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April 12, 2015
A reading from the Gospel of John:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
The Bible is full of odd, intriguing stories, and John’s depictions of encounters between the risen Jesus and his followers are some of the oddest and certainly among the most intriguing. In passages before and after the verses we’ve read today, Mary Magdalene hears her name in the garden and recognizes her Lord. The disciples approach the lake shore after a disappointing night of fishing and find Jesus waiting to cook breakfast for them. These stories are profound and confusing and rife with implications about what it means to follow Jesus as our risen Lord.
Today we read of Jesus twice appearing before his disciples in a locked room — a story familiar enough to have given us the phrase “doubting Thomas” as a quick way to categorize someone as long on skepticism and short on faith. Those of us whose comfort zone is metaphor and symbol– the ones who majored in literature rather than engineering – are tempted to sneer at Thomas’ need for material proof, his preference for empiricism over mystery. But – English major, symbol lover that I am — I try to remember that I read these resurrection stories with an advantage Thomas didn’t have. I have always lived in a post-Easter world, have never experienced the sorrow of Friday without knowing that the joy of Sunday is coming. Thomas and Mary and Peter and the others are living through this experience in real time.
They have committed their lives to this teacher and healer named Jesus. They have followed him, learned from him, worked with him, loved him. They have seen him arrested, beaten, crucified and buried. They have been confronted with, overwhelmed by, the power of church and state, powers which have worked together to end Jesus’ ministry by ending his life. It seems entirely reasonable for his followers to have retreated to locked rooms with grief and fear as their companions.
And it seems entirely reasonable for Thomas to find it hard to believe what his colleagues tell him. They speak of a risen Jesus, a friend and Lord returned to them from beyond the grave. But Thomas knows what happened on Friday, and he knows that such wounds as Jesus endured do not disappear. He doesn’t completely reject the possibility of his friends’ extraordinary report, but he wants – needs – to see and verify for himself that Jesus really has overcome the physical limits and frailty, the mortality which Thomas knows are part of human life.
And so Jesus gives him the opportunity for exactly such seeing, just such verification.
Jesus returns to the disciples’ refuge and approaches Thomas with an invitation: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
The wounds on Jesus’ body – these marks of human cruelty – have become for Thomas the center and essence of Jesus’ identity. Thomas can only believe Jesus has come through death and returned to life by seeing and touching the very marks where love and sorrow meet. Jesus is the wounded one whose body has been broken by the world. If he is indeed risen, then human cruelty is not the final word of the story. If Jesus is indeed alive, then contrary to all expectation, the crucifixion has not ended Thomas’ hope that the Jesus he follows has ushered in a new kingdom, one characterized by compassion and love rather than cruelty and fear.
When the excited disciples first tell Thomas they have seen the Lord, he cannot enter into their joy. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I find it hard to fault Thomas here. We might like to think that if we’d been in that room hearing the disciples’ news, we’d have been able to accept immediately the new reality of resurrection, the astounding truth of a love stronger than death, but this new reality and astounding truth are completely at odds with the world’s demonstrated truth. There is a great distance between the sorrow and terror the disciples experience when Jesus is arrested and crucified, and the relief and rejoicing they know when Jesus returns.
Thomas needs help bridging that distance. Jesus builds a bridge with his nail-torn hands and pierced side.
Thomas’ gift to us is that his need for proof provides all of us with the image of the risen Christ coming near and offering his hands and side. Christ invites Thomas to touch his living body. To move from doubt to conviction, from despairing distance to intense intimacy.
Christians often speak of being “in Christ”. This story of Thomas reminds us that the reason we are able to live “in Christ” is because Christ’s body is marked by gaping wounds. Nail holes and spear thrusts have opened up this body and, just as he did with Thomas, Christ beckons us to touch and enter the space created by vulnerable love.
We break bread at the communion table and share it as a symbol of Jesus’ body broken for us. It is this broken body which Jesus brings before Thomas. A body broken not into uselessness or failure, but broken open into expansive love. A body raised from death to new life by a love stronger than the laws and fears and habits of this world. A body wounded but not defeated.
“Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Are we willing to do that? To get that close to Jesus? John’s Gospel account doesn’t make it clear whether Thomas actually does touch Jesus; the Scripture suggests that he leaps straight to affirming Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” Did Thomas, upon seeing Jesus and hearing him speak, no longer need tactile proof of his identity and his resurrection? Or did he feel more comfortable keeping his discipleship tidy and dignified? In proximity to, but not contact with Jesus’ broken, risen body. The expression, after all is “Seeing is believing”, not “Touching is required”.
Perhaps it’s not so much that the sight of Jesus’ wounds was enough to convince Thomas as that the sight of them was too much. Here was evidence not just that Jesus was alive, but graphic, heartbreaking evidence that this new life had come at great cost; Jesus does not come to resurrection without suffering.
But Jesus does come to resurrection. And in his resurrection, he comes to us. He is resurrected for us and for our salvation. His resurrection invites us into new life in him. To be “in Christ”, to live “in Christ” is not an ethereal, symbolic, tidy experience. When we think of living in Christ, it should evoke in us an image of Thomas and Jesus meeting in a locked room. Of Jesus offering his wounded, risen body to Thomas to touch. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” What an extraordinary image! What a compelling invitation. What an amazing, exhilarating call to discipleship.
This body, broken for us, heals the world. This body, given for us, brings life out of death, joy out of grief, love out of fear. Christ’s body. Do not doubt but believe.