Believing Is Seeing
Easter II; April 28, 2019
Those who study such things have said that the age we are living in is very much like the age of the Apostles and the generations immediately after. We are seeing the crumbling of social institutions and the growth of inter-religious conflict, very much like the first centuries A.D. So it is appropriate to focus today on the work and witness of one of the Apostles.
The Second Sunday of Easter is often dedicated to talking about Thomas the Apostle, "Doubting Thomas," as we call him, although I don't think of him as doubting so much as a realist. One of the stories about Thomas in the Bible is from the evening of the Last Supper. Jesus has had the meal with them, he has washed their feet and talked with them, and they have gone out to the garden. As part of the conversation, Jesus said, "Where I am going, you cannot come." Peter (the outspoken one) said, "Where are you going? Why can't I come? Look, I'll die for you!" And that's when Jesus told him that he would deny even knowing him, three times deny it. Then Jesus added: Don't worry; where I'm going, you will eventually follow, and I'll prepare a place for you. And you know the way. That's when Thomas spoke up, "Lord, um, we don't know where you're going. How can we know the way?" And Jesus replied, "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life." Typically, Jesus' answer is beautiful, but probably frustrated Thomas a little. He's a realist; he's looking for a map.
Anyway, for whatever reason, Thomas wasn't present when Jesus came to them the Sunday evening following his resurrection. So Thomas didn't accept their testimony that what they had seen was Jesus raised from the dead; he figured they had seen a ghost. He didn't want a ghost; he wanted a living Lord. So you have our story: Thomas needs convincing that what they saw wasn't a ghost, but a living Jesus; Jesus offers him such proof and Thomas falls at his feet and declares, "My Lord and my God!" I don't know if Thomas took Jesus up on his offer and touched him, or if the vision and the offer were enough. Thomas was convinced that Jesus was alive, but Jesus offers a blessing to you and me, who believe not because we have seen, but who see because we believe. Jesus turns our usual statement around: Believing is seeing. If we want to see Resurrection, we need to believe in it. If we want to see improvements in human life on earth, we have to believe in them. If we want to see a vibrant, growing Church, we have to believe in it. It's true, isn't it? Believing is seeing.
Well, to move ahead a few weeks: Jesus finally did leave them, an event we observe on Ascension Day, and then the Holy Spirit came upon them in power, as we celebrate on Pentecost. And then the Apostles had to decide: What now? They stayed in Jerusalem for some time, but things started to heat up there, and the Church in Jerusalem was developing its own leadership, so it was time for them to go out to the world and tell people about the crucified and risen Messiah. Now, the rest of what I'm going to tell you about is a gathering of story and legend, none of it in the Bible. But it's a good story, worth telling.
They met around a map of the known world and cast lots to decide who should go where. Peter went to Rome, John to Ephesus, and so forth. Thomas got India. He said he was willing to go anywhere, but not India. "I'm a Hebrew; I can't go to India. That's too far east." That night he had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him and told him that he was to go to India. Thomas replied, "Lord, I'll go wherever you send me, but not to India." So he gathered his things and with two companions set out for Babylon. He figured that was far enough east for his taste.
And he was faithful to his calling. The three of them preached the Gospel of the crucified and risen Messiah and they founded churches. I should note that everywhere the Apostles went they founded churches; they knew – and we sometimes forget – that Christian faith is not a private matter, but something we do together. So they founded churches in and around Babylon, then Thomas returned to Jerusalem.
But Jesus wanted Thomas to go to India. So the story is that one day an Indian merchant named Abbanes came to the market in Jerusalem, and Jesus appeared to him. "You're looking for a carpenter to go to work for your King, aren't you?" Abbanes replied that he was. Jesus said to him, "My slave is a carpenter; I'll sell him to you." They agreed on a price and Jesus went to Thomas. Jesus took Thomas to Abbanes, who pointed to Jesus and said, "Is this your Master?" Thomas said he was. "Well, then, you're going with me to King Gundaphorus of India." Thomas went home for the night; in the morning he prayed and said to Jesus, "I will go wherever you send me." He went to Abbanes and together they went to India.
Thomas' job was to build a palace for King Gundaphorus. Thomas said he could do so, so the king gave him money to buy materials and to hire workers; Thomas gave the money to the poor. He told the king the palace was rising steadily, but the king grew suspicious. He went to the city and asked people about the new palace; they told him that Thomas hadn't been building any palace, but he had been going about teaching about a new God and helping the poor. He sent for Thomas: "Have you built me the palace?" Thomas said he had. "Well, when, when can we go and see it?" "After you die, Your Majesty, then you will see the palace you have funded." The king was furious and he put Thomas in prison, determined to kill him in a slow, painful way.
But then the king's dear brother Gad grew very ill; Gundaphorus was sad, because he loved his brother, and prepared to mourn him. But Gad revived, much to the king's delight. And Gad told him this story: "When I was near death, I had a vision of Heaven. I saw many beautiful palaces there, but one surpassed them all. I asked if I could live in a small room in that palace, but the angel who was showing me around said that I could not, because Thomas had built it for my brother. So now, brother Gundaphorus, I have returned to ask you to sell me your palace." The King replied that he was unable to sell him the palace, "but I know how you can have one for your own." So he set Thomas free, and both of them became Christians.
The story goes on that Thomas continued preaching and founding churches, moving east until he came to Mylapore. His preaching troubled those in power, because the Gospel claim that all persons – male and female, of every social class – are created in the image of God and are redeemed by Jesus Christ tends to undo a strict social hierarchy. So some of the locals killed him and he was buried there; the place of his martyrdom became a place of pilgrimage. In 1503, Vasco da Gama landed on the coast of India and was surprised to find Christians on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas the Apostle. He and other Europeans thought that as part of their work in opening trade routes to the East, they would also need to bring the Christian Gospel. And then he was astonished to discover there were already Christians in India.
The story of Thomas is mostly taken from a book called the Acts of Thomas; we cannot know how much historical truth there is in it. But it is clear that there have been Christians in India since the age of the apostles, that there is a Syrian Orthodox Church in India that traces its lineage to Thomas the Apostle, and that the Roman Catholic cathedral in Chennai (San Thome – St. Thomas) is said to be built over the tomb of St. Thomas.
Thomas may have started out believing because he had seen, but he became a witness to all who were willing to see because they believed. Though he was hesitant to accept that Jesus was indeed alive, when he saw him he made the good confession: "My Lord and my God!" And he acted on that confession to the end of his days. His work as an apostle survives, not only in India, but also wherever realists confess Jesus as "my Lord and my God" and act on that confession.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
The attached picture is the Cathedral of St. Thomas, Chennai, India