Eucharist Sermon - 11 April 2021

The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:32–35; John 20:19–31

The Revd Paul Cowan, Chaplain for the Bishop of Oxford

Good morning, lovely to be with you

I finished writing this sermon literally an hour before the news broke of Prince Philip’s death, and then of course wondered whether to start again from scratch or whether to stick with what I’d prepared. I’ve decided to stick with what I’d prepared, in part because as I did a little bit of research into what is known about Prince Philip’s own faith journey, I realised that something of what I share here resonates with Prince Philip’s search and experiences.

When we think of Jesus’ great commissioning and then departure from the disciples, our minds naturally turn to the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus meets the, by then, eleven disciples on a mountainside and commissions them to, ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. But the gospel reading that we’ve just heard is very much John’s version of that commissioning, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’

There are similarities and differences between the two accounts. In both, the disciples are given a new authority, and in both, they are very clearly sent. But unique to John’s account is Thomas and his doubt.

‘Doubting Thomas’. I feel not only sorry for Thomas but also an affinity. There’s an injustice in this title for Thomas, an eternal blot on this poor apostle’s copybook. It really isn’t fair on him. The only difference between Thomas and the other disciples is that Thomas wasn’t there for Jesus’ appearance in the room. I think we can be pretty confident that a number of the other disciples would have been just as sceptical if they hadn’t been in the room when Jesus appeared to them.

But it’s more than just a hunch. Let me read you a sentence from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ commissioning of the eleven. ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.’ But some doubted. Just three words, slipped into the narrative and so easily passed over. We all know the, ‘go and make disciples’ and the familiar words at the heart of our liturgy for baptism, but we forget that, ‘some of the disciples doubted’. Not just some people on the fringes, but some of his core team.

We know that the writers of the gospels were careful in the crafting of their accounts.  They chose carefully what to add and what not to add to their good news. They had one central goal and the writer of John told us it in black and white just now.

‘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.’ That’s the goal.

Now listen to this at the end of Mark’s gospel, ‘Later Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.’

And Luke’s gospel ends with the women running back to the disciples from the tomb with their news of the resurrection, and we’re told, ‘But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’ Sounds like none of them believed Mary Magdalene and the other women.

Then in Luke we have the Emmaus road and this fascinating sentence with a whole discombobulated jumble going on for Jesus’ walking companions, ‘While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…’

I love that. What a mix – joy, disbelief and wonder. I think it’s clear that the disciples really struggled with doubt. Doubting Thomas is not a fair name; it should be the ‘doubting disciples’, or maybe I should say, ‘the doubting male disciples’. And I’m intrigued that the writers who are so intent on proclaiming the good news, each very consciously place doubt within their commissioning’s and endings. Not one of them airbrushes the doubt.

The Christian faith was front and centre of my upbringing. My formative years were in Liberia, West Africa where my parents worked for an evangelical mission agency. My Dad was a doctor and ran the mission hospital.

In my teens, back in England, we were part of a large Anglican charismatic church. This formative faith gave me lots of good things, but the one thing that there wasn’t space for was doubt. Doubt was one of the enemies, something to be shunned, repressed, a sign of a lack of faith.

As you might imagine, doubt refused to be silenced. The more I ignored it, the louder it shouted within me. It took a long time for me to realise that questions and doubt are aspects of the journey of deepening faith. Doubt is not opposed faith, rather it is certainty that is the opposite of faith. Or as Kahlil Gibran, the author of ‘The Prophet’ puts it, ‘Doubt is the twin brother of faith.’

We would love certainties! Who wants questions and doubt? They’re awkward, leaving things unfinished. In relation to discussions of faith, we hear people say, ‘Give me proof!’ Or in the words of Woody Allen, ‘If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.’

To be racked by doubts, to be stuck with doubts that don’t shift is of no help. Such doubts paralyse, the journey of faith stops, spiritually we stagnant. It’s usually those who are demanding proof, money in the Swiss account, whose journey is halted…for years or for the rest of their lives.

But I have learnt that doubt if owned, grappled with, turned into prayer, and handed back to God, is a friend on the way, not an enemy. When I am stuck without the answers I want, when suffering comes, as it inevitably does in life, that is the time to humbly accept my lack of knowing before God.

I find the story of Thomas’ doubt warming and reassuring rather than condemnatory. Jesus knows and responds to Thomas’ doubt, Thomas is not left in the dark, not in doubt for ever, nor is he condemned. Thomas is honest and open about his doubts, he waits within the fellowship of those first Christians, and it is Jesus who reaches out to Thomas.

When we doubt, our Christian fellowship is the place for it to be shared and held. It can be a healthy part of faith rather than something to be ashamed of. I would like you to know that I continue to have doubts and questions, but they have become companions along the road. God has become more and more mysterious to me and yet faith seems to have become the richer for it. Wait on God, own before God and hand to God your doubts. ‘Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.’

It seems that Prince Philip had a period of mid-life where doubt was the louder voice than that of faith rather than being the twin brother, and that there was in later life a reawakening or deepening of faith for him. His friendship with the then Dean of Windsor, Robin Wood, seems to have been significant in that. Prince Philip and the Dean became lifelong friends and together founded St George’s House at Windsor as a centre for the exploration of faith. Prince Philip has spoken of St George’s Centre as being one of the achievements of which he is most proud. St George’s House has broadened its scope and today, thrives on debate, discussion and dialogue as a way of nurturing wisdom and faith which can be put to use in the wider world….I think Thomas and his fellow disciples would approve.

Ok, coming in to land. On seeing Jesus in person, Thomas responds, ‘My Lord and my God’. Thomas has the wonderful, life transforming experience of seeing Jesus again face to face. But what of you and me here today? Jesus says this to you and me, verse 29, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.’ Blessed are each of you, because by God’s grace and your openness and courage, you have come to believe and give your life to the one who you have not seen face to face. Blessed are each of you.

Having owned before God all my questions and doubts, I still say in faith and unashamedly with you and with Prince Philip and HM the Queen, Alleluia, Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!