Sermon: St Thomas the Believer
The Reverend David Sudron, Sacrist and Succentor; Minor Canon
Preached on 19th April 2009
by The Reverend David Sudron
Did Caravaggio get it right? In The Incredulity of St Thomas we find the apostle's right index finger probing the wound in Christ's right side. As if the intrusive (and rather gory) gesture is not enough in itself, it is Our Lord's hand which guides Thomas's with a firm but gentle grip. His eyes are cast down in a kind of sympathetic pity for Thomas, whilst Thomas's eyes can't quite bear to fix upon where his finger is lodged, filled with astonishment mingled with delighted realisation. It is a work of exquisite genius in its perception of how the musculature of our faces depicts what we are thinking.
And yet it seems to me that the whole thing is based on a fallacy. St John does not say that Thomas reached thither his finger. Had it happened, I suggest that this is not the kind of detail that the Beloved Disciple would be likely to omit. There is no hint of a movement in anything other than Thomas's heart, when Jesus's invitation results in Thomas's confession ‘My Lord and my God!' And I suspect it is for very good reason: the reason why, especially in the East, Thomas is known not as the Doubter, but the Believer.
Several chapters earlier, when the news reaches the ears of Christ that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus as being asleep, and that he must go and wake him. The apostles are concerned that Jesus will be stoned if he return to Judæa. What follows could not be farther removed from the scene in today's Gospel: ‘Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him. Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him.'
This is what makes St Thomas, for me, such an attractive figure. On the one hand we have a man who is full of vim and vigour. Presuming that it is to Jesus's being stoned that he refers when expressing the desire to die with him (rather than the willingness to share in Lazarus's departure), here is commitment. Whatever might have been happening in his mind, his heart is certainly set aright. Little wonder, then, that tradition acclaims Thomas as the Apostle of India, martyred at Mylapore near modern-day Madras (whence I acquired this spectacular object-the only glow-in-the-dark Apostle I so far possess!). He praught the Gospel farther than any of the others.
The relief is that this ordinary Galilean is capable of greatness despite getting it spectacularly wrong when the told the news of the Resurrection. Thomas, one imagines, was a man who called a spade a spade: he was a northerner, after all. People coming back from the dead was not an everyday experience in first century Palestine, so why on earth should he believe what he is told? The witness of Mary Magdalene was hardly believed in an instant, so the rest of the them do not get off the hook either. Thomas's is a mindset which at this point we can all understand: he is a real person.
I wonder what happened in the gap between Jesus's words and Thomas's. Whilst I choose to believe that Caravaggio got the gesture wrong, it seems to me that he got the facial expressions as right as he could have. The master's are faces that are resonant and credible. We see in Jesus's that compassion which made endless loving allowances for the apostles' slowness to grasp what he was about, that persistent love of God which refuses to let us go no matter how far we wander. The hand that guides Thomas's is that of friendship leading us where we otherwise might not have dared to go. Thomas's look of slightly sideways surprise is filled with the sort of intensity that furrows the brow and brightens the eye when the wildest of dreams has come true. And, miraculously, in 1602 one of Rome's most notorious brawlers managed to capture in oil paints a glimmer of the glory of the Resurrection.
St Thomas's doubt here is salutary. It strikes me that it says a great deal about the danger we are in if we allow ourselves to come too readily to conclusions about what the Resurrection means. Years ago Bishop David was making the same point in this same pulpit when he told us that the Resurrection is more than a conjuring trick with bones, resulting in the mass media revealing nothing but the extent of its own stupidity. If it take what appears to be doubt in order to return us to the cosmic significance of the triumph of the Son of God over the last enemy, perhaps we need more of it, not less.
Thomas's entirely human misgivings provide yet another fertile ground on which the seeds of grace may spring up; yet another occasion for Christ to reveal the love of God, this time not just born in the substance of our flesh, but glorified in it. When we domesticate Christ's rising again, when we reduce it to an argument about what we can and can't prove, we utterly rob it of its wonder. Wittingly and unwittingly we spend so much time attempting to confine and constrain God in what we say about him, trying to tidy him up into neat and tidy formulae, that we find ourselves not where we should be: lost in wonder, love and praise, and taking others there with us.
The dried-up sixties secularists may still be keeping the bookshops trading with their intellectually moribund ramblings, but after all these years they have won as few hearts with their desperate lack of imagination as the equally irritating Christian fundamentalists who shriek and howl in reply more like banshees than heralds of the Gospel of Life. My experience, even in my few years of priesthood, tells me not only that people are hungry for the real Resurrection, but that their hearts, among all their doubts, are receptive to it, not as something difficult to swallow like a bitter religious-belief pill, but as a hope deserving of the use of one's imagination.
In the Eastern tradition St Thomas's story enjoys a delightful about-turn. It is said that all of the Apostles were miraculously transported to Jerusalem at the time Our Lady died, whilst Thomas remained in India. But in a satisfying twist of fortunes, he was the only one miraculously brought to Jerusalem to witness her Assumption into heaven: a story which the rest of the Apostles refused to believe until Thomas presented the girdle she had dropped as she went!
Wonder, love and praise are where we should be caught up, not least on this octave day of the Resurrection We could do worse than to put ourselves in that gap between Christ's words and St Thomas's; to wonder, despite the wandering hands, in the truth of Caravaggio's brush-strokes; to see, in Christ's tender hand and Thomas's incredulous yet faith-filled eyes, a glimpse of the means of grace and the hope of glory.
Pray for us, O blessed Thomas, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.