Around 1996 we moved to my second posting in Plymouth where I served as a Children & Youth worker in the village of Eggbuckland on the edge of the city.
We served in the medieval church of St Edward and here the Bell Tower was placed at the West end of the Church with the Bell Ringers having to ring the bells from the ground floor.
As a church we all felt that we needed to put a floor in the tower about 15feet from the ground, then the Bell ringers could use the new floor to ring from and releasing the ground floor to become a kitchen.
I won’t bore you with the details of the planning procedure, but after a bit of fundraising we had the floor built.
And we noticed three things, There used to be a minstrel gallery there, that the prudish Victorians pulled down, it was a great place to bring school children so that they could see the floor plan of the Church and thirdly there was a fine stained glass window that had been hidden for many years, of Thomas meeting the risen Jesus.
Now St Edwards is a fine church and nearly every week I was showing classes of all ages of children round and one of the highlights was ascending the tower to the first floor and looking over the Church – though invariably, after a few moments, I would turn around and find all the children staring at the stained glass window of Jesus and Thomas and the question would always be, ‘Why’s that man sticking his finger in the other man stomach?’
Sometimes there is something in the saying, ‘I wont believe it, until I see it’
Signs are important. We need signs to help us decide what to do and where to go. I rely on road signs when I’m trying to find my way in a strange town; I rely on signs to remind me to take care when dealing with something dangerous.
Signs are important. But Thomas has often gets a bad time for saying he needed a sign of who Jesus was. Thomas knew that Jesus was dead there had been plenty of signs to make sure he knew that. So he wasn’t going to believe in the resurrection just on hearsay and rumour. However much he trusted his friends, he still wanted to see for himself. So he tells them. ‘Unless I see I will not believe’. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
It’s easy to criticize Thomas, and to call someone a doubting Thomas has become a way of belittling them. If you’re a doubting Thomas, then you’re someone who won’t believe things even when everyone else around you thinks they are true. You are someone who isn’t willing to trust; who takes a great deal of persuading.
But actually I think there is something to be said for a bit of healthy scepticism.
I say that because I’m a bit of a doubting Thomas myself. There are lots of things that people believe that I refuse to believe.
– Millions of people start every day by reading a horoscope in the newspaper, but I think they are a complete waste of time.
– Many people are convinced that the earth is regularly visited by aliens and flying saucers, but I’m not willing to go along with it.
– And there are many religious ideas I’m not willing to go along with. I certainly don’t believe that all religions are equally true in fact I’m convinced some people believe things that are quite untrue.
And when I was growing up and before I became a Christian I would have said, with Thomas, that I wasn’t going to believe without a sign of some sort. I wasn’t going to believe just because someone else said it was true. If I was going to be a believer, it had to be because I knew it was true for me.
I think we all need signs to help us along the way. And I think the writer of our gospel knew that.
And that’s why, at the end of our reading today, he isn’t afraid to tell us that the reason for writing his gospel is to give us some of the signs we need. He tells us, in verses 30 and 31,
“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’s gospel says: ‘Jesus did many signs and here are some of them. And the reason for telling you about them is so that by reading them and hearing them and considering them, you will find somewhere among them the sign for you the sign that persuades you and convinces you that Jesus is the Messiah; that he is the one sent by God, and so that you will find new life for yourself through him.’
Signs are important. We need signs in our daily life. We need signs to help us distinguish between what is real and what is false. John’s gospel is written to give us some of the signs we need. And in the gospel, we hear about Thomas needing a sign too. So why does Thomas get such a bad time?
Perhaps it’s because people focus too much on the fact that Thomas asks for a sign and contrast that with what Jesus says about people who believe without having seen what Thomas sees. After all, we can’t stand where he stood. We can’t see what he sees. Or at least not in quite the same way that he did.
But I want us to think about Thomas in another way.
Because the gospel doesn’t just tell us that Thomas wanted a sign. It also tells us what he did with it. It tells us that when he saw Jesus – when he saw his hands and his feet and his side, he responded with faith and commitment and love. ‘My Lord and my God’.
Thomas’ sign is given to him and he responds with one of the clearest statements of faith we find anywhere in Scripture.
If we emphasise Thomas’ doubts, then we miss the point of the story. Because the punchline of the story, the real message it contains, is a message about Thomas’s faith in Jesus as the one in whom we see God. At the end of the story, we see Thomas the man of faith. And the blessing Jesus proclaims is a blessing on everyone else who comes to faith who believe as Thomas believes.
So my question to anyone who asks for a sign, is always this: if God were to grant you your sign, what would you do next?
Would you be like Thomas, who saw and believed?
Or would you just insist, and keep on insisting, that what you saw or heard or experienced was coincidence or happy circumstance. Would you move from being someone who didn’t believe, to being someone who had in fact been met by God, but who still didn’t believe?
The question for those who ask for a sign must be: are you serious?
Is this for real?
We all know Professor Richard Dawkins, the Bertrand Russell of our time who I once watched on a tv show. And as I watched, it became clear to me that here was a man who started from the premise that all religion is untrue; that there is no God. And he was so convinced, arrogantly in his sureness, that nothing was going to change his mind. If he had a religious experience, then there must be some non-religious explanation. If he were to sense the presence of God, it must be because something odd was happening in his brain. If there is no God, then there can be no real experience of God, and no sign, however dramatic,…will actually change his mind.
That is not Thomas. Thomas is willing to believe, wants to believe, yearns to believe – that Jesus has risen. He just isn’t ready to let someone be convinced for him. He needs to be convinced for himself.
And I think that’s a good place to be. Because, as John’s gospel tells us, there are lots of signs that Jesus is our Lord and our God. Many that are written in the gospel, and many more that are not.
You may not yet have reached the place that Thomas ends up. You may not yet be able to say with him and with me, that ‘Jesus is Lord’. But if you have reached the place Thomas starts from, if you are willing to believe, but not yet convinced, then do not be afraid to start to look for signs. The signs on the road to faith are there for you and me to see. And if you ask God, with a true heart, he will help you find them.
The question is, what will you do then?
Thomas said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’.