Thomas, one of the twelve, who was called the Twin, wasn’t with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples kept telling him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he told them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger into them, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe!”
A week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were shut, Jesus came, stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Take your hand, and put it into my side. Stop doubting, but believe.” Thomas answered him, saying “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Is it because you have seen me that you have believed? How blessed are those who have never seen me and yet have believed!”
We’re in John chapter 20 this morning – the familiar story of doubting Thomas – and, as I’ve noted many times before, this is one of those few passages in the Bible that the church in her wisdom suggests that we should read every year at this time (rather than every three years, which is the normal way in which we cycle through the Bible).
Why does the church love this story so much that she feels we need to hear it again, year after year, every year on this auspicious Sunday – the first Sunday after Easter? My assumption in the past has been that we want to read this story every year because we love the character of doubting Thomas, because we identify with him so strongly in his doubting.
Thomas had doubts. We have doubts. Jesus loved Thomas anyway and helped him move beyond his doubts. We want that too, hence we love Thomas and the story of doubting Thomas. That is the explanation that I had assumed was right, without having really given it too much thought. But in reading the story again this year it occurred to me that this can’t be right, for Thomas’s doubts are not really anything like ours at all!
For one thing, Thomas doubts about the resurrection arose out of the fact that he had just spent three years of his life with Jesus and that he’d had very specific expectations about where that whole journey was taking them – expectations that the crucifixion of Jesus had shown to be entirely false – and the whole idea that the journey could somehow be restarted must have sounded crazy to him.
When we have doubts and questions they are probably not focused specifically on the resurrection, and even if they are, they do not arise out of an inability to come to terms with the fact that Jesus died (something that we take for granted).
Moreover, in terms of our connection with the character of Thomas, we have to admit that, at first glance at least, he appears to be a rather perverse man – obsessed, it seems, with the idea of touching the injured parts of Jesus body: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger into them, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe!”
These are the words that Thomas is best remembered for, and they come across, at first glance, as rather unsavory? Unless I stroke his beard again and look into those deep brown eyes again (or deep blue eyes if you prefer the Hollywood version of Jesus) I will not believe. That sounds far more palatable, doesn’t it?
Why was Thomas obsessed with the wounds of Jesus? It’s a good question. And it leads us to the even more important question of why on earth did the resurrected body of Jesus still have wounds?
Jesus was in His resurrection body. The body of Jesus had been changed through the experience of death and resurrection. There is no doubt about that. As this Gospel passage itself makes clear, the resurrection body of Jesus was not bound by the same earthly limitations as his previous body had been. The resurrected body of Jesus seemed to be able to come through closed doors as He appeared and disappeared, and that body evidently looked different, such that Jesus disciples sometimes failed to recognize Him at first.
That, in itself, is sort of what we might have expected – that the resurrection body would be something of an upgrade to the normal earthly version.
We look for the coming of a better world and Jesus, the Bible tells us, is the first fruits of those who believe (1 Corinthians 15). As Christ has been raised, so shall we be raised. As Christ was given a new body, so shall we be given new bodies. And in that better world, where the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea and where sorrow and pain give way to joy, our new resurrection bodies find an eternal home, which leads me to wonder though whether all these resurrection bodies will still carry with them the disfigurements that came to them during their earthly lives?
Well maybe that’s how we’ll recognize each other in Heaven? Maybe one day one of you will come up to me and say, Dave, I’d recognize that broken nose anywhere! It’s possible. Seriously though, it is the wounds that we carry that identify us to those who know us best.
If you’re familiar with Homer’s Odyssey, you may remember how Ulysses, after he returned from the Trojan War, was unrecognizable even to his own family but how, as the story goes; he was given a bath by the aging nurse, Eurycleia, who recognized him through a scar that he had on his leg.
In truth, our scars do identity us to those who know us best and, conversely, I suspect that the most significant part of getting to know someone intimately is in getting to know their wounds.
Next Christmas will be my 20th Christmas in this parish, and I can never look out here on a Sunday morning without half seeing the faces of some of my beloved friends who once sat in these pews many years ago but who have now moved on ahead of us.
I won’t mention any of them by name at this point, but I can tell you that those I remember best are those who shared their wounds with me. I can still sense the shock I first felt when some of those ageing ladies told me about how they had been raped and beaten and had experienced all sorts of things that I had just assumed never happened to elderly people!
Why did so many of these old dears tell me their terrible stories? I realized quickly that it wasn’t because they wanted to wallow in their pain. Rather, it was because those dear friends wanted to become dear friends, and that’s what friends do – they share their wounds with each other.
And so it should not surprise us that the first thing Jesus does with His disciples when He meets them in His resurrection body is that He shares His wounds with them. He said to them, “Peace be with you.” After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. (vss. 19-20)
This is the first thing Jesus does in the process of reconciling Himself to His disciples. He shares His wounds with them. This is how intimate relationships are built and rebuilt. It should not surprise us that He acts this way, and so it should not surprise us either that Thomas, who missed that initial resurrection encounter with Jesus, yearned not only to see Jesus, but to touch His wounds!
It is remarkable how the wondedness of Jesus has divided people at a theological level and has divided people religiously across space and time.
One of the earliest Christian heresies was Docetism (from the Latin doceo meaning to seem). Docestists believed that Jesus only seemed to be human and that He only appeared to be suffering on the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, could not really suffer of course. He could not really experience real pain.
Islam, of course, has followed in the path of the Docetists, denying that Jesus really suffered and died on the cross. It just could not be that a good man and a prophet like Jesus could ever suffer and be wounded and die in such a way!
St Paul reflected similarly that, for his fellow Jews, the very idea that God’s Messiah could suffer and die in such a humiliating fashion was downright offensive!
Evidently the religious mind struggles with the idea that any Son of God could suffer and be wounded and die an excruciating death, and yet we know that the Gospels entirely embrace this truth.
Rather than trying to skirt around the death of Jesus they assert it boldly. Rather than deny the brokenness of Jesus, the Apostle Peter goes as far as to say to his congregation by His wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24). And even in these sketchy post-resurrection stories where so much is mysterious – where we can’t be sure exactly what Jesus looked like or how His body behaved the way it did- one thing is abundantly clear, and that is that the scars of Jesus were still there, and that indeed they were a key point through which his friends re-initiated contact with Him.
Is it a disturbing thought to suggest that we might carry our scars into eternity? If so, I don’t think it means that pain is eternal, but maybe the marks are.
When I was a younger believer I used to assume that if your life was touched by Jesus you would be healed 100% from head to toe and that all your pains and ailments would be a thing of the past – whether they be physical complaints or addiction problems or a history of emotional abuse – all would be healed. And I still believe in the healing power of Jesus, though we find, don’t we, that even when real healing takes place, scars remain – old fears, struggles, memories that won’t go away, and they remain a part of who we are.
Can we be the people we are without those scars? I don’t know. But what I do know is that we are broken people. And even when we have experienced the healing touch of Jesus we remain broken people. And in our brokenness we find ourselves reaching out to Jesus, knowing that He has been broken too.
And that’s why I think we love the story of Thomas so much. It’s not so much that we identify with Thomas in his doubts, but rather that deep down we, like him, yearn to make contact with the wounds of Jesus.
And so Jesus comes to us. He gives us His peace. He shows us His hands and His side. He shares His wounds. Amen.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.