Thomas the Apostle to India
It has been 1,950 years since Thomas the Apostle first set foot in India. The church that he started there tells the tale still, all these centuries later – how he came and baptized, started seven churches, and eventually was martyred at the hands of a Brahman who objected to having his close relatives converted.
I am awed by this, by all the souls who owe an understanding of Christ to this one heir of the Way. St. Thomas is very much alive in the hearts of the descendents of the people he served.
Growing up, I was taught to disparage Thomas. He was, after all, the Doubter, the one who questioned his brothers’ account of Jesus’ appearance among them in the upper room on Easter night. Doubter – bad – of no account – so ran my childhood view. I thought that not doubting was an essential part of being a good Christian. My brittle assertion that Jesus was real, the Son of God, was something I hung onto for dear life, lest I unexpectedly die in the midst of a stray doubting thought and be thrown into hell.
Thomas got a very visceral demonstration of the real presence of Jesus after his resurrection. It was the opposite of the encounter Mary got, in which she was told not to touch. The mysterious thing Jesus called “ascending to his God” happened in between. Did Mary doubt less or more because of the quality of her encounter? Was Thomas’ experience proof against further doubt? How about the other apostles: did they doubt?
My guess as to the answers to these questions would be: no, no, yes. For me, maturing as a Christian has meant understanding that doubt is the outbreath of faith. It happens rhythmically and ceaselessly, and it is through its occurrence that faith takes hold of the whole person. Without it I would still be that brittle teenager, able to express my doubt about everything else except Jesus – and useless to anybody needing God’s love.
The St. Thomas Christians in India have for centuries lived in tension with the Roman Catholics who came in the wake of Portuguese explorers and colonizers taking advantage of the spice trade in the 15th and 16th Centuries. St. Thomas Christians have a Syriac liturgy and embrace practices that resemble those of the early church in Jerusalem. The Catholics wanted to force them to use Latin liturgies and to embrace the dogma of the Roman church.
I am in sympathy with the more ancient church, even though their doctrines and practices are foreign to me in many ways. There is something quite compelling about a church whose roots reach deeply and uniquely through both Indian and Palestinian history. And in the tradition and practices of this church are the echoes of St. Thomas, a different voice from that of St. Paul.
Thomas, the man who put his hands in the wounds of Jesus, the saint whose miracles and healings are still sending sound waves through the spiritual ether of humanity, beckons us to find our ministry and live it out. Let us be doubters. Let us be believers. Foremost, let us speak God’s yearning in the language that is closest to our hearts, so that others may find their way home.