If Westerners are no longer astonished to meet fellow Christians from distant corners of the world, many still assume that these believers must be newcomers to the faith. In some cases, though, African and Asian Christians can trace a thriving church history back to a time when only the boldest missionaries were venturing into the remote lands of northern Europe. Their ancestors were Christian long before my own Celtic forebears (and we in turn have a couple more centuries of Christian history than the English).

Most striking are the South Indian communities who report that they were converted by the apostle Thomas. Although Thomas himself may remain a shadowy figure, it’s very probable that Middle Eastern Christians did follow Roman trade routes and make their way to the Malabar Coast during the first century, and certainly by the second. Today you can meet Indians whose genealogies claim to record the actual moment of the family’s conversion in those ancient times.

For over a thousand years, those communities flourished within Indian society, drawing extensively on the surrounding Hindu culture. They enjoyed a high caste status and followed caste rules and restraints. But they were also part of the global church. India looked to the Baghdad-based Church of the East, with its strongly Syriac and Semitic tone. This was the church of the Nasrani, the Nazarenes, which is still the name used for Thomas Christians. Their liturgy was and remains the Qurbana, recalling the Hebrew word korban, “sacrifice.”