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Sunday Service, 19th April 2020

Opening prayer

Father, you are closer to us than the air we breathe. And yet, Almighty God, you are beyond the range of the most powerful radio or telescope.

Father, your touch is as gentle as a feather. And yet, Almighty God, your power brought the world into being.

Father, we know you as a loving parent. And yet, Almighty God, we can never know you fully or understand your ways. Your knowledge is infinite. Our minds are limited.

Near us and yet beyond us. Father and Almighty God. Help us to worship you.

Lord, your love for us brings a smile to our faces, as we share the joy of being alive.

Lord, your love for us brings wonder into our hearts, as we see the beauty of your creation.

Lord, your love for us brings tears to our eyes, as we remember the pain you carry for humanity.

Lord, your love for us makes us shout aloud, as we simply cannot remain silent.

Lord, on the other hand, your love for us creates a stillness within, as no words can fully express our feelings for you.

Merciful God, we confess that we find it difficult to live our lives as we know we should. We are full of good intentions but we are so easily swayed from doing and saying what we know we should. We are distracted by busyness and self-interest and handicapped by a lack of confidence and an insensitivity to others.

Help us to turn our minds away from ourselves and our own inadequacies and focus on you and on your forgiving and accepting love, for only you have the power to change us, to make us holy. Forgive us, cleanse us, renew us we pray, as we remind ourselves of the words that Jesus taught his disciples to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory. For ever. Amen

Donald Hilton, adapted from Seasons and Celebrations

Suggested Hymn – Great is thy faithfulness. Listen here.

Reading

John 20: 24–29 (NRSV)

But Thomas (who was called “the Twin”), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “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 have come to believe.”

Sermon

I find Thomas, and his reaction to the testimony of his fellow disciples post-resurrection, fascinating. History and tradition, I believe, have dealt unkindly with the man – forever and a day he will simply be known as doubting Thomas. Labelling at its worst!

Nothing is mentioned of Thomas in the synoptic Gospels, apart from his name being listed with the other disciples. It is in John’s Gospel that he becomes a clearly defined and vivid character. He becomes an individual and we are allowed to see more of him.

It is here in the fourth Gospel that he comes across as a man of courage. He takes centre stage for a moment in the Lazarus narrative. News had come through to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. But for two days Jesus made no move. Why was that? Bethany, the home of Lazarus, was close to Jerusalem and, by this stage in Jesus ministry, the Jewish authorities were out to silence him. To go anywhere near Jerusalem must have seemed suicidal, an act of recklessness. Add to that the fact that further news eventually filtered through that Lazarus had died. Then add a sense of futility to the feeling of recklessness which filled the mind of the disciples when Jesus intimated his belated intention to go to Bethany. They came close to abandoning him. They thought he was mad. Enter centre stage – Thomas. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

The future might well have been fraught with danger and uncertainty but Thomas exhibits a steely determination. He would be faithful, and if necessary he would be faithful unto death. His response may seem uncharacteristic for someone who is usually portrayed as the prototype pessimist. But then, history may have done the man a disservice. The true Thomas is a man of courage.

I am sure that we have found that it takes courage to take a stand when we find that the tidal wave of opinion is against us.

I sometimes wish that a sequel to the Gospels had been produced. A book that charts the history of folks like Zacchaeus and the demoniac at Gerasa after their encounters with the Lord. A book that reports on whether or not the rich young ruler had second thoughts about his commitment to the cause. A book that tells us how the other disciples reacted to Thomas’s courageous intervention.

His next appearance within the drama sees his inquisitive mind at work in the Upper Room. Here we find Jesus attempting to prepare the dull minds of his disciples for the events of coming hours and for the roles they would have to play in the establishment of the church in coming years. “When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.” Enter Thomas asking for clarification: “Lord we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus then spoke some of his most powerful words – words that have stood the test of time and still ring out for us today, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” We owe a debt to Thomas’s inquisitive mind which thought to ask the question.

A wee aside. As a preacher I feel that it is good to be held to account, to be questioned. I well remember a Sunday some four years ago. I had been preaching on the two travellers walking the Emmaus road and had referred to them as two men. I was challenged after the service by Ann Inglis (your interim moderator). She reminded me that the text simply refers to two travellers and it was more likely to have been a couple – Cleopas and his wife, especially as they invited Jesus into their home for a meal at the end of their journey.

Paul Mitchell mentioned to me that the home group in church have been using my sermons as a basis for discussion as they have Zoomed together recently. How I would love to get feedback, especially on matters where they have disagreed with me.

Interruptions, questions, positive criticism are healthy reminders that we are accountable. I am sure that Jesus appreciated the interruption made by Thomas.

Our reading today sees Thomas once again centre stage. It would seem that his response to the events of Good Friday was to seek solitude. He certainly wasn’t with the other disciples to witness the presence of the risen Christ on the Sunday morning. Despite the testimony of his colleagues, Thomas had to have first-hand evidence. He said: “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

That response has resulted in condemnation being showered on him over the years, from some of the “faithful”. Justified? Certainly not, in my eyes. I like to think that the Lord doesn’t condemn any of us for exercising an inquisitive mind, for seeking the truth for ourselves, for questioning the “truth” presented by others as non-negotiable.

It has been said that a week is a long time in politics. Nothing is disclosed as to how Thomas spent seven days following the resurrection. We can well imagine that each day seemed to be like an eternity for him. What we are told is that “a week later the disciples were together again and Thomas was with them. Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you’”.

Jesus then turns the spotlight on Thomas and responds directly to his earlier statement: “Put your fingers here, and look at my hands; and then stretch out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting and believe.”

The questioning over, the battle won, Thomas presents us with one of the great confessions of the church, MY LORD AND MY GOD.

Thomas, I feel, was a fortunate man. He said that he wouldn’t believe unless he saw for himself… Jesus met those demands. Thomas was immediately restored to his place among the disciples.

If only it was as easy for us in our seasons of questioning, on the occasions when doubts cloud our minds. Yes, there are times when the Lord meets us and answers some of our questions, for example through the Scriptures, or in the solitude of our own quiet time or even in our discussions with others. But there are other occasions when it would seem that our questions go unanswered and we continue to struggle with them. I have come to the conclusion that some of my questions will probably never be answered this side of heaven. But I can live with that.

The Lord doesn’t condemn us for having bouts of uncertainty, especially in these days of anxiety and fear for the future. But he does encourage us to go on questioning, to work things out for ourselves. The answers may be slow in coming, if at all. What he does promise is his presence with us in the midst of all that is happening around us.

The final act provides us with a further glimpse of Thomas alongside six of the other disciples participating in that very special breakfast, hosted by Jesus on the shore of Lake Galilee. Like Peter, Thomas found restoration, a door that was open, arms that were outstretched and welcoming.

May I suggest that we take the words of Edith Sinclair Downing’s hymn, ‘How often we, like Thomas’, as our prayer.

How often we, like Thomas, need proof before we trust.
Lord Jesus, friend of doubters, come speak your truth to us.
We long to feel your presence, and gain new faith from you,
to find, without our seeing, the blessing Thomas knew.

You always stand among us, no doors can lock you out.
Your presence reassures us though we still live with doubt.
As present day disciples, whose lives by sin are flawed
we want to come believing and cry “My Lord, my God”. 

If you will permit me – a wee PS

The first sermon I preached at Wardie concerned Jeremiah’s experience as he visited the potter’s workshop and how the potter discarded his first imperfect vessel. I can identify with the potter this week. My sermon is not the first edition. Whether the second is any better I know not. As far as the first is concerned – it has already been deleted!

Rev. Bob Gemmell

Suggested Hymn – Your hand O God has guided. Listen here.

Intercessory Prayer

Lord, we offer our prayers for those whom we trust will be fed by Your goodness: who will be nourished by Your presence.

We pray for those who know the harshness of this current pandemic. We pray for those who are of poor health. We pray for those known to us, where poor health prevents full living; where pain is a daily reality; where frailty causes bodies to falter. Lord, give healing, give comfort, give perseverance.

We pray for those who mourn: those who mourn lives that have been lost; long lives well lived, which have come to an end; and lives which had still much promise and feel to us to have ended far, far too soon. We trust each life to You, saving God, and for those who mourn, who know loss; give comfort, give reassurance, give Your gentle presence in the lives of us still living.

We pray for all people around the world living in fear of violence: acts of war and destruction committed in the midst of peaceful civilian lives. Let these not be overlooked as the world focuses its attentions elsewhere. Lord, bring justice, bring peace.

We pray for all those trusted with leading and guiding at this time. We automatically think of our Governments at various levels but there are people leading Foodbanks, Care Homes, Shelters and other charitable organisations that are doing so much for people at this time. Lord, bless them with strength and fortitude.

We pray for all those growing: for young people who so often are at the heart of a story of faith that we can overlook. We trust them to Your nurturing, and we pray that all those involved in the lives of young people and children will empower them to flourish today and tomorrow.

God, our rock and strength, still our storms, soothe our troubled minds, turn the energy spent in doubt and dismay to works of compassion, grace and love, so that, one day, we may share the peace of Christ for all, with all, forever. Amen

With thanks to Andrew Kimmitt, Probationer Minister at Kinnoull Parish Church

Blessing