Where Did We Get the Temerity?
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this Service: John 20: 19-31
It’s about the oldest joke in the book. In a pantomime it’s called ‘He’s behind you.’ The point is, the audience can see something the character on stage can’t see. The thing is, it never stops being funny. In the classic Fawlty Towers version, Basil Fawlty is horrified to find a dead body in his hotel, and refuses to fess up, even when the poor man’s relatives come looking for him. In the drastic climax, Basil is standing with his back to the coat stand, propping up the dead man’s corpse behind him. One of the man’s relatives attempts to reach past Basil and claim his hat. ‘You can’t,’ shouts Basil, realising that helping the man to his hat will disclose the presence of the dead body. ‘But I’m leaving,’ remonstrates the relative, only inches from the object of his request, ‘and I need my hat.’ Basil summarily replies, ‘We’ll have it sent on,’ and survives to fight another day.
What we’re talking about is irony. Irony is where one party can see something the other party can’t see, and the first party can see all the confusion the second party gets into by missing that one single piece of information.
The story of Thomas is a classic piece of irony. The disciples know that Jesus has risen from the dead; he appeared to them on Easter evening, and showed them his hands and side. We know that Jesus rose from the dead, because we’ve read that part of the story. Jesus obviously knows he’s risen from the dead. The only one who doesn’t know is Thomas. And what a fool he makes of himself. All the disciples tell him the wonders they have seen, but he’s having none of it.
I’ve never forgotten the first time I played Jenga. It was in a circle of about 30 people, and the host arranged things as if he was about to do a magic trick. Everyone seemed to know what to do and pulled out blocks from apparently impossible angles. I had no idea what to do. So I just pulled a block out at random. Everyone laughed their heads off. Then the game began again, from the beginning. Again everyone pulled out blocks from impossible places. And again, I assumed I should just do the same. But once again the tower came tumbling down. I felt two inches high. Like Thomas must have felt on that second Sunday night.
Now it’s common today to read the story of Thomas a different way. We get the idea that Thomas had a point. All this resurrection stuff is a bit far-fetched, and Thomas was the plain man on the Clapham omnibus just speaking up for common sense and honest doubt. Thomas becomes the hero of the story, not because he believed, but because he didn’t. Somehow Thomas becomes the modern human being who stands in for all our misgivings about faith. This resurrection malarkey is all very well, says Thomas, but what about the fact that the universe is massive beyond imagining – how could God have singled out just this tiny planet on the edge of beyond? It’s all very well, but what about all the suffering in the world? It’s all very well, but what about all the other faiths? It’s all very well, but what about all the evil done in the name of religion? It’s all very well, but where do we actually go when we die?
In all these ways we reverse the shape of the story, and Thomas becomes this massive question mark, and it’s Jesus and the disciples that look stupid, and Thomas is the righteous one, who stands up for all the ambiguity and inconclusivity of modern life. No longer is the joke on Thomas. The joke’s on the disciples for being so credulous and unsophisticated and just plain old.
But let’s just pause a moment. Remember how irony works. In irony, the person who’s caught out thinks they’re the clever one. They think they can see the vital thing, whereas in fact they’re missing the vital thing. In this case, we think we’re the clever ones. We assume we’re the centre of the universe. We take for granted that our judgements about things are the best informed such judgements have ever been, that our doubts are more intelligent than the faith of our ignorant forebears, and that we have the perfect vantage point from which to assess eternal truth.
But wait a minute. We just said we occupy a small planet at the corner of an unimaginably colossal universe. We did not make this planet. We think we’re clever because we can trace a largely plausible pattern of evolution. But we didn’t start that evolution off, or set its terms or pace. We think suffering is a blot on the cv of an almighty creator, as if we have the blueprint for a perfect planet and we could implement it any time, complete with eternal life and Newcastle United winning the Premier League every season. We think there’s a bunch of world religions and we take one look at a few of the others and decide they’re obviously all the same, even though the things that really matter about Christianity are things that no other faith upholds. We decry the evil done in the name of religion, quietly turning our gaze away from the evil done in the name of pretty much every profound human tradition, and rather idealising a world in which no one held any conviction dear or sought ever to arrange society around any constructive social idea. We think the fact that we have no sense-experience of people who have died must mean those people have ceased in any way to exist, because of course we, who live at most for four score years and ten, obviously have privileged access to the ultimate destiny of where beings dwell forever.
Don’t you see, can’t you grasp, won’t you realise that the story of Thomas is telling us the exact opposite of the way it’s so often read in modernity. The story isn’t saying the joke’s on the naïve, uneducated, deluded disciples. The joke’s on us – us, who think we’re so wise, so measured, so sanguine in our scepticism, our reluctance to believe, our shrewd detachment from the enthusiasm of following the risen one. We’re the objects of the irony. Great is the mystery of faith.
Yes, we are on the edge of the universe, and yes, God is infinitely different from us, not just in encompassing the universe, but in being beyond the universe. Who do we think we are to be sceptical and mistrustful of this God of utter wonder and glory? And behold, here we are, life, human life on this tiny insignificant planet. Why? Because that other and utterly distant God wanted to be in relationship with a creature who could respond, could reciprocate, could return joy, laughter, depth, love. And just seeking relationship was not enough. That God, in the fathomless mystery of love, wanted to become one like us, to be in true and eternal peace with us, to communicate as one of us with us. And when, by the astonishing and perverse allergy of our nature, we hurled this wondrous gift from our presence, even death could not prevent God finding a way to restore that relationship and disarm our violent rejection.
And the disciples realise all of this on that first Easter evening. But Thomas is having none of it. Maybe in hurt, maybe in crushing disappointment, maybe in grief, he places his own misgivings way out above God’s gracious hand of reconciliation. But the grace of God in Christ finds a way into the heart of even the great sceptic himself, and just as in the famous prologue of John’s gospel, so in this great climax, grace and truth are united again.
See what that means for all our doubts. We think suffering is God’s great fail, the great letter F in the heavenly exam results. But see how God takes that suffering into the divine life, demonstrating how all suffering will finally be not expunged but like the cross transformed into a dimension of glory. We think other faiths show that everything’s relative. But here we see God become one like us, be touched and wounded and handled and manhandled and pierced: where else is such wondrous love as this? We think faith is discredited by its worst exponents, when there aren’t any worse examples than Jesus’ first disciples who denied and betrayed the one who was emptied of all but love. Those first disciples gathered that night in the upper room – they knew better than anyone that Jesus came for sinners who desperately needed his redemption, not for saints who knew no wrong. We think we have no knowledge of where we go when we die but isn’t this precisely why Jesus came back to his disciples in flesh and blood, so that as this very story tells us, the church may believe what it hasn’t seen on the strength of what it has seen? And on the strength of what we have seen, we trust that God wills not just to join us in our temporary existence, but to draw us into the glory of divine eternity – being with the Holy Trinity together forever.
That’s the power of this story. We identify with Thomas. His scepticism is fair game. We think the joke’s on the disciples. But we’re wrong. Layer by layer Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection dismantle all our temerity in supposing we have the vantage point from which to cast our critical gaze on the paltry action of God. Jesus doesn’t humiliate us by exposing our faulty logic and fragile self-importance. He just says, ‘Look for yourself: death couldn’t hold me; neither can your misgivings. Don’t dig yourself into the grave of doubt; come out into the joyful light of faith. Do not doubt, but believe.’
One modern novelist said, ‘If you’re a believer you’ll fight a believer over a shade of difference. If you’re a doubter, you doubt only with yourself.’ Come to the party, Thomas. You’ll love it. We’ve been waiting for you.