The text of my sermon preached at St Andrews, Kildwick and St Johns, Cononley on Sunday 11 April 2021.
The readings were Acts 4: 32 – 35 and John 20: 19 – 31
Simon, Andrew,James, John
Philip, Bartholomew (Nathanael)
Matthew (Levi), Thaddeus (Judas)
Judas, Simon, Thomas, James.
THE DISCIPLES – WHAT DO WE MAKE OF THEM?
I get the feeling they were a mixed bunch and not always depicted as good role models in the gospel accounts. For example:
Ran away – when the going got difficult
Fell asleep at crucial moments
Missing the point repeatedly when listening to Jesus
Not understanding what Jesus said
Jewish mother looking for special favours for her sons
Denying they even knew Jesus with oaths
And that is just among the twelve we have names for. Some barely mentioned in the accounts we have – just their names and the briefest of biographical details. Some are totally un-named as we read that 70 or 72 were sent out at one time so that is 58 or 60 totally unknown to us.
Note there are also a number of women, how many we do not know, often called Mary, who followed.
Giving Thomas the soubriquet “doubting Thomas” to my mind seems a little unfair. Judas Iscariot the traitor, Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector also have a tag. Why not denial Peter or sleepy James and Sleepy John? Why has that rather negative tag stuck? Why has poor old Thomas got that epithet?
True he wanted actual proof and in that he resembles modern humanity in that it wants facts, hard evidence.Yet this was the first time Jesus was addressed as God in the recorded events – so is such a negative view of Thomas fair?
It is pointed out, if we take the view that chapter 21 was a later addition, that this is neatly towards the end of John’s account – it certainly reads like a conclusion. The gospel started with an acclamation that the Word – or Christ – was with God at the beginning and here is doubting Thomas at the end being given the words to round off the whole book. Even John when he looked into the tomb, as recorded earlier in this chapter, saw and then believed. Thomas had not had that advantage.
I like to think that this was meant more as encouragement.
So why not Believing Thomas? He needs a makeover.
Messiah – reclaiming the original plan
So the Messiah, the son of God, is turning out, for the disciples, despite their fears, to be Jesus, the very one whom they had lived and listened to over the last two to three years. The source of their spiritual existence and also ours.
Jesus had come from heaven, to reclaim humanity in accordance with the covenant that God wanted to be a right relationship be for us. Julie has spoken about the various covenants prior to Easter and Jesus by being victorious in death helped to accomplish this, then and now.
Now in his resurrection state seemed to be able to move between our world and God’s world – being part of both kingdoms.
Fellowship and living out the covenant
We read that this had a very real practical result in the fellowship of the early church. The apostles, or disciples as I have referred to them already, gave their testimony with great power. A very different bunch from the gospel accounts. Of course they had been emboldened by events at the time of Pentecost and we have not got there yet in our telling the story in our church year!
However there is this notion of having ‘things in common’ and nobody was needy. This was not new – back in the Torah, the Law of Moses, there had been the idea of release from debts and freeing slaves every fiftieth year being a year of Jubilee. You can read about it in Leviticus 25. But through this provision, this law the plan was that nobody would be permanently poor and ancestral lands sold would be returned and slaves set free.
Some have wondered whether the common ownership in the Act 4 passage was an early form of communism – I do not think so: it is thought here was no suggestion that people sold the houses they lived in but rather let go of old family property and used the proceeds for those less fortunate. So, as in many cases, the result of Jesus was a re-establishment of all that was good in the older covenant. Not abolishing the law but fulfilling it. As I understand it the Year for Jubilee was not mentioned thereafter in the Bible and some suggest it was hardly ever practised, if at all. Certainly it was not around in the first century having died out totally when the northern part of the Israelite kingdom was taken into captivity in 740 – 720 BC.
For the Jews sharing their property was a cultural shock and against all that they would have done formerly. They looked upon their ancestral homes as part of their tradition and inheritance so we can see this as very new thing with the idea of fellowship with all, not just your family or tribe. This was renouncing a central Jewish symbol alongside the setting aside of the Temple and the old sacrificial law as necessary qualifications for faith – being prepared to be led by Jesus and the spirit of God.
It would have been counter cultural for them.
Applies to us – all about attitude
We might say that was all very well in the first century – life is very different now, different culture, different problems, much more complex. Very true: but I think from the Acts reading we can pick up the idea of having a right attitude. Being prepared to change.
There are a great many ethical concerns that are important for Christians to engage with – both internationally and within this country and how we relate to the world and the many, for whom, the bible and faith are a mystery and which is shunned by some. Although I am aware of an increasing awareness of spirituality amongst individuals: how it is outworked may not be in the same way as the church has done previously.
Back to Thomas who called Jesus God, the first to do so. He was sceptical at first but he believed. He also got three mentions in John’s gospel which is more than others get such as Thaddeus, for example.
May we all, as we behold Jesus in our bibles, in our reading and listening, in our reflecting on the mystery of his love (as in the hymn ‘The head that once was crowned with thorns’ v5), be blessed because we have believed. May we each echo Thomas and proclaim ‘my lord and my god’ in what we say, what we do and how we live out our faith in love and truth. Amen.