Thursday, July 2, 2020

A little bit of doubt...

Today, we are celebrating the Feast of the Apostle Thomas, transferred from tomorrow.  This is mainly because I could hardly overlook the feast day of another man called Thomas!  But it’s also because the set readings for the feast offer us some inspiration in this time of crisis.
Saint Thomas is universally known as ‘Doubting Thomas’, quite simply because of this one occasion when he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.  That ‘moniker’ he has had to live with stands as a badge of shame for just one small incident in what was otherwise an exemplary life.  He was, for example, the first of the disciples to recognise Jesus as ’The Way’.  He followed him Jesus diligently throughout his ministry, and unlike Peter, he did not deny his Lord.  When confronted with the reality of his mistake about Jesus’ resurrection, he immediately repented of his hasty words, and acknowledged Jesus as not just his Lord, but also his God...a word rarely used of Jesus by the other apostles.
Then, after Pentecost, the Church’s tradition tells us that he went East, with great enthusiasm for the task of spreading the Gospel.  He established not least the Church of India, which still functions today. But poor Thomas, everyone seems to forget all this wonderful stuff about him - they forget what a tremendous power-house for God that he was.  They just dismiss him for one moment of doubt.
Actually, I think that doubt is a healthy thing.  Doubt is a sign that the mind is working - weighing-up, critically and carefully, the information which it is being fed.  I think we could all do with a little more doubt in our intellectual diet.   
One area that we might exercise such doubt is in the way we interpret what our leaders, newspapers and social media try to tell us is true.  We must all learn those critical tools of checking the sources of information, examining the evidence, and testing the veracity of what powerful voices say.  In St Thomas’ terms, we need to poke our fingers into some holes to find out for ourselves what is really true.  
And, I have to say, within the field of religion, doubt is also no bad thing.  We owe a huge debt to those who have gone before us in the faith, especially to the writers of the Scriptures.  But if we accept everything they wrote without a little bit of doubt, we would, frankly, still be keeping slaves on Church of England-owned plantations in the Caribbean (because all the Bible writers shared a common belief that slavery was normal).
To borrow an idea from Rob Bell, we can picture faith as being rather like a trampoline.  The central fabric - which holds us up - is the main meat of our faith, that is the very existence of God.  But the fabric is held up by springs, which we can see as the various dogmas, theories, and claims of other people of faith throughout the centuries.  Some of those springs are, I’m afraid, rather rusty.  If we exercise the gift of doubt, intelligently, it is quite possible to take off one spring, without the whole trampoline collapsing.  We can then examine that spring, that dogma or that idea, to see whether it needs polishing, or oiling, or perhaps even replacing altogether.  But the rest of the trampoline still holds up.
Now here’s a radical thought:  I suggest there is a particular spring that we are being called to examine, right now.  This COVID crisis has, among many things, asked us to question the weight of significance we place on church buildings.  For centuries, we have unapologetically assumed that for the faith to flourish, we need magnificent buildings, dedicated to the glory of God.  Whereas, for me at least, the reality of the last three months has been that without our lovely building, faith has been flourishing all around me.  I’ve had more conversations about faith with parishioners in the last three months than I had in the whole five years of my ministry here prior to lockdown.  Really.  I have.  And many more people have worshipped with us online than ever come into the church.
That’s not the whole story - of course.  For many, the deprivation of the church as a place to pray or meet others has been real and raw.  Don’t think, therefore, that I’m planning to bring in the bulldozers!  I am looking forward with all my heart to the day when we get to sing God’s praises in St Faith’s again.  What I am suggesting is that, from time to time, a little bit of doubt about things we’ve always just assumed to be true is a good thing.  Perhaps there is more to faith than church buildings? Perhaps St Thomas the Apostle deserves not to be mocked, but celebrated for the gift of doubt.  Amen.

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