Doubting Thomas! Poor old Thomas, he has never managed to live down his not being there that evening of first day of the week in the house in Jerusalem when Jesus appeared to the other ten disciples, or his demand , when they told him their experience, to see for himself. And Thomas seemingly was remembered not only for being a doubter, but for being late for events. In an apocryphal text which tells of the death and assumption of Mary the mother of Our Lord it is recounted that the apostles were miraculously gathered together, but Thomas was late and he arrived at the Mount of Olives only as Mary was ascending. (He was late, he said, because he was saying mass in India). Mary threw down to him the girdle she was wearing. The other disciples remind him of his previous unbelief, and only when Thomas shows them the girdle is he reconciled to them. It is a curious tale, but one which influenced later medieval artists – I know of several examples in medieval stained glass of Thomas receiving the girdle coming down from the ascending Mary.
Having a reputation for doubting and for being late – that’s quite a double handicap! Despite all that I find Thomas a character I can empathise with. Despite being a priest I have never found faith easy – I suppose I am by nature one of the world’s sceptics. Present me with an argument and I will immediately try to find holes in it. You might imagine that having received a training in theology that would naturally strengthen and buttress my faith – but knowledge is always a two-edged sword. Theology can demonstrate why it is credible to believe – but it also gives you the tools to question that very credibility itself! I have never found it easy to believe – at times I have hung on by my finger nails – but I have never lost my faith. I have never lost it, but I have come to see it differently as I have got older. What seemed a matter of life and death when I was much younger, in my evangelical days, now seems relatively unimportant. I suppose I have come to believe more and more about less and less – and I know from conversations with other priests that I am not alone in this.
Absolutely central for me is the love of God. I find it inconceivable how some Christians can believe in an angry God whose wrath could only be appeased by the death of his Son. And yet in the office book I use daily, the hymn for Easter Sunday had the following lines:
That guiltless Son, who bought your peace, alleluia,
And made his Father’s anger cease, alleluia
I almost feel that the use of ‘alleluia’ there is blasphemous! That is not the Christian God as I understand him, but a monster! Jesus did not die to appease the Father’s anger but to demonstrate that there are no lengths to which God will not go in order to win our love and show us his forgiveness. Even when people and events turned against his overtures of love in Holy Week, Jesus remained steadfast to his task of showing God’s love – even to death, death on a cross. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.
And it has become increasingly evident to me that it was not so much I who was clinging on by the finger nails in my darkest days, as God grasping me by them and holding me. Father Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest and theologian, once told of an experience which I find helpful here. He was a fan of a group of German trapeze artists called the Flying Rodleighs. He eventually befriended them and they even let him practice with them on the trapeze. Once, Nouwen asked the leader of the troop about flying through the air. He said, "As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air...I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me...The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms that his catcher will be there for him."
I believe that the God of love, my catcher, was, and always will be, there to catch me. That doesn’t make faith any the less difficult, but it does give me the confidence that even in my darkest days God is there to catch me and hold me. And the Jesus who breathed new life through the Spirit into those disciples on that first Easter Day will through the same Spirit empower me – and through my feeble testimony to the Lord I have never seen but who is nevertheless in some mysterious way at the centre of my life and faith, will bring others to come to faith in him as well. I may not witness with the roaring certainties I imagined as a young man – but then I remember the words of my first Vicar to me in a moment of tremendous honesty about his sermons – ‘you can tell when I am least certain about something, because I speak much louder then!’ May even my whispers about the faith speak of that God of love and draw others to him. ‘Late have I loved thee’, wrote Augustine – late but not too late. Like Augustine, like Thomas, my journey to faith has been a chequered one. Like Augustine I feel I want sometimes to say ‘late have I loved thee’ – and inadequately too. Late, but not too late, because I believe I am always held and upheld by the love of God, a God who will never let me, never let any of us, go!