Continuing in last week’s apostolic theme, let’s discuss St. Thomas now. The Gospel of John is the only Gospel in which Thomas turns up as more than a name in a list. The first occasion is John 11:16. Jesus is going to go to Judaea, where it is likely that the leaders will kill him. Thomas (called Didymus — which means “Twin”) demonstrates his zeal for the Lord, saying:
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
These words demonstrate that, regardless of how much Thomas understood at this stage of the game, he was committed to Jesus and to Jesus’ mission. He was willing to join Jesus on a life-threatening undertaking, willing to die with him. Such faith is impressive.
In John 20, Thomas turns up again in the famous “Doubting” Thomas story. When Jesus first appears to the disciples after the Resurrection, Thomas isn’t there. In the film The Gospel of John, we see Thomas at the market buying some food for the others. He says that he won’t believe it and that he would have to put his hand in Jesus’ wrists and side before he would believe.
This unbelief is no more remarkable than that of the other disciples when Mary Magdalene and the women tell them the same Resurrection story, so we ought to be more gentle on poor St. Thomas and his reputation.
Jesus appears again to them, and when Thomas sees Him, rather than touching the wounds (as I saw him do in the Chester Mystery Plays), immediately falls to Jesus’ feet and worships Him, saying, “My Lord and my God!”
This is an appropriate reaction.
Thomas was also present for Jesus’ appearance on the shore when he and several other disciples were fishing together as recounted on John 21. Given this tidbit of evidence, St. Thomas was likely a Galilean, and like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, was a fisherman.
And like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Christ made Thomas a fisher of men.
With our Eurocentric view of Christianity, we tend to view the great spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire as being facilitated entirely by Roman sea-routes and roads and the widespread use of Greek as the common language of the Hellenistic world.
However, when we observe the pattern of movement in Acts, we see that the Apostles are not simply travelling throughout the Roman Empire, but are travelling throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The first place they would go in each city was the synagogue, and if there was no synagogue, they would find whatever Jews and God-fearers there were and preach to them the Good News of Jesus. Thus the Church spread beyond the borders of Rome to the diaspora in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.
Did you know that there is a Jewish diaspora in India?
According to Wikipedia, they arrived in Cochin, Kerala, about 2500 years ago and in Maharashtra 2100 years ago; others have arrived elsewhere more recently. According to tradition, St. Thomas arrived in India about 2000 years ago. Given the trade routes between the Eastern Mediterranean and India, such as from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean or the Silk Road, it is entirely plausible for a Jewish person to have made his way there, probably enjoying the hospitality of his fellow Jews of the diaspora along the way.
According to the Acts of Thomas, once he was in India, St. Thomas went about preaching celibacy.
I know, right? You were probably thinking, “Jesus.” Or “Eternal life.” No. Celibacy. He shows up in the bedchamber of a royal wedding and convinces them to live together “chastely” rather than have sex. And somehow, this manages to convert the king and various other persons in India.
St. Thomas continued preaching in India and the Church was founded there. He ended up being martyred, no surprise if the Acts have anything to say about his method of evangelisation. This martyrdom was after he converted a king’s wife, and he was pierced with spears by four soldiers. Thus, the spear is part of his iconography.
In 1498 when the Portuguese showed up in India, they met Mar Thoma Christians who worshipped in Syriac and claimed descent from St. Thomas. Because of the various activities of Roman Catholic and Protestant (esp. Anglican) missions in India, the Mar Thoma Christians have become divided amongst themselves (yay western Christianity!). They are mainly in Kerala (notably where one of the Jewish diasporae is found in India).
His feast used to be December 21 (BCP), but is now on July 3 (BAS). Celebrate accordingly.