Sermon preached at the Consecration of Bishops on 3 July 2018 by Dr Paula Gooder, Director for Mission Learning and Development in the Birmingham Diocese
On the feast of St Thomas the Apostle, Paula reflects on the danger of nicknames in 'locking their recipients into a fixed identity' and what we can learn from St Thomas about listening deeply to the experiences and witness of others.
This sermon is also available to listen to as a podcast below.
Nicknames can be trivial; they can be light-hearted and fun; they can be tantalising, buried deep in history, making you wonder how anyone could
end up being called that by everyone.
Nicknames can also be powerful weapons, locking their recipients into a fixed identity, years after the original event that caused the nickname in the first place.
I went to primary school with Mary, the moaner. In order for you to understand my story I need to explain to those of you of a tender age or who didn’t attend an English state primary school that there was a time – a long, long time ago – when the government gave free milk to school children. It came in little bottles and would be delivered to the classrooms before break. One day in morning break, Mary got the bottle of milk that we were all trying to avoid. We’d all seen it, sitting in the sunshine on the window ledge. The rest were safely nestled in the shade but one had been left out and we watched it during the first lesson being gently warmed by the sun. So we avoided it – Mary was last and the warm milk fell to her. She had no choice, not drinking the milk was never an option in school. So she drank it – and as any of us might have done – described quite how unpleasant it was. From that moment onwards, however, the class called her Mary the moaner. Even to this day whenever I think of her she is in my mind ‘Mary the moaner’, even though I cannot remember her moaning on any other occasion. Her nickname had locked her in, in our minds, to an identity from which she would never be free, at least with us.
St Thomas, whose feast day we celebrate today, was similarly unfortunate. He is ‘doubting Thomas’ a nickname that comes, of course, from the Gospel story we have just heard. It is a nickname as unjust and unfair as my childhood friend’s. The first thing to notice is that nowhere at any point in this passage does John – the author of the Gospel – or Jesus himself say that Thomas doubted. Contrary to what most English translations contain, what Jesus actually said to Thomas was 'don't be unbelieving but believing' or 'don't be faithless be faithful'. Doubting implies uncertainty, lack of confidence, maybe even an open mind. Thomas was none of these. Thomas, we are told, did not believe and stated as clearly as he could that he had no intention of believing. The only way he would change his mind would be if certain macabre conditions were met – he wanted to see Jesus’ scars, to put his finger where the nails had been and his hand into Jesus’ side. Thomas was no doubter he was a clear, definite, unshakeable non-believer.
But what did he not believe? This is crucial to the whole story and, just as with his nickname, is often misunderstood. It wasn’t Jesus in whom he didn’t believe – or at least not directly. It was the experience, the story, the witness of the other disciples. They told him that they had seen the risen Jesus and he didn’t believe them.
But this was not his permanent state. Thomas was a passionate believer. He was the one in John 11 who declared, when Jesus refused to be dissuaded from going to Jerusalem, that the disciples would go and die with him there. He was the one in John 14 whose passionate outburst caused Jesus to declare that he was the way, the truth and the life. Thomas was the one in this passage who, it turned out, didn’t need to put his hand in the risen Jesus’ side, simply seeing him was enough. He was the first – and as far as the Gospels are concerned the only – person to declare that Jesus was not just his Lord but his God too.
Thomas’ problem was not doubting, it wasn’t even not believing – as far as we know he only did that once here – his problem was that his passionate, deeply held belief came solely from his own experience, his own seeing, his own knowing. What he struggled with was accepting the experience, the stories, the witness of others.
What Jesus was pressing Thomas to – and indeed us too reading it so many hundreds of years later – is the importance of listening deeply to that experience, to those stories, to the witness of those around us and to allow what we hear to shape our believing.
Christian tradition provides us with a pleasing end to this challenge. It remembers St Thomas as being a witness par-excellence, taking his stories of Jesus and all that he believed so passionately about him far beyond his home territory of Galilee and Judea as far, we are told, as India – a place that holds a special place in the hearts of both John and Viv.
Today we gather to give thanks for the ministry – past, present and future - of John, and Simon and Viv. I am confident that I am not the only person present whose believing in the Jesus who brings life has been enriched by their experiences, their stories of faith and their witness to Christ. For all that has been, we gather today with our hearts full of gratitude to God and to each of you.
But as you journey onwards into new pastures of ministry the challenge of Thomas rings clear in all of our ears. We are called – all us who rejoice in addressing Jesus as our Lord and our God – to gossip the good news of Jesus, wherever and whenever we can. We are called to tell our experiences of the love of Jesus; to shape stories of all that we have heard and seen; to bear to witness to who we know this Jesus to be – but just as important we are called to be people who listen carefully and attentively to the experience, stories and witness of those around us.
It is easy for those called to lead to fall into one mode being – broadcasting – being the one that tells the best stories in the best way all the time. We don’t know why Thomas couldn’t hear and be affected by the story of the disciples but his inability to accept what the disciples said reminds us of the crucial importance of listening deeply to the experiences of those we meet, even if the stories they tell are half stories – faltering, incomplete narratives of the Jesus they have encountered – and having listened to allow our faith to be shaped by what they have seen and heard. It’s no easy task – it requires patience, generosity and care – but if we succeed we will be blessed indeed.
Today may we dump ‘doubting Thomas’ in the bin once and for all, and go from here to live our lives heirs of his joyful, passionate believing, telling and receiving stories of lives transformed by the risen and ever loving Christ. Amen.