Casting doubt on 'Doubting Thomas'
A sermon for Easter 2 – Happy Easter to the Eastern Orthodox Church
Reading from John 20:19-31
A certain man arrived in the land of India; King Gundaphor asked him about his renowned skills as a builder, the man assured him he was amongst the most accomplished builders of the time and conducted a demonstration.
Pleased with the man’s demonstration of his skills, King Gundaphor commissioned him to build the royal palace and immediately entrusted him with a plentiful amount of money; instructing him to begin building in a certain part of the Kingdom.
As soon as the man received the money, he took it and distributed it amongst the poor and the most in need.
Time passed and the king sent emissaries to the place where the palace was to be built. King Gundaphor was astonished when he heard their report, that not even the foundations had been laid!
Seeing he had been duped, the King ordered the man be brought before him. ‘Did you build my palace? He raged,
‘yes’ replied the man calmly ‘but I did not build it where you asked’. King Gundaphor considered the man’s words deceitful and ordered he be skinned alive and cast into fire.
The King’s brother Gad, heard of the failure in the building of the palace and was so enraged that he dropped down dead on the spot; but he had been a good man in life and angels came and carried him to heaven – where they showed him the everlasting abodes that exist in heaven for those who have been spared from sin. Gad saw one particularly beautiful palace; he was so overwhelmed by the beauty and the magnitude and the extraordinary brightness that he implored the angels that he could live in but one room in that palace.
But the angels could not consent to the request, pointing out that the palace belonged to his brother King Gundaphor and that it had been build for him by someone from a foreign land by the name of Thomas.
Gad, understanding that Thomas was soon to be put to death implored the angels with an even greater zeal to return him to his body. To save the apostle from death and because of His mercy God allowed it.
King Gundaphor rushed to his brother’s body when heard that he lived again. Gad awoke from death saying ‘If you love me brother, fulfil my request and let me live in the beautiful palace which Thomas the Christian has build for you in heaven.’
The King listening to the words carefully, understood that the apostle Thomas was truly an apostle of God and a lover of man, forthwith the King’s soul was enlightened by the brilliance of faith and he said to his brother ‘let me introduce you to the builder who made it, whom I can no longer kill and perhaps he can make a similar palace on your behalf’.
Thereafter Thomas baptised all of them and throngs of Indian people alongside them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
This is taken from a Greek Orthodox monastic text from the 11th Century, known as the Philokalia. It is a spiritual guide to the Christian monks of the Eastern Church. It gives us more insight into the man that western Church call ‘Doubting Thomas’ but scripture only calls him ‘the twin’. Scholars debate if he is the twin of Matthew the tax collector or perhaps of the disciple James; some of the Nag Hammadi gnostic texts even have him as twin to Jesus. Regardless of all this, there is cause to look at Thomas more closely.
The Apostle Thomas is much more than a man who hesitated in his faith in a moment of fear, which if we are honest is a universal human trait; Thomas is the one who at first shows a lack of spiritual understanding when Jesus speaks of his impending resurrection at the last supper.
‘I go to prepare a place for you... and you know the way to where I am going’, Thomas replies ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? To which Jesus makes one of the ‘I am statements’
I am myself the way, the truth, and the life.
Thomas shows no doubt when Jesus says he needs to return to Bethany to raise Lazarus; Bethany is close to Jerusalem and there is a realistic chance the authorities would find him and kill him. Thomas pronounces in 11:16 ‘let us also go, so that we might die with him’.
In the gospel reading today we read of the disciples in fear, they have returned to the upper room where they had happily shared the Passover meal with Jesus, their safe space, where He had inaugurated the first eucharist- but the disciples are tense.
Whilst at their most fearful, most despairing, Jesus appears and speaks peace to them. He also gives them the John equivalent of Matthews great commission: ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you’. Jesus also imparts the holy spirit upon them.
And Thomas misses it.
It’s not that he doubts, Thomas is a good disciple: willing to die for Christ and asking the right questions, all he wants is a deeper more personal connection with the Lord that the others just shared. Is it really doubt or just disappointment?
Eight days later is significant in Hebrew theology. Where the number 7 marks completion and perfection, 8 marks the beginning of a new reality.
Jesus appears to Thomas.
Put your finger here, look at my hands, touch my side: despite the famous painting by Caravaggio there is nothing in scripture that indicates Thomas does any of those things. The word spoken by Christ is enough!
Thomas is the only disciple, in all scripture, to proclaim Jesus ‘my Lord and my God’. It is the climax of the Gospel of John, what John’s good news is all about. What began in John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the Word was God’ is completed in John 20:28 ‘my Lord and my God’– what theologians call an inclusio, the two bookends that hold the entirety of the information.
The word was enough for Thomas. He may’ve missed the commissioning from Christ and the imputing of the Holy Spirit, but just hearing the word took him further than any of the other disciples.
In AD52 Thomas travelled beyond the known world of the time and entered India, Eastern Orthodox tradition holds he even went as far as Indonesia. The new reality that came about that evening led to the acts of the Apostles that we also read about. Not only did they live for Christ many of them died for Christ as he died for them. ‘Doubting’ Thomas was one of them around AD70 and remains the Patron Saint of India.
‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ says Jesus.
The gospel of John was the last of the written gospels, around AD 80: Thomas had already been martyred for his faith, and those who had personal experience with Christ and with his apostles were becoming much fewer. But there was, and still remains plenty that can be seen and believed that mark the legacy of the faithful.
We have the words of Jesus too which we can believe in; and we can see what those words have achieved in the history of mankind, and we cannot foresee what they will achieve in the future.
We should continue to believe.