Sunday 28 April 2019

Celebrating St Thomas on Low Sunday

An address given at Cloughjordan Church on Sunday 28th April 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, commonly called Low Sunday.

In the CofI we celebrate the feast day 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 journey to India. I feel it’s unfair to call him by the 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.

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, Thomas the Twin. Eastern Church tradition calls him Judas Thomas, so perhaps he was nicknamed The Twin to distinguish him from another Judas. We’re not told anything about his background, and we know nothing about his twin.

The first time we hear Thomas speak is when Lazarus has just died. Jesus decides to go to Lazarus’s funeral - but it’s in Judea, where the people had earlier tried to stone him. The disciples resist his decision, but Jesus is determined. John gives Thomas the last word: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Thomas may have been pessimistic, but he was also brave, and loyal.

Next, at the Last Supper, Jesus 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 clarify 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 2nd reading (John 29:19-31) 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 people 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. He is sure to act on it.

Thomas must surely have been one of those Apostles arrested by the Temple police with Peter in today’s 1st reading from Acts 5:27-32. They boldly testify to their faith in Jesus before the High Priest and the Council. Let’s hear their words again:
‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’

That’s all we know of Thomas from the NT, but we have other sources of information about him, which confirm that Thomas acted on his faith - if we can believe them.
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. 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 the 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’s Mount, near Madras, as the site of his martyrdom.

Many scholars doubt this, suggesting the St Thomas churches were founded several hundred years later, perhaps by a later Thomas. But 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.

Today the St Thomas Christians are split, 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 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.

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 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.

And I want to believe that Thomas took Jesus’s Great 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.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Living God,
For whom no door is locked:
Draw us beyond our doubts,
Till we see your Christ
And touch his wounds where they bleed in others.
This we ask through Christ our Saviour,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen