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doctor watson nigel bruceToday is not the feast day of John H, Watson, M.D.  In case you were confused.  But more of that later.  The collect at morning prayer runs thus:

Almighty and eternal God,
who, for the firmer foundation of our faith,
allowed your holy apostle Thomas
to doubt the resurrection of your Son
till word and sight convinced him:
grant to us, who have not seen, that we also may believe
and so confess Christ as our Lord and our God;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Today the Church remembers Thomas the Apostle, though this morning’s reading doesn’t relate the famous story of him doubting Jesus’ presence after the resurrection, and being told to touch the wounds on his body.  Instead, it tells the first part of the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, ending with these lines:

“Then Jesus told them plainly ‘Lazarus is dead.  For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.'” (John 11.16)

It’s a rather more glorious moment for Thomas than the episode which got him nicknamed “Doubting Thomas”, but one which is still resonant with questions of faith and trust.

No, that is not the scene I was talking about, either.

No, that is not the scene I was talking about, either.

The disciples have been warning Jesus not to go back into Judea to visit his desperately ill friend, because of the persecution of the religious authorities (a narrative element which may owe more to the situation of the church after Jesus’ death than to oral memory of the disciples’ lives.) Whilst they were away, Lazarus has died.  Jesus tells them he is glad, for their sake, knowing that he will raise Lazarus from the dead, performing one of the “signs” of God’s kingdom which the Gospel of John is so concerned with.

This is not a trivialising of death, or a glib instrumentalizing of a family’s pain.  After all, in a few verses’ time will come the famously desolate shortest line in the KJV: “Jesus wept.”  Even apparently knowing what will happen, Jesus cries over the death of his friend and the pain of his family.  It’s not for his own sake that he is glad he has a chance to raise Lazarus, but because he (in this version) sees how it will become part of the meaning of his life and ministry for those who see it.

At this moment, Thomas offers himself as a companion to the death which Jesus may suffer if he goes back to Judea.  “we may die with him” is one of those densely symbolic lines which the Gospel of John uses to reflect and echo its themes back and forth through the narratives.  It links Lazarus death, and its potential meaning as a sign of the kingdom, with Jesus’ eventual death, and the power that will have.  It models the spiritual response of disciples throughout history to “die” to their own lives and desires, and to be baptised, a ritual which involves a symbolic descent into death and rising again in the living Christ.  Does it also hint at the reason Thomas later doubts, because of his powerful sense of the need for sacrifice and his courage in facing possible death, that he cannot quite look past it to understand the meaning of the resurrection?

st thomas

Certainly the prayer above picks up on the later story, in which Jesus remarks to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  (Which finds its own echo in the words of 1 Peter, “and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory”)  John’s Gospel is carefully shaped, to challenge and demand a response from the reader; it is a narrative in which characters and events pose subtle questions of the audience.  Here again we find the story “facing towards us”, as we realize we are the people who have heard the story but have not seen the wounds, who are being offered a blessing and a faith.

It also hints at something else in the Lazarus story, though: the idea of doubt and pain for the sake of others.  Thomas is described in the prayer as doubting “for the firmer foundation of *our* faith”, not his own.  That faith is surely both “our Faith” with a capital letter, the Christian Gospel which the churches have taught and preached throughout the centuries, and “our faith”, the personal spiritual lives of the people reading the prayer.  Thomas sometimes gets portrayed as a simple-minded bumbler who cannot understand the difference between the material and the spiritual world (rather like Nicodemus the Pharisee elsewhere in John’s Gospel), a New Testament Doctor Watson to whom the reader can feel comfortably superior.

But living through the loss of the man who had given meaning to his life, and whom he believed would remake the meaning of the world, was not a trivial matter of understanding a Bible verse correctly.  If Thomas did suffer for our faith in his horror and desolation after the crucifixion, he understood something of what Jesus must have felt, crying over the death of his friend, having his life and his pain made into a sign for others.  Perhaps there’s a suggestion here that the proclamation of the Gospel is not always about showing success and joy, but of making meaning in confusion and distress.  (Since this is also the time of the year when many priests and ministers of the Church of England are ordained, I suddenly thought of those whose spiritual lives – including doubt and struggling – are partly undertaken for the sake of others.) The prayer and reading call attention to Thomas as a near-tragic figure who probes our understanding of what the Gospel means, and how we are bound to each other in faith.