Sunday, 27 April 2014

Easter 2: St Thomas and the king's palace

Easter 2 14

I don’t really want to preach a sermon this morning – I’ve done plenty of preaching over the last few weeks, and I’m a bit preached out. But I did want to tell you a story. It is a story of St Thomas, who we heard about in our Gospel reading. He’s not mentioned often in the Bible, and this story we’ve heard today is the one most people tend to know, if they know any at all. He does have something to say for himself a couple of times before this though, the most notable being at the Last Supper.
Jesus tries to tell the disciples  that he is about to die. “Do not be afraid” says Jesus, “I am going before you to prepare a place for you. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”( or mansions in the old versions of the Bible) “You know the way to the place where I am going.” “We don’t know where you are going,” says Thomas, “so how can we know the way there?” “I am the way,” Jesus answers, “and the truth and the life…”

So what happens to this questioning man after this? We can’t know with any certainty, but very ancient Christian tradition says that Thomas ended up, like most of the other disciples , travelling the world preaching the love of God, but tradition says that while many of them went westwards, into the heartlands of the Roman Empire, which meant that their stories were preserved when Rome eventually adopted Christianity, Thomas went eastwards, to India. For many in the West that meant his story was overlooked in mainstream Western Theology, but to the churches which claim descent from his ministry, very ancient Orthodox Churches in South India, along the old maritime trade routes from Palestine, Thomas is a hero. These churches call themselves the Mar Thoma – St Thomas – churches, and they cherish the memory of Thomas. It is one of those ancient stories I’d like to tell you today.

After the resurrection, after this encounter with Christ that we’ve heard in the Gospel today, the disciples – the word literally means “learners” – became apostles – literally, those who were “sent out”, driven by the wind of the Spirit to spread this message of love. One by one they embarked on their travels, but Thomas was left wondering where he should go. To Rome? To Greece? To North Africa? He didn’t mind, says the story, so long as God didn’t send him to India. Perhaps it was the climate. Perhaps it was the stories he had heard about the people there. Perhaps it just felt so foreign and so far from home. Anywhere but India, he secretly prayed.
While he waited for his mission to become clear , he went back to his old job, as a builder, says the story, working in his workshop in Caesarea.

Then, one night he had a dream, and in his dream he heard God’s voice. “Thomas!” called God. “Yes, God” called Thomas. “I have a mission for you”. “At last” thought Thomas “…only not to India, please.” “Thomas, I want you to go…””Yes, God (not India…)” “I want you to go to India!” Thomas’ heart sank. But he remembered Jesus promise that his way was the way that led to life, so Thomas gathered up his courage and said to God – “your will be done!”

The next day, as he went down into the market in Caesarea looking for building work he came across a man called Abbanes, who was looking for a builder for a big project his master was planning, a very big project indeed, because his master was a very important man. His master was none other than King Gondoforus, ruler of rich territories in what we now call South India. The king wanted a new palace, the palace of his dreams, the most splendid palace in the world, fit for a king as splendid as he was. “Can you build such a palace, Thomas?” asked Abbanes. “I believe I can” said Thomas, and he agreed to go along with him.

So off they sailed to India, and soon Thomas found himself in the presence of the King. The King described what he wanted. A fine processional way. A palace built of marble and studded with precious stones, surrounded by beautiful gardens full of fruiting trees and fragrant plants, a palace better than any which had been seen on earth before. Money was no object, because the king was one of the richest men in the world.  “Can you build such a fine palace, Thomas?” “I believe I can,” said Thomas.
So King Gondoferus gave him the task, and the money to do it with.

And then the king went away on a long journey, leaving Thomas to his work. Two years he was away, and when he came back he was eager to see how his fine palace was coming along. He strolled to the site of the palace, and …there was nothing there. Not a brick, not a stone, not a timber had been raised.

Furious, the king summoned Thomas. “Where is my fine palace – and where is the money I gave you to build it?”
“I took your money, O king, and I built something far better than a palace made of marble for you to live in. I gave it to the poorest people of your realm, to the children who needed clothes, and the sick people who needed care, and the hungry who had no food to fill their bellies. My Lord, Jesus, who is God’s Messiah, whose way I follow, said that in doing so we build the kingdom of God, in which all are blessed.”

The king, unsurprisingly was not best pleased by this answer. He was furious, and threw Thomas in jail while he decided what sort of horribly painful death he should inflict on him. How dare he give his money away!?

While Thomas languished in prison though, King Gondoforus’ brother died. As they prepared for his funeral, the King mourned by the body of his brother, laid out ready for the ceremony to begin. He sat by his body for one day, two days, three days, but on the fourth day, to his astonishment, his brother suddenly took a gasping breath and sat up, restored to life. “Ah, Gondoforus,” he said, as the king looked on in amazement. “I have come back because I have a message for you. I died and found myself in heaven, greeted by angels who showed me a palace the like of no other I have ever seen. Its walls were made of precious stones, its paths were of gold. It shone like the sun. Fountains flowed in its gardens, and everywhere people sang with happiness. I asked the angels where this fine palace was, and who it belonged to.

“This is the palace that Thomas has built for your brother by his good deeds and generosity ” they said, “but your brother is not worthy of it – this is not the palace he wanted to build at all. He was happy for the poor to stay hungry while he relaxed in comfort. But if you would like,  you can go back to earth and buy it from him by the goodness of your own acts, if you would like to.”

“So,” said Gondoforus’ brother, “here I am,  come back to ask for the chance to own this palace in heaven, built by acts of love on earth.”

And King Gondoforus realised what Thomas had tried to do for him. And he ran to the prison and released him, begging his forgiveness and the forgiveness of his God. Was there a chance that he could yet be redeemed and change his life? And Thomas forgave him, and assured him of the promise of Jesus that there were many mansions in God’s heaven, space for all, and that both he and his brother could have treasure in heaven, if they treated people right in this world.

And the king and his brother both became followers of the way, and that is why Thomas is so fondly remembered among the Christians of South India to this day, not as doubting Thomas, but as believing Thomas, loving Thomas, Thomas who discovered that living as Jesus had lived was indeed the way that brought life-giving truth to himself, and to all who needed it. And may it be so for us too, in this season of Easter.


This story comes originally from the 3rd Century “Acts of Thomas” , and was retold in the  Medieval “Golden Legends” of Jacobus Voragine. This is my own re-telling of the story.

No comments:

Post a Comment