I am grateful to Canon Alan Amos, retired priest with PTO in the Diocese in Europe, for offering us this reflection on John 20.19-31, the lectionary Gospel for this Sunday.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
The picture above is titled ‘The Incredulity of Sant Thomas’. It is a well-known early Renaissance painting to be found in Siena by Duccio di Buoninsegna, who created an altarpiece for the Cathedral in Siena composed of many individual paintings, which were commissioned by the city authorities in 1308.
It is said that the artist moved away from the influence of traditional Byzantine art towards a more ‘realistic’ form of representation. But realism has its limits, as we shall see. In some ways the Byzantine tradition concerning St. Thomas was carried forward, as he is shown as a beardless young man, possibly the youngest of the apostles. Perhaps his youth was used to excuse his blunt scepticism when told of the appearance of Christ to the other apostles; perhaps also, if he was the youngest, he had been given a duty that took him away from the immediate assembly at that first Easter day: perhaps he was guarding the door.
However, it is easy for representational art to lead us astray. Let me explain. This takes me back to around 1974, when I was a priest working in ecumenical education in Beirut.
I well remember a chance meeting in the street with Father Anoushavan, an Armenian Orthodox priest who was a friend. For some reason we got talking about Saint Thomas the Apostle, and I referred to the way that Thomas placed his hand into the side of Jesus at his appearance in the upper room; Father Anoushavan was shocked: ‘No, no!’ he said, ‘Thomas would never have done such a thing! Look at the words of the Gospel.’ And so I did.
And far from my recollection from Sunday School days of the telling of this story, if we look at the Gospel text carefully, we see that it is actually Jesus’ knowledge – through and through – of Thomas and the words that Thomas had previously uttered which completely convinced Thomas and brought him to say ‘My Lord and My God.’ The invitation of Jesus to touch his wounds was a loving challenge to Thomas filled with more than a touch of irony, which was surely felt by Thomas as a reproof of his lack of faith; and rather than carrying out his crass ‘promise’ boastfully given to his fellows the previous week, he now makes his confession of faith as an immediate response, as he hears his own earlier faithless words now coming from the mouth of Jesus. And so he makes the fullest confession of faith that we find in the New Testament. Jesus then goes on to say ‘Thomas because you have seen me, you have believed‘ (no mention of ‘touch‘ here!) and continues ‘blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.‘
This shows the way in which, though art can often be helpful, it can also mislead. So much easier for an artist to show Thomas reaching into Christ’s wounds, than to capture Thomas at the moment of great surprise and of ‘conversion‘ as he hears his own words coming now from the mouth of Christ!
We have seen earlier in John’s Gospel how it is Christ’s knowledge of a person ‘through and through ‘ that brings that person to faith. Nathaniel doubted that any good thing could come out of Nazareth. But then he meets Jesus, who knows Nathaniel for who he really is ‘an Israelite without guile.‘ And then receives from Nathaniel the affirmation ‘you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel! ‘
And that makes us pause for thought and think of the knowledge that Christ the eternal Word of God has of you and of me. We are known ‘inside out.‘ We do not have to explain ourselves when we turn in prayer to God. We are known and loved for who we are. Is that so very strange when we acknowledge that we are God’s creatures, called now to partake in a new creation?
In church tradition, Thomas is linked to mission to Sri Lanka and India, and greatly revered in South India as the one who brought true faith in Christ. Perhaps, we might say, only one who truly knows how to doubt, truly knows how to believe, and to bring others to faith.
We live in a Europe which is riven with doubt and scepticism as well as downright unbelief. The observed role of religion in the conflicts of our world hardly encourages faith among those who can think outside the limits of their own cultures. We are not going to call people to faith by shouting more loudly about the Gospel. We might have more success by living it; if people can see in us something of the humility, wisdom and discernment of Christ, in which doubts are faced honestly, and if we are not strangers to self-criticism and self-examination. We cannot call the sceptic to faith unless we are familiar ourselves with the ready temptations to scepticism which come to all thoughtful believers. We tread the path of faith together ‘nonetheless.‘ The love of Christ constrains us.
A few weeks ago I remembered a great scientist whose life spanned the connection between Geneva and Britain. His name – Robert Boyle – came to mind when I met his namesake, who may be a distant relative, when I was taking his mother’s funeral in Geneva. You can probably remember ‘Boyle’s Law‘ from schooldays: this shows how the pressure of a gas will increase as the volume of the container decreases. What I did not know about Robert Boyle until very recently was that he held together faith and doubt in his life and in his writing. It is said that he wrote as much about the nature of God as of the nature of air.
Robert Boyle (1627 -1691) came from a distinguished Anglo-Irish family, who sent him as an adolescent to an ‘exemplary Protestant family‘ in Geneva to pursue his studies for five years. While he was with them, he experienced a religious conversion. At first his faith was formed within Calvinism, but when back in England, he moved on to a broader Anglican perspective. This was partly through conversation with friends, among whom was Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury. And enquiry in matters of religion became as important to Boyle as enquiry in matters of science.
He wrote that ‘the Perplexity his doubts created oblig’d him to remove them to be seriously inquisitive of the Truth of the very fundamentals of Christianity‘ And he said that although ‘we cannot often give a Reason for what we believe, we should be ever able to give a Reason why we believe it.’ And he stated that ‘there is nothing worse taken up upon Trust than Religion.‘ And so this eminent scientist applied to his own faith the gift of an enquiring mind.
If you wish to read more about this fascinating man, and his journey of faith, you can follow this link : Doubt Can Aid Faith : Proslogion (drwile.com)
I conclude this blog with another word from Boyle: ‘He whose Faith never Doubted, may justly doubt of his Faith’.