On Tuesday, I had an exploration morning. I went to the top of a hill here in Chennai called St. Thomas Mount, the reputed site of the place where St. Thomas was martyred.
I have so many questions.
Thomas was one of twelve disciples we read about in the Biblical texts. Thomas is said to be a twin (not sure why this is particularly important). But he is also the disciple known as “doubting Thomas”, largely because after the resurrection of Jesus, when told by the others of this miraculous event, Thomas said, prove it.
But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.”
But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.” Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”
Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”
Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” John 22:24-29 The Message
Why did Thomas need proof? Why would he not believe his closest friends? Was he so disillusioned by the events that unfolded that he was not going to get his hopes up again? What was he hoping for as a follower of Jesus anyway? What did the last three years of following mean to him? And it was 8 days between the first encounter with Jesus and the second, what was Thomas thinking in the in-between time? How were the other disciples treating him and his doubts?
The message of Jesus was/is so counter-cultural, so anti-religious that for doubters like Thomas who had perhaps given up the hope that their religion was going to save them, comfort them or deliver them, following Jesus meant EVERYTHING. It meant everything to be part of healing, restoration, hope, of inclusion. It meant everything to know deep down that the religious rhetoric and rules of his day were cracked and frayed, they did not bring life and light in the way that God intended, that Jesus fully embodied.
If I was Thomas, I would be pissed too.
And I am curious about Thomas’ declaration after touching the Jesus with holes and nail marks, that imperfect body housing a perfect saviour, “My Master, My God!” Why these words? What meaning did they convene at that moment for this guy who felt disillusioned and alone once again?
Jesus was real and he was who he said he was.
Jesus told them he would not abandon them.
The movement started by Jesus, enlisting and empowering the disciples to go and do likewise, they were in this together. Something altogether new was about to begin and Thomas was part of it.
Identity, truth, belonging.
Isn’t that what we all crave?
I have never stopped loving Jesus. I deeply love people. I have stopped loving the church.
Well the co-opted western evangelical institutionalized church. And I don’t romanticize the early church either. And if you go to a church you love, great! Really.
Yet I have a lot of experience with the church (about 48 years worth, give or take). I have done a fair bit of study of theology and ecclesia (fancy Greek word for the “assembly of citizens” i.e. church). And I have experienced prolific sexism, distortion, lying, misogyny, racism, othering, shaming, exclusion, misapplication of biblical texts inside those stained glass sanctuaries.
So I have my doubts.
And I am willing to hold them in tension with my ever evolving faith and all the beauty and soul-giving nourishment I have experienced with sisters and brothers and others within and outside of the church over the years.
Here in the city where St .Thomas came with his doubting moniker trailing behind him (or ahead of him or within him), I feel at home.
I have sat in more tiny chapels these past two weeks than I have for 2 years. Exhale.
Back to Thomas…Why on earth did he come to SE India?
It is a well known historical fact that Christianity was first introduced into India by St Thomas. After the Death and Resurrection of Christ, Thomas became acquainted with Habban, a merchant of king Gondophare of India. It was in the company of this merchant that Thomas landed at Cranganore on the Malabar Coast of present day Kerala in 52 A.D.
After building seven churches on this coast, St Thomas crossed over to Coromandel Coast of India's eastern seaboard and enriched the southern part of India with the seeds of the Gospel in a land that had never known what this Gospel of salvation was. It was a hard fight which made him to go into hiding in the Little Mount. When at last he reached the Parangi Malai (present St Thomas Mount), perhaps he found that this place was better suited for his life of solitude and prayer. But that very spot and that very moment of prayer were sealed and sanctified when he became a libation for the Gospel in the year 72 A.D.
His mortal remains were shifted to Santhome where the huge Basilica of St Thomas was erected later to entomb the Apostle's body. Thus the three punctuations of his itinerary in the city of Chennai – Little Mount, St Thomas Mount and Santhome – became places of spiritual energy in the years to come. Retrieved from http://www.stthomasmount.org
The view from the top is breathtaking. From every direction the city of Chennai sprawls. It is quiet, still, sacred.
Thomas came. He loved. He taught. He shared. He died. He poured out his complexity, his faith and doubts intermingled, and left his own scarred remains as a witness to his identity, his truth, his belonging.