13 April 2015

Sermon – “Thomas” (John 20:19-31)

 Our Gospel reading this morning has to be one of the most dramatic and arresting in all of Scripture. It all has to do with a man who occupies very little prominence in the gospel story up to this point: Thomas. The first we meet with Thomas is in the lists of Jesus’ apostles in each of the first three gospels. The lists divide into three groups of four, and Thomas is in the second group, suggesting, in the words of one scholar, “neither eminence nor obscurity”.[1]
We do not meet with Thomas again until towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had been informed that his friend Lazarus was grievously ill. The disciples tried to dissuade him from going to him for fear that Jesus’ life might be in danger. Thomas, however, challenged them, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). The next time Thomas comes into the picture is in the upper room. Jesus had been saying puzzling things about going away to somewhere that they could not come and yet that he was preparing a place for them. It was Thomas who protested, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus famously replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:5-6).
Fast-forward now a few more days. The disciples were again in the upper room—all of them, that is, except for Thomas. The doors were locked, just in case the religious authorities decided to come down on them now that they had managed to dispose of Jesus. A mixture of fear and puzzlement filled the room because of the recurring reports that Jesus, who had been executed only days before, had been seen alive. Whether it was the weak flickering of the oil lamps or whatever, we do not know. But for some reason they were not aware of the other person in the room until they heard the familiar words, “Peace be with you.” Their fear turned to joy as he showed them his hands and side and they realized it was Jesus. When they told Thomas what had happened, he could not bring himself to believe them. We all know his words: “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.” It was a week later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples once again and this time Thomas was among them, that his adamant refusal to believe melted away. “My Lord and my God!” was all that he could manage to sputter out—one of the greatest and most famous professions of faith in all of history.

Introducing Thomas

The story of Thomas does not end there, however. Twice more we meet with him in the New Testament: the first time on the shores of Lake Galilee as Jesus appears to his disciples there (John 21:3), and finally in the upper room once again with the other disciples following Jesus’ ascension as they all awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit in power (Acts 1:13).
Yet, while the New Testament has nothing more to say about Thomas, early Christian tradition does. And while we cannot guarantee its accuracy, the odds are pretty good that much of it is at least close to the truth. So here is how the story goes. According to the early fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius, the apostles divided up the world, with Thomas and Bartholomew being assigned to Parthia (roughly modern-day Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and India. Arriving in the north of India, Thomas, who was said to have been a carpenter by trade, ended up in the service of a king named Gundaphor, who is known from contemporary records and coins to have reigned from about 20 AD at least until the year 46. Thomas offered to build him a palace that would last forever. The king gave him money, which Thomas promptly passed along to the poor in its entirety. When the king insisted on seeing some progress, Thomas explained that what the king was building was a mansion in heaven. Thomas was immediately sent to prison but miraculously escaped, and King Gundaphor was converted to Christianity.
Thomas’s missionary journey then led him more than a thousand miles southwards along the west coast of India, where he arrived in the ancient city of Muziris in the year 52. Muziris had enjoyed a longstanding trade relationship with the Roman Empire, in addition to a Jewish settlement that had been established there for six centuries, and it was probably both that drew Thomas there. Clearly Muziris was ripe for the gospel. During his short stay Thomas is credited to have founded seven churches, and through his ministry both the king’s wife and his son came to profess the Christian faith. For this Thomas was sentenced to execution. Under the king’s orders he was led to a hill outside the city by four soldiers, who pierced him to death with their spears. Nearly fifteen centuries later, when Portuguese missionaries first traveled to India, they discovered that there were already well-established Christian communities, which traced their origins back to St Thomas’s evangelistic exploits. Right down to the present day the Mar Thoma Church of India, or Nasrani as its members are called, continue, as Thomas did, to worship Jesus as their Lord and their God.


But at this point we need to go back to the upper room, where the disciples had gathered after Jesus’ crucifixion. We have already recalled the scene, as suddenly, without their being aware of it, Jesus was in their midst. And there was no mistaking that it was he. It was his voice greeting them, “Peace be with you.” Then, to make sure there was no doubt about it, he showed them his hands, where the nails had been driven through, and his side, where the spear had been lunged.
When Thomas returned to the group it was clear that something had changed. Instead of the fear that had pervaded the room, there was a mystified joy. No sooner had he come through the door than all the others were trying to speak to him at once. “Jesus is alive!” “The stories the women told us were true.” “We’ve seen him with our own eyes—the nail holes through his hands, the spear wound in his side.” I can only imagine that Thomas did not know what to think. His whole world was spinning around him. Then it all stopped as Thomas took hold of his senses and resolutely declared, “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.”
Those famous words have earned him the name “doubting Thomas” ever since. Yet I think we do him an injustice if we simply write Thomas off as a cynic or hard of heart. In fact, I think that quite the opposite was true, that Thomas was speaking with passion. He had become so devoted to Jesus, so invested in him, that he was not willing to set himself up for another disappointment simply based on what someone else had told him. Like Peter who had declared, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68), or the two disciples along the road to Emmaus who had professed, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), Thomas too had put all his hopes in Jesus. And he was not willing to settle for a faith that was simply based on what someone else said. It had to be his own. With Paul he would want to shout, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).
We’ve all heard it said that God has not grandchildren, and Thomas did not want to be God’s grandchild. He wanted a faith that was his own. This morning we are baptizing two darling little girls, who cannot yet speak a word for themselves. On their behalf their parents and sponsors will affirm their Christian faith. Much as they depend on their parents to be fed and taught and cleaned, so they will depend on their parents for faith. But we pray that it will not stop there. Baptism is just a first step—and we look to the day when these children will be able to say with conviction, and not just because their parents told them, “I believe in God the Father Almighty…; I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…; I believe in the Holy Spirit…”
Years ago I had a parishioner who told me how as a child with his siblings he had been taken to church every week by his father. They never missed a Sunday. Then he went off to university and (unlike most of his peers) he continued to be in church—simply because that was where you were on Sunday mornings. At some point, however, and it was probably a gradual process because he could not pinpoint the moment, he said that what had once been a discipline became for him a faith. That is our prayer for these children: that they may move from a second-hand to a first-hand relationship with Jesus. And that was the desire that lay deep within Thomas’s heart: “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.”


In the mercy of God, that was exactly what happened. A week later Jesus returned to the upper room and this time Thomas was there. There was no question of his readiness to believe. There was no need to feel the nail marks in Jesus’ hands or thrust his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. All Thomas was able to do was to stammer, “My Lord and my God!” But Jesus’ words in response are instructive. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I do not believe that what Jesus said to Thomas was intended as a rebuke. Rather, I believe it contains a principle. That is that, while our faith in Christ must always be a personal faith, it is not an independent faith. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our faith will always depend on the faith of others. Jesus does not call us to be hermits. He calls us into community. I remember another very wise parishioner describing how in youth we move from dependence to independence. But, he said, the mark of true maturity is not independence but interdependence. So it is that as Christians we do not live in isolation. As members of the body of Christ we are nourished and fed, we are challenged and encouraged to use our God-given gifts, we are instructed and sometimes rebuked—and all so that we may live to our utmost for Christ, to trust him and to serve him as our Lord and our God.
This morning we will welcome these children into the body of Christ, receive them into the household of God. Part and parcel with that, we have made a pledge that by our prayers and witness we will help them to grow into the full stature of Christ. I pray that we will take that promise seriously not only with respect to them, but also in our relationships with one another. May we take it as a part of our mission to help our brothers and sisters to grow and to flourish in their relationship with Jesus—and may we recognize and receive with gratitude the role that our brothers and sisters play in ours—as together we proclaim him “my Lord and my God”.

[1]     Robin E. Nixon, “Thomas, Apostle”, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church

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