Sunday 3 April 2016
The Second Sunday of Easter
In the three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Thomas only appears in the list of the twelve whom Jesus called. Like many of the other disciples, Thomas appears only as a member of the crowd. But in John’s gospel, Thomas plays a very important role. After Lazarus dies in chapter 11, Jesus decides to travel back to Judea to visit him. The disciples are afraid to have Jesus return Judea, because they know that he has already made too many enemies there. However, Thomas bravely tells his colleagues: “Let us go also, so that we can die with Jesus.”
Later, at the last supper, Thomas speaks again. When Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them, Thomas asks how they will know the way to follow him if they don’t know where he is going. Jesus responds that he, himself, is the way, the truth, and the life.
The story we read today is the third time that Thomas speaks in the gospel of John. And we always seem to remember him as the one and only disciple who refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He had to see for himself, whereas all the other disciples believed in Jesus’ resurrection without having seen.
Of course, that isn’t actually true. The other disciples had already heard from Mary Magdalene that Jesus had risen and appeared to her, and there is no indication from John that any of the disciples believed her. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all quite emphatic that they did not believe Mary’s story.
So there the disciples are, on the evening of Easter, behind locked doors in some upstairs room, afraid to do anything. Even though the doors are locked, Jesus appears among them. Jesus speaks to them, and says, “Peace be with you.” And before anyone gets a chance to respond, Jesus immediately shows them his wounds so that they will have proof that it is really him. Before he disappears, Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them out. They are to leave that locked room and start sharing God’s love in the world. But a week later, they are all still gathered there in that locked room.
So, just to be clear, all of the disciples of Jesus, except for Thomas, get to see the risen Christ, get to see his wounds before they believe that he is raised. And even after they have seen the risen Jesus, they don’t follow his directions to go out into the world. They stay cowering behind locked doors. This is not exactly an overwhelming show of belief and faith.
When they tell Thomas what they have seen, Thomas doesn’t believe them. But this isn’t terribly surprising, since they hadn’t believed what Mary had reported to them about Jesus rising. Thomas doesn’t believe before he sees, but neither does anyone else in the story. Mary doesn’t, the other disciples don’t, and Thomas doesn’t. So when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing,” he isn’t talking about anyone else in the story. So who is he talking about? If this were a television show, then this is the moment when Jesus would break the fourth wall, look directly into the camera, and speak to the viewers at home, “Blessed are you who don’t see and yet believe.” Jesus isn’t speaking to anyone in the room; he’s speaking to future Christians, who will be forced to believe based on the testimony of others.
Now, that’s about all we hear about Thomas in the bible. He appears again in the added scene in John when the disciples encounter Jesus along the shore in Galilee when they are out fishing. John tells us more than once that he is known as “the Twin,” but we are never told whose twin he is.
But there are other early Christian sources that tell us more about the story of Thomas. According to multiple ancient accounts, Thomas became an apostle to the east. It is believed that he travelled to India in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, founding churches and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. When Marco Polo travelled through Sri Lanka and India, he found native Christians there, Christians who traced their lineage back to St. Thomas. Again, when Portuguese colonists and traders established sea routes to India, they found native churches there, reading the bible and worshipping in Syriac. According to legend, Thomas founded several churches in India and was martyred there. A church in Mylapore reports to contain the tomb of the apostle. Thomas is the patron saint of India, and there are still Indian Christians today who believe themselves to be part of an unbroken tradition that goes back to Thomas.
I suggest to you today that is time that we stop doubting Thomas. It is time that we stop remembering him as a second-class apostle. Yes, Thomas refused to believe until he had seen some evidence, but so did all of the other early disciples. Yes, Thomas asked questions and wanted to know more. But it is often through our questions, through our doubting and our puzzling that our faith is made to grow stronger. A faith that never questions anything is not a very mature faith, not a faith that is capable of sustaining through trials and tribulations. Thomas may have questioned, but his questions led to one of the most powerful statements of faith contained in the Gospel of John. “My Lord and my God,” Thomas confesses the moment he sees the risen Christ. Not one other of Jesus’ male disciples has a statement of faith so clear as Thomas’s statement here. Not Peter, not James, not John. Of all of the Twelve, it is Thomas who is portrayed as understanding the best who Jesus is. His questions did not lead to a lack of faith. His questions led to a stronger faith.
And that is an example we can learn from. It is sometimes suggested that Christians should never question anything that we have been taught about the faith. We should just believe unchangingly everything that we were taught in second grade Sunday school just as we were taught it. It is suggested that if we were to question our faith, then we would lose it.
But I suggest to you today that is only a very weak faith that can’t stand up to a little questioning. If we never question things, then we never learn, we never grow, we never mature. Thomas questioned things. But his questions led him to be the brave disciple who convinced the others to follow Jesus to the cross, even if it meant they might die with him. His questions led to a greater understanding of Jesus’ nature as the way, the truth, and the life. His questions led to his bold proclamation of Jesus’ identity: “My Lord and my God.” And if the stories are to be believed, his questions led him to spread the Gospel of Jesus farther than any other of the first disciples, all the way to the shores of India. We can learn something from Thomas. And may we be bold enough in our questions and in our doubts that we are strengthened in faith, like Thomas, and empowered to share Christ’s love with the world Christ came to save. Amen.