St. Thomas – Patron Saint of Questioners and Pessimists?

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His name is on the noticeboard, but how much do we really know about Thomas?

He’s mentioned in all the gospels, but it’s only in John’s gospel that we really find out anything about his character, and I like him a lot – probably because he seems to me to be a bit of an introvert and someone who doesn’t let certainty come too easily (a bit like me) as well as being a man of great faith and courage (as I’d like to be…).

We don’t know much about his background before Jesus called him to follow, though tradition says that (like Jesus) he was a carpenter or builder. He’s sometimes called ‘The Twin’, but we have no real idea about who his brother or sister may have been. He was probably from Galilee, like most of the other apostles, but we can’t be sure.

Faithful, but not exactly cheerful!

The first time that we meet Thomas as an individual is in John 11:16. Jesus has just told his disciples that he is going to the home of Lazarus and his family, near Jerusalem. It will be dangerous, and the disciples try to persuade him to stay in Galilee. He insists, and Thomas says to them all ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Not the most positive and cheerful companion perhaps, but it’s clear that his devotion to Jesus was so great that he would rather die with him than live without him.

Perhaps that’s not a bad test of the depth of our faith – when it comes down to it, how far would we go to be with Jesus? How much will we endure because we are sure that we are on the right path in life, before sitting down and letting Jesus go on without us?

The one who dares to question

You probably remember some occasion, perhaps at school, when you were in a group and a teacher or someone else had explained something – or at least, thought they had explained something – but you didn’t really understand. And you didn’t want to embarrass yourself by admitting that you didn’t understand, because you assumed that everyone else did. Perhaps you also remember – or can imagine – the relief when someone else spoke up and admitted to not understanding, so that the teacher explained again. Probably at least half the class shared your relief!

Thomas was the pupil who’d ask. At the Last Supper, in John 14:1-6, Jesus speaks of how he is opening the way for his disciples and for us to come to the Father. He says ‘you know the way to the place where I am going’ and the other disciples all nod sagely, hoping that someone will explain later. Thomas speaks up. ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ That leads Jesus to his wonderful words, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’ and to the promise that he will not leave us to find our own way to heaven – he will take us there.

Jesus then goes on to his longest recorded section of teaching in chapters 14-16, preparing his disciples for life after Easter. If Thomas hadn’t spoken up, how much of this might we have missed!?

I think part of being St Thomas’ Church is being willing to speak up when we don’t understand something about faith and life – almost always to find that we’re not the only one who’s confused!

Slow to believe? Or Deep in understanding?

The best-known incident in Thomas’ life, and the one which is shown in the window above the sanctuary, is of course after Jesus’ resurrection. For whatever reason, Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus came to them on the evening of Easter Day. Perhaps he’d been sent for the chips, or perhaps he just needed to be on his own for a while. He missed Jesus’ return, and announced that he would not believe until he had the evidence of his own senses. A week later, he was there when Jesus returned, and immediately worshipped Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God.’

I think he refused to believe what he desperately wanted to – that Jesus was alive – because he, more than the others, realised what it would mean. Jesus’ defeat of death showed him to be more than a carpenter, more than a rabbi or even a prophet. Thomas’ reaction to Jesus was not one of relief, but of awe and joy.

Is it part of being St Thomas’ church to be willing to admit our doubts? I think so – for the real doubts we express are often the signs of a real faith that seeks understanding. The only doubts that really cause a problem are the ones we use as excuses not to act on what we do know!

Sent by God

After Pentecost, we don’t read of Thomas in the Bible, but there’s a lot of tradition and evidence that he travelled to South India (modern Kerala) where there are churches who trace their history directly back to him. A good reminder, in a multi-cultural town, that Christianity was planted in India before the gospel was ever heard on these shores. Tradition tells us that he was murdered with a spear – an echo of the wounds which brought him to worship, perhaps – and buried near Madras, though his body was later moved to Rome.

Maybe a third strand in being St Thomas’ Church in more than name is this – to be willing to be led and sent by God to wherever he may want us to serve. That may be Kerala, or it may be next door. But let’s serve God and honour our patron saint Thomas by living an honest, questioning and courageous faith as he did.

Don’t believe everything you hear!

Thomas’ name appears in a lot of texts from the second century onwards which come out of the Gnostic tradition which ended up with some ideas very different from those of Jesus and the apostles. The best known is the Gospel of Thomas, which isn’t a gospel at all, but a collection of sayings, some from the gospels and some reflecting Gnostic ideas from much later then Jesus. It’s not a secret, whatever Dan Brown says – let me know if you’d like to read a copy! But it’s not a good source for understanding Jesus and Christian faith. – it tends to take us out of this world, as if faith was something just about our thoughts and prayers, not how we live day by day.

Why did so much end up being written in Thomas’ name? Perhaps his name was a safer one to take and use around the Mediterranean than those of the other apostles  who’d actually founded churches there rather than a thousand miles away in India! Perhaps, then, Thomas can remind us of one last thing. Don’t believe everything you hear, even if you want to, but check it out before you act on it!         The Rev’d Nick Watson

This article was first published in the St Thomas’ Church Magazine, June 2016

Three in One and One in Three

Trinity window

The Holy Trinity window in St Thomas’ Church

Many people find Christian belief in God as the Holy Trinity a bit confusing, to say the least! After all, how can Father, Son and Holy Spirit be three persons yet one God? Do we really worship only one God, or three gods?

People have tried all kinds of images to help us to make sense of this – the shamrock, with three leaves that are really one leaf, or ice, water and steam are some that I’ve seen. I’ve even tried to illustrate this deepest mystery of the nature of God with three juggling balls, but that’s a bit hard to explain in print…

We might be tempted to file ‘Holy Trinity’ as a bit too hard, and forget all about it. Perhaps that’s why the church gives us a reminder each year, on Trinity Sunday, which falls on 16 June this year. It’s always the Sunday after Pentecost, because that’s when (starting with Advent) we’ve followed the story of the key events of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection; then we’ve remembered the sending of the Holy Spirit Having covered all that, we step back to look at God as he has made himself known – Three in One and One in Three.

Not in the Bible (at least in so many words)

It’s true to say that our full understanding of the Trinity isn’t spelled out in the Bible (like many other key bits of our belief!) but it’s the best way the church has found to bring together what we see there about God as the early church came to know him. The apostles believed from the beginning that God the Father is the only God. As they made sense of Jesus, they realised that he was also God. He wasn’t the Father (after all, he prayed to the Father while on earth!) but he was clearly one with the Father – so we know him as God the Son. Then, at Pentecost, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and realised that God was now living in them as Jesus had promised – God the Holy Spirit.

They were determined not to confuse these three, as they’re all quite distinct in many ways. But they also knew that they were all the same God – and they knew that there’s only one God!

God is bigger than our ideas of God

By this point, most of us realise the first important lesson of belief in the Trinity – God is bigger than our ideas and our understanding! If ever you think that you’ve understood everything there is to know about God, then you can be sure that you’ve hardly begun to understand him.

We do our best – and the doctrine of the Trinity is the best we’ve been able to do at putting God into words and ideas. But we must always remember that our ideas and words don’t define God – he is beyond our definitions, and we understand him fully only in worship and love, not in theory. Or in doctrines.

Perhaps along the way we can learn a useful humility about how fully we think we understand other things too – and a willingness to realise that other people’s perspective on life might help us to see more clearly!

God is love

‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16) – and seeing that love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit reminds us that this is real, actual love, not some abstract idea. Love is at the very heart of God. And God was never lonely – he didn’t create us for the sake of company, but because his love overflowed and found an outlet in creating the universe to love!

One of the most famous icons, by Andrei Rublev, shows the three angels who visited Abraham, but as representatives of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; as they gaze at one another, we’re invited to see and wonder at their love.

300px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410God draws us into himself

Sticking with the icon, we’re meant to notice that there’s space at the table for us to pull up a chair. In fact one theory is that there was originally a small mirror stuck on there! God the Holy Trinity isn’t distant from us. He invites us into his life and love. We know and worship the Father, majestic and ever beyond us, through the Son who reaches out to us in Jesus and gives us a way back to the Father. And we can do that only because the Holy Spirit lives within us to lift us into the life and presence of God.

So belief in the Trinity isn’t something we can ignore because it’s difficult. It’s at the heart of being truly Christian and being fully human.

If you can get to church on 16 June, I’ll try and explain all this a bit more!

Rev’d Nick Watson

Originally published in the St Thomas’ Church Magazine, June-July 2019

 

 

 

25 December – Gifts for Jesus

Happy Christmas!

As you share gifts today and celebrate, remember the gifts brought by the wise men, and their meaning; gold for a king, incense for God, and myrrh for the healing that would be brought through Jesus’ suffering yet to come.

What will you bring to Jesus as a gift this Christmas? How will you know and serve him more fully as we travel together into the future with him?

May the peace of Christ be with you and those you love this Christmas.

 

The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent.

24 December – Who do you ask?

Answers are easier to find than ever – for some questions, at least. With internet access we can search for any question and find answers. Of course, one problem is that we have to work out which answers are right, or at least best. More complicated, though, is that we have to work out who’s giving the answers – and what their agenda might be.

The Wise Men went to the obvious place to look for a King of Israel – the palace in Jerusalem. When they realised they were in the wrong place and asked for directions, the answer they got was correct – they needed to go to Bethlehem. But they had asked the wrong person, and Herod had his own agenda. His agenda was to make sure that he stayed in power, whatever he had to do to make it happen. And he didn’t have space in his plans for another king. What he did next is in Matthew 2:13-18.

In the last couple of years we’ve become aware of the dangers of our choosing where we get our information about the world, because we tend to go to people, websites and broadcasters who seem to agree with us. Then we forget that just because someone shares our bias, that doesn’t make them unbiased. We need to be careful who we go to for answers – they may be asking different questions from us, and the ‘right’ answer can lead to the wrong consequences.

 

The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent.

23 December – Still to come…

One of the risks of an Advent calendar (video or otherwise!) is that we begin to think of Christmas as a wonderful ending. In fact, of course, it’s just a beginning. In today’s video Mary looks back on Jesus’ first year, their first year as a family – and wonders how all the things that God had said about him will happen.

You might like to listen to the song, ‘Mary did you know?’ – it’s a wonderful reflection on all the things that were still to come. But for the moment, Mary didn’t know. And finding out would be a lifetime’s journey with Jesus.

What’s ahead of you on your journey with Jesus? Like Mary, you could spend some time wondering, asking God to open the right doors for his will to be done through you.

 

The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent.

22 December – Good news for everyone!

The shepherds come bursting into the story, still smelling of sheep and a bit out of place in a maternity ward – however rough and ready it might be. But they remind us that Jesus’ birth is good news for everyone – including (or even especially) those who’ve got no business being there.

It strikes me for the first time this year that since Gabriel spoke once to Mary and once to Joseph about nine months previously, apart from Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, God has been quiet. He hasn’t (so far as we’re told) sent any more messengers, or even prophetic dreams. Mary and Joseph have simply got on with what they’d been called to do, bringing Jesus to birth miles from where they’d expected. They must have wondered sometimes what was happening to them.

But that night, the shepherds burst in and their excitement bursts out – the angels are back in celebration! It’s the confirmation of what this is all about. And it’s great news for the world.

 

The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent

21 December – Glory to God, Peace to Earth

When the angels turn up, heaven hits earth with a bang. God’s universe-wide, history-long plan to step into our world is announced to a few working people on a dark hillside. And that’s one of the key things about Christmas – we celebrate every year that God’s work in the world isn’t just ‘then’ (whenever ‘then’ is) but Now. And it’s not just ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) but here.

Looking around you, where can you see God at work today, perhaps even in your daily work? Will you be willing to step aside from the ordinary to pray and worship him? That’s a way to follow the shepherds today.

 

The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent.