Second Sunday of Easter
April 7, 2002
The Gospel: John 20:19-31
Sermon: "What does it mean to be named after St. Thomas?"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "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 his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
"What does it mean to be named after St. Thomas?"
Second Sunday of Easter - April 7, 2002
Naming is an important part of our lives. We name many things. We name our pets. Some men name their cars. Most people probably spend the most time naming when it comes to family and children. Next to the Bible I believe books for naming children are one of the best sellers on the market. There is always a history to naming. Some people are named for parents or grandparents. Some people are named after other relatives or very good fiends. Some people have names chosen by their parents because no one else in the family has that name. They want the child to have their own identity, their own individualism. Naming always has some history.
The Gospel we just read is about St. Thomas, our namesake. We are all familiar with this story. Thomas is not present when Jesus comes to the disciples the first time. Thomas says I will not believe you until I touch his wounds for myself Forever after, Thomas has been known as Doubting Thomas. Thomas is mentioned in other places in scripture as well. However, this story of Doubting Thomas has really established his identity in the Western Christian world.
Why aren't we known as St. Doubting Thomas' Episcopal Church? As a matter of fact why would any church want to be named after the apostle who doubted the resurrection? Well, there is more to the story of Thomas than this incident in the Upper Room. First of all there is Thomas' response to Jesus when he did appear to him. Secondly, there is the legend of Thomas and his works after Jesus' ascension.
According to the Gospel story Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared to the Disciples. We don't know where he was at the time. He was out. When he arrives the other disciples tell him they saw Jesus. Now, remember the last time Thomas saw Jesus, Jesus was dying. He knew Jesus died and he did not believe Jesus was coming back. The other disciples felt the same way. After all, none of them went to the tomb to witness the resurrection. Thomas puts into words exactly what he feels about this news. I won't believe until I touch the wounds. One week later Jesus appears again to the disciples, Thomas is invited by Jesus to touch him. Jesus comes to the one disciple who disbelieves the most. You see, Jesus does not want to lose anybody. Jesus could say, "Oh well, I lost Thomas. Losing one out of all my disciples isn't bad. If he changes his mind that will be alright, but I'm not going out of my way." That type of statement would be contrary to everything we know about Jesus and his ministry. Jesus taught us parables about finding those who are lost. Jesus went to people who were lonely, sick, hurting, spiritually lost, and unacceptable to their own communities. Jesus wants Thomas too. So, Jesus invites Thomas to touch him. He says, "Do not doubt but believe." Thomas' reply is beautiful in its simplicity. He calls Jesus, "My Lord and my God." Thomas sees Jesus. He sees the wounds. We don't even know if Thomas did reach out and touch him. Yet, Thomas proclaims Jesus as Lord and God. Jesus reclaims the one who is lost.
Thomas' proclamation alone would be enough to be his namesake. Yet, the story of Thomas continues in his legend. The legend claims that the disciples cast lots to decide where each disciple would go to proclaim the Gospel after Jesus' ascension. Thomas' lot fell on India. Thomas did not want to go. In fact, he was very discriminatory in his remarks about India and its people. He claimed they were both black in color and blind in their hearts. He told the disciples one had to be strong as an ox to go to this country not feeble and frail. He even tried to talk the other disciples into going together to other countries first and then to India. He really did not want to go to this country. Throughout his protests the other disciples stood firm. They reminded Thomas that he had been the doubtful one and yet later totally believed. Due to this experience they felt he was eminently qualified to take the Gospel to India. As if that reminder was not enough they also reminded him of the story of Jonah. Yet, Thomas still did not want to go. However, the legend claims God has other plans.
Jesus appears in a vision to a man called Abbanes. Abbanes was an envoy of an Indian King named Gundaphar. Gundaphar sent Abbanes on a mission to find a master builder to construct his palace. In the vision Jesus tells Abbanes that Thomas is a master builder. As a result, Thomas is sold to Abbanes as a slave. Abbanes brings Thomas back to India presenting him to King Gundaphar as a master builder. Gundaphar gives Thomas a huge amount of Money to build the palace. However, Thomas does not hire artisans or stone workers. Thomas spends his time moving among the people. He preaches the Gospel. He gives all of the money away to the poor. Many of the people convert to Christianity. Gundaphar seeing no results toward his palace has Thomas arrested and plans to kill him. Thomas has a miraculous escape and Gundaphar has a vision. God comes to Gundaphar and tells him Thomas has built him a palace of living stones. As a result Gundaphar converts to Christianity.
Thomas continues to travel around the countryside preaching and baptizing. On his journey he enters the city of Misdai, which belongs to another king. This king's wife and son hear the Gospel and are baptized. As a result, Thomas is arrested and taken outside the city by four soldiers. These four soldiers kill Thomas with their spears.
The church in India is still alive and viable. They call them themselves the Thomas Christians or the Malabar Christians. In the Indian state of Kerala, Christians make up one fourth of the 30 million people. Thomas has been venerated as a saint in the Syriac Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. His symbols are a carpenter's square and a spear. The carpenter's square is a symbol of the church he built. The spear is a symbol of the manner in which he was martyred.
So our namesake had an interesting life. Even in his disbelief he was the first to proclaim the divinity of Christ as Lord and God. Even though he did not want to go to India, once there he proclaimed the Gospel and baptized those who believed. Our name comes from a man who could understand Jesus' true identity and follow through with his mission. Yet, he was also very human. He wanted proof and he was stubborn concerning his missionary journey.
Today, here we are named after him. Sometimes don't we feel like Thomas? Sometimes don't we want proof that Jesus is the Son of God? Sometimes we want to touch those wounds. Don't we feel like Thomas about our missionary journey? It would be so much easier to be a missionary in New York, Paris, Hawaii, or Rome. We could be great missionaries in those places. We could be even better missionaries to people we like. We could be good missionaries to people who look like us, talk like us, dress like us, and live in our own neighborhood. Or could we?
Our namesake did not want to go to India. Yet, in telling people about the love of God and baptizing them there he was successful. We are in Reidsville. If we use Jesus and Thomas as the example, who are we supposed to invite into a relationship with God? When we walk out these doors to whom are we supposed to share the love of God? Who do we invite into the family of God by water and the word? Jesus called Thomas to go to the lonely, the hurting, the poor, those who had never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. God is calling to us. We are called to go the lonely and befriend them. We are called to go the crying and dry their tears. We are to go to the wounded and bleeding, and dress their wounds. If we go and befriend them, and dry their tears, and touch their wounds we just might find ourselves touching the wounds of Christ. In those moments we might find ourselves looking in the eyes of Christ and saying, "My Lord and My God."