22 April 2001
Thomas gives permission (rewritten)
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 find the story a very liberating one. From Thomas, I learn that I have permission to make mistakes, permission to feel awful, and permission to change my mind.
Permission to make mistakes, permission to feel awful, and permission to change my mind.
2. Permission to Make Mistakes
So, first of all, permission to make mistakes. You see, Thomas was mistaken. He refused to believe that Jesus was risen until he was able to see this for himself. And that was okay - Jesus came to him, and showed him. He seems to have paid a special visit, just for Thomas. He didn't scold Thomas for being mistaken. He didn't tell him he ought to have known better. He didn't despise him for not having quite such a strong faith as the others. He just rejoiced when Thomas finally did believe.
And that gives me great encouragement. It's all too easy to get into the mindset of "We must get it right!" We believe that if we don't "do" Christianity in the right way, if we don't say the right words, think the right thoughts, believe the right beliefs, we will be condemned, as though God were looking for any excuse to condemn us, rather than any excuse not to. It's not a modern phenomenon - people have been doing it right back practically since the days of Jesus himself. The original Creed, of course, the statement of belief that every new Christian had to make before they could be baptised, was simply "Jesus is Lord!" But, of course, as time went by, gradually people began to ask, "Yes, but what do you mean when you say 'Jesus is Lord'?" and it all went downhill from there on!
Of course, Jesus himself didn't say we had to believe anything specific about him. He just said, believe in Me, trust Me, follow Me. Not "Believe this, that, the other." Even St Paul just said, "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." No details about what Jesus being Lord actually means.
Jesus did, of course, tell us quite a lot about what God's people will be like. You will have read about it in the Sermon on the Mount, and the other places in the Gospel, of course: people who treat other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are. No putting anybody down when you're annoyed with them, or valuing them just for their sex appeal, or letting them down for no good reason. That sort of thing.
Of course, for Jewish people, the way you behaved, whether you kept the Law or not, that sort of thing, mattered enormously. And the rabbis kept on giving for instances and guidelines as to what was meant by the various bits of the Law. Sometimes, perhaps, to find a way round the various restrictions, but at other times to clarify them. Until, as Jesus rather forcefully pointed out, they became a total burden on people.
But Jesus never meant us to behave that way. His picture of what Christian people would be like is as much descriptive as it is prescriptive, I think. Yet we, too, have interpreted what he said, and reinterpreted it, all down the centuries. Right from the guidelines issued by the mediaeval church as to when one could properly go to bed with one's spouse, down to the arguments I've heard over whether or not a raffle is a legitimate form of fund-raising or whether a glass of wine may be served at a Church lunch.
But the thing is, of course, that it utterly doesn't matter. The story of Thomas tells us that if we get it wrong, if we make a mistake, it's not very important. Thomas was mistaken about the most important thing of all, but Jesus didn't condemn him. Jesus didn't abandon him. Jesus came to him and gently showed him, beyond all reasonable doubt, that he was mistaken, but that it didn't matter. Now he could put things right.
3. Permission to Feel Awful
So the story of Thomas gives us permission to make mistakes. And it also gives us permission to feel awful. Thomas had to wait for a whole week, according to John's story, before Jesus came to him and showed him that yes, he had been raised. That must have been a pretty dreadful week for him, don't you think? 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.
Usually when we feel ill, or upset, or whatever, we want to feel better right now. But nearly always, the only way over something is through it. For instance, I have been having a cold, and everybody knows that if you treat a cold, it goes away in a week, and if you don't treat it, it goes away in seven days. Apart from the fact that there are various things you can take to help you feel better while you're having it, the only way over a cold is through it.
I remember, years ago now, when I gave up smoking, I felt pretty awful for a surprisingly long time. But again, the only thing to do was to endure, and hope it would soon be over. The story of Thomas was very helpful to me around that time, I remember; realising that it was okay not to feel fine straight away, it was okay to feel awful. It helped.
Or if we are grieving, in mourning. Eventually you learn to live without the person or relationship or whatever you have lost. But the only way to learn to do that is to live through the pain, through the anger and the other stages of grief, and not try to cover things up and pretend it isn't happening. It's okay to feel awful.
Thomas must have felt terrible for all of that long week. I don't know why Jesus took a whole week to come to him, that's one of those things that only God knows. I'm sure there were very good reasons for it, even if we can't see them. But it does show that we don't always have to feel on top of the world. That there are times when we feel ghastly, whether mentally or physically, and that's all right.
4. Permission to Change my Mind
So Thomas gives me permission to make mistakes and permission to feel awful. But it would be wrong to leave it at that, without looking briefly at the third permission Thomas gives us, and that is to change our minds. The thing is, Thomas was mistaken when he believed that Jesus had not risen from the dead. Okay, fine. But as soon as Jesus showed him he was wrong, he changed his mind. He fell down and worshipped the risen Jesus. He felt ghastly for the whole week between Jesus' appearing to the rest of them, and Jesus appearing to him. And that's okay. But when Jesus did appear, he forgot all about feeling ghastly, he didn't get cross and go "Where were you?" or anything like that. He just fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.
It doesn't matter if we make mistakes. It doesn't matter if we feel awful for any reason. What does matter, though, is if we are given the opportunity to correct ourselves, or to put things right, and we fail to take it. Thomas didn't do that. Thomas admitted he was wrong, and he fell down and worshipped the risen Lord. When we are shown, as Thomas was, that we have made a mistake, the thing to do is to put it right. They do say that the person who never made a mistake never made anything, and that's very true. But the point is, it is only by correcting our mistakes that we can make progress. If we stay stubbornly convinced that we are right, and everybody else is wrong, we won't get anywhere. We won't be freed to go on with Jesus.
Thomas, as I said at the beginning, is supposed to have gone on to found the Church in India. He couldn't have done that if he had gone on being convinced he was right and everybody else was wrong. He admitted he had been wrong, and thus was free to put it behind him and go on with Jesus. All the way to India.
And so with us. Being wrong, or being mistaken is unimportant; the story of Thomas shows us that. But it also shows us that when we realise we are mistaken, we need to change our minds. The Christians call it "repentance", turning round and going God's way. And it's something we all need to do rather often.
So the story of Thomas gives us permission to make mistakes. We don't have to get it right all the time; getting things wrong is not the end of the world. It gives us permission to feel awful; sometimes the only way out of something ghastly is through it. We can only learn patience by having opportunities to be patient. And the story of Thomas gives us permission to change our minds. We may repent. We may turn round and go God's way, not our own way. Indeed, we must do so. For there is no point in being wrong for the sake of it. There's no point in feeling awful for the sake of it. The only hope is to change our minds, to stop being mistaken, and to start walking in God's way. But none of us can do that without God's help, any more than Thomas could. So we can relax, and trust God about it! Amen.
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