Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Sceptical Prince

Preached on the day after the announcement of the death of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh 

I have a great deal of affection for St Thomas – not least because he is my namesake!  Mind you, the only time anyone calls me Thomas is when I’ve done something wrong.  Usually my Mother, my sisters or my wife!

            Poor old 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 an 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 actively 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, or at least scepticism, 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 scepticism in our intellectual diet.  

            Prince Philip was, I think, also one of life’s sceptics.  He was sceptical about the claims that humanity made for itself, especially with regard to caring for wildlife, and for the climate.  His work to establish the World Wildlife Fund, and to be among the first to fix solar panels to a home, speak of someone who was sceptical about the assurances of the rich and powerful, that nothing bad would happen if we go on as we are, consuming the world’s resources.  Prince Philip’s scepticism about the way we bring up our young people and equip them for life led him to found the Duke of Edinburgh’s award.  He was also the driving force behind a number of significant, global inter-faith conferences, indicating at least some scepticism about the primacy of his own national religion.  His Royal Highness would have been the first to deny any label of saint, but his willingness to challenge status quos, and to find new solutions, is a tribute to his sceptical, doubting frame of mind.

            And, I have to say, within the field of religion, scepticism 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).

            We might like to picture faith as being like a spider’s web – which is an image which I know will delight Sandra and the church cleaners!  Like a spider at the centre of the web, God is the generator of everything around him.  But there are many strands to the web, holding it to the wall (or, in our case, usually holding it in front of one of our cameras).  If any one of those slender strings of web should be broken, the rest of the web still hangs, quite happily. 

            Imagine, if you will, that those individual strands represent ideas about God.  The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, our assumptions about the Atonement, for example.  It is perfectly OK for us to examine each one of those strands.  We can pull on it; testing it to see if it is as strong as it needs to be to carry on its work.  Sometimes, an individual thread can be removed altogether…but the rest of the web holds firm.  Our ideas about God, and about how he calls us to live are constantly shifting and changing.  And it’s the Doubting Thomases among us, the sceptics, who are sometimes the ones who light the path to new understanding. 

Without people who were willing to be sceptical about established norms, we would still practice slavery, racism would be considered normal, women would be forbidden from speaking in church, the Bible would not be printed for to all to read, and we would still be hanging on to binary language about human sexuality. 

            So to anyone listening to my voice who has doubts about what they believe, and about how the Christian Way should be practiced, and want to re-assure you.  All doubters, all sceptics, all intellectual enquirers…you are welcome here.  I applaud your scepticism.  I embrace your scepticism.  Come, let us reason together.  Let us unpick the individual strands of the spider’s web of faith, and test them together.  

One final thought.  There first thing Jesus said to his disciples on appearing in that locked room was ‘Shalom’ – or ‘peace be with you’.  The kind of peace did he mean?  Did he mean the kind of holy silence which might descend on us, from time to time, during a service?  No, not really.  The Hebrew concept of ‘shalom’ implies wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety and prosperity.  To pray ‘shalom’ for another person is to hope that they might experience those things in their life.   So when we share ‘the Peace’ together, in a few minutes, let’s hold in our minds those prayers.  While we wave cheerily at each other in our socially-distanced way, let us pray for each other’s wholeness, completeness, and prosperity.  Let us pray that each of us, sceptics and doubters, as well as those who have no trouble just living with the faith they inherited might find peace together on the Way of Christ. Amen

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