11 April 1999

Thomas Gives Permission


Poor old Thomas.
He's been lumbered with the title "Doubting Thomas"
ever since this story came to be known,
I shouldn't wonder,
and even though he is supposed to have taken the Good News to India,
he is still remembered more for his doubts than for the work he did.
Let's take a somewhat closer look at this story in John's gospel this morning.

OK, this story is set on the evening of the Resurrection.
According to John's account
- and yes, it does differ a little from some of the other accounts, as he puts in far more detail -
the first person to have seen the risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene.
She had gone to the tomb very early,
and found that it was empty.
And while she was weeping quietly in the garden,
Jesus had come to her and reassured her.
Peter and John had also seen the empty tomb,
but had not yet met with the risen Jesus,
and the account isn't terribly clear as to whether or not they realised what had happened.
Anyway, that evening the disciples are together,
and Jesus comes to them, as we heard read.
He reassures them,
and reminds them of some of his earlier teachings,
and then, apparently, disappears again.

But Thomas isn't there.
We aren't told whether he hadn't yet arrived
or whether he had just left the room for a few moments,
gone to the loo or something similar.
But whatever, he misses it.
And, of course,
he doesn't believe a word of it.
The others are setting him up.
Or it was a hallucination.
Or something.
But it couldn't possibly be true.
And for a whole week he goes round muttering,
while the others are rejoicing.
Goodness, he must have been cross and miserable,
and the others must have been so frustrated that they couldn't help him.
And then Jesus is there again,
with a special word of reassurance,
just for Thomas.
And an invitation to touch and feel.
This isn't ectoplasm,
it's proper flesh.
Thomas can take Jesus' hand again,
just as before.
And Thomas bows down in awe and worship.

So what can we learn from the story of Thomas?
I personally fin the story a very liberating one.
From Thomas,
I learn that I have
permission to be wrong,
permission to wait,
and permission to worship.

2. Permission to be Wrong

Firstly, then,
Thomas tells us we have permission to be wrong.
Thomas was wrong.
He thought that Jesus had not been raised.
But it wasn't the end of the world that he thought so.
All too often, I think that if I am wrong,
if I am mistaken,
if I make a nonsense of something,
it is the end of the world.
I confuse making a mistake with a deliberate sin,
and think that God and others will condemn me for it.
But no,
look what happened to Thomas.
Far from being condemned,
Jesus comes to him specially to prove he is alive.
To show Thomas that the others hadn't gone totally mad.
Jesus was extra specially kind to Thomas.

It is encouraging, isn't it?
Sometimes we feel we have to be right.
Sadly, all too many Christian groups require their members to have a specific faith.
You aren't allowed to doubt,
or to reject any part of their creed.
They have the answers.
So they think
and you must do it their way
or face the consequences.

For many years,
U thought Christianity was like that.
I thought you had to believe thus and so,
or God would condemn you.
There was no freedom to say "Well, what if?"
There was no way you could explore a different way of thinking about God,
or a different way of worshipping,
or a different way of being.
I was not free to find out who I was,
or to find out anything about God
other than what my then ministers and leaders told me was so.
That was probably more my fault than theirs,
but nevertheless, it was very real.
I really thought God would condemn me
If I strayed from the path I thought he had laid down.

But there are other ways of expressing our faith,
that are just as valid as our way.
I'll never forget being in a group meeting, some years ago now, when we were asked to get together in pairs
to say briefly what we found helpful and true about our faith,
which seemed to me to be rather an odd way of putting it.
Then, of course, we had to get into group so four and report back what the other person had said,
you know how you always do on these sort of occasions.
Anyway, the four people in the group I was in had totally different views on why they were Christians.
One sad it was because Jesus had died for them.
Another sad it was because in Christ they found total love and total acceptance.
A third said it was because they believed that "in Christ" God helped them become the person he had designed them to be,
and the fourth person said it was because Christianity was the only thing that made any sense of the suffering in this world.
Those four views were all totally different,
yet they are all correct.
They all make sense.
They are all good and valid reasons for being a Christian.

But sometimes we do get things wrong in our faith.
I know I did, when I was younger.
I somehow got twisted up and thought
that God would only love me if I repented and changed.
I felt that my relationship with God must depend on me,
not on him.
Or perhaps we are afraid that we will get things wrong.
Maybe we want to explore a new way of praying,
or another aspect of God's character, such as God's feminine side.
But we worry inside:
what if I get led astray?
What if I get led into heresy?
What if I get it totally wrong?

The story of Thomas gives me permission to do some exploring,
and even to get things wrong on occasion,
because if I do get it wrong,
it's not the end of the world.
If I go totally off the rails,
God will arrange some way of getting me back on them.
Thomas gives me permission to be wrong.
Or, to put it another way,
Thomas gives me permission to be a wally!

3. Permission to Wait

And the second thing I want us to learn is that
Thomas gives us permission to wait.
That sounds odd,
but don't forget it was a whole week until Jesus put him out of his misery.
It must have been a pretty endless time,
feeling sure that his friends had got it wrong,
wondering who was going mad,
them or him.
But Thomas put up with it.
He didn't abandon his friends,
he didn't run off and do something different.
Instead, he stayed with them and put up with the pain and confusion and bewilderment,
and ultimately Jesus put everything right.

So often we want things now.
If we are unwell,
we want instant healing,
If we are confused or miserable,
we want the confusion to be resolved.
What was that old prayer:
"God, give me patience, and I want it now!"
An addict trying to give up cigarettes or drink or other drugs
wants the craving to go away.
We don't like to experience bad feelings, obviously,
and we want them to go away. Now.
We also don't like to watch someone else experiencing bad feelings.
We might try to deny their feelings,
telling them they don't feel like that.
Or we might try to tell them they are wrong or wicked to have those feelings.
It is hideous horribly difficult to watch someone else suffer,
and we develop these strategies of coping so that their suffering doesn't rub off on us.
Also, of course, we don't like to have negative feelings because somehow we think we are failing
as Christians when we do.

I think one of the things the story of Thomas gives us is permission to have bad feelings.
Permission to feel confused, or angry, or bereaved, or muddled, or ill, or craving, or whatever.

Thomas had to wait until his confusion and doubt were resolved.
That means that if we have to wait
it isn't because God has abandoned us.
It doesn't mean we have to deny our feelings.
Equally, of course, we mustn't luxuriate in self-pity,
but what we do feel is valid.
And it is all right if it isn't instantly resolved.
We might have to do quite a lot of work on ourselves before confusion or anger can be resolved,
and grief, addiction, and the like do heal eventually.
I had to learn to live without cigarettes.
It was very difficult -
I could never do it again!
But when I was going through withdrawal,
I didn't have to tell myself I was wrong or wicked to feel withdrawal pangs.
Nor did I have to try to find something to do so as not to feel them.
They weren't pleasant,
but eventually they passed, and now,
five years on,
I hardly ever feel them.
Thomas gave me permission to wait until they passed.
To live through them.

And more recently, Robert and I had to learn to live without our daughter, Emily, who suddenly grew up and left home.
And she, likewise, had to learn to live without us.
It hasn't been easy for any of us.
The easy option would have been to refuse to let her go,
or, for her, when she found it rough going in Switzerland,
where she is working this year, to give up and come home.
But we learnt to wait, to adjust, to give it time.
And she found friends, and we have learnt to rebuild our lives,
and now it will probably take time to readjust when she comes home!

4. Permission to Worship

I'm beginning to run out of time,
so my third point must be very quick.
When Jesus finally helps Thomas out of his doubts and confusion,
Thomas; response is to worship him.
His exclamation,
"My Lord and my God!"
Is the most overt expression of worship in the whole of John's gospel.
All healing is of God,
no matter how it appears to come.
So when you realise that the doubts have gone,
or that the confusion has cleared up.
Or the grief is easing
or whatever it is,
the correct response is worship.
And how better than to follow Thomas' brilliant example and submit once again to Jesus, as Lord and God.

Let us pray:
Dear God,
it isn't always easy allowing ourselves to risk being wrong.
Nor is it easy to allow ourselves to live through any suffering that may come our way.
Thank you that,
just as you did for Thomas,
you will come to us and help us resolve our doubts and confusions and fear,
even if it does sometimes seem unnecessarily long before you do so.
Please help us to respond as Thomas did,
by worshipping you and submitting ourselves once again to your sovereignty.
For the sake of Jesus Christ, who came to Thomas to reassure him. Amen.

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