Eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing, Amen
One of the things that has been constant during the pandemic has been our food supply. We are so grateful to those who grow, produce, ship and serve the food we eat on a daily basis. And aside from the panic buying for flour, sugar, pasta and that other necessary which we all know about, food seems to have been in plentiful provision.
For me, grocery shopping has always been one aspect of household management I enjoy and so during the last year or so it has become something of a ‘big trip’. As we tried not to drive each other too mad (ask Christine how that is going) what to eat became something to discuss, and trying not to go shopping too often, meant more careful planning.
I am regarded by some, as a tad boring, as I have a cheese sandwich for lunch most days. It started years ago when high school food was largely inedible and after a year I was able to take sandwiches and get a cup of tea from the school dinner staff. My mother, if she attends Coffee Hour, will regale you with stories of cheese sandwiches and piccalilli, an English delicacy.
More recently it is just cheese and to ring the changes some lettuce or tomato (I say tomato). But during the last year, I also found a liking for spring greens and one brand, called Altitude. It attracted my interest originally as it was grown in Coldstream, where we visited last summer. My beloved wife rebranded it Attitude, which is perhaps how she sees me now, or perhaps it was always like this, now 35 years and counting.
The gospel reading for today considers one of the post-resurrection encounters between Jesus and the disciples; one where Thomas is absent, and later when he is present.
We are told that it is evening, a reference to Jesus being the light in the darkness. It was the disciples, one commentator (Lewis) suggests, who were in the dark themselves, at this moment. Their leader was dead and they feared for their very lives. Jesus had been crucified on a cross as a common criminal; the disciples were in hiding, afraid that at any moment the religious leaders would have them arrested and executed too. So they were in darkness, in despair, as Jesus came into their presence; appearing through the door. This was the way he spoke of himself in Chapter 10: the door, the door to the sheepfold. In verse 10 of that chapter Jesus promised abundant life; now says our commentator, Jesus promises abundant life as he appears in the presence of the disciples. They move from darkness to light, from despair to hope.
This is also the moment (in the fourth gospel) when Jesus gives to the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this gospel account, it happens one week after the resurrection. In the other accounts, this happens later, on the occasion, we now term Pentecost (meaning fifty days after Easter).
Jesus offers to the disciples the words that are so familiar to us: Peace be with you.
They were a common Jewish greeting, which were to provide calm to the troubled disciples. It was also much more: for Jesus is about to offer them the Holy Spirit, which was to be, a comforter, an encourager. In other words, at the most challenging moments of their lives, the Holy Spirit would be there for the disciples when Jesus himself would not be. And the promise to the disciples is also made to us, as followers of Christ, for the Holy Spirit is there to guide us, direct us, and yes comfort us, at the most challenging moments of our lives, but also every day as well.
Let us now turn to the second narrative from this morning: the appearance of Thomas. This occurred a week later than Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples when Thomas had been absent.
First off, Thomas’s reaction to not seeing Jesus is entirely understandable! He, like the disciples, had been through everything with Jesus, the years of his ministry, and now the horror of his arrest, trial, and death. So, to hear secondhand about the appearance of Jesus to everyone else, apart from him, causes Thomas to be skeptical.
In fact, as our commentator clearly suggests, Thomas says what many of us want to admit but are afraid to say: how challenging it is to believe in Jesus whom we have never encountered in physical form ourselves.
When Jesus seems to criticize Thomas for not believing until he has seen Jesus; the point being made in the fourth gospel is that, aside from the few witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, every Christian ever since, has relied on the testimony of those who saw him and believed.
The words we tend to focus on are ‘do not doubt but believe’ whereas a better translation would be ‘do not be unbelieving, but believe’. The fourth gospel deals with the absolute: light and dark, certainty and uncertainty. Jesus invites Thomas (and by definition all who follow him) from darkness to light, from a lack of relationship to intimacy.
If we are honest we can never be 100% sure about anything. When we upset our spouse or our best friend, can they be sure we still love them? When life does not go to plan, can we be sure God still loves us?
In other words for most of us (and I include myself), faith is not about 100% certainty, it also carries with it a measure of doubt. The word faith (according to the dictionary) means loyalty to someone (including God) and is a firm belief in something that cannot be proved. We can say we love someone (including God) but the evidence for this statement is based on what we do and what we say. If we say we love a good friend and don’t contact them for two years, how much do we love them? If we say we love God, but do not pattern our lives on God’s commands and God’s call for us, how much do we love God?
My guess is that over the next few years I will be eating a cheese sandwich for lunch. It isn’t something I can prove, and it remains to be seen if it happens.
More seriously we are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, based on the testimony of those who encountered him after the resurrection, but also on the basis of our own experience of God through prayer, worship and fellowship with others. What we experience will differ as much as we as people are different; but our faith grows and develops the more we practice and live our beliefs. In fact, it is just like love. The more we love someone, the more we should practice and animate that love in their lives. And we hope that they might live it in ours. For our faith, our love, may not be provable, but both make all the difference in the world in our journey and in the quality of our relationships with God as well as with each other.