03 July 2016
10.30 Sung Eucharist
St Thomas the Apostle
Canon Simon Cowling
Ephesians 2. 19-end; John 20. 24-29
(The) doubting disciple cured the wound of our disbelief. His scepticism was more advantageous to us than the faith of the disciples who believed.
The words come from a sermon of St Gregory the Great, a sixth century Pope. The doubting disciple is St Thomas, who is the focus of today’s Gospel reading. We’ll return to this disciple of Jesus in a moment, but I want to do so via a poem by Shelley, written in the early nineteenth century, Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
You may possibly have had to learn that poem at school. I first encountered it when I was in my early teens and I find it retains its power to move. Shelley’s evocation of the ultimate futility of all our human strivings resonates across the centuries, mocking our willingness to trust in the permanence of what can only ever be ephemeral. Ozymandias’s idolatrous confidence in his power reminds us that our own contemporary idolatries – economic, religious, or political – will one day themselves lie half-sunk and shattered, a colossal wreck for some future traveller to find and ponder on.
And so we return to Thomas, sceptical of the disciples’ excitement at having seen the risen Lord Jesus on the evening of the first Easter Day, defiantly doubtful for a whole week until the disciples are gathered together once more, fearful and behind locked doors. No doubt Thomas had been fighting against himself since that first Easter Day. As someone who had been one of Jesus’s closest disciples he must have wanted desperately to believe in the reality of the resurrection; yet as a human being he was prey to the doubt which lurks in us all.
Thomas’s difficulty in believing what he had been told about Jesus’s resurrection seems to be related to his excessive, we might even say idolatrous, attachment to the material. In his case this attachment focussed on the need to feel the physical scars left in Jesus’s hands and side by the nails and the spear, the need to be sure that the Jesus whom the disciples had seen die on the cross was exactly the same Jesus whom the disciples now claimed had been raised from the dead. In its way, Thomas’s attachment to the material might be said to resemble a little that of an imaginary servant of Ozymandias, seduced by proximity to the king by all the earthly wealth and power he had built up and by a belief that it was all physically permanent: look on my works ye mighty and despair; yet centuries later the lone and level sands stretching into the distance from the ruins of Ozymandias’s broken statue mock that belief.
But there are also, of course, differences between Thomas, the follower of Jesus and our imaginary servant of Ozymandias. The most obvious of these is that the king whom Thomas followed had no earthly wealth or power; Thomas’s king died a criminal’s death, jeered by the crowds and mocked by those who executed him. And again, Thomas’s determined attachment to the material and physical, his assertion that belief in the risen Jesus will only be possible for him if he touches those scars in the hands and side, does not become the subject of a poem that shows these beliefs up. Instead, this misguided attachment is transformed when Thomas is confronted by the reality of the risen Christ, who commands him to place his fingers and hands into the wounds and to believe. One of the most famous paintings of today’s Gospel scene, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio, gives a graphic, almost gruesome, representation of St Thomas putting his right forefinger into a hole in Jesus’s side. But careful attention to the text of St John’s Gospel shows that, in the end, Thomas does not actually touch Jesus at all. The idolatrous need for physical confirmation gives way to a response of pure faith: My Lord and my God. Thomas now sees that Jesus’s power as Lord and God is not that of an earthly ruler like Ozymandias; and that he, Thomas, must move from a reliance on the physical presence of his Lord to a mature and lasting faith in the risen Christ that transcends the material limits of merely human experience.
In Gregory the Great’s phrase, Thomas cures ‘the wound of our own disbelief’ because he teaches us that it is this mature and lasting faith that we, too, must seek as a gift from God. Like Thomas, there may be times when the need for physical proof overwhelms us. Yet at the very heart of our doubts and our temptations, drawing us away from the materiality of our earth-bound idolatries, stands the one whom we proclaim to be the same yesterday, today and forever; the one whom we, with Thomas, claim as our Lord and our God: Jesus Christ, our risen Saviour, to whom be glory in the Church and throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.