Low Sunday ~ with Iestyn Henson ~ ‘Sequacity’
The Sunday after Easter – so called ‘Low Sunday’ – has been a regular commitment for us lay preachers for a long time, a Sunday on which many full-time clergy have a very well-deserved break. This then is the second time that the story of Thomas has come round when I’ve led worship at St David’s on Low Sunday, the last being back in 2015. I’ve already reused some of the material from 7 years ago [ref: ‘What do we know about Thomas?’], but I also want us to reflect on it with some contemporary observations, mindful of the way in which our lives, as church and community, have changed since then.
As I was re-reading material, I was struck in particular by one turn of phrase which I used to describe Thomas’s so-called doubt. Back in 2015, I had just been arguing that Thomas would not have disbelieved the possibility of resurrection; after all he had been present when Lazarus had been brought back to life. And I followed this by suggestion that:
Thomas is……disbelieving of his fellow disciples……he’s saying that he does not trust the detail of the story that he is being told.
So in preparing this service today, I was encouraged a little to unpick this idea, and to ask also how that same phrase might apply to us, noting right at the start of this short reflection our very natural and very human capacity to question things. How easy do we find it to trust the details of stories being told to us? How easy do we find it to ask questions?
First, a diversion. Are any of you fans of Susie Dent, the lexicographer and wordsmith of Countdown fame? I’ve long been a fan of both her contributions to Countdown and more lately her offerings of ‘word of the day’, which she shares via social media. Well, Susie Dent is very fond of rediscovering words which have long gone out of everyday use (actually, I doubt some of them were ever used widely, but that’s another digression). Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, her word of the day was ‘Beek’ (b-e-e-k): a 13th century verb which meant ‘to luxuriate for a while in the warmth of the sun, the warmth of the moment, or the warmth of other people’: what a fantastic word to choose on Easter Sunday!!
Earlier in that week, Susie gave us the 19th Century ‘maw-worm’: one who insists that they have done nothing wrong, despite evidence to the contrary. I can’t think who she had in mind, but not wanting to throw more stones at this juncture, I guess that was most of us, at one time or another as children!
Also, in the week leading up to Easter, we were given the 17th century word ‘sequacity’ which means the following of another person’s opinion without questioning at all; and someone who engages in sequacity is sequacious. It occurred to me that this is also a feature of childhood, that as children we accept the opinions or positions of our influential adults, our family, our teachers, and in many contexts, our community leaders too, of which I include our ministers and pastors. Part of growing up is learning to ask questions, to question things that are given to us, reported to us as ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ and to become critically aware of the strength of differing opinions, held honestly and faithfully.
Our subject for today, Thomas, is absolutely not guilty of sequacity! Thomas asks questions. Thomas is someone who has been presented to us as a doubter, but the more I read the story, the more convinced I am that Thomas’s questioning, his insistence on seeing for himself, is a mark of maturity, a mark of having grown up. Thomas is saying ‘I’ve heard what you’ve said, sure, but I’m going to ask questions, I’m going to want, even need, to take a look for myself’.
And perhaps as a direct consequence, I want to guard against sequacity when it comes to what we’ve been told about the nature of doubt too. It’s good that there are conflicting philosophical opinions.
For example, Salman Rushdie (in his controversial ‘The Satanic Verses’) asks ‘What is the opposite of faith? Not disbelief, [which is] too final, certain, closed. [Disbelief] is itself a kind of belief. [What is the opposite of faith?]. Doubt”
But I disagree with this. Though disbelief and doubt are different things, I prefer an alternative perspective, advocated by, amongst others, the German-American theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” And with Rabbi Jonathan Sachs: “Faith is not a certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty”.
To sum up this bit of the reflection. I’m suggesting that rather than criticising Thomas we are much more likely to share his experience and be better off standing with him and having the courage to ask questions. To ask questions as a fundamental expression of our faith is a sign of maturity in that faith.
But if Thomas doesn’t trust all the details of what he’s being told, Jesus, in his reply reminds him that he’s the lucky one: Thomas gets to see the answer for himself. What then of us, who have faith without having seen the risen Jesus in person?
This is where we must flip some of the thinking. Because just as we should not accept others’ opinions without questioning, so too can we not form our own opinions in a vacuum.
I promised to try to relate this to some contemporary situations, and I would suggest that whether we’re talking Covid pandemic and vaccination, global warming and environment crisis, economic theory, or an approach to the refugee crisis, failure to listen to others’ opinion is just as dangerous as accepting them without question. I’ve said it before: Michael Gove was quite wrong when he said we were fed up with the experts’ opinion, for if we can’t turn to the experts, who then can help us? It was something of a caricature during the pandemic, but not altogether unfounded – the bloke down the pub saying that they don’t trust the doctors and would rather do their own research. What?! To replace years of medical training? And, yes, I know, the pub was shut too!!
It’s a matter of fact that we rely on the experts, we rely on those with both the knowledge and experience to inform opinion. And it’s why telling the truth about these things is so vitally important – because when expertise is undermined by deceit, we have nothing left to go on.
Last weekend, two prominent Christians went head-to-head with opinion formed by knowledge and experience of both the Christian faith and the government’s refugee policy. Both men were educated at Eton, one went to Cambridge and one went to Oxford (both, coincidently to Trinity College of those respective universities); both have a background in business and finance and today both have seats in the Palace of Westminster, the one in the House of Lords, the other in the House of Commons. The Archbishop of Canterbury preached that sending asylum seekers and refugees from the UK to Rwanda was “the opposite of the nature of God”. In response, the UK’s Minister for Brexit Opportunities said that the proposed policy was “almost an Easter story of redemption”.
If my jaw had dropped when I first heard of the policy itself – which flies in the face of just about everything that this congregation holds dear in its commitment to a loving, inclusive welcome – then I despair at the politician’s response to proper and reasoned Christian criticism. To be honest with you, I can’t but feel that this is more of a spat between two Old Etonians (who are, chums, expected to stick together, jolly good) than a serious attempt at theology by the lay man. But those things should not detract from my main point here, which is that it is right and proper to ask questions and to think critically. Only by doing so can we hope to distinguish truth from deceit.
And so, to bring this sermonette to a close, let me return to the figure of Thomas, who, it seems to me, finds balance in his faith,
Thomas is the post-Easter figure who resembles us the most. Thomas is the one whose faith leads to honest questions. Thomas seeks out the experts, believes the experts and in turn becomes one himself. As Christians, we are called to follow not only to follow Jesus, but also to follow Thomas’s example, and to ask questions, to seek reassurance, to work our way through conundrums to truthful positions.
Which leads me back to the opening of the Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus is Alive! Here is a collection of some of his most intriguing and challenging sayings…..Anyone who unravels these sayings and takes their truth as guide will not experience death”. Amen!
Prayers of Intercession
Why are there so many questions?
We come to you with our prayers, questions of sorts, searching, wondering, wandering. We pray in faith: called by Jesus to confidence and encouraged by you ever-present Spirit as companion.
But why are there so many questions?
We pray for our world, seeking answers to war, to poverty, to injustice, and to the global threat of environmental crisis. We pray for those whose knowledge and experience in these matters help our ordinary understanding; we pray that their expertise to be brought to bear, not for their own sakes’ but for the peace and harmony of your created world.
But why are there so many questions?
We pray for our country, for its leaders of state, its leaders of business and organisations, and its leaders of community. We pray for leadership which is underpinned with honesty and integrity, not that there is only ever one answer, but that different opinions and perspectives may be respected, just as we seek to respect each other as people.
But why are there so many questions?
We pray for our Church, again and perhaps always seeking and searching for the next expression of our being your people. We pray for your church at St David’s and at Castle Square, and for Phil as he holds our hands, supports and guides our questioning.
Loving God, there are questions, we know too well. But you have shown us in Jesus, and through his friends down through the ages, that asking questions is not a sign of weakness, but is part of growing with you and with each other. As we ask again this morning, we listen again for your response. Sometimes the answer will be clear; other times, you may just as likely throw a different question back to us. But with you, with each other, we journey forward, to your bright new world.
And so we close our prayer with the words which Jesus taught us, saying together in whatever language or format is comfortable for us…
Our Father/Ein Tad