Bishop Tom Frame from Australia made a visit to the Benefice on 22/23 April with his wife Helen. There were many friends old and new in Markbeech church to hear his sermon which is copied below. We thank him for allowing us to reproduce it.
“It is a blessing for Helen and I to be back in the only place outside Australia we have ever called home. This church, this village, this Benefice – all left a mark on our entire family for which we are still grateful. This morning I am especially conscious of friends, particularly the absent and the departed, especially Canon Derek Blows, the Reverend John Lee and Emily Turner. We have felt keenly all the deaths of those we befriended during our time in the Benefice (October 1996-August 1997) and were reminded in the case of Emily that much in life is unexpected.
As I reflect on the previous two decades, on what has changed and on what has remained unchanged, I am conscious of the three abiding elements in the Christian journey: the gift of faith, the call of discipleship and the challenge of obedience. These three things remain integral to Christian living or one is not living as a Christian at all. And these three things are commended in today’s Gospel reading from John chapter 20, verses 19-31. To appreciate the significance of this portion of Scripture we must ask two questions. First, why is it included in the text? Conversely, would it make any difference if it were not included? Second, given that John can’t resist the allure of symbolism, is there a symbolic meaning embedded in the whole passage that we need to discern?
The Gospel reading is well known to many. Jesus appears to his disciples. It is a text that has attracted some controversy in relation to Jesus’ remarks about the transmission of authority to forgive and retain sins … but there are some important statements of fact that we should not overlook. The context is straightforward. Ten of the remaining eleven disciples (Judas has committed suicide) are together in one room. Thomas is absent. There is no indication of the reason for his absence or of his present location. Perhaps he is hiding – alone; perhaps he is feeling let down and prefers solitude; perhaps he is contemplating returning to his former home. We do not know.
But when Thomas is reunited with the eleven disciples a week later, he hears their testimony that Jesus has risen from the dead. Notably, he refuses to believe. He demands evidence. In this instance, he wants physical evidence. Jesus again appears to his disciples and speaks directly to Thomas whose demand for evidence is evidently satisfied. Thomas then pronounces: “My Lord and my God”. But he receives no personal credit for this declaration of faith. In fact, he is chided by Jesus. He is advised that some will come after him whose faith will allow them to believe without the benefit of the kind of experience he has enjoyed. These people are more blessed than he. The encounter ends with what we might read as harsh words from Jesus.
So we need to ask: what specific work is this text doing in John’s Gospel? Why is this encounter included? What purpose does it serve? It seems to convey five important insights. First, John wants to say that people believe at different times and in different ways. Second, John observes that we respond to different kinds of evidence and require different standards of proof. Third, John explains that God is not indifferent to the way our minds allow us to accept truths. Fourth, John reminds us that we need eyes to see and ears to hear but also spirits willing to accept our heart’s judgements. And fifth, John insists that there comes a time for conclusion, for decision and for action. Analysis can never be allowed to morph into paralysis.
Without this text, these critical points about believing may not have come to our notice. We might have thought the disciples believed everything and all at once; that they required no evidence and that faith involved no persuasion. We might, therefore, have been misled into thinking the disciples were all alike or that one single encounter with the Risen Christ relieved them of doubt for all time. Rather, the resurrection reality dawned on them over time, through a series of encounters and experiences, before it was an internalised reality that shaped their entire outlook.
And what of my second question: where is the symbolism? It starts with the person to whom this second resurrection appearance was designed to affect – Thomas. The disciple Thomas appears at several key points in the Fourth Gospel. We encounter him in John chapter 11 when the disciples tried to dissuade Jesus from returning to Jerusalem (where his life was previously threatened) because his friend Lazarus had died. The disciples urge Jesus against the journey fearing their own safety. Thomas announces: “Let us go with him to Jerusalem and we will all die with him”. This can be ‘read’ as weak resignation or as a bold commitment. In my judgement, he is resolute, defiant and determined. He is the one who urges courage among the disciples.
And we encounter him again in John 14. Jesus foreshadows his ‘departure’ to his Father’s house, a place of many rooms. Thomas asks him for an explanation of what these apparently cryptic statements might mean: “we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Is Thomas concerned that he can’t fulfil his calling to follow out of ignorance more than a deficit of courage? It is not clear from the text but we can conjecture. After the first resurrection appearance at which he was absent, Thomas is still resolute, defiant and determined: he will not believe. He won’t be swayed by others; he insists on making up his own mind. He appears to be the solitary one, separate from the group who never thinks that truth resides in the mind of the majority.
Then the evidence is presented powerfully and in a manner that addresses his needs. Jesus appears and invites him to touch his wounds and examine his injuries. This is the same Jesus; this is his master – now raised and responsive. Thomas believes and is chided for his disbelief before John adds by way of reflection: “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that, by believing, you may have life in his name”. Belief prompted action.”