Sunday 15 April 2007

Year C, Easter 2, St Thomas Sunday, 15 April 2007

1. Introduction

  • In the CofI we celebrate the feast of St Thomas the Apostle on the 3rd July, but the Orthodox churches remember him today, the first Sunday after Easter. They call it St Thomas Sunday, because the traditional gospel reading, which we share with them, tells the familiar story of how Thomas came to be called “Doubting Thomas”.
  • Now Thomas is one of my heroes, one of my favourite saints. I admire what I see of his character from the Gospels. And I enjoy the romance of his legendary missionary expedition to India. I feel it’s a bit unfair to call him by the disparaging nick-name “Doubting Thomas” - I much prefer the way Orthodox Christians call him “Believing Thomas”. So I want to take this opportunity to celebrate him a bit.

2. What do we know about Thomas from the Gospels?

It’s only in John’s Gospel that we learn anything at all about him. Elsewhere in the NT he is only a name on lists of Apostles. He’s dubbed Thomas the Twin – Didymus, in Greek. But the name Thomas itself is from the Aramaic word Toma, which also means twin. So the name tells us nothing except that he was a twin. Eastern Church tradition calls him Judas Thomas, so perhaps he was nicknamed The Twin to distinguish him from other Judases. We’re not told anything about his background. And we know nothing about the other twin.

The first time we hear Thomas speak is when Lazarus has just died. Jesus decides to go to Lazarus’s deathbed, but it’s in Judea. The last time Jesus was there, the people had tried to stone him. The disciples don't like this idea at all, and resist his decision, but Jesus is determined. John gives Thomas the last word: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ He may have been pessimistic, but Thomas was also brave, and he was loyal.

Next, at the Last Supper, Jesus rather elliptically tells the Twelve that he is going away to prepare a place for them, but that he will return to bring them with him. Jesus says: ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’. Practical, logical Thomas struggles to understand what his teacher is really saying. Why does Jesus always insist on speaking in riddles? He says ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ We can just hear the exasperation in his voice, can’t we! But Thomas does succeed in clarifying matters, for himself, but no doubt also for the others, who were perhaps too proud to admit that they too did not understand. Jesus replies with words which echo down the ages to us: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’

But it’s in today’s reading that we really see how Thomas’s mind works:

  • He isn’t there when Jesus first appears to the other disciples. They tell him a ridiculous story. Jesus, the man they saw crucified, dead, and buried, has come to them through locked doors, they have talked with him, and he has shown them his wounds. Thomas declares: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
  • A week later, Jesus appears again, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus asks Thomas to touch his wounds, saying: ‘Do not doubt but believe’. John doesn’t tell us whether Thomas really does touch the wounds, but he does report Thomas confessing a new found faith: ‘My Lord and my God!’ And Jesus uses the incident to speak, through those who hear the exchange, to you and to me, and to generations unborn: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
  • Clearly Thomas is one of those independent men who like to make up their own mind. He doesn’t take anything on trust, particularly if it doesn’t square with his own experience. But when he has satisfied himself that something is true, his faith is great and I feel quite sure Thomas would act on it.

3. That’s all we know of Thomas from the NT, but we do have other sources of information about him, which if we can believe them confirm that Thomas really did act on his faith.

There is an ancient tradition, which is supported by early documentary evidence, that Thomas went to India to preach the Gospel, and died there. And there is a living Christian tradition in India that claims Thomas founded their churches. Let’s examine the evidence.

  • The ancient tradition of the Syrian Church has it that Thomas went to the East as a missionary, but there is some uncertainty about just where.
  • Writing before 325AD, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, states that Thomas went to preach the Gospel in Parthia. Parthia is usually taken to mean the Persian Empire stretching from modern Pakistan to Mesopotamia, but the term was often used loosely.
  • And there is the starange Gnostic apocryphal text dated by scholars to the early C3rd, called the Acts of Thomas. It purports to record Thomas’s missionary journeys in India, and eventual martyrdom there. But it also contains a lot of fanciful material.
  • The church at Edessa in Mesopotamia honoured Thomas as the Apostle to India from at least the late C4th. Edessa is now called Urfa, and it’s in modern SE Turkey. From the C3rd through Byzantine times, it was an important Eastern Christian centre with its liturgies in Syriac, a form of the Aramaic language that Jesus himself spoke. Surviving copies of Syriac hymns, attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, preserve a tradition that Thomas’s bones were brought back from India by a merchant after his martyrdom there.

Even today, on the Malabar Coast in Kerala, South India, there are millions of people who call themselves St Thomas Christians, who trace their faith back to Apostle Thomas.

  • They very firmly hold the tradition that Thomas preached the Gospel, baptised, and founded churches there for 20 years, until he was martyred in AD72. They point to a small hill called St Thomas’ Mount, near Madras, as the site of his martyrdom.
  • Many scholars doubt this, but they may be biased. They suggest the St Thomas churches were founded several hundred years later, perhaps by a later Thomas. They suggest the forbears of the St Thomas Christians adopted St Thomas the Apostle as their founder as a sort of Asian rival to St Peter of Rome. The rivalry for pre-eminence among clerics knows few bounds!
  • Whatever the truth, the St Thomas Christians maintained links with the Eastern churches throughout the Middle Ages. When the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar Coast in 1498 he found an estimated 2 million Christians using the Eastern, Syrian rite, with 1500 churches under their own Metropolitan bishop.
  • The Portuguese considered the Eastern-rite churches heretical, and they tried to convert them forcibly to RC doctrines. The St Thomas Christians split, and are now divided over several denominations, but they are still there, 6 million strong and 20% of the population of Kerala. Some are in communion with Rome, and some with various Eastern-rite churches. One group, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, is in communion with the two Anglican churches in India, and so with us.

So did St Thomas really go to India? As I read the evidence, there’s nothing to prove that he couldn’t have, and quite a lot to suggest that he might have, but not enough to prove that he did! I don’t see any strong reason to disbelieve the ancient traditions of the Eastern churches. And I don’t see why we should offend our fellow Christians in India by refusing to acknowledge the testimony of their living tradition.

4. So to conclude:

  • I admire Thomas, because in the picture John paints of him I see a loyal friend, a strong character, practical, clear thinking, and independent minded.
  • Some of us are blessed, as Jesus says, with a simple faith, believing what we are told, and acting on it. Others – like Thomas – do not come to faith so easily. I identify with him, because I don’t either. We feel a need to assess the evidence for ourselves, to use our God-given powers of reason to tease out a thing before we believe it. It’s the mindset of modern science, but Thomas’s story shows there have always been people like that. And a faith formed by questioning, as Thomas’s was, can be just as strong as a simple faith, I think. I don’t see Jesus’s response to Thomas as a rebuke: it is much more a simple statement of fact, about different kinds of people.
  • And I want to believe that Thomas took Jesus’s commission to heart and travelled to India to preach the Gospel. It seems to be in keeping with his character. Once he had made up his mind, it is just what I would expect of him. So whatever doubts scholars might introduce, I shall continue to think of him as Thomas the Apostle to India.