Sunday, July 13, 2014


(John 20:24-29)

These aren’t easy times to be a Christian. Of course, they’re hardly the worst of times, in this country at least. Unlike earlier generations of British Christians, we don’t face the risk of being imprisoned, tortured, even burned at the stake for our faith. Nonetheless, even in this relatively safe country, we do face risks. Plenty of people have paid the price for their Christian faith in the workplace, their social lives, even their family relationships.

The pressure on Christians comes from two angles: firstly from outside. It seems that one of the few things that unites the secular establishment with some of the diverse micro-communities that make up modern Britain is their shared antipathy to Christianity.

But for most Christians in our culture, the most disturbing attacks on our faith are those that come from the inside: the doubts, the questions, the uncertainties; the cumulative effect of pronouncements by scientists, philosophers, theologians, historians (sometimes even those within the church); attacks that are not always content with questioning the existence of a supreme being, and all too often challenge the intelligence or moral fibre of those who continue to believe.

What makes matters infinitely worse is the tendency of some churches to treat honest questions and doubts as a sign of weakness – something you should be embarrassed about, keep to yourself, or at best keep on a one-to-one basis with a trusted spiritual adviser. And the upshot? Large numbers of people are left with a burden of guilt, each asking themselves why everybody else seems to have so much more faith. I spent many years in an environment like that.

Good reason, then, to give thanks for the Apostle Thomas – an important figure in the early church to whom popular history has been rather unkind. Calling somebody a ‘doubting Thomas’ has come to have quite negative connotations – overtones that Thomas himself does not deserve. For few if any of us will ever be called to follow directly in the footsteps of Peter, or Paul, or John, or Stephen. But we could all do worse than follow the example of Thomas.

And the first thing we learn about Thomas from this story is that he thinks in a surprisingly modern way. Remember, he wasn’t around when the risen Jesus first showed himself to the astonished disciples. And when he hears accounts of the resurrection, he reacts in a very modern way. Coming back from the dead simply isn’t consistent with his world-view. It’s easier for him to believe that the other disciples are deluded or perhaps even lying than to rethink his understanding of the universe so drastically. And just as scientific modernism has conditioned us to do, he demands first hand experience as the price of belief.

The second thing we learn about Thomas is his courage and honesty. He doesn’t go along with the crowd. It would have been so easy to cover up his doubts for the sake of solidarity or for fear of rejection. But his integrity is such that he’d rather be disrespected, even ostracised, than live a lie. We’re not told if the others do in fact hold this against him, but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that when Jesus appears again, he gives Thomas the evidence he’s demanded.

And the third and most important thing we learn about Thomas is his obedience and willingness to change when confronted by the truth. There’s strong historical evidence that he spread the Gospel as far eastwards as India, where a community of people known as St. Thomas Christians still survives to this day. There are differing accounts of his death, but the most plausible versions have him being martyred around the year 72AD – a faithful disciple to the end.

However, a question may be going through some people’s minds. Was Jesus happy with Thomas’ demand for evidence? Or when the Lord says, “Because you’ve seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” is it some kind of rebuke?

The commentaries I’ve consulted are pretty much unanimous. There’s no criticism of Thomas here. In fact he’s no weaker than his colleagues, all of whom owe their belief to an earlier encounter with the risen Jesus. And it seems that for serious students of Greek, which I’m not, the emphasis is clearly positive: Something that we could paraphrase as ”Now you’ve seen me you’ve become believers, and that’s great in itself, so think how much more blessed all the future generations will be when they believe without the physical evidence you’ve had.”

God certainly wants us to be assured in our faith; that’s why he sends the Holy Spirit. And for all I know, there may be people here who are hardly ever troubled with doubts and questions. But for the rest of us, as long as we’re sensitive in our choice of words, we can be open about our struggles without undermining the faith of others. In fact in my experience, honesty is the first step in receiving assurance; it will often help others be open about questions they are already struggling with, and that can be an important step forward.

Secondly, when we get a fresh insight into the truth as Thomas did, it’s up to us to respond as he did. We must be prepared to change our minds and our life goals. Of course we’re not going to see Jesus in the flesh – at least, not until we get to Heaven – and the kind of evidence we can expect to receive in this life will be persuasive rather than conclusive. All the same, God is amazingly generous in showing us his love and power, and it’s impossible to explain away the evidence that accumulates year after year in the life of even the most cautious believer.

And here’s the crunch. If we have the right to be honest about our doubts, we equally have a duty to be forthright about our certainties. Whatever lingering questions we may have, when the cumulative evidence stacks up to the point where we are convinced of some great Christian truth, we mustn’t let the doubts of others reduce us to silence. The response of Thomas to overwhelming evidence was “My Lord and my God”, and his obedience to the risen Lord drove him eastwards into adventures that the written records only hint at.

Jesus response to him was “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. His response to us might well be, “Blessed are you who now believe – go out and make disciples.


ROMANS 8: 18-23, 35-39

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching RE and philosophy was educating children about the Holocaust – the dark period in recent European history in which some ten million people (more than half of them Jewish) were systematically eliminated.

It was what my students gained during these lessons, rather than the grim subject matter, that made it such a rewarding experience for me and for them. They were regularly torn between horror and anger, but what invariably triumphed was an uplifting sense of the goodness and courage and endurance of which ordinary people are capable under the most terrible circumstances.

The point is that we focused not so much on the processes and statistics of genocide – that would indeed have been horrific – but rather on the quiet heroism of so many people caught up in the horror. Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, Maximilian Kolbe… all these stories filled my students with awe and admiration.

But the most powerful resource, and the one that always affected them most deeply, was “The Hiding Place” – a movie based on the autobiography of Corrie ten Boom. It offered little of what would normally appeal to teenagers in a movie – it’s a rather dated production with few action sequences, little explicit violence and no special effects. But the story and the leading characters gripped everyone regardless of academic ability or disciplinary record.

As the story opens, Corrie is working alongside her father and her sister Betsie in the family business – a watch and clock repair shop in the Dutch city of Haarlem.

When the Nazis invade the Netherlands and start rounding up the Jews for deportation, the family’s Christian faith leads them to work with the Resistance, using their home and their many contacts around the city to smuggle Jewish fugitives out of danger.

Of course the Ten Booms know from the outset that it will only be a matter of time before they are caught, and that in all likelihood they will die at the hands of the Nazis. And indeed they are quickly betrayed, and those who survive the raid on their home are taken off to concentration camps. By the end, every member of the family apart from Corrie herself has paid the ultimate price.

But the amazing thing about this story is that even young people come away from it challenged and uplifted. Because while it does have harrowing moments, it’s a story not of defeat but of victory; not of despair but of dynamic, life-transforming hope even when things seem hopeless. And the key to the film, the recurring message that comes through time and time again, is the passage from Romans that we have heard read to us this morning.

These exact verses are part of the Bible reading to which the family is listening at the time of their arrest. As a squad of soldiers pulls up outside their home, the camera cuts to the family gathered around the dining table with their heads bowed. The elderly father, Caspar ten Boom, begins to read aloud: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

He continues, all unaware of what is happening out in the street, and it is just as the front door is smashed in that he reads the famous words of comfort from later in the chapter: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Corrie and her sister Betsie need to keep this magnificent thought with them as we see them in Ravensbruck concentration camp: intimidated, frozen, starved, beaten, and in Betsie’s case worked to death from exhaustion and illness. But the miracle is that the more they suffer, the more in Christ they are convinced that there must be a higher purpose and a good end to their suffering. And their hope rubs off onto others, expanding the borders of the Kingdom of Heaven, as coincidence after apparent coincidence reinforces the evidence that God is at work even in the hellish confines of a Nazi concentration camp.

There are at least three levels on which these awesome words in Romans were given meaning in the story of the Ten Boom family:

·      Firstly, it was this knowledge of the unconquerable love of God in Christ Jesus that challenged them to risk their lives for others, and should likewise challenge each one of us to show his love to others in our homes and workplaces.

·      Secondly, they took to heart the luminous promise that opened the reading this morning: that our sufferings in this present existence are not worth comparing with the glory that we can look forward to. This confidence endured through all that they suffered, and gave them a sense of peace and a purposeful attitude that transformed the experience of those around them.

·      And thirdly, this self-same acceptance of suffering and loss as an inevitable part of our present existence enabled Corrie to look back on her ordeal without bitterness. Over the rest of her long life she travelled the world, visiting over 60 countries, preaching a message of hope, trust, and (incredibly) forgiveness.

As we kneel together at the altar rail on this “Sea” Sunday, focusing our minds on Christ’s body broken for us, and his blood spilled for us, it’s fitting to hope that may we be given the strength to endure the storms and billows of life in this suffering world. But may we, like the Ten Boom family, also be inspired to help others and freely forgive as God has forgiven us.

And finally, if anyone finds these words an encouragement, then God grant that we may tell others. Our stories of the power of the living Jesus to change lives have extraordinary power to draw people towards a saving faith of their own. It was Betsie’s dying words that inspired Corrie to take up her ministry of peace and reconciliation after the War: “We must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.” And the final whisper: “They will listen to us…because we were here."