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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Thomas our Twin

Thomas – not Becket but Doubting, you understand. Only St. John has much to say about Thomas.  The first time he’s mentioned, it’s when Jesus tells the disciples he is going to Judaea.  They don’t believe him: after all, isn’t it in Judaea that they want to stone him to death?  Thomas speaks for them all when he says: ‘let us also go, that we may die with him’.  You can hear the resignation in his voice, the philosophical acceptance that what must be must be.  But you can also hear his bravery, his dogged loyalty that says, as Ruth said to Naomi, ‘Where you go I will go, where you die I will die.  May the Lord do thus and so to me if even death parts me from you!’  That fits with the next episode, where Jesus is in the upper room telling the disciples he must go away.  It’s Thomas who asks candidly, if in a somewhat panicky way, what the others are too afraid to utter: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?’ 

The last occasion and the best known is the story we heard this morning.  Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus appeared to the eleven on the first Easter Day.  Stubbornly, for it is his way, he insists on the evidence of his senses before he will believe in the resurrection.  When Jesus shows him his hands and side, Thomas rises to the occasion magnificently. It’s the supreme confession of faith in the entire gospel. ‘My Lord and my God!’ Only Mary Magdalen embraces Jesus as ardently when she clings on to him in the garden and he calls her by her name.  For St John, Thomas is so significant because it’s this doubter who is the first to recognise explicitly what John has been telling us since the very first words of the gospel: that in Jesus, the Word of the Father himself has come down to us and we have seen his glory, ‘full of grace and truth’. St John puts it this way in his tender letter that we also heard today: ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have touched with our hands concerning the word of life – we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.’ This is Thomas’s Easter.

There is, however, one question left open by the gospels.  ‘Thomas’ or Didymus means ‘the twin’.  But whose twin is he?  Who is the other brother or sister?  In some versions of the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, it’s startling to find him as the twin brother of Jesus himself, though most of them call him one of Jesus’s slaves.  But if we discount that, it’s a tantalising question without an answer. We’d love to know, but no-one does.  It’s no use speculating.

So why ask then?  Maybe there’s a different kind of answer we can give.  If Thomas is nobody’s twin, perhaps Thomas is everyone’s twin.  I mean that there is in him something we all have in common as Christians, something in the bloodstream, so to speak, of all of us who follow Jesus.  His weaknesses are familiar to us, for they are ours too: the tired sigh that says ‘so what - who cares?’, the stubbornness that ignores danger, the lack of insight that can’t see what stares us in the eyes.  We know all too well the worries and anxieties that haunt our path: ‘fightings without and fears within’.  They may not be likeable qualities, but they are human ones.  In that respect, Thomas is our twin, our flesh and blood. We recognise him only too well: no use pretending otherwise. Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère! says Voltaire, taunting his readers to be honest about themselves.

But recognise Thomas’s strengths too.  Strength and weakness belong together: our weaknesses are usually the shadow side of our strengths.  What are his strengths?  His courage, his loyalty, his reliability, his persistence, his willingness to go anywhere with Jesus; above all, his ability to summon up faith out of despair.  Against all the odds of temperament and history and circumstance, he of all the disciples makes that great confession of faith when he realises that the person in front of him is none other than the risen Lord, his Lord. Not Peter who went inside the tomb first, not John who saw and believed, but the careful, cautious, evidence-led, risk-averse Thomas. 

What I see in Thomas is a man much more like me than either the heroic Peter, the devoted John or the passionate Mary.  I wish I were a Peter, a John or a Mary, but I am really a Thomas: preferring to live in Lent rather than Easter, more at home with the cross than the resurrection.  And yet in Thomas, the transformation of reluctant foot-dragging obedience into radiant joy is complete.  So if it can happen to him, it can happen to me, to you, to any of us – can’t it? Shouldn’t it?  I hope we can see the signs of that transformation in us, in one another, and give thanks for the work of God within us.  I hope we’re finding our faith taking wings this Easter.  I hope there’s not just duty in our worshipping God and following Jesus, but much joy. I hope we are open in new ways to God’s capacity to surprise us. Whenever encounters light up our lives on our Easter journey, in whatever ways we see Jesus ‘Eastering’ in our own experience, wherever we ‘greet him the days we meet him and bless when we understand’, it makes us his twin.  We should be thankful.

Perhaps with St John, we are meant to read back from that Easter confession of faith new layers of meaning in those earlier utterances of his.  Take away the world-weariness and they are filled with hope and trust.  ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’ – Yes, dust we are and to dust we shall return; nevertheless let us turn away from sin and follow Christ, we who bear the name of Christian, faithful unto death, so that we may be raised with him and receive the crown of life.  And to imagine Thomas with the disciples in the upper room, this time after the resurrection, asking the question of the upper room, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?’  Isn’t this to hope against hope that the risen Jesus will reveal himself as the true and living way?  Isn’t it to look for him to go before us as God went before Abraham who did not know where he was being led on the long, risky journey of faith, trusting only that if he followed loyally, the path would rise upwards and lead to the fulfilment of long-promised blessing? 

It all looks different from across the chasm of death and burial.  It becomes possible to begin to live out of faith rather than fear, trust rather than despair, freedom rather than enslavement.  Doubt and faith will always walk hand in hand this side of the grave.  But at the portal of the empty tomb stands the Architect of the new heaven and the new earth, the Man whom another woman of faith in John’s Gospel called the Resurrection and the Life.  He invites us this Easter time not to be afraid but to have courage, place our hands in his side, and let him be the wounded healer that touches our brokenness and pain and makes us whole again. 

So my wish and my prayer for us all on this first day of the week, this reprise of Easter Day, is simply that we should be risen with him, and he in us; that the day may break upon us and the shadows flee away; that the bud of resurrection may unfold and flower within us; that the light and truth of God may be poured out upon us, and upon our world and all its injustices and pain; that so many who are without freedom or hope may live again. I long for our joy in the risen Lord to last for ever; and that we should walk together in hope until it is time to rest, and travelling days are done.

Durham Cathedral, 12 April 2015, Easter 2.
1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20: 19-end



  1. The cathedral website is still shewing the wrong address under Thomas our Twin. It should be this Mighty Word posted under that title. I know, as I was in the cathedral on Low Sunday to hear the actual delivery.

  2. Now put right. Alas, preached too late to be included in my forthcoming book of sermons.