Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. Oddly, as important as the disciples were, there are few churchgoers today who can even name them. Thus far, we have heard the story of Andrew, Jesus’ first disciple, as well as John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus who prepared the way. We have meditated on James the Less and Philip, two apostles who are often overlooked, all because of their names are so common. Last week, we examined the most well-known apostle, Simon-Peter, and today, we turn to arguably the most misunderstood disciple, Thomas.
Few details of the life of the apostle are actually recorded in Scripture. The name Thomas, Toma in Aramaic, or Didymus in Greek, means The Twin. He was probably born in Galilee to a humble family, but there is no indication that he was a fisherman. Surprisingly, his symbol for recognition in art is a carpenter’s square. Nor do we know when or why Jesus called him, but thanks to the Evangelist St. John, we know more about Thomas and his personality than that of many of the twelve who were closer to Jesus.
For three years Thomas had trusted the words which his friend Jesus had spoken. He had, however, also witnessed the angry disputes that occurred when Jesus preached- especially in Jerusalem. The crowds threw stones to drive Jesus and his disciples out of the city which forced Jesus and the twelve to taken refuge in the desert. While they were there, they received word from Mary and Martha, that their brother Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, was ill. Their village of Bethany was only a short distance from Jerusalem, so the disciples were relieved when Jesus said they would wait another day or two. But then to their surprise, Jesus announced, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples were all reluctantly shocked. Only Thomas dared to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And that moment, there was certainly no doubt that Thomas loved Jesus, and that he was willing to follow him- even in the face of death.
Again, it was Thomas who raised his voice during the disciples’ last meal together with Jesus. After Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, announced his imminent betrayal, and then warned them, that he was going to prepare a place for them, saying, “And you know the way to the place where you are going.” Only Thomas was confident enough that he could question Jesus. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
It’s one of the most honest and human confessions in all scripture. And Thomas says it on behalf of all the disciples and us. After all, there are times when we simply don’t know or understand what God is doing. Thomas captures all our insecurities and anxieties and dares to ask Jesus, “How can we know the way?” And Jesus simply reassures him, “You will know, since you have known me. For I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Finally, we have the story from St. John’s gospel which earned the apostle the title Doubting Thomas. He was not present in the Upper Room when Jesus appeared to his disciples. Instead, when he did hear their reports of Jesus’ resurrection, he questioned the good news. “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.” Interestingly, on the inscriptions on the icons of St. Thomas in Orthodox Church, they do not mention, doubt. Instead, the icon is known as the “Assurance of Thomas,” or “The Touching of Thomas,” even “The Belief of Thomas.” In the Orthodox icons, Thomas is always seen bending before Christ to touch his wounds, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.” Through his reaching and touching, Jesus’ holy and resurrected body gives him assurance. That is the promise given to everyone who puts forth their hand to know and believe.
Sadly, the nickname of “”Doubting Thomas” conveys for some the false impression that the apostle was timid, or lacking in conviction, or perhaps even a coward. Nothing could be further from the truth. If St. Andrew is known as apostle to the Greek-speaking world of the ancient Roman Empire, travelling Mediterranean and Black Seas, and if St. Peter is known as the Apostle to Rome, then St. Thomas must be regarded as the apostle to the Middle and Far East.
In the the Acta Thomae, one of the New Testament apocryphal writings, at the time of Christ’s ascension, the apostles divided up the world for their missionary labors, and India and the Far East fell to Thomas. India may sound like an odd assignment when the first generation of Christians were primarily drawn from those of Jewish descent, but there was in India at that time a Jewish community believed to descend from sailors in King Solomon’s navy. More Jewish settlers sought refuge in India in 587 BC after the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem. Thomas traveled and preached throughout Persia and then headed southeast to India to reach this community. According to tradition, St. Thomas sailed to India in AD 52 to spread the Christian faith. He began on the western coast of India preaching first among the minority Jewish community who had settled there.
There are two lovely legends tied to St. Thomas and his missionary work in India. The first involves the wise men from the East seeking the new born king of the Jews. Based on a short writing in Syriac, the Revelation of the Magi, the wise men learned of the star that appeared in the East and journeyed from their respective lands. They met outside Jerusalem, where they went to King Herod’s court, who directed them to Bethlehem. There they found the child and paid him homage, and, having been warned in a dream, they fled Bethlehem rather than inform Herod where the child was to be found. Travelling together by another way to India, they founded a chapel on Mount Vaus, the site where the star had first been seen. There, they made a pact to return every year and, eventually, to be buried there. In his journeys, the Apostle Thomas found the wise men and baptized them.
The second legend involves the Virgin Mary. When it came time for Mary’s life on earth to end, a message was sent to the Apostles to reunite at her bedside. All of them arrived promptly — except, of course, Thomas. As the eleven looked on in wonder, Mary was taken from her bed and assumed into the heavens by angels. From this perspective, she saw Thomas from afar, racing breathlessly. Knowing the poor apostle had been in this predicament of doubt before and would need proof, Mary began loosening the sash binding up her tunic. As Thomas finally arrived to be chided by the others for his tardiness again, and as he shook his head at the by then empty sky, Mary let her sash fall from heaven into his open hands. Today, Mary’s sash is one of the more highly revered relics, and has been kept in the Cathedral in Prato, Italy since 1141. The story poignantly reminds us, that even when we are running late, broken hearted, afraid and sad, God offers wonderful signs seemingly from heaven to build up our faith.
Thomas spent 20 years in India. In Kerala alone, on the west coast of the Indian Ocean, he established eight churches, and converted King Chozha Perumal of Meliapor. The church with its Syriac-Persian roots known as Mar Thoma still exists today. In his later years Thomas established churches on the East side of India, along the Bay of Bengal.. The apostle was killed there on St. Thomas Mount near Chennai, Madras on July 3, 72 AD. Some say he was “speared through” by militant Hindus. Others maintain that he was killed by natives who hated him for bringing Christianity to India. He was buried in Mylapore where his relics remain. There was no doubt about his faith in Jesus- even to die with him.
My friends, in the midnight hour of the soul, when you are wondering whether God has a purpose for a follower with doubts and an imperfect faith, be assured God wants you to believe and needs your commitment. So turn like Thomas to the places where your faith can be nurtured, and where Christ promises he will meet you again. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.