Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on the Second Sunday of Easter 11th April 2021
Readings: Acts 4 vv 32 – 35 Believers share their possessions
John 20 vv 19 – End The risen Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter Day and a week later.
Introduction. I have said before that there are two people in the New Testament who get a bad press, namely Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Apostle Thomas. Today I want to focus on Thomas. In the late 1960s, I had a posting to Royal Air Force Muharraq, accompanied by Julia and our very young son Philip. As a licensed reader in the RAF, I assisted quite often at services in the station Chapel. In my second year in Bahrain there was no chaplain at the main Anglican Church, St. Christopher’s in the capital city of Manama and so I was also conducting services there from time to time. There were other churches in Manama , one of which cause the Mar Thoma church, providing for Christians from the Indian subcontinent. You may have heard of the Mar Thoma Church. By strong tradition the Church was founded by the Apostle Saint Thomas who is considered to have landed at Crananore in South West India in AD 52. In the period 1997 to 2003 when our son Philip was firstly senior engineer and then project manager for a project repairing the dry docks in Dubai, we visited him and his wife Karen on a number of occasions. In Dubai there is also a branch of the Ma Thoma church which at that time, like many other congregations, met in the Anglican, Holy Trinity Church. They now have the own church in the complex of churches a few miles away on land at Jebel Ali, given by the ruling Sheikh. At the first service on the 16th December 2001, it is recorded that there were 5000 participants. Certainly, one has to recognise that the Mar Thoma Church is a strong Church, probably as a result of Thomas’ initiation in the 1st century.
2. Thomas. What do we know about Saint Thomas and the early Mar Thoma Church? There are broadly three sources. In no particular order there are:
- Writings ascribed to Thomas but probably written by others,
- There are brief references to him by reliable historian of the Church,
- There are references to him in the New Testament from holy scripture.
3. Books of Thomas. There are three books named after the Apostle.
- There is ‘The Acts of Thomas’. This is the only one of the five principal apocryphal ‘Acts’ which has survived intact. Probably written in the late second century or early 3rd century A. D. The setting is almost certainly Indian. Thomas is reputed to have been martyred in India. There is a chapel on St Thomas’ Mount, the traditional site of Thomas martyrdom, near Madras (photo at end).
- There is the Gospel of Thomas, a Coptic papyrus discovered in Egypt in the twentieth century. It is largely comprised of the sayings of Jesus, with many paralleling the canonical gospels. The Gospel is probably the earliest of Thomas’ books
- The Apocalypse of Thomas is one of three principal apocalypses, the other two being attributed to the Apostles Peter and Paul. Thomas’ Apocalypse has a strong emphasis on light.
In summary the books of Thomas give considerable support to his active ministry in India and probably elsewhere.
4. Historians. There are two reliable historians, both of the 4th century, who note Thomas’ work.
- Firstly Jerome, a great scholar, bishop and translator, responsible for the translation of the Bible into Latin in what is known as the Vulgate version. He notes that Thomas travelled to Persia, now Iran.
- Secondly, Eusebius, born in Caesarea, where he founded a monastery and was consecrated Bishop. He drafted the Creed, finalised and approved at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and which we will be saying in a few minutes. Eusebius is sometimes known as the ‘Father of Church History’. He records that Thomas was active as a missionary in the East.
5. New Testament. I come now to the third and most important source of information about Thomas, the Apostle, namely the New Testament. Apart from five mentions in list of disciples, there are three significant references to Thomas, all in John’s Gospel.
Firstly, when Jesus tells the 12 quite plainly that his friend Lazarus is dead, Thomas makes the surprising statement, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” One cannot be sure what was in Thomas’ mind at that point. Jesus had spoken of going back to Judea, but because of the risk of death the disciples expressed surprise at the suggestion. Then after he had told them plainly that Lazarus was dead, Jesus says “For your sake, I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Did Thomas think that they were to join Lazarus in death? The raising of Lazarus is in John’s gospel the sixth and final sign pointing clearly to Jesus’ own resurrection. At the very least we can see in Thomas’ statement a strong commitment to Jesus, even if the belief in resurrection was not yet formed. A belief as expressed a little later by Martha about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”, a hope shared then by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees, a hope to be shared with all of us.
The second significant reference to Thomas is in John 14, where we find Jesus preparing his disciples for the fact that he will soon die, but in so doing will go to God the Father and prepare a place for them. Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? To someone like Thomas with an enquiring mind he found Jesus’ enigmatic statements difficult to follow. Was Jesus going to Bethany to see how his old friend Lazarus was getting on? Or was he going to risk going right into Jerusalem where the national leaders were keen to arrest him. Or was he perhaps going to some of the dispersed Jews such as those in the great centre of learning, namely the city of Alexandria in Egypt where the Hebrew version of the Jewish Bible had been translated into the Greek language in what is known as the Septuagint Version, widely quoted from by 1st Century Jews. Jesus’ response is even more enigmatic, for he says “I am the Way”.
The third significant reference to Thomas is in our Gospel reading today. In that we are told that Thomas was not present on Easter Day when the risen Jesus appeared to the 10 apostles. Clearly though he sceptical of the reports from the 10 as he responds, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it.” Here again we see the enquiring mind of Thomas, wanting good proof, hard evidence, not just secondhand reported evidence.
What is more, Jesus graciously provides all the evidence a week later. There is nothing enigmatic about this meeting and Jesus’ response. Probably Jesus already knows that Thomas is destined for a demanding role in the kingdom of God, by establishing a church in Iran and another in India. A truly apostolic role. Jesus, after his initial greeting of “Peace be with you” to all gathered there, then invites Thomas to put his finger into the mail wounds in his hands and to put his hand into Jesus wounded side. Thomas has witnessed Jesus come through locked doors, no problem if one reckons on one extra dimension for a resurrected person. Thomas doesn’t need further proof but rather, responds with the strong affirmation, “My Lord and my God”.
6. Our response. What about our response? We live in a strongly scientific world. Science and mathematics underly much of our practical life, whether in medicine or transport, building or communications. Many people like Thomas want to ask questions, and this can apply to matters of faith as well as the practicalities of daily life. The Christian faith has stood up to 2000 years of questioning. Faith is strengthened by an enquiring mind. Do not be afraid to ask questions, to read, both the scriptures and helpful books.
Maybe, like Thomas, you have had a ‘bad press’, perhaps been put down when you were young either at school or at home. Maybe compared unfavourably to a sibling. God hasn’t written you off. He can use each one of us in the work of his kingdom. Take inspiration from the way God used so-called ‘doubting Thomas’ in the foundation of an important branch of the Christian Church.