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Sermon for St. Thomas the Apostle

A sermon preached by The Reverend Canon Dr. David Anderson at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, Oakville, on the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, Wednesday, July 3, 2024.

I speak to you in the name God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we remember St. Thomas the Apostle, sometimes called ‘Thomas the Twin,’ often known as ‘Doubting Thomas’ (more about that later). Thomas makes four appearances in the Bible, all of them in the Gospel according to St. John, and three of these times John gives Thomas a speaking part. Clearly Thomas was one of Jesus’ closest followers, but of what happened later in his life, there is little evidence, but no shortage of faithful tradition.

Tradition has it that Thomas as an apostle was quite a traveller. He is said to have travelled from Jerusalem across the Middle East, through Persia and all the way to south India, telling the good news of Jesus in all the places where he went. Tradition tells us that he founded a church in south India, near modern day Kerala. That Mar Thoma Church, named after him, still exists and thrives today, and is a church in full communion with Canterbury, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Thomas was called by Jesus, sent by him, and empowered by the Holy Spirit faithfully went about the mission into which he was called. As he travelled, what was it that sustained him? What was it that he had to share with the people he met along the way?

As I mentioned, St. Thomas is mentioned four times in John’s Gospel, in various encounters with Jesus. I believe that there are four characteristics of Thomas that stand out in these various texts which might help us to answer some of our questions about Thomas.

The first time we encounter Thomas what stands out is his strong commitment for something greater than himself, a cause, a purpose, for which he is completely willing to give himself totally. In John 11, as Jesus turned and began his final journey to Jerusalem, beginning that long road that would lead ultimately to his arrest, trial, condemnation, and crucifixion, the other disciples warn Jesus about the danger that awaited him, seeming to discourage his intention to embark on the way. They say, “Rabbi, the [Jewish leaders] were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?” (11:8). But John tells us, “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (11:16). It’s a very dramatic statement! Some have argued that Thomas couldn’t have really understood what he was saying, although his statement seems quite unambiguous as to the consequences to me. What is clear is that Thoms had an undoubted passion and commitment in following Jesus. His following went far beyond his own personal desires and plans. I am sure he was convinced that the mission he was caught up in—which is to say, Jesus’ own mission—would change the world.

The next time we encounter Thomas, I believe that he is no less committed, but I might say that he does seem less confident. In John 14, the disciples have just finished sharing the Last Supper with the Lord and Jesus is trying to prepare them for what is to come. On the eve of his death, he is comforting his disciples as he and they will confront his death. Jesus talks to them about going to prepare a place for them and he promises, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also” (14:3). And then Jesus adds, “And you know the way to the place where I am going” (14:4). Thomas objects, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” (14:5). Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). Jesus had claimed, “you know.” Thomas asks, “how can we know?” Questions. Thomas has perfectly logical and obvious questions, and he is not afraid to ask them.

In a similar vein, after the resurrection, indeed on the Day of Resurrection, as told in John 20, we have what is likely the most well-known passage concerning Thomas, the one from which he gained the unfortunate nickname, ‘Doubting Thomas.’ Thomas was not present on that evening when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. When his friends tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord, he does not believe, but instead demands proof of his own, saying, “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” (20:25). Thomas has doubts, and he expresses them.

And finally, a week later, still in John 20, Jesus appears again to his disciples and Thomas is there this time. And Thomas’ demand is honoured. Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out you hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe” (20:27). Thomas has this profound experience of the risen Lord; he touches and sees, and he responds with a powerful statement of faith. Five words of unwavering faith and insight: “My Lord and my God” (20:28).

So, there we have five characteristics we can lift up as we remember Thomas: commitment, questions, doubt, and faith. These are gifts that Thomas shared with the world and are gifts he still gives to us today. Some might wonder about this. Commitment and faith certainly seem like gifts, but questions and doubt? One thing that is true about gifts, for them to truly as gifts, they must be acted upon. Commitment and faith have to be enacted in order to bear fruit. Likewise, questions and doubts can be gifts when they are asked and shared. It is no good just letting commitment and faith circle around in our heads and hearts without acting upon them. The same is true of questions and doubts. If Thomas and his community of disciples were going receive any reassurance to their doubts, or answers to their questions, then it was going to be essential that they stay close to Jesus and not be afraid to express their thinking. It might have been easier to bury the questions or doubts, but to do so would be to close their eyes and ears and hearts to the answers. Perhaps those answers would not be what they were hoping to hear, and perhaps the answers might lead to consequences they would rather avoid, but his questions and doubts opened him and all of us to deeper understanding. Thomas’ questions and doubts cue up for us some of the greatest statements of faith in all of scripture:

  • How can we know the way? … I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
  • Do not doubt, but believe. … My Lord and my God.

Thomas’ life was shaped by his honest encounters with Jesus. Along the way, the raw, uninformed passion of Thomas was formed into a strong commitment of faith that sustained him as he continued in Jesus’ mission long after Jesus had ascended to the Father. That faith we can be sure sustained him as his experience in that mission threw up more questions and doubts along the way, which in turn must certainly have given him even more treasures to share along the way.

Commitment. Questions. Doubt. Faith.

Most certainly this is also our experience as faithful people seeking to follow Jesus in our own day. This is our experience. It is surely the case that along the way with our commitment and faith we too have questions and doubts. Hopefully there are causes that still stir us up to want to do something. What is our faith calling us to do? Along the way we will have questions for God and doubts too. And that is why we need each other as we share this journey with Jesus.

Thomas was called and sent and went with commitment and faith, with questions and doubts, even as we go. Where is God calling you and sending you today? May we find in this community as place where we can share not only our commitment and faith, but our questions and doubts too.