Sunday 30th April 2017
You might think that we’re being a bit like those people who insist on wearing their flip-flops and sun hats long after summer has finished – or like those who wear gloves and scarves even when we’re well into Spring. In Britain, although Christmas trees, lights and decorations start appearing even before we get into December, there’s still a fairly hard and fast cultural rule that says they have to be taken down and packed away by 12th Night – the 5th January. In France, many towns keep their lights up until much later – there seems to be no convention as to when they come down. And so here we are, more than a month after Easter, and still talking about how various New Testament characters saw the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
I’m not apologising for it – our faith is based on what happened at Easter; it is central to what we believe; that Jesus is the Son of God, that he was crucified in our place and rose from the dead is the Christian message!
And so this week and next we’re going to continue to look at Easter, trying to see aspects of its importance that we have perhaps not seen before, or need reminding of, and that God might want to speak to us through.
And this morning, it’s the turn of the disciple Thomas. Rather unfairly, I think, Thomas has a reputation in our culture based solely on one incident, and his name comes up every time someone can’t quite believe what others have accepted. We say, “Don’t be a doubting Thomas!” Let’s see why I think this is unfair.
He is introduced to us by Matthew, Mark and Luke on the occasion when Jesus chose twelve from among those who were following him to be his closer group of apostles – his tutor group, if you like. The rest of what we know of Thomas is related in John’s Gospel. And he appears immediately before Easter week – Passion week.
In John 11 we read of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. His sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus from Bethany that Lazarus is seriously ill – hoping that Jesus will come and heal him. We get to know this little family group earlier in the gospels, when Mary anoints Jesus’ head with perfume and wipes his feet with her hair. Martha complains that she needs Mary helping her in the kitchen, but Jesus explains that Mary has chosen a better service at that particular moment.
This time, when Lazarus had fallen ill, Jesus was up in Galilee, on the far side of the Jordan river, near where John the Baptist had preached and baptised people. It was maybe two days’ journey away. He stayed there for another two days before making his way to Bethany. We know that, when he got there, Lazarus had already been dead and buried for four days. But Jesus had them open the tomb and then he called Lazarus back to life, and he came walking out, all wrapped up in his embalming bandages.
But look at what the disciples say when Jesus tells them that he’s going to go to Bethany – down in Judea:
‘But Rabbi,’ they said, ‘a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?’ (John 11.8)
Jesus begins to explain to them that Lazarus has died, but that he is going to “wake him up”, and that this will be a good lesson in faith for them. They don’t seem all that convinced, though, and it is Thomas who speaks out to the others:
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11.16)
It’s interesting that John, who was part of the group, records for us, here, this little clip about Thomas. He must think it’s important that we know that Thomas said this. I think probably John wants to fill in a bit more about Thomas in view of what he will later recount. Obviously, Thomas hasn’t grasped the extent to which Jesus is in control of his own destiny and that, when He says it’s safe to go to Bethany, it really is safe to go. Thomas really does think that Jesus’ enemies amongst the Jews will be lying in wait and that they’ll kill him before he gets there. And yet Thomas says, “Let’s go with him, even if it gets us all killed.”
- Are we prepared to follow Jesus like that? Often we are probably tempted to hold back much sooner than that! “Woah! Let’s not go there or do that: we’ll probably look stupid!”
Thomas might not have understood; he might have doubted; but he was committed to following Jesus – even if it meant getting killed for it! Just over a week later, of course, Jesus was killed – but only because He permitted it, and the disciples were all kept safe, as Jesus had promised.
Maybe it’s good for us to review how far we are prepared to go in our commitment to following Jesus?
Thomas is actually quite open about voicing uncertainties. As the Easter week progresses and moves to its conclusion, we find Thomas at the Last Supper asking the Lord a question. Jesus has just told them that one of them will betray him and that Peter will deny him, but then he comforts them with words that you will know well:
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.’ (John 14.1-4)
To us, who have already heard about the resurrection and Jesus’ ascension into heaven, this maybe seems straightforward. But try to see it from the disciples’ point of view. They’re still thinking donkeys and satnavs (or at least signposts, road names and star constellations). They really haven’t got a clue. But Thomas isn’t going to stay in the dark while he’s got Jesus there to answer his questions, so he pipes up:
‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ (v 5)
- Please, please, please: we need to learn this lesson from Thomas. We might not know the answers, but we know someone who does! Do you have a question that’s troubling you? Ask Jesus! Sure, of course you can ask some other Christian, who might be able to share their understanding of the thing; but prayer is about talking to the Lord, yourself, about stuff. So ask him! Quite often, he’ll give you the answer through the Bible; sometimes it might come through another Christian (or even through a preach!) – but never forget that you have direct access to Jesus, just like Thomas, to air your questions.
And, here, we can be so glad that Thomas did ask the question, because the reply he got is a classic. Most of you can probably quote it straight off:
Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14.6)
Did you remember that this concise summary of the Good News was given in response to Thomas’s question? If Thomas hadn’t been there; if he hadn’t had his uncertainties; if he hadn’t been prepared to voice them; we might not have had the clarity of these words in our Bibles. And just to make sure we’ve understood, Jesus goes on:
‘If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ (v 7)
For three years the disciples have been following Jesus on a more or less 24/7 basis; and they are still learning new things right up till the Easter events. Do you grasp why it’s good to see these things from Thomas’s point of view?
- You and I, we should expect to be learning new things about Jesus and our walk with him, right up to the end of our lives. Let’s not be afraid to keep seeking more!
Now we come to the bit about Thomas that has become so famous: it’s in John 20.19-29
On what we might call ‘resurrection Sunday’, Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden where the (empty) tomb was; then he had appeared to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus; and finally to the larger group of disciples back in Jerusalem. Thomas seems to have been the only disciple who wasn’t there – and we don’t know why he wasn’t, or where he was instead. Is there a clue in the fact that John again points out that he was “Thomas (also known as Didymus)”?
Thomas wasn’t really his name – like ‘Peter’, it was more of a nickname. Didymus is just the Greek version of his nickname. Both mean “twin”. We don’t know anything at all about his sibling. Not even whether they were a boy or a girl. But, was Thomas off visiting his family – his twin, maybe – that night?
Wherever he was, he wasn’t very happy to have missed seeing the risen Jesus. So disgruntled was he, when they told him about it, that he refused to believe what everyone else was saying.
‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ (John 20.25)
- I don’t know about you, but I know I can be a bit like that. Sometimes it seems everyone has had a great experience of God’s presence that they can’t help but talk about – at some event or meeting that I didn’t get to – and I can get all sceptical, doubtful, disbelieving. Is it a kind of jealousy because we’ve missed out – me and Thomas? (And maybe you can be like it, too?)
Thomas goes a bit overboard in his reaction, really. It’s like he wants to believe, but daren’t. We can tell that he wants to, because he keeps hanging out with the others and so, a week later, he’s with them when Jesus shows up again in the same place.
- Frankly, as you’ve maybe already guessed, I don’t think it’s too terrible a thing not to understand, to be a bit sceptical. So long as we don’t let it drive us away; so long as we keep trying to understand; keep asking questions; keep going to the places the Lord has apparently been gracing with his presence; keep hanging out with the people who are testifying to the reality of it. Sooner or later Jesus will interact with us, too. He certainly did with Thomas.
Jesus greets the disciples just as he did the week before, “Peace be with you!” And here it comes. Jesus turns to Thomas and invites him to put his finger in the nail prints, and his hand in the spear wound; to stop doubting and believe. He knows exactly what Thomas has said, and he gently turns it back to him.
- Don’t think Jesus doesn’t know about your doubts; about the things you can’t understand; about your jealousy of the experiences others have had. He knows, and he loves you and he will meet you where you are.
But now Thomas responds, and what he comes out with is right up there with Peter’s big declaration of faith in Matt 16.16 when Jesus asked who the disciples thought he was and Peter said: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’
Thomas’s response to Jesus is: ‘My Lord and my God!’
He doesn’t need to put his finger in the nail prints; he doesn’t need to feel the wound in Jesus’ side. He knows it’s Jesus; he knows He’s alive. He not only recognises it but he makes this powerful declaration: Jesus is his Lord and master, and Jesus is his God. Up to this point, no-one has actually said that. Once again, Thomas’s lack of understanding and belief have actually drawn out something more than would otherwise have been there.
- Being unsure of things, questioning, is not a bad thing – so long as we keep pushing against it and keep trying to push further into God than we already are. We might even get such a powerful answer that others will be blessed by it, too!
Of course, Jesus doesn’t quite let Thomas off the hook. He doesn’t exactly criticise him, but he does say something that is an encouragement for all of us:
‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ (v 29)
Don’t knock Thomas. None of the other disciples had believed without seeing, either! But the day was coming when that’s what would need to happen – Jesus would ascend into heaven and people like us would need to believe through simple faith in the message and the testimony of others (and maybe with some signs and wonders thrown in – although they don’t have as big an effect as we might expect).
After this, all we know for sure about Thomas is that he continued as part of the group of disciples. In John 21 we read that he went night fishing with Peter, Nathaniel, James & John and a couple of others disciples on the occasion when they caught nothing all night, but then Jesus called to them from the shore in the morning and told them to throw their nets over the other side of the boat. They caught a huge catch and then discovered that Jesus already had fish and bread cooking over a fire on the beach, ready for them. Proof, if you like, that God would provide for them as they later went out preaching the Gospel full time.
- We, too, need to learn that the Lord will provide what we need so that we can be his witnesses. Whether that’s finances, transport, courage, companions…
In Acts 1 Luke tells us that Thomas was part of the group that prayed and worshipped together in the lead-up to Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – the birth of the Church.
There is a strong tradition that Thomas, after perhaps another 20 years – in AD 52 – travelled to India and that there he preached about Jesus, baptised a number of disciples and established a number of churches in what is now the state of Kerala in south west India. There is quite a lot of supporting evidence for this in documents from the 3rd and 4th century and even in non-Christian Indian tradition.
The tradition also has it that Thomas was martyred – speared to death – in AD 72 on a hillside in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu on the eastern side of the subcontinent. The place is known as St Thomas Mount. He was then entombed in nearby Mylapore, although later his remains are supposed to have been taken back to Edessa in what is now Turkey.
A lot less certain, but nevertheless interesting, is an oral tradition amongst the Guarani tribes of Paraguay, South America – reported separately by Jesuit missionary priests who went there in the 1500s and 1700s – that “Saint Thomas” preached there, too. They told the Jesuits that they didn’t need priests because they had already received the message:
“We don’t need for priests, because Holy Father Thomé (Thomas the Apostle) walked on our homeland himself, and he taught us about the Truth, praying for us in the name of Jesus Christ”. (Quoted by Martin Dobrizhoffer, Austria 1784)
“…The paraguayan tribes they have this very curious tradition. They claim that a very holy man (Thomas the Apostle himself), whom they call “Paí Thome”, lived amongst them and preached to them the Holy Truth, wandering and carrying a wooden cross on his back”. (Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, Madrid 1639)
What are we to make of that? Not too much, perhaps. Except that all sorts of things are possible with God – and that it does look like Thomas was so profoundly convinced of who Jesus was that he was prepared to go to the ends of the earth to tell people about Him. Even if it got him killed.
Let’s encourage one another to be bold and to follow Jesus with all our heart and strength.