciples was notthat Thomas doubted. It’s just that Thomas wasn’t there on Easter evening. He didn’t see what they saw, didn’t experience what they experienced.

Now you need to notice something very important about that first Sunday evening, and its sequel a week later. The disciples are all together. The church, you might say, is met. Which is exactly right.

“Hang on!” you might say. “According to Acts, there is no “Church” before Pentecost. The Church is “born” when the Spirit is given….” But John goes out of his way to have Jesus say:

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”

Does that not look an awful lot like John’s version of the Spirit coming on the Church? Easter and Pentecost all in one. What makes the Church is the Risen Christ, coming in the midst, and giving his Spirit.

We believe all together. We are the company of people who live and believe the Easter Faith. We are the Community of the Resurrection.

But Thomas isn’t there. He hears this story of the resurrection as a confusing, incoherent “word on the street”. He doesn’t have the context of the life of the Church to make sense of it. He’s still one of them, but he doesn’t have the communion of the disciples. You might almost say that he’s “in church” but didn’t “go to church”.

In other words, he’s in that same secular, midweek space where Larkin’s churchgoer will find himself two thousand years later. Larkin opens the door of the church, and slips into that strange space, just exactly notin the course of a service, just exactly when nobody is around.

He’s in church, but the Church isn’t there. He’s there on his own. He’s trying to make sense of whatever this is all about, on his own. He’s trying to get his head round something that makes sense to other people, he knows – but not to him. In that, too, he’s just like Thomas….

And – maybe it’s time to say it – he’s also just like us, sometimes.

Somebody tells us something that’s so huge, so mind-boggling, and even though we have understood all the words, we still tend to say “What are you talking about…?” It’s as though, although we do know all the words, and even what fitting them together in that way ought to mean, we are still, somehow, outside the language that they are using.

“Christ is risen!”


Step back inside the picture you got in your head when Annette and Barbara Ann were reading the Larkin poem. Didn’t you feel that here was a man moving around among things that didn’t quite make sense to him? He knows what the lectern, the “small neat organ” and even the “brass and stuff/Up at the holy end” are for – but I get the sense that there’s something between him and them.

He’s like a man in a bubble. How can he be touched by these things? How is it that other people are touched by them? That they are full of meaning for some people? How can he touch and be touched?

Is this still Larkin we’re talking about, or have we come back to Thomas?

If we’re on holiday, I love to go into old churches and walk around. I know, on that level, what it is that Larkin is talking about, even though he was an agnostic and I am a professing Christian believer. You think things in a holy place that’s empty and not in use that you don’t think either out there in the bustling world of daily life, or in here, in worship. It’s a sort of in-between, borderland place where images of the holy flit over the pictures of day-to-day existence you carry in with you. Or is it the other way round? It’s like sitting and watching two movies being projected on the same screen. “Real life” as we call it, and another reality altogether are bought into connection in a way that isn’t set and structured by the church’s worship, but oddly draws out of the individual a response which, whoever you are, is unsettlingly close to prayer…

I remember, years ago, when we were down in Devon on holiday, going to Exeter Cathedral during the week. I remember marvelling at the two castle-like towers that the building is famous for; life could be rough down there in times gone by, and even the mother-church had to be fortified! Inside, I remember, it was so much lighter than I’d expected. I took in the stone bench sticking out about fifteen inches, I’d say, that ran the length of the nave wall on both sides; in those days, folk were hardy and expected to stand throughout a service, but if you couldn’t manage that, you made your way to the sides and sat on this stone protrusion. Hence “the weak go to the wall…”

There was an exhibition of church embroidery on, culminating in a very striking dressing of the altar at the crossing, in which the cross wasn’t centred but offset to the left, and brilliantly stood out against the rich dark greens and bold white angled panels, in shining gold. And there were people milling around, and admiring the huge structure of the Cathedral, the architecture, the stained glass; some were being unspeakably touristy and brash, others were in a more reverent and reflective mood. Maybe there were Philip Larkins among them, sensing even in the business here a “something”, and sensing, too, that it was important, even if they couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t name it.

Anyway, we came back on the Sunday. For the service. It was communion. Same building, but everything was different. Here were, not individuals, set free by this space to ask their questions but not sure what answers they might be getting. Here was not an uncertain space at the edge of the world’s life, more and more pushed to the side. Here was worship with the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven. This was what the building was built for, and this was what it all meant. Everything had come to life, because everything was full of the Risen Life of Christ.

That’s the difference between where we are today, right now, and where Philip Larkin is, and where Thomas is. And, sometimes, where we are ourselves. And “ourselves” is the operative word. Doing faith in your own head is a desperately difficult business. And that’s not to say “Don’t do it!” The truth is, as the people we are, in the society we live in, we have to. There are times, whether we are standing in an empty ancient church on a wet summer afternoon, or in the kitchen at twenty to three, or sitting in the office during a lunchbreak, or waiting for the number 36 bus, when we find ourselves utterly alone with our thoughts. “And God…” we say, quickly, like a mediaeval peasant, crossing himself with a shudder. But – where is God in all of this?

We come here, now. And here is the Church. And Christ is in the midst. And here, we can touch, and be touched, and here we can know. Christ becomes real for us in the communion we have with each other, because the communion we have with each other is grounded in Christ.

What Larkin is picking up, in that quiet church, on a weekday, is the afterglow of this. The reverberations of what happened last Sunday.

How like Thomas is this?

You wonder what kind of poem would have resulted if Larkin had done what Thomas actually did? Come back the following Sunday? Met? Touched? Worshipped? That wouldn’t have been Larkin, of course. I can’t imagine a Philip Larkin poem dealing with such things. But that’s what Thomas did. He went back. Encountered. Touched. Worshipped. Because there in the communion of the Church was Christ.

That’s how the faith works. We move to and fro between this space and the space shared by Doubting Thomas and Doubting Philip. Between the Christ who touches us, whom we can touch in each other, and in the texture of bread and the smoothness of wine, and a world of uncertainty and doubt and lots of questions and few answers. But there is a point at which the two come together. That is faith. To live in the world and to know that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Not because we can grasp it, but because it has grasped us.

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