The chosen hymns for this week, In Christ Alone and Thomas Song can be found below along with a transcription of the sermon for those who prefer to read.
Welcome to our service of worship today. Welcome if you’re listening on the phone, or if you’re watching on the website, on YouTube or on Facebook, or if you’re just reading the text!
Remember, this isn’t just our chance to speak to you, it’s your chance to communicate with us or each other too - so we’d love you to leave a comment, encouragement or criticism, we don’t mind!
We might not be able to talk to each other in person much right now, but we can always get a conversation going online!
We begin our service in prayer.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we come together in worship, we come together in praise. Your church didn’t have its origins in grand buildings with sanctuaries, with chancels and with pews, but in the homes of those who came to know you and to love you.
Lately we’ve been kind of returning to those roots and while we’re used to being together as one, that your Word is again reaching directly into the homes of your people is such a blessing.
Be with us as we worship today, and though we are separated by distance we come together in saying the words your son our Lord Jesus taught us: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day or daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.
Our scripture reading is from the Good News Bible, the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 19 to 31.
It’s not something that’s come up in my training, but I’m not sure that ministers are supposed to have favourite characters among the supporting cast from the Bible. But if you were to push me, I’d have to say that Thomas ranks pretty high in my list.
He doesn’t make too many appearances, it’s only in the Gospel of John that he actually says anything but when he does I can’t help but identify with him. You’ll remember in our reading a moment ago, he wasn’t around when Jesus first appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, and I can understand that, for a start.
I’ve got a habit of missing out on things - I know it’s a daft example but I always seem to be the one who goes for a pie at the football just as a goal’s being scored. And when Thomas turns up later and the disciples tell him what they’ve seen, well, I can identify with that too because his reaction is kind of like mine would be, that he doesn’t just believe them right away, he tells them he needs evidence.
Thomas is a questioner, a sceptic, Doubting Thomas. He doesn’t just believe, he’s got to have a reason to believe. There’s a hint of his scepticism, his questioning, earlier in the Gospel as well, when Jesus speaks of his Father’s house having many rooms and that he is going to prepare a place for his followers there.
And it’s after Thomas, in his confusion, asks Him ‘We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?’ it’s after that that Jesus makes probably one of the most important statements in Scripture, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ Asking questions, asking for proof, asking for clarification. It’s not a bad thing, it’s how we learn, it’s how we grow. I can definitely understand that.
Some of you might know this, but I’m a comparative latecomer when it comes to the church. It’s always been there, of course, but for a large part - a very large part - of my life, it didn’t really figure.
I was a questioner, a sceptic, a doubter. I looked around at the people I knew who read the Bible, who went to church regularly and I thought to myself, ‘What are they understanding that I’m not? What are they getting out of it all? Why do they believe?’
Well, I suppose I’m looking at it from the other side now, so maybe I should try to answer my own questions. ‘What are they understanding that I’m not?’ Any sceptic, like Thomas, like myself, needs proof. And the proof lies in here, in the Bible - that’s what the Christians I knew would say.
And I came to agree, but that was only after I arrived at the understanding that it depends on how we read it. If we read it as scientists looking for incontrovertible evidence, we can do that - we’ll maybe tie ourselves in knots first, but we can try. But if we read it not as people looking for proof but as people looking for God and what he does for us, well, that’s a different matter. Because His message to us is here, on every page.
Just for example, maybe, like me you watched the Ten Commandments on TV last Sunday - again! If you did you’ll remember one of the big scenes, the parting of the Red Sea. Special effects have moved on a bit since that was filmed, I think.
Whole books have been written about the biblical account of Moses’ parting of the sea - a freak wind made it possible, an earthquake, that it was the Reed Sea rather than the Red Sea and it wasn’t very deep - all sorts of theories. But I came to understand they’re less important than knowing that when we face our own Red Sea, maybe something huge that seems impossible or impassible, maybe even something as simple as weeks of self-isolation, God will be there to help us through it.
That’s just one example, there’s lots of others, but maybe if we read the Bible like that, for what it means to us, and how we live, maybe we get a little closer to understanding it. ‘What are they getting out of it all?’
The sceptic - and I was one of them, remember - the sceptic sees people heading off to church on a Sunday and sees them heading home an hour or so later. An hour a week. What the sceptic doesn’t see is people living their their lives the way they’re meant to be lived. In loving their neighbour, in loving their enemy, in loving their God.
What the sceptic doesn’t see is how being part of the church is being part of a community, about being wanted and valued, and loved. An hour a week, it’s not.
Even more so right now, it’s Facebook, it’s YouTube, websites, it’s hearing reflections like this down a phone line. Who would have thought it? And what are we getting out of it? Everything we need, I hope. And ‘Why do they believe?’
Maybe that’s the biggest question of all. You know, one of the best things about being sceptical is that, once you realise that something you thought was unlikely, even wrong, is actually real, and true - well, then it becomes all the sweeter.
That’s what happened with Thomas. Second-hand witnessing wasn’t enough for him, it just confirmed his doubts.
When presented with Jesus in person after his death, when seeing his wounds and touching them, Thomas’ reaction is all the confirmation we need that his doubts were gone and that he believed - ‘My Lord and my God!’ He said.
There’s an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence - Thomas was overjoyed that his scepticism had been proved wrong. As William Barclay wrote, Thomas ‘doubted in order to become sure; and when he did his surrender to certainty was complete.’ I like this, his ‘surrender to certainty.’ He gave up every doubt he had - he wasn’t Doubting Thomas any more, he was Believing Thomas.
And then Jesus says, ‘Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!’
I don’t know if you’ve heard the expression, ‘breaking the fourth wall.’ It’s when, in a TV drama, one of the characters breaks off from the dialogue and speaks direct to the camera, a bit like I’m doing now except I’m not in a drama. The character addresses the audience directly - and I think that’s what’s happening here.
Although Jesus is talking to Thomas, it’s like he’s speaking directly to us too - ‘how happy are those who believe without seeing me.’
We’re used to thinking, a bit like Thomas, that ‘seeing is believing,’ but we don’t have the same opportunity to see him in the flesh in order to dispel our doubts - and it’s okay to have them, it really is - it’ll be all the sweeter when they are finally dispelled.
Because I’ve come to realise what Jesus is telling us is that believing is seeing too.
I’ve come to realise this is why we believe, because when we do we’ll see him, our Lord and our God, all around us. There’s no doubt about that. Let us pray Gracious God, when your son appeared to Thomas he dispelled any doubts the disciple had.
The proof stood there before him, wounded but whole, resurrected and real.
Thomas believed because he had seen, and we see because we believe.
We believe that he was sent to save us, that he died on the cross in order than our sins may be forgiven.
But still we sin. Still we fail to live up to the example he set, we fail to keep to his commands, and for this, Father, we pray for your forgiveness.
We pray for ourselves, but we pray for others too, that you would take on their travails and their troubles and soothe them, that you would draw close to them and comfort them.
We think of those living lonely lives right now, those who can’t leave their homes at all as they shield themselves from the virus, and those who can venture outside but who have to be so careful about coming into contact with other people.
We think of those who have to leave their homes every day, to work in essential or emergency services, putting themselves in danger in doing so.
We think of those who aren’t in their homes at all, who are suffering in hospital, not just from the virus but from other illnesses too.
We think of those in care homes, who are so much as risk and who seem to have, until the past few days at least, been so sadly overlooked.
We think of those who won’t return to their homes, who have lost their lives to the virus.
Comfort your people Father.
In Jesus name we pray.