Here is the text of a homily I gave at the 10.15am Eucharist today at Bradford Cathedral as part of my placement there. The gospel reading on which it is based is John 20:24-29.
‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you’ writes James in his letter (4:8). I think Thomas, as he is depicted in John’s gospel embodies this verse: ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you’. Today is St Thomas’ feast day in the church. We really get to know Thomas in St John’s gospel – he has a more central role in John’s gospel than in the others. Perhaps he and John were great friends? What I do know from my study of John’s gospel this year at college is that John constructed his gospel very carefully, it’s full of sign and symbol, and Thomas appears at some key points in the gospel. This is a clue that he is a person that we should pay attention to – so what better day to do that than his feast day today?
Thomas has three significant moments recorded in John’s gospel and I’d like to look at these to see what we can learn from him about following Jesus.
Firstly, among the disciples, Thomas is a leader and an encourager. He speaks up. In John chapter 11 Jesus sets his sights on returning to Jerusalem – which is where the Jews have already tried to stone him. The disciples are understandably not keen on returning. Thomas says to his fellow disciples ‘let us go’. He discerns the right way to go, even though everyone else isn’t sure, Thomas encourages his friends to follow Jesus. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to speak up like that – particularly amongst Christian friends and family – brave enough to encourage them to follow Jesus? Is this something you could do? Are there people you know that you need to encourage and lead towards Jesus?
Secondly, Thomas pipes up again at a crucial moment in John chapter 14. Part of me wonders whether Thomas was a Yorkshireman – he has that directness about him! Jesus is being cryptic with the disciples – as he often is – and says to them ‘if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ You can almost see the disciples’ blank faces! Only Thomas is brave enough to say ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ – and this elicits that most famous of responses ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. Thomas, you see, has an enquiring mind. He’s eager to know more of God, he wants to know why and how. I think that none of us can come to a deep faith without asking questions, difficult questions. If we don’t ask questions, I don’t think we can grow. The word disciple means learner – let’s not ever think we’ve finally made it, that we know it all: we must keep that enquiring mind to grow in our faith.
Finally, Thomas is centre stage in one of the resurrection accounts of John’s gospel. Here, we see both Thomas’ outspokenness and his inquiring mind, but there is another quality that we can also aspire to. I think it is significant that Thomas was known by his friends as Twin. Imagine being called Twin all your life – not being known by your real name but just called a lazy generic name like Twin. Thomas must have felt a bit anonymous, a bit of a nobody. Perhaps that’s why he was so outspoken – he needed to make his voice heard more than others. What we can discern from this gospel reading is that Thomas had a real hunger for a personal encounter with Jesus, perhaps to be noticed by Jesus. Just hearing about him was not enough for Thomas, he had to touch him and know for himself that he really was alive. Jesus is so gentle with Thomas when he appears to the disciples again. He doesn’t make Thomas ask to touch him, he offers his hands and side to him straight away – knowing exactly what he needed. There is no condemnation, just invitation. Thomas responds by saying the words that have been described as the climax of John’s gospel ‘my Lord and my God!’ Thomas, then, is the first disciple to declare the divinity of Christ.
Thomas is a pattern for all of us believers, he encourages others to follow Jesus, he speaks out and keeps asking the important questions and he simply longs for Jesus’ tangible presence in his life.
I can see that this is what you all do here, faithfully as members of this congregation, by coming each week to communion you are looking for that presence of God in your life and you know that you can encounter Jesus each week in the bread and the wine, a tangible reminder that Jesus is alive, that he is real, that he is our Lord and our God.
Thomas finds that as he draws near to God, through asking the difficult questions and longing to be near Jesus, longing for that personal encounter, where he is Thomas, and not just the Twin, that God, in Jesus, draws near to him with open arms, bearing the scars of his sacrifice. ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you’. Jesus is here, in this place, holding out his hands to you, draw near to him, long for his presence and he will draw near to you.