His name is on the noticeboard, but how much do we really know about Thomas?
He’s mentioned in all the gospels, but it’s only in John’s gospel that we really find out anything about his character, and I like him a lot – probably because he seems to me to be a bit of an introvert and someone who doesn’t let certainty come too easily (a bit like me) as well as being a man of great faith and courage (as I’d like to be…).
We don’t know much about his background before Jesus called him to follow, though tradition says that (like Jesus) he was a carpenter or builder. He’s sometimes called ‘The Twin’, but we have no real idea about who his brother or sister may have been. He was probably from Galilee, like most of the other apostles, but we can’t be sure.
Faithful, but not exactly cheerful!
The first time that we meet Thomas as an individual is in John 11:16. Jesus has just told his disciples that he is going to the home of Lazarus and his family, near Jerusalem. It will be dangerous, and the disciples try to persuade him to stay in Galilee. He insists, and Thomas says to them all ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Not the most positive and cheerful companion perhaps, but it’s clear that his devotion to Jesus was so great that he would rather die with him than live without him.
Perhaps that’s not a bad test of the depth of our faith – when it comes down to it, how far would we go to be with Jesus? How much will we endure because we are sure that we are on the right path in life, before sitting down and letting Jesus go on without us?
The one who dares to question
You probably remember some occasion, perhaps at school, when you were in a group and a teacher or someone else had explained something – or at least, thought they had explained something – but you didn’t really understand. And you didn’t want to embarrass yourself by admitting that you didn’t understand, because you assumed that everyone else did. Perhaps you also remember – or can imagine – the relief when someone else spoke up and admitted to not understanding, so that the teacher explained again. Probably at least half the class shared your relief!
Thomas was the pupil who’d ask. At the Last Supper, in John 14:1-6, Jesus speaks of how he is opening the way for his disciples and for us to come to the Father. He says ‘you know the way to the place where I am going’ and the other disciples all nod sagely, hoping that someone will explain later. Thomas speaks up. ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ That leads Jesus to his wonderful words, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’ and to the promise that he will not leave us to find our own way to heaven – he will take us there.
Jesus then goes on to his longest recorded section of teaching in chapters 14-16, preparing his disciples for life after Easter. If Thomas hadn’t spoken up, how much of this might we have missed!?
I think part of being St Thomas’ Church is being willing to speak up when we don’t understand something about faith and life – almost always to find that we’re not the only one who’s confused!
Slow to believe? Or Deep in understanding?
The best-known incident in Thomas’ life, and the one which is shown in the window above the sanctuary, is of course after Jesus’ resurrection. For whatever reason, Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus came to them on the evening of Easter Day. Perhaps he’d been sent for the chips, or perhaps he just needed to be on his own for a while. He missed Jesus’ return, and announced that he would not believe until he had the evidence of his own senses. A week later, he was there when Jesus returned, and immediately worshipped Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God.’
I think he refused to believe what he desperately wanted to – that Jesus was alive – because he, more than the others, realised what it would mean. Jesus’ defeat of death showed him to be more than a carpenter, more than a rabbi or even a prophet. Thomas’ reaction to Jesus was not one of relief, but of awe and joy.
Is it part of being St Thomas’ church to be willing to admit our doubts? I think so – for the real doubts we express are often the signs of a real faith that seeks understanding. The only doubts that really cause a problem are the ones we use as excuses not to act on what we do know!
Sent by God
After Pentecost, we don’t read of Thomas in the Bible, but there’s a lot of tradition and evidence that he travelled to South India (modern Kerala) where there are churches who trace their history directly back to him. A good reminder, in a multi-cultural town, that Christianity was planted in India before the gospel was ever heard on these shores. Tradition tells us that he was murdered with a spear – an echo of the wounds which brought him to worship, perhaps – and buried near Madras, though his body was later moved to Rome.
Maybe a third strand in being St Thomas’ Church in more than name is this – to be willing to be led and sent by God to wherever he may want us to serve. That may be Kerala, or it may be next door. But let’s serve God and honour our patron saint Thomas by living an honest, questioning and courageous faith as he did.
Don’t believe everything you hear!
Thomas’ name appears in a lot of texts from the second century onwards which come out of the Gnostic tradition which ended up with some ideas very different from those of Jesus and the apostles. The best known is the Gospel of Thomas, which isn’t a gospel at all, but a collection of sayings, some from the gospels and some reflecting Gnostic ideas from much later then Jesus. It’s not a secret, whatever Dan Brown says – let me know if you’d like to read a copy! But it’s not a good source for understanding Jesus and Christian faith. – it tends to take us out of this world, as if faith was something just about our thoughts and prayers, not how we live day by day.
Why did so much end up being written in Thomas’ name? Perhaps his name was a safer one to take and use around the Mediterranean than those of the other apostles who’d actually founded churches there rather than a thousand miles away in India! Perhaps, then, Thomas can remind us of one last thing. Don’t believe everything you hear, even if you want to, but check it out before you act on it! The Rev’d Nick Watson
This article was first published in the St Thomas’ Church Magazine, June 2016