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St Thomasí Day, 21.12.07 (876)
Do doubt, but trust God's love, break the Bread of the Lord, and love and serve the neighbour
Fifty years ago on this date I was ordained a priest in Saint Jamesí Cathedral in the Diocese of Chicago on the feast of St Thomas the Apostle and Doubter.
You have heard of Patron Saints such as George, Andrew and David for England, Scotland and Wales. Well, I think Thomas is an appropriate saint for all academics and empirical scientists in particular, for they are all called to be doubters. As a former research engineer and NT scholar I include myself among them. For example, it is the job of all empirical scientists to attempt to falsify any theory that is put forth. That is, they must not sweep under the carpet any inconvenient data that does not fit their pet theory or desired result, and furthermore, they must be diligent in seeking out any and all data that may show that their idea is wrong.
And, in the case of medical science, for example, a promising new drug must be thoroughly researched for any and all adverse effects with as large a sample size as feasible and for a sufficient time scale that will allow unexpected side effects to emerge. Even then, although the new drug may be licensed for general use, further adverse effects (or even beneficial ones, as in the case of aspirin) may not turn up until the drug has had very widespread and lengthy use. We, as the receiving public would not have it any other way: we both want the new drug and we want to be reasonably reassured that it is safe.
And I think that a healthy dollop of doubt is a good thing for pretty much everyone to have.
During these past fifty years of doubting, in the words of someone whom I cannot now recall, I have come to believe more deeply in less and less. I believe deeply that the witness of the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments include all that is necessary to salvation, when one takes the word Ďsalvationí at face value, that is, as concerning true Ďhealthí. These scriptures also contain much that is not necessary to true health, but I wonít go into that now. And the same thing may be said about traditional Christian formulations and doctrines, but again I wonít go there now. Instead of sharing my doubts with you, I would rather emphasize what I have found to be true.
I think it has been the experience of almost all of us that our best moments as human beings have been when we have been most unaware of ourselves, when we have been self-forgetful and other-centred.
Now, what I perceive to be the fundamental witness of the OT, as seen especially in the witness of the prophets, is that we become truly human and humane as individuals and communities only as we rely upon God, not ourselves. That is, when we try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps we ultimately fall flat on our face. And this biblical witness I do deeply believe to be true for me.
And the central witness of the NT is that the basis of that reliance is that God is love as made known above all in the witness of Jesus of Nazareth, who supremely, and I would say uniquely, embodies this life-style in word and deed, including the deed of the cross. So that he is truly the one who is a free human being.
To follow Jesus can be a costly thing. In the year 304 AD a group of 49 Christians from the town of Abitina in North Africa were martyred for their faith because they had defied the Emperor by assembling for the Eucharist. At Carthage the Roman proconsul simply asked one of them to say that he had not been at the Christian assembly, but he replied with these words "As if a Christian could exist without the Eucharist, or the Eucharist be celebrated without a Christian. Donít you know that a Christian is constituted by the Eucharist, and the Eucharist by a Christian? We celebrated our Eucharist right gloriously."
To put it simply, it is the Mass that matters. Here is where we corporately rehearse our story of salvation, and by lifting our hands to receive Holy Communion, we reaffirm our need of the strength of Godís love to fulfil our calling to the service of others. This is why, no matter what happens, come hell or high water, I shall always take part on the Lordís Day with my brothers and sisters in Christ in what St Luke calls the Breaking of the Bread.
It is this understanding that is so well expressed by our remaining two hymns, the one by Bernadette Farrell, a Roman Catholic, and the other by Fred Kaan, a minister of the United Reformed Church.
In short, I am content to rely upon the love of God and to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, my elder brother who has shown me the path of life, the path of love, the path to my neighbour, and I am glad to be in fellowship at the Lordís Table with all others who would do the same. I hope you all will feel free to join me.