Posted by: owizblog | April 27, 2014

The Incredulity of St Thomas: Sermon, UCB, Sunday 27 April 2014

Faith is difficult, in the real world. It’s difficult for us. There – the Minister said it, so we can all acknowledge it! Faith is not easy. It’s sometimes very hard.

How did you hear these two verses in that last reading?

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Whoever wrote the First Letter of Peter had in mind particular circumstances, when he wrote that; the circumstances of small churches of Christians in what we’d now call Asia Minor, at the end of the First Century, being persecuted for their faith. That’s a horrible and murderous reality for people on the surface of this planet, a few thousand miles from where we are now, of course. We are rightly made aware of that more and more. It’s a wicked reality that anyone should be persecuted for their faith, a blasphemy against God and a crime against humanity. These people are being persecuted for our faith, the faith we share with them.

I am made queasy when people speak of the persecution of Christians in this country. Certain tabloids speak of this, but it’s to promote an agenda of fear and suspicion that isn’t just against all that Jesus was and is about, but is actually the sort of Pharisaic intolerance that put Christ on the cross in the first place, doing that most weasly of things, playing the victim card.

But faith is difficult. It’s difficult for us, and it’s difficult because of the culture  – the world – we live in. It doesn’t persecute us, but it unsettles us, raises questions in our minds, raises doubts – and we aren’t supposed to have doubts, are we? Doubts are the opposite of faith, aren’t they?

If you’ve ever had an email from me, you will have noticed that the “sig” – the wee permanent message at the bottom, which the sender chooses – has a quote from the great German – and latterly American – theologian Paul Tillich. In the form in which I found it, it says “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”

Here it is, in a slightly different form.

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Our Gospel reading in a few moments will be the story of Doubting Thomas. Let’s reflect on Tillich’s thought for a few seconds first….

[Brief period of silence]

And now, for a slightly different reflection. Not quite a hymn, but more of a mystical poem, in rough and ready but very personal language, by the author of “Amazing grace…”, John Newton. We’ll sing it sitting down.

BREAK: Hymn

How tedious and tasteless the hours
When Jesus I no longer see;
Sweet prospects, sweet birds and sweet flowers,
Have all lost their sweetness to me;
The midsummer sun shines but dim,
The fields strive in vain to look gay.
But when I am happy in Him,
December’s as pleasant as May.

His Name yields the richest perfume,
And sweeter than music His voice;
His presence disperses my gloom,
And makes all within me rejoice.
I should, were He always thus nigh,
Have nothing to wish or to fear;
No mortal as happy as I,
My summer would last all the year.

Content with beholding His face,
My all to His pleasure resigned,
No changes of season or place
Would make any change in my mind:
While blessed with a sense of His love,
A palace a toy would appear;
All prisons would palaces prove,
If Jesus would dwell with me there.

Dear Lord, if indeed I am Thine,
If Thou art my sun and my song,
Say, why do I languish and pine?
And why are my winters so long?
O drive these dark clouds from the sky,
Thy soul cheering presence restore;
Or take me to Thee up on high,
Where winter and clouds are no more.

When cheque guarantee cards first came out, I had a very bad habit of keeping mine in my pocket instead of my wallet. This tended to mean that the little strip, which in those days was of an almost papery texture, not the biro-friendly plastic you get nowadays, tended to get very grubby, and the surface of it used to rub off, and the signature rapidly became illegible.

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I remember many occasions when I would realize this as I was standing in a queue, and would nervously finger my neck, to see if I was wearing my round collar –

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because very often, the reaction at the counter, on seeing a collared clergyman proffering a cheque guarantee card, was “Oh, I don’t need to see that, Reverend…!” And I was hoping that a dog-collar would succeed where a grubby, illegible signature on a cheque card might not…

Things have changed now.

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We’ve all been taught to ask for proof of identity. And quite right too! The round collar is great for starting conversations on trains, but it isn’t a form of ID. We may long for those days when a wee boy seeing a small terrier walking down the main street of a Highland village was admonished by his granny “Straichten yer bunnet, Wullie – it’s the Minister’s dug!” Those were the golden days of the dog-collar, for clerics and canines…

But nowadays we ask. We seek proof, of identity, of authority. It’s no bad thing.

Thomas. Doubting Thomas. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Back he comes the Sunday after Easter – today – to the Upper Room. And notice that he comes back! Doubting Thomas or not, a Thomas unable to believe, there he is, in the upper room, there among the disciples, met to worship the Risen Christ, there to share the meal which, for them since Easter Sunday is the context of Christ’s presence. There he is, Doubting Thomas, in Church…

Something brought him there…

And suddenly, Christ is there. There to him, too, there to Doubting Thomas.
And the Risen Christ says: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

What does he do? What does Thomas do at this point, faced with this invitation? It’s a question that sharply divides people, but into a big majority, and a small minority. John doesn’t tell us any more than that Jesus speaks these words: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side…” Does Thomas take him up on the invitation?

Most people in my experience, asked that, realize that they have always, since first hearing the story, often in Sunday School, assumed that Thomas simply says “My Lord and my God!” They are actually quite shocked to think that seeing Jesus might not be enough, that Thomas would, in the crassest, rudest way actually probe – literally! – this reality! I mean, you wouldn’t ask a nice Minister in a round collar to prove his identity to you, would you?

Well, look at this:

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It’s a masterpiece called The Incredulity of St Thomas, painted by the Italian master Caravaggio, about 1602. It shows a luminous Jesus on the left, lit by a cascade of light from outside the picture that, to my eyes, isn’t so much ethereal as floodlit, like the light you’d find nowadays in a setting like an operating theatre – or even an autopsy room – where every detail of scientific truth needed to be seen.

Two disciples peer over the shoulder of Thomas, as he, at Jesus’ invitation, his hand guided by Jesus holding his wrist, probes deep into the wound of the spear from the crucifixion.

There’s something slightly odd-looking about Thomas, though.

The English artist David Hockney thinks that the painting was made using a camera obscura –

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a black-dark room which used a single pinhole to allow a narrow beam of light to be focused on a surface, creating an image of the outside world which could then be traced around. That’s why, says Hockney, the figures of the disciples aren’t looking in quite the right place.

It’s a fascinating theory, and some artists of the period are known to have used a camera obscura in this way. There’s a camera obscura in Edinburgh, of course, beside the castle, and another in Dumfries Museum.

But most people disagree with Hockney, for various reasons – and I do, for a reason of my own. Look at the other disciples. They are clearly scanning the scene, and as interested in the movements of Thomas’s hand as they are in the wound in the side of Christ. There isn’t a single focus here. The focus is on the interaction between Thomas, his doubts, and what confronts him in the Risen Christ.

But for Thomas, in the picture, there is a single focus. The focus isn’t exactly on the Risen Christ – we’re past that moment, in Caravaggio’s telling of the story. Thomas is focusing on what he himself said was the only criterion that mattered to him. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

But it isn’t a single criterion. “I need to see…” “I need to touch…” Even sight, on its own, isn’t a sufficient standard of proof. Even sight can be deluded, can be tricked, can mislead. Thomas is looking for a coordination of sense-data.

Do you sometimes catch yourself, when you move from looking intently at something to picking it up, that your attention shifts so completely from what your eyes are telling you to what you are touching, that your gaze actually drifts away from the object? You are now investigating it by touch. It’s as though your eyes wander away.

(It’s the same with your other senses, of course. That’s why it’s so dangerous to speak on your phone while driving…)

He sees – and we may think “Well, isn’t that enough?” I suspect that a lot of the folk who feel that John is telling us that Thomas saw, believed, and didn’t need to touch, are also saying that in their minds there’s something unseemly, almost tasteless, about seeing the Risen Christ,  hearing his invitation to press on beyond sight, and actually going on to touch, indeed to poke, in a crude, crass manner. Exactly the crude, crass manner that Caravaggio depicts in his masterpiece. It’s as though people of taste and good manners would say “Och, I’ve seen, been astonished, overwhelmed, of course I’m happy to say that I believe on that basis…”

Faith isn’t just believing facts. In fact, there are times when faith is the opposite of “believing facts.” When “believing facts” – reciting certainties that are other people’s certainties, and of which we are not certain at all – is not faith, but a way of covering over our terror that we don’t have faith.

Pretending to certainty is always a covering-over of the terror that we don’t have faith. Because we fall, again and again, into the easy, obvious and wrong notion that faith is our grasp of God, our capacity to believe because we are told to, our capacity to believe what other people say they believe, and tell us that we must believe that too, and add in the spicy little consideration that the more difficult, the more impossible, things are to believe, the better and more virtuous and purer is the act of believing them.

Many Christians will tell you that that’s what faith is. They will tell you that the whole point of faith is to believe things that you’re told to, obediently and with your brain switched off. That to seek to wait, to delay, until your whole being lines up with what is presented to you is somehow faithless.  For people who think like this, Thomas isn’t just Doubting Thomas, Thomas is Faithless Thomas.

These are people who can proclaim proudly “I can believe six impossible things before breakfast!”

Do you remember where that quotation comes from? From Wonderland.

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“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the [White] Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.” [Close off your sense-data, stop exploring, questioning…]

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

That isn’t faith, in the real world. That isn’t faith in any world, except Wonderland. We should all read a bit more Lewis Carroll.

What Caravaggio captures is the nanosecond when something is being left behind, and before something else is in its place. Before Thomas can say “My Lord and my God!” When faith – because that’s what this is – is still probing, still doubting, still overwhelmed.

And for some of us, that nanosecond, before faith moves on, settles, is drawn out for days, months, years. But it’s still faith. If Thomas had no faith, he would have turned his back on the phantom of the Risen Christ and gone home. If Thomas had no faith, he’d never have come, that Sunday evening. Why would he have? What drew him was very precisely something he could make no sense of, something absurd, but at the centre of that absurdity was something – someone – he couldn’t give up on…

Not because someone tells him to. Very precisely not that. Thomas, of all people, has demonstrated that he isn’t swayed at all by people telling him what to believe. When they tried to tell him what to believe, Thomas gave the disciples their heids in their hands to play with – and that’s an uncommonly good and apt Glaswegian metaphor when it comes to people who have insisted on turning off their own brains in order to believe, and are trying to get you to turn your brain off so that you’ll believe what they tell you to.

No, Thomas believes, not because it’s absurd, but because what seems absurd is something he can’t give up on. Because the one who seems absurd is one he can’t give up on. This absurd Jesus, who loves, heals, forgives, and turns the world upside down. Faith is being stuck with Jesus. “Lord, to whom shall we go – you have the words of Eternal Life…” Faith is not knowing, and pushing and probing, and not being content to give up on that intense discomfort which is also the authenticity of faith. Faith alone can get us to the point where we, too, say “My Lord and my God!” – and they are our words, my words, not the words someone else puts in my mouth, or gets me to pretend are in my head.

And faith is still faith before we get to that point. Because faith is what is still drawing us towards this Christ we can’t give up on, can’t stop prodding and poking – because faith is not at all our grasp of God in Christ, but God’s grasp of us.

Look again, one last time, at Thomas’s hand, probing the reality of the Risen Christ, with his eyes wandering vaguely, because all now is touch and feeling and exploring beyond the range of sight. And see how it’s Jesus who is drawing his probing, questioning, questing finger. See how the whole painting is about the Mystery of the Risen Christ drawing fragile, questioning faith into itself…

That’s the nature of faith. It draws us out of ourselves, into itself, towards its object. Faith is indeed not our grasp of God, but God’s grasp of us.

 

 

 

 

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