Friday, April 9, 2010

Doubting Thomas: Never Say Never Again

Back in 1983, the movie world was stunned when Sean Connery decided to reprise his role as James Bond. He was by that time decidedly middle aged - and had not played Bond since 1971. Movie-legend has it that after he finished filming for 'Diamonds are Forever' he said to his wife "never again". But she was horrified, and replied "no - never say 'never again'!"

The title of the 1983 movie was a bit of a joke at Connery's own expense.  It was a way of him recognising that he had been a bit rash in his original statement.

And that's something I think we've probably all done at one time or another, isn't it?  I know I have.

A couple of weeks ago you might remember that I introduced a visitor to you.  His name was Jeff Harvey - and Jeff is currently the Deputy Warden of Readers - or Licensed Lay Ministers as we now call them.  Jeff and I go way back...right back to the days when I was a young and somewhat naive evangelical at St Luke's Church in Southsea.  In those days, St Luke's Vicar, at the time, was extremely suspicious of the more catholic wing of the Church.  Communion was only celebrated once a month, during an evening service - and used to be celebrated on an old collapsible card-table, without any silver-ware.  No-one ever wore robes during worship - and the Vicar himself only rarely wore a clerical collar.  Candles were absolutely forbidden - as being rather too 'popish'.   In those days, Jeff was assigned to St Luke's as part of his training to be a Reader - but he came from a rather more catholic background.  I remember him being rather puzzled by the Vicar's choices - and he would often pull the Vicar's leg.

When Jeff visited us a couple of weeks ago, he had a rather wry smile on his face throughout the service - as he watched me dress up in these robes, light candles and embrace all the drama of our liturgy.  After the service, he took the opportunity to pull my leg; "Do you remember," he asked, "how you once said that you would never been seen dead in a cassock?"

He was right of course.  I've changed....or rather, I think, God has led me on a path of change.  I am a very different liturgist than I was even 10 years ago.  I'm a very different theologian too - I now have a much less 'black and white' version of Christianity in my head.  Mind you - I don't claim that the way I lead worship now is the way God has told me to do it.  I'm not claiming that our way of worship is any better than, say, evangelical or pentecostal ways.  In fact, as you know, we are going to worship in a much more relaxed, modern style during this evening's service.  No - I don't claim that 'my way is God's preferred way'.  I simply say that at this time, in this situation, with these people - it feels about right.

What I am not going to say is "never"..."never", in other words, "will we do things differently".  And that is because, I think, God has a way of turning round people who make such pronouncements...and of reminding them that this is God's world...not theirs!

That was certainly the experience - the painful, embarrassing experience - that Thomas had.  When Peter and the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, his response was pretty unambiguous, wasn't it?  "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe".  In other words -"never - I'll never believe what you tell me...unless I see it with my own eyes". (John 20: 25)

Just imagine the embarrassment he felt when Jesus appeared to him in that upper room!  He must have felt like an absolute idiot!  "Why did I say I would never believe?!  What a fool I was?!  Why didn't I believe my friends?!"

And Jesus is pretty stern with Thomas as well.  "Have you believed because you have seen me?" (John 20: 29).  You can almost hear an 'harrumph' from Jesus!  "What?  You only believe because I'm here?  Don't you trust your friends and your brothers with whom you've been living all these months?  I'm not very impressed!...Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe".

You see, the thing about Jesus is that he has a way of over-turning all our expectations.  His whole life-story is one of apparent contradictions to the way that others expected he should act.  He was born in a stable, not a palace.  He ate and drank with sinners, not the religious leaders.  He taught about love and forgiveness - even towards the Roman occupiers.  He rode into town on a donkey, not a gleaming white war horse.  He allowed himself to be murdered by the state, instead of calling down legions of angels to protect him.  He stubbornly refused to stay dead...and rose up from the grave.

Jesus overturns our expectations - just as he overturned Thomas' expectations.  Thomas expected that he could cling to the notion of empirical evidence - that he could depend only on his eyes and his own sense of touch in order to establish what was true.  And that is the fundamental mistake that is made by so many people today...people like the now infamous Richard Dawkins, and other prominent secular atheists.

Atheists make a basic error every time that they say they can 'never' believe in a God.  They make the mistake of assuming that because God cannot be proven to exist by any kind of scientific method, that the whole notion of God must be false.  They fail, utterly, to understand that man's greatest wisdom (including scientific wisdom) is as foolishness to God.  (See 1 Corinthians 1:25).  They fail to understand that God cannot be proven by scientific method, because God is beyond and above and outside of all such 'touching' and 'seeing'.  God is the source of all that has been created - and while we believe that he fills all the Universe with creative energy, God is separate from all that God has made. Above it.  Beyond it.  Outside of it. We should not be surprised that God cannot be found in a test tube - God doesn't want to be found in a test tube.  Instead, God wants us to connect with him through our souls, through our spirits - through the essential essence of what it means to be God's own creation.  God wants us, like Thomas, to discover God with the eyes of faith, and the hands of trust.

Why should that be?  Why should Jesus say to Thomas that it is those who believe without seeing who are blessed?  Wouldn't it be easier for God to make himself touchable, scientifically prove-able?

Well, perhaps it would...initially.  But the problem is that in order to be the dynamic, ever-changing world that we experience, the world needs to be constantly on the move.  To quote that wonderful old hymn; "Change and decay in all around I see...Thou changest not, O Lord, Abide with Me."

If God could somehow be scientifically reduced down to a substance that could be seen in a test tube - it would not be God.  God is as far above such reductionism as the sun is above the earth.  God is far more than anything which can been seen or touched.

That's one of the reasons why the Church, and the Hebrew Nation before us, has been so cautious about images, statues and pictures.  It is too easy to confuse the created with the Creator.  Those who worship Mother Earth make the same mistake.  The Earth is not our Mother - it is only a kind of created womb of our actual Mother, who is God.  As soon as God gets reduced down to this object, or that thing, our sense of the incredible power of God becomes compressed.  God cannot and should not be reduced down to that kind of thinking.  God does not want our picture of him to be limited to anything physical.  He is greater than everything he has made.

The Temple Curtain was torn symbolically in two at the death of Jesus.  This was precisely because God wanted his people to understand that God does not live in a box in a room.  God does not confine himself to a Temple, or even to a Nation.  God is the Creative Love behind the whole of the Universe.  He cannot be touched, or seen - except, in a sense, during that brief time when he was most physically present among us in the body of Jesus of Nazareth.  God cannot be touched with fingers, or seen with eyes.  He can only be believed in.  And those who are able to make that leap from the scientific to the spiritual, from the physical to the ethereal, from matter to the source of all life...they are the ones who Jesus calls 'blessed'.  They are the ones whose spiritual antennae have been turned on.  They are the ones who have learned to go deep and wide when looking for God.

So what does this mean for us - in our daily lives, and in our life as a church?

For our life as a church it means that we must 'never say never again'!  In other words, we must learn, in Rowan William's words, that all our language about God must be must always be open to being shaped and changed by the God who is outside of all human methods of proof.  It means never saying that we could never do things differently.  It means never saying that we could never change our view about what God is like.  It means accepting that the way we worship, the way we pray, the way we use our time and our money in the service of God must always remain open to the reality of God.

In our daily lives, it means growing in our attentiveness to God in all aspects of our life.  God is not tied down by our decisions, or even by our circumstances.  God has the capacity to break-through even the hardest of situations that life has thrown at us.  He can heal, because he is beyond all human capacity to heal.  He can comfort, because he is beyond human systems of support.  He can challenge, because he is greater than all human challenges.  He can change our minds about priorities, life-style choices, jobs and political allegiances - because he is beyond all such limitations.

God can neither be touched, nor seen...and yet God is present with us in every circumstance of life.  God cannot be boxed or sold - and yet he is the ultimate manufacturer.  God cannot be seen, and yet he is the light.  He cannot be touched, and yet he is the ultimate ground of all being.

At the end of the day, we can, and should, do no more and no less than our brother Thomas the Twin - fall on our knees as cry out, "My Lord and My God".


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