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Sermon – Doubting Thomas?

Doubting Thomas?

Sermon Preached by Reverend Stuart Langshaw on Sunday, 6 April 2024.

John 20:19-31. Gospel for Second Sunday of Easter Year B

Various people are known for their deeds or characteristics. Scrooge is known for being tight-fisted. The boxer Muhammad Ali was known for claiming that he was the greatest. Florence Nightingale was known as a pioneering nurse in the Crimean War in 1853 and so on.

Jesus’ disciple Thomas was known for … it’s not really cut and dried. Our Gospel reading today (Easter 2) was the well-known account of the interaction between Thomas and the resurrected Jesus.

But let’s do a little background hunting.

St. Thomas was probably born in Galilee, and died in 72 CE OR AD, in Madras, in India. He is regarded as the patron saint of India just as George is regarded as the patron Saint of “old Blighty ” and Andrew as the patron saint of Scotland and of Russia. Thomas was one of the twelve apostles. In Greek his name is Didymos that means “twin”, and in John 11:16 he is clearly “Thomas, called the Twin.” Identical twin or fraternal twin? We don’t know. Did he have a twin brother or sister? We don’t know.

There is no Anglican church at all in the Diocese of Adelaide dedicated in the name of St Thomas. In the diocese of Willochra there is St Thomas’ at Port Lincoln, and in the Diocese of the Murray there is St Thomas’ in Balhannah.

In the Christian calendar Thomas’ feast day is July 3rd. He is Patron Saint of the blind (due to occasional spiritual blindness); craftsmen (e.g., architects, carpenters & masons); geometricians; and theologians

Thomas’s character is outlined in John’s Gospel. His devotion to Jesus is clearly expressed in John 11:5–16 when Jesus announced that he was going to return to Judaea from the land across the Jordan River. He had heard that his friend Lazarus in Bethany was severely ill, so Jesus decided to go back over the river to visit the sick man. But the disciples warned Jesus of the Jews’ opposition and animosity. They warned their Master that the Jews were “now seeking to stone” him. Thomas, in a moment of bravery not often expressed by the Apostles before Pentecost, rallied the others to stay by their Master come what may. He said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16). This was a courageous thing to do, and it was Thomas who strengthened their courage.

At the Last Supper in John 14, Jesus engaged in some final teaching with his followers. Thomas could not understand what Jesus meant when he had said, “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas objected, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” It was as a result of this objection by Thomas that we have one of the most profound truths of Jesus’ ministry proclaimed. For Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father but through me.” We owe a great debt of gratitude to Thomas for not accepting something he did not understand.

Accounts of Thomas’ missionary activities are not very reliable. According to the Acts of Thomas, the apostles divided up the world for their missionary labours, and India fell to Thomas. And the most widely accepted report tells us that he preached in Kerala and in Tamil Nadu in India, although he was reluctant to start this mission there. But there he planted seeds for the new Church, forming many parishes and building many churches along the way.

To this day, Saint Thomas is venerated as the Apostle of India. In fact, there exists a population of Christians along the Malabar Coast, on the western coast of India, who lay claim to conversion by St. Thomas. Their tradition holds that he built seven churches, that he was martyred during prayer by being speared on the “Big Hill” near Chennai, or Madras, and was buried in Mylapore, on the east coast of India. It’s interesting that Thomas died from the same weapon that had killed his Lord and Master at the crucifixion – a spear thrust.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that all this history of Thomas is overshadowed, and rather overpainted, by his reputation as “Doubting Thomas.” There is so much more to him than that. Yet when we hear the Gospel reading this morning, we place Thomas unfairly, yet squarely into the box of “doubters.” If he had been present at the first appearance of Jesus to the other 10 disciples a week earlier than this narrative, “Doubting Thomas” would never have been known. But he wasn’t there.

I said earlier that we owe a debt of gratitude to Thomas for not accepting what he didn’t understand. And on this second occasion when the disciples were together he most certainly did not understand at all what the other disciples were saying about their having seen the Lord alive and well again after the crucifixion. He was incredulous! On the first occasion Jesus had shown the 10 disciples his hands with the nail wounds and his side with the spear wound. But Thomas wasn’t going to accept what he couldn’t understand. He wanted proof – physical, tangible, unmistakable, black-and-white proof. He didn’t want just to see the wounds – he wanted his fingers into the nail wounds in Jesus’ wrists. He wanted his hand into the spear-thrust wound in Jesus’ ribs. He said that his scepticism, his incredulity, would be dissipated only by these actions.

But, when the time came … when Jesus offered his hands and his side for Thomas’ inspection and investigation, Thomas couldn’t … he didn’t need to. Simply seeing was believing for him … no touch necessary.

Why do we remember Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” when he uttered the greatest confession of faith in the Gospel records? His exclamation was “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is the great proclaimer … the great confessor … the great testimonial maker … the great exclaimer. “My Lord and my God.” This is the clearest declaration of Jesus’ divinity in Holy Scripture. Thomas went the whole way. His confession of faith went further even than Peter’s, when Peter had said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Why do we remember Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” when he had strengthened the courage of the other disciples in the face of potential death?

Why do we remember Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” when his objection to what Jesus had said led to the most profound statement of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life”?

Why do we remember Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” when he spent the rest of his life as a missionary, replicating the missions that Jesus had sent the disciples on two by two in the days of Jesus’ ministry?

Why do we remember Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” when he preached the gospel, founded churches, and laid down his life for his great confession?
Remembering Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” does him great disservice.

Thinking about Thomas causes us to consider how we would describe OUR relationship with this risen, resurrected Jesus. Thomas exclaimed that the risen, resurrected Jesus was his Lord and his God. A most worthy exercise for us in this six-week Easter season would be to write down in two or three sentences OUR description of our relationship with Christ. And then, in the light of that personal description, to go into each week of this six-week season, living out daily that personal description of faith – seeking to share with others, as Thomas did – the joy and power of our risen, resurrected Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ.