How often have you sat in a room with a group of friends and realised that you’ve lost track of what they’re talking about? Like you’ve dozed off for a bit and the conversation has dramatically changed direction. How did you feel? It can be a quite lonely or confusing experience.
I don’t have many Manchester United memories, except perhaps the famous cup final in 1979. Being an Arsenal supporter, I remember the 3-2 win in the FA Cup that year.
However, there is one United memory that sticks in the mind. An episode which I was reminded of recently on facebook when someone posted a clip about times not to leave the room to put the kettle on. Nearly 16 years ago, Wednesday 26th May 1999 – I’d been watching the Manchester United/Bayern Munich UEFA Champions League Final on TV. The match took place in the Nou Camp Stadium.
I had to go out to do a Baptism visit, there was perhaps only a minute or two to go and United were losing 1-0, they were on the rack and going nowhere. The result was a foregone conclusion – Bayern Munich had obviously won the cup.
I wasn’t out that long, but I missed the key last minutes of the match. When I got back, I couldn’t believe what people were saying. United had scored twice in the last minute – they’d won. I wasn’t there – and if there hadn’t been independent accreditation of the victory, I would not have believed what people were telling me!
Whether we wake after having dozed off in a crowded room, or we were just not there when a key event happened – we easily feel ostracised and left out. No matter what anyone says, it still feels that way.
We’re not told why Thomas wasn’t in the upper room that first Easter evening when Jesus visited his disciples. We could spend time trying to imagine where he was – but we won’t! Suffice to say, he missed the key event, the turning point, the moment that changed defeat into victory. And how did he respond? In exactly the same way as most of us would have done. … Thomas couldn’t believe what the others told him. I doubt any of us would have done under those same circumstances.
Seeing is believing – but so is sharing in an experience with others. Thomas not only didn’t see what happened, he was left out of the experience that everyone else shared. He was in a lonely place, wanting to believe, wanting to share in everyone else’s happiness, but unable to do so. He hadn’t been there, he hadn’t seen Jesus.
Thomas’ reactions and feelings are understandable. And as we read the story we can see that Jesus thought so too. He provided a repeat of the same encounter – one in which Thomas could share; he gently reminded Thomas of his outburst – no indignant rebuke, just words which drew Thomas back to faith. Thomas’ response is one of the clearest statements of Jesus’ divinity in the Bible. Having seen the truth of the resurrection he cannot but exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”
The next 3 verses are important, and they are pivotal to John’s message:
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” …. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
John has led his readers through a story – a story which allows those readers to meet Jesus and begin to understand who he is. It’s a journey of discovery, one in which we can identify with the different characters, feel their emotions, struggle with them to understand what Jesus is doing and saying. Thomas’ words are the culmination, the pinnacle of the story – the point where even the strongest of doubters expresses faith. Jesus response is not just for Thomas’ ears, not just for the disciples, but for all who read John’s Gospel in coming generations. “Don’t think,” says Jesus, “that the disciples were in some way special because they saw all these events first hand. Rather, blessed are those who read the stories and encounter Christ through the work of his Spirit in their lives and the lives of those around them.”
“Blessed,” says Jesus, “are all who read this Gospel, who struggle with doubts & come to believe that he is the Son of God.”
We’ve not missed out on the party, we can still be part of the events which changed defeat into victory. We too can own the risen Jesus as our Lord.
This is good news – particularly for those of us who struggle with doubt; for those of us who’d like to believe more strongly than we do; for those of us who see other people’s faith, or the joy they seem to experience in their Christian life, and feel that we are somehow missing out. The story of Thomas is important because it embraces doubt.
The story is also important because it embraces change. Everything is different, Jesus was dead and is now alive. This changes everything – nothing can now be the same. Thomas struggles to accept the new situation. For so many of us change is difficult to handle, yet it is happening all the time. We need to continue to engage with the communities around our churches, looking for new ways to serve, new ways to make Christ known and to bring hope where there is despair. We need to accept that the future for the Church of England is one with significantly less stipendiary clergy – perhaps one third less in numbers in ten years time – and we need to imagine new forms of ministry both lay and ordained, new ways of being church. Nothing is the same as it was, nothing will be the same as it was, and we want to shout out the loudest “No!” that we can manage.
There are two key things we need to take away from this passage.
First – it’s OK to be honest – don’t pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t,. Don’t manufacture faith if it isn’t there. We can express our fears and we can express our doubts. In fact expressing our fear and our doubt is often, like it was for Thomas, the first step to faith.
Second – this story of doubt and faith is made the crowning moment of John’s Gospel – the pinnacle – Jesus reaching out to his loyal but doubting and fearful follower, not in anger but in love. Thomas’ exclamation, “My Lord and my God!” is the point at which John choses to rest his case. Honest struggling with change, honest struggling through doubt towards faith is given the highest honour in John’s Gospel.
So, don’t be discouraged if the pace of change or the circumstances we face are a struggle. Don’t be discouraged if believing is a struggle.
For many football fans, winning or losing is a life or death issue. But here we go beyond issues of life or death, we’re concerned with eternity. Be encouraged as you struggle to be faithful in an ever changing context, when at times everything you hold dear seems threatened. Be encouraged as you struggle to believe, for the story of Thomas makes clear that God loves the open and honest doubter.