notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
John 20 - Thomas and our believing
Good Shepherd Morning Prayer 7/4/2007
Acts 5.27-32, John 20.19-31
We call him Doubting Thomas because he wouldn't believe the resurrection had happened until he'd seen Jesus with his own eyes. We call him Thomas the Believer because after seeing Jesus alive, Thomas confessed his faith in Jesus, exclaiming "My Lord and my God!" one of the greatest and most emotional professions of belief in all of the gospels.
John calls him Thomas Didymus, which can mean 'twin'. Or it can mean 'double' or 'twofold'. The story of Thomas is the story of the man who looked two ways at his Lord.
Why is this story in the bible?
to show that even after his resurrection some of those closest to him wouldn't believe in Jesus? (no - Thomas did believe, when he saw)
to make an example of someone who doubted? (no - Jesus' opening words to Thomas were 'Peace be with you'; 20.13-18 - Mary also did not believe until she saw Jesus and she was never called Doubting Mary)
to show that doubt is wrong? (no - doubt is normal and healthy: no condemnation from Jesus for it)
John actually tells us why this story is in the bible:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
John put the story of Thomas into his gospel so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.
The story of Thomas helps us to see that there are many different ways of believing ... each of us comes to Jesus in our own way.
The story of Thomas helps us to see that there are many different stages on the journey of believing ... each of us is at a different place in our life of faith.
And this is perfectly good, right, and acceptable to God. What does Jesus say to the disciples when he appears to them, knowing that some have seen the empty tomb and believed, some have seen the empty tomb and struggled to believe, some have not seen him but may believe, some have not seen him but may not yet believe... he says, to all of them, whatever their stage of belief, 'Peace be with you'.
This tells us two things:
Firstly that Jesus accepts us whatever stage our belief is at, and whether we are confident in our belief or in doubt he says 'Peace be with you';
Secondly that Jesus accepts others whatever stage their belief is at, and that helps us to know how to relate to people we know who see God differently than us.
Thomas appears in a few passages in the Gospel of John. In John 11:16, when Lazarus has just died, Jesus is determined to return to Judea, where the Jews had previously tried to stone Jesus. The other disciples don't want to go, but Thomas has the last word: "Let us also go, that we might die with him" . At this stage in their journey of faith, Thomas was perhaps the strongest of all the disciples. The great hero of the faith St. Paul echoed Thomas's words when he later wrote of "dying with Christ".
Thomas also speaks up at The Last Supper in John 14:5. Jesus assures his disciples that they know where he is going, but Thomas protests that they don't know at all. His question back to Jesus prompted Jesus to give an explanation about Christ's relationship to God the Father which is helpfully echoed at so many funeral services: 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'
Thomas looked two ways at his Lord - he believed but he also questioned. Jesus always looked one way at Thomas. He accepted him, he loved him, he blessed him.
Jesus accepted Thomas with his questions and his challenging behaviour. Which means that he accepts everyone today who has questions and who challenges what others accept, the modern-day, genuine and positive doubters.
The Christian organisation Tear Fund - who were responsible for sponsoring the Discovery project in our three churches recently - recently published a survey about trends in church attendance in the UK today. 
It was very interesting because it first of all identified whether the people answering the survey questions were open or closed to the idea of going to church.
It also asked whether people were churchgoers (going to church at least once a month), or fringe churchgoers (going to church at least six times a year), or occasional churchgoers (going to church at least once a year).
And the survey also set out to discover those who were non-churched (who have never been to church in their life, apart from weddings, baptisms or funerals) and de-churched (who do not go to church but used to attend in the past).
Mixing these statistics altogether the survey found that
More than half the UK is Christian - (53%) or 26.2 million adults claiming to be Christian;
7.6 million attend church monthly (including 4.9 million weekly), and that the majority of these, 4.9 million (10% of UK adults) attend at least weekly. Adding in fringe and occasional churchgoers (5 million) means that one in four UK adults attend church at least once a year;
Nearly 3 million likely to go in future: 2.9 million people (6% of UK adults) said they are likely to go to church in future. The personal touch is a major trigger. A personal invite, family or a friend attending or difficult personal circumstances, are most likely to encourage people into church.
Among the fringe churchgoers, and the occasional churchgoers, among the non-churched and the de-churched who are still open to the idea of attending in the future, there are people like Thomas, for whom belief comes with a little more difficulty than for others. Among regular churchgoers too.
But also among these different groups of people there will be people whose belief is strong, even though they may have lost faith or confidence in the church - and we can learn from them and with them.
Jesus wants to share his peace with them all, and that will happen through another believer - a family member or a friend - inviting them to attend church or supporting them through difficult personal circumstances, or sharing or discussing their own belief with them.
As I wrote in this month's Parish Magazine, we at the Good Shepherd along with all our neighbouring churches are being invited to contribute to something called the 'Deanery mission plan'.
It is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves where we are on our journey of belief, and how we hope to move on in confidence with Jesus.
It is an opportunity for us to look around us in our community and think about who our fringe churchgoers are, who our occasional churchgoers are, and the non-churched and the de-churched who might still open to the idea of attending in the future.
It is an opportunity for us to consider how we might share with them Jesus' words, 'Peace be with you'; and in what practical and loving and faithful ways we might help them come to a place of believing.
At this time of year Jesus always calls us to consider our own belief and commitment: a time when we ask God what he would have us do in our church through the process of the annual meeting and the elections and now also through this Deanery Mission Plan; a time when we can let God speak to us through the powerful story of the resurrection with its confident Peter and its worshipping Mary and its questioning Thomas.
Let us embrace this story,
let us ask what God might be telling us about ourselves in it,
let us open ourselves to receive all the joy that the disciples felt on knowing that the resurrected Christ was with them,
and let us come to believe with all our hearts that the resurrected Christ is with us now, standing before us, wounded but having defeated death, speaking gently to us those loving and affirming words, 'Peace be with you'.
And may that be our motivation for all that lies head of us in the weeks and months and years to come.
 Tear fund survey details here