Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Feast Of St Thomas

Today is the feast of St Thomas, one of 'the twelve' disciples.

Thomas is identified as one of this group in all four Gospels, but only has a speaking part in John's account. He is, of course, most famously labelled (by later generations) as the Doubter, the one who, not being present when Jesus first appeared to the gathered group of disciples after his resurrection, refused to believe that Jesus was alive unless he too shared the same experience of meeting him. There is, of course, a difference between expressing doubt and being Doubting: Jesus challenges Thomas' doubt and invites belief, a more gracious approach than others. One might as well label Peter 'Satan' or any one of us according to our bad days...

Thomas also speaks up at the meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. Jesus had spoken about going to the Father, and the disciples knowing the way to the place where he was going. Thomas replies, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way? Jesus then claims to be the way: they knew the way, without knowing that they knew it. Philip joins Thomas in asking further questions of what Jesus meant. Indeed, honest questions are a mark of discipleship, of wanting to learn more than we already know (or don't realise we know - in contrast to the attitude that believes we are already in the know).

But Thomas first speaks up as Jesus sets out to go to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Thinking Lazarus to be merely ill, the disciples think Jesus misguided in going to him: after all, the last time he was in Jerusalem - and Bethany is not far from Jerusalem - a crowd tried to murder him by stoning. But when Jesus reveals that Lazarus is dead, and in these circumstances Jesus wishes to go to him, Thomas says to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." or as NT Wright puts it, "'Let's go too,' he said. 'We may as well die with him.'"

There is an ambiguity about these words. Is Thomas saying, Let us [disciples] go too [with Jesus]; we [disciples] may as well die with him [Jesus]...or is he saying, Let us [disciples] go too [with Jesus]; we [Jesus and the disciples] may as well die with him [Lazarus]?

The first may be courageous (though if it is, Thomas' courage will fail him): if we die, we die; what would we have to live for without Jesus anyway? Jesus is going to be killed, sooner or later: let us not abandon him in his hour of need!

The second is resigned. The grave is the end: we might as well all embrace it. Weary, not courageous.

In which case, Lazarus being brought back to life (not resurrection: Lazarus will go on to die a second time) is a signpost that the grave is not the end...resuscitating Thomas too, and spurring his quest for taking the unknown way, the way into the unknown. A way that, according to tradition, would take him all the way to southern India.

So what? Why celebrate St Thomas? And how might we celebrate St Thomas?

Thomas is ambiguous. He creates space for the person who is ready to take the whole world on, and for the person who is weary of this world. He creates room for the person setting off on a journey, and the person coming to the end of a journey. He marks space for restoration, for re-awakening, for what looks like the end opening up to a whole new adventure.

Thomas knows more than he thinks he knows, not thinks he knows more than he knows. He may lack information, but every time we encounter him he expresses the desire to be close to Jesus. He does not hide behind a mask out of fear of looking foolish.

We could do worse than learn from Thomas. And we might celebrate with him by sharing, around the table, where our story connects with his. Feast days come round every year, because our stories will connect to those of the saints in different ways at different times: this year, you may be weary; next year, adventurous...

And for those of my friends who are part of the church family of whom St Thomas is patron, further opportunity, to ask: are we appropriately open, or overly rigid? are we still learning, or overly certain? is our desire to be close to Jesus? are we open to challenge and invitation?

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