St Thomas the Apostle - a reflection on ministry | Salisbury Cathedral

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St Thomas the Apostle - a reflection on ministry

Posted By : Tom Clammer Friday 3rd July 2015
A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
Friday 3 July 2015

Do you ever feel like you are an imposter in the church, you know like you are not a proper Christian and that sooner or later someone's going to notice that you aren't a proper believer like they are. You don't pray properly, or hard enough, or often enough. You don't read the bible enough, and you certainly don't believe properly. You don't understand all this doctrine, but even worse, you don't feel it all the time, down in your gut, and just occasionally you're pretty sure that the whole thing is bunk?

Well so do I. I feel like that fairly often. I reckon there's a lot of us. We should form a club. Actually thinking about it we have done better than a club. We have the family of God. We have the church.

And to give us encouragement in this journey of gently doubting and optimistically believing, we have St Thomas, disciple, apostle, famed for his doubting and great in his believing. No one knows where Thomas was when the other disciples on that first Easter evening, met with the risen Lord. Was he out shopping? Was he late? Had he forgotten? Was he so mired in depression and grief after the death of his master that he simply couldn't face it? Who knows? But he wasn't there. He missed the ‘big reveal’. And with a mixture of desperate hope and worldly cynicism he wants proof. And you know, of course, that although Thomas demands to put his hands into the wounds of Christ, when he is actually presented with Jesus, when he comes face to face with his master and his King, he suddenly  finds that that requirement of proof falls away, and he knows exactly who this man is, standing before him in Resurrection glory, and he falls to his knees with the deepest and most profound confession of faith we have evidence of in all the Gospels: my Lord, and my God. Peter manages, “you are the Messiah”; the Centurion offers “surely this man was the Son of God,”, but Thomas reaches deeper into the mystery when he says, “My lord, and my God.”

We have seen twenty three people ordained as deacon or as priest in this cathedral over the past week or so, and many of us gathered here will be present at the ordination of a bishop in a couple of weeks’ time. Ordination services, and the Feast of St Thomas, are useful foils to the heresy that Christian ministry brings with it glory or honour, or that Christ's disciples and servants are supposed to be efficient and effective people of stature and status. They are not. We are not. You are not. We are supposed to be people who react when faith is gifted to us. Remember that wonderful line in the baptism service, “faith is the gift of God to his people.” Looking for poise and rigorous management skills, or even impressive oratorical skills in Christian ministers is to miss the point. Those things are very fine and praise God some of our deacons, priests and bishops, and a good many of the members of the most important order of ministry, the laity, have them, but they are not what God seeks in us. God seeks in us the kernel of faith. The hope, as St Thomas had, that the disciples are not deluded or lying or cruel when they tell us that our master is risen. The thinnest slice of yearning for a better world. A world of grace and love and hope, a world in which the broken and disabled hands of a crucified criminal grasp and welcome and bless, and where everything is possible. The willingness to walk back into the room a week later just because it is possible that our God will come to call.

Ministry is not grand. Being a Christian, a disciple, is not grand. The finest line, to my mind, in the ordination of deacons is this one: you are to reach ‘into the forgotten corners of the world that the love of God may be made visible’. That is what ministry is about. Reaching into the carnage of a Tunisian beach, or a Syrian village, or a Greek economy, or the darkness and loneliness of sickness, depression, unemployment and broken relationships on our own doorstep. Reaching into the places and towards the people who fear that God is not for them, that forgiveness is not for them, that grace is too far away to reach. To my mind the finest line in the ordination of a bishop is this: you are to “seek out those who are lost and lead them home.” The finest line in the ordination of a priest is this: “with all God’s people you are to tell the story of God’s love”. Isn't that wonderful. What a job description that is, not just for priests or bishops, but for deacons and lay Christians too. “With all God’s people you are to tell the story of God’s love”. It is as simple and as complicated as that. Or in the words of Bishop Michael Perham, to introduce them to “the God they hardly knew they were searching for”.

He said those words to me and I think nine other nervous ordinands ten years ago yesterday, in the chapel of what was then the Diocese of Gloucester’s retreat house – now sadly no more - on the day before he ordained us deacon, on the Feast of St Thomas the believer, a decade ago today. I don't suppose I am much holier now than I was then. I am certainly still as contrary and unreliable as I was then. I certainly doubt more now than even I did then. I hope, I think, that perhaps, like St Thomas, I am as willing now to dare to believe that God is going to show up, to leave the door of faith open enough to at least turn up to see if he does. And to believe also that when he does turn up, all the doubting and wrestling and just bad tempered unwillingness to play the game have the capacity to dissolve away in the face of the Risen One. In other words it is not so much in how often or how heavily we fall down, but in how we rise again, that God is revealed, and that in that encounter in the space between doubt and faith, that we are graced with the capacity to, in the words traditionally devolved to the deacon in the Eucharist, Go in the peace of Christ.

And of course just like St Mary Magdalene, another excellent ordination Saint whose Feast we keep in just a couple of weeks, St Thomas is in every sense an Easter Saint. The Gospel of Thomas' encounter with the risen Lord is set to be read on Easter evening every year, as a reminder that we are in fine company when we recognise ourselves as doubting disciples, and that the church has always linked doubt and the empty tomb liturgically, presumably because we have just enough faith to know that God is entirely able to cope with that kind of mystery, and that it is in the space between our doubt and the stone rolled aside that faith begins.