On Relics and Real Faith

Morning Message – John Cline

John 20:19-31; Reader: Linda Adutwum

While the veneration of “relics’, a “relic” being a body part or some other item associated with a past “saint”, is virtually unknown in English-speaking Canada, in other places the veneration of relics is common. Relics are steeped in legends or traditions, some of them truthful, most of them not. The first time I ever saw relics was when I was 21 years of age, still a relatively young Christian, and I was in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. I was surprised by the crowds, only to learn that tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way to that cathedral every year. Why? To venerate and worship at the relics contained therein; the supposed remains of the “Three Kings” as well as the alleged three crowns that each “King” wore on their heads when they visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. A plaque at the cathedral reads about the “Three Kings”: “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, they met one last time in Armenia. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died. St. Melchior on Jan. 1, age 116; St. Balthasar on Jan. 6th, age 112; and St. Gaspar on Jan. 11, age 109.” Even though I didn’t know the Bible really well at that point, I did know enough to doubt the authenticity of those relics, for I knew that the Bible called those visitors to Jesus, following his birth, “Magi”, not “kings”, and that though the Bible states there were three kinds of gifts given by the Magi to Jesus, nowhere does the Bible say that there were three Magi – there may have been five or ten! Well, today, we will be reading about a man, one of the original 12 apostles of Jesus, who similarly has had many “relics” attached to him. This is unfortunate for his life as a follower of Jesus was solid, a testimony of what a faithful Christian looks like. This man was Thomas, “Doubting Thomas”. The Postal Department of India in 1964 produced a stamp showing a medieval painting of Thomas:

Project stamp of Thomas LxGvZzrRFtFLhHPzKSsfzDrSLqcxhL?projector=1&messagePartId=0.3

Now why would the Postal Department of India have produced a commemorative stamp of Thomas? It was for public relations purposes

as Pope Paul VI was on a pilgrimage to India to visit the “relic” spots of Thomas. Now, here in 2023, India is much richer and more powerful on the world stage than it was in 1964 and thus it would not today feel the need for the approval of the Pope or the world to achieve its purposes. As well, the current Indian government is controlled by hardline Hindu militants, so no chance that such a stamp would be produced today. In India, though, Thomas (known there as the “Apostle of India”) is still much appreciated by the general populace.

He was born with the name Didymus Judas Thomas. Didymus meant “twin” so likely he was such, born in humble circumstances in Galilee. He lived there until answering Jesus’ call to follow him. Little is said about Thomas in Matthew, Mark, or Luke’s Gospel books, other than he was one of the 12 apostles, but in the Gospel of John, he figures prominently in three well-known chapters and events. Linda Adutwum will read as we hear, first, from chapter 11. There, Jesus and his disciples were on the east side of the Jordan River when they received the news that Jesus’ good friend Lazarus had died. Initially, Jesus delayed rushing to Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha or to their town of Bethany, Judea, located two miles from Jerusalem, but after two days,

And then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” (John 11:7,8)

At least some of the disciples didn’t want to go back to Judea as danger for Jesus’ life lurked there. But they could not dissuade Jesus.

So, then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:14-16)

Thomas differed from the other apostles in that he was willing to go with Jesus to Judea, and, if necessary, die with him. Leaving that event and going next to chapter 14, we read how, after their Last Supper, Jesus was comforting his disciples as the gravity hit them of Jesus’ message to them that he would soon be arrested and crucified.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:1-5)

Thomas’ inquisitive mind and questions then led Jesus to utter one of the most cherished and revealing phrases in the New Testament:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Chapter 11 showed that Thomas was a courageous and faithful follower of Jesus. Chapter 14 shows that Thomas was an inquisitive question-asker and truth-seeker. We will see that again as go now to chapter 20, picking it up at where we finished off last Easter Sunday:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked in fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:18-23)

There was an issue, though, with that appearance of Jesus.

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So, the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24,25)

It is unfortunate that Thomas was given the monicker “Doubting Thomas” from that incident, for really, he wasn’t a doubter but a “skeptic”, a word, in its purest sense which applies to a person who is thoughtful and inquiring. Thomas was nobody’s fool. He wanted evidence before he would believe that seemingly impossible thing; that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Thomas was not a person who refused to believe. He just needed proofs or, as the apostle John called them, “signs”, in order to believe.

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (John 20:26,27)

Project painting: The Incredulity of Thomas (touching nail marks)

Once Thomas was given needed proofs, listen to how he responded:

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)

There is no more decisive statement made anywhere in the New Testament about Jesus’ divinity than this one. To Thomas’ confession of faith, though, Jesus, aware that future generations of believers would not have the privilege of seeing his resurrected body, added an important statement for Thomas and all coming after him:

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Jesus, in no way, belittled Thomas’ momentary refusal to believe without being shown some proofs. Instead, Jesus was assuring others who would come after him that the blessings of seeing and entering the Kingdom of God would still come to them through their experience of being “born again”, just as Jesus had earlier said way back in John 3. Chapter 20 finishes with two verses that we have already mentioned several times in this series through John, verses that tell us the purpose behind John’s decision-making regarding which miracles of Jesus he would write about in his Gospel book:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30,31)

The greatest of those miraculous “signs” that John hoped would lead people to believing in Jesus was, of course, his resurrection, but returning now to Thomas being in India, how did that come about? After his resurrection – before his ascension – Jesus said to his apostles,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18b-20)

As we know, they didn’t go to “all the nations” right away but instead stayed in Jerusalem, experiencing the Holy Spirit coming upon them at Pentecost, and then the incredible growth of the early church in Jerusalem. In 44 A.D. the first of the apostles to die for being a Christian was put to death by sword on the orders of King Herod Agrippa. He had the apostle James, the brother of John, killed for refusing to bow down before him but to serve Jesus only. Following that, the remaining apostles decided it was time to take the Gospel to all the nations, and so, after a time of praying to God, they divided up the known world. Matthew was assigned to take the Gospel to Ethiopia, Philip to Greece, Andrew to Scythia (which includes today’s Ukraine and Russia), Judas Thaddeus to Armenia, Bartholomew to Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq and Iran), etc., and Thomas was sent to Parthia (which comprised today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India).

When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s fleet of ships reached India in 1498 A.D., they were surprised to find Christian communities thriving in the south of the subcontinent. They were even more surprised by the locals’ insistence that their church had been established in the first century by the Apostle Thomas. They shouldn’t have been surprised, though, for countless travellers in the centuries before them, including Marco Polo, had already report that to the European and Roman Catholic authorities, declaring that not only had Thomas gone there, but his grave was still there, as well.

What we need to understand is that, for many centuries, India was the trading world’s most profitable destination because of its’ spices. India was the magnet that drew Europe to the East. When Christopher Columbus in the late 1400’s discovered the Americas, he famously concluded that he had reached India, and thus the name the “West Indies” was given to a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea. But well before Vasco da Gama, or Marco Polo, or Christopher Columbus, even prior to Thomas or Jesus in the first century A.D., trade-routes between Europe and Asia, particularly between Greece and India, were well-established. There was the famous overland Great Silk Road that stretched from Europe to China, touching at the top of Afghanistan, then in the northernmost tip of India, but also there was the heavily used sea-route in which boats were pushed along in 40 days by the monsoon winds from the Red Sea to Kerala, southern India. Many Greeks moved to Kerala, India for the money they could earn there from the trading of goods. As well, Jewish people had moved to Kerala in 583 B.C., after having fled for their lives following the destruction by the Babylonians of Jerusalem.

By the first century, A.D., Syriac, which was a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jews such as Thomas, as well as Greek, the “lingua franca” spoken throughout Europe and Asia, were both spoken in Kerala. In fact, the Syriac language is still widely used by some churches in Kerala today, an incontrovertible link to someone, most likely, Thomas, having earlier come from Judea to Kerala to establish Christianity with its resultant churches there. The evidence of Thomas’s presence in India is considerable. His original grave is there though many of his bones and parts of his body, have been moved to different “relic” pilgrimage sites and churches in Iraq, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. However, there are still “relic” spots in India associated with Thomas. In south-western India, there is a church built over the spot that, one time while travelling through Kerala, and faced with hostile natives, Thomas reportedly fled to a hilltop where he remained in prayer for such a long time that he left his footprints on one of the rocks, while at the spot where, with his finger, he made the sign of the cross on the rocks, a golden cross emerged. Churches are built over those spots. In south-eastern India, there is a church built which holds the supposed sword that was used in murdering Thomas.

Those traditions and legends are widely believed by the general populace in India, though born-again Protestant and Evangelical Christians do not share in their veneration. I personally have a lot of difficulties with the believing of such legends and the veneration of such relics. But Thomas was a good man. He is believed to have visited India in two phases. His first mission took him overland on the Great Silk Road through Syria and into the Parthian empire in the Indo-Scythian border province of Kandahar (modern-day Afghanistan). King Gundapar, who ruled there, allowed Thomas to preach the gospel in his kingdom. For 10 centuries, the existence of such a king was doubted and thus the story of Thomas going to India was derided, that is, until archaeologists in the late 19th century discovered in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and in the Punjab, India, a large number of coins bearing King Gundapar’s name and those coins indicated that he ruled between 20 and 45 A.D., just as Indian Christians have always claimed. Now, one of the legends about that king was that he gave Thomas money to build him a palace for his kingdom and Thomas gave all the money to the poor. Enraged, the king demanded to know why Thomas had not yet built him a palace, and Thomas answered by saying that he had been building a palace, just a heavenly one. Whether or not there is any truth to that legend, after King Gundapar’s death, opposition to Thomas’ Gospel message grew in Kandahar. So, facing intense opposition, Thomas took a boat to the southwest part of India, landing near Kochi, on the Malabar Coast, in Kerala, in 52 A.D.

Project map of southern India

There, Thomas led many people to Christ, starting with Jewish populace living there, but then extending his mission to include the immigrant Greeks as well as the local people groups. He is said – who knows if these numbers are accurate – to have planted 7 churches and converted and baptized 17,550 people. We can’t be sure about those numbers, but when we think about it, the history of Christianity in India is much longer than among my German or British ancestors. For how many centuries have your relatives been Christian? Almost 2,000 years for the people of Kerala is so exciting and rich. The same can be said for Armenia, Greece, Italy, Ethiopia, etc. – the places the apostles of Jesus went to in the first century. The lasting presence of Christianity speaks to the power of the Gospel to change both lives and societies.

Many Christians in Kerala claim their last name from Thomas or other Biblical figures. Think of the members of our church who are from Kerala (they should be preaching this sermon, not me!): we have the Matthew, Daniel, and Joseph/Ipe families. And, they have introduced us to their Keralite friends the Paul, Abrahham, Jacob, and Joseph families, amongst others. George and Mary Daniel gifted me with this Indian suit. The biblical last names for Indian people from Kerela all speak to the Christian heritage found in that region. In fact, the members of The Chaldean Syrian Christians of the Orthodox Church in India, as well as other traditional Catholic and Orthodox churches are called the “Saint Thomas Christians of India”.

Now, everywhere that there are cultural churches which declare that a person is born a Catholic or an Orthodox or whatever, problems come when a person in that community experiences being born again by the Holy Spirit. That is a challenge among the historic churches in Kerala, as it is in other places, as well. Also, the well-known and venerated “relic” pilgrimage sites that those historic churches cherish make it a challenge for evangelists to have the Gospel message clearly heard because everyone has heard – and tend to believe – the many legends that are known in the land. The truth about Jesus and his faithful servants such as Thomas are not easily shared or heard, but still faithful witnesses today proclaim the Gospel message in those places.

In any case, after being in Kerala for a couple of decades, Thomas is known to have crossed the southern portion of the subcontinent, ending up on the south-eastern coast of India in the Madras/Chennai area. Under his preaching, the wife of the King became a believer and thus a follower of Jesus. The king was not happy! A tradition states that Thomas refused when the king ordered him to make religious sacrifices to a Hindu idol. Miraculously, the idol shattered into pieces when Thomas was forced to approach it. The king was so enraged that he ordered his Hindu high priest to kill Thomas and that he did, thrusting a sword into Thomas’ side. The date of the stabbing was Dec. 18th, 72 A.D, and three days later, on Dec. 21st, Thomas died.

Project painting of the martyrdom of Thomas

Ironically, Thomas had demanded to place his hand in Jesus’ side before he would believe in his resurrection, only to himself die from having his own side pierced. His physical death which led to his spiritual resurrection, occurred on the third day after being pierced in the side, just as was true with Jesus. Whether or not those ironies resonate with you, we do know that Thomas was reunited with his Lord Jesus for all of eternity on December 21st, 72 A.D. Thomas took the Gospel message, of salvation through Jesus, 5,000 kilometers away from his home in Galilee to the people in India. He ministered for 29 years there. He rattled many people with the Gospel message, and it ended up costing him his life, but his legacy of having so many people become disciples of Jesus has lasted for almost 2,000 years. To summarize, is there anything we can learn from Thomas the “Apostle to India’s”, life? Yes, six things, I would state:

1: We must be loyal to the Lord unto death.
2: We must be willing to be taught by Jesus.
3: We must believe and not doubt when the requested proofs are given.
4. We must understand that Christ’s resurrection means that the story is never over for we his followers, until we are united with him in heaven.
5: We must continue doing the work of the Lord, and not give up, even if we mess up at times.
6: We must never venerate or worship “relics” or false idols, but only Jesus, and address Jesus as Thomas did, by saying to him and about him, “My Lord and my God.” Amen!

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