In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many of you I suspect will have played the word association game where somebody says a word to you and you have to respond as quickly as possible with whatever word you associate most closely with it. So, for example if someone said to me the word ‘cat’ I might respond with the word fluffy. Or if someone said the word ‘narrow’ I would probably say ‘boat’. It can be huge fun. It can also be a bit risky, particularly if you’ve taken wine before playing it. It is probably a game best played amongst reasonably close friends.
That game sprang to mind a couple of days ago when I was thinking about the readings for this service, because I have very strong associations with St Thomas. Whenever this feast day comes up I find myself picturing one of two distinct places and situations. The first is Gloucester Cathedral, because the feast of St Thomas the apostle is the anniversary of my ordination. The second is that thinking about St Thomas sends me immediately to India, where Emma and I used to take groups of teenagers during the summer months. St Thomas is of course the Saint most associated with the Indian subcontinent. Traditionally the one who carried the gospel to the Indian people, and still venerated particularly in the region around Kerela in the south-west of India, where he supposedly came ashore after his voyage, and in the area around Chennai, or what used to be Madras, where he supposedly was martyred by being put to death by the spear in 72 A.D. So every St Thomas’s day I visualise the church in Chennai dedicated to St Thomas where Emma and I worshipped.
We reach the end of a week which has been more than usually peppered with conversation about identity. 22 men and women made their ordination vows in this building last weekend, making profound statements about who they believe themselves to be, and whose they believe themselves to be. Anglicans, deacons, priests, selected and authorised leaders of God’s church. Both of the main political parties of our country have been experiencing something of an identity crisis this week. In the case of the Conservatives there is something going on there about who it is who will be the leader of a party: does it need to be a brexiteer or not? In the case of Labour, there’s something even more profound going on about the nature of the relationship between the Parliamentary party and the wider membership. Who is out of touch with whom? Who knows best what sort of leader Labour needs? And the country as a whole I think is starting to wrap its head around what the reality will be for our economy, for our borders, for our sense of identity of leaving the EU. Who are we? Are we a different nation than we were 10 days ago, or not?
And there have been some really distasteful and downright appalling instances reported, of hate crimes on the streets of our own towns and cities. People who seem absolutely confident in saying out loud and in public, in appallingly discourteous and offensive ways who they think does or doesn’t belong in this country. Are these instances to do with the vote to leave the European Union? Would they have happened anyway? Another two terror attacks, this time in Turkey and in Bangladesh.
All of that is bubbling and simmering actually not very far below the surface at all of our consciousness at the moment. And across it cuts the feast of St Thomas the apostle. The story of a man from 2000 years ago who is famous only really for being doubtful.
Well thank goodness for St Paul. And you won’t often hear me say that. The letter to the Ephesians, a very selected few verses of which we heard this morning as our first reading, is a letter all about unity. Paul is writing to a Gentile church, a non-Jewish church, and is reminding them that what belief in Jesus Christ does is redefine the borders around our world. Gentiles are no longer outsiders. The old social conventions between husbands and wives, parents and children, slaves and their owners are redefined. Radically redefined. It’s in this letter that we find some of those wonderful phrases like “do not let the sun go down on your anger”. And in the passage that Emma read to us a few moments ago we heard “so then you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
We’ve heard a lot about aliens, citizens and so on this week. We’ll hear a great deal more in the coming weeks and months. St Paul is quite clear that membership is important, but that the primary community of which we are members is God’s household, and that household approaches gender, power relationships, nationality and family radically differently than the wider society of the time. Read the rest of the letter. It really is rather extraordinary.
It’s interesting that nowhere in the letter does Paul say that Jews are the same as Gentiles, or that husbands and wives are exactly the same as each other, or that parents and children are. Paul is very realistic about the fact that the world is structured in relationships, structures, that there needs to be governance, that there need to be rules in effect and that people are different from one another. What he is however absolutely clear about is that ultimately, citizenship is about the relationship between God and his people. That relationship which defines all the other relationships, the wellspring from which any of us ought to draw the principles for healthy, courteous, mature and responsible conversation about how we do our identity together, is that we are members of the household of God, citizens with the saints, not strangers, not aliens, not outside or other, but that we belong, and the family to which we belong is not one that we create, or whose boundaries we define, but which God defines. God is the only person who gets to decide who is in and who is out.
And so dear St Thomas, my ordination Saint, with whom so many Christians of India associate, and the patron saint of doubters, just belongs to the number of the 12 even though he wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to them. One of those lovely little absences in the Bible is any information about where Thomas was when he should have been in the upper room with the rest of them. Was he stuck in a traffic jam, could he not get his donkey started? Was he out shopping? Was he asleep? It doesn’t seem to matter. And all the evidence, all the rational proofs that Thomas thought he was going to need in order to belong again, simply evaporate away. Jesus offers him the opportunity to test out the wounds with his finger, to have a good old poke away, but Thomas in the end doesn’t need it. He knows his Master. He knows his Lord. He knows his God. Belonging in the end just happens.
And so it is lovely that we are going to finish today, this feast of St Thomas, with baptisms at Evensong. Baptism is the only mark of membership of the household of God. We can layer on all sorts of other bits of identity, and they’re sometimes useful and helpful. We can associate ourselves with St Thomas’s missionary journey to India. We can receive ordination as a deacon or priest. We can navigate our way through our citizenship of this or any other nation and define ourselves more loosely or strongly over against other people, or indeed define ourselves in relation to other people. And is really important that as Christian people living in this very turbulent time, we engage constructively in that, and continue to do it thoughtfully, articulately and generously. We live in the world, we mustn’t run from it or opt out of it, we must engage with it. Saint Paul is very clear about that. But he’s even clearer that it is our identity as members of the household of God that should define, inform and shape our membership of everything else. So next time we play the word association game and someone says ‘citizen’, St Paul, were he sitting around the dining table with us, would be delighted I suspect if we responded with the word “heaven”.