On the evening of that day, the Sunday, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, 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 in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, 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; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, 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 believed.”
We’re in John Chapter 20 today – revisiting the story of ‘doubting Thomas’.
This is a familiar story. We have it read to us in church every year, though I’m not entirely sure why that is.
As most of you probably know, we in the Anglican church work on a three year lectionary, which means that we follow a set order of Bible readings that go in a three-year cycle. What we read one week is therefore not normally read out again for another three years.
There are some notable exceptions though to this rule. One is the 23rd psalm, which comes up on‘Shepherding Sunday’ every year. Another one is this one – the ‘doubting Thomas’ story of John 20. It seems to come up every year, and I can only guess that that’s because it won some‘People’s Choice Award’ for the most popular reading for this time of year many, many years ago, when our lectionary was first put together.
People love this reading. Everybody loves this reading … except me. And that’s not just because I’m forced to think up a different sermon on the same passage every year. There is something in the story that bothers me deeply, and it’s not Thomas.
No. I love Thomas. He’s a passionate man, and that’s OK. So am I!
Thomas lives passionately, as he’ll eventually die passionately, and so of course he doubts passionately!
Thomas … 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 in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” ( vs. 24-25)
It’s an extreme response. And maybe he should have thought a little bit more before blurting this out (I mean, did Thomas really want to shove his fingers into the nail marks in Jesus’ hands). Even so, it’s a passionate response, it’s a frustrated and disillusioned response, it’s the response of a broken and grieving man who wishes he could have his relationship with his Lord Jesus back again – a real, passionate and physical relationship – but who holds out no real hope of ever seeing this happen.
As I say, I have a real problem with this passage, but it’s not Thomas. Thomas is a brother – a fellow struggler.
And it’s not the disciples. I know they come across in this story as a cowardly little bunch of Nancy-boys, but they had been traumatised. I am sympathetic.
We’re told that the disciples were cowering behind closed doors in some little hide-away, ‘for fear of the Jews’ (verse 19), and I appreciate that it’s hard to imagine big, burly guys like Peter and his fishing mates, cowering away from anybody, but they had been deeply shaken, not only by the death of Jesus as such, but by having all their hopes and expectations shattered.
I remember when my own first marriage fell apart, it was a long time before someone was eventually able to explain to me what I was going through. “It’s the bursting of your bubble”, a mate of mine eventually told me.
Your first marriage is your first great dream. It governs your life’s vision and expectations for the future. And so when it falls apart, it’s not simply that you have trouble dealing with your loneliness, nor is it solely the pain of not seeing your children. It‘s the fact that your dream for your life has turned out to be a lie!
And this is what these guys are dealing with, as a result of their ‘marriage’ to Jesus, for it was indeed a ‘marriage’ of sorts. They’d shared their lives, their home, their food and their hopes with Him for three years (which makes their relationship far more intimate than any number of ‘real’marriages) and now their bubble had burst!
And so the disciples are scared, confused, grieving, and, I imagine, totally at a loss as to what they are supposed to do next.
And so Jesus comes and says, “Peace’” to them, and then says it to them again, and then again, and He has to debrief with them and He has to allow them to touch him, and then after all that they finally seem to be able to feel at ease with Him once more.
No, there is something about this passage that disturbs me very much, but it’s not Thomas and it’s not the disciples. It’s Jesus whom I find unsettling in this story – the resurrected Jesus in His resurrection body!
I don’t find it hard to believe that He was resurrected in body and I don’t have any trouble believing that this new body of His was not bound by the normal limitations that govern our bodies. He seemed to be able to move around with great alacrity and to be able to come through locked doors and brick walls. What I find hard to deal with though is that Jesus, in his resurrection body, was still marked with the scars of his suffering and death!
Perhaps we might have assumed that the scars would have healed?
I want to avoid speculating for too long over matters that aren’t actually addressed in this piece scripture, but if Jesus is the first-fruits of those who believe, and his bodily resurrection is a sign to us of our own forthcoming resurrection, does this mean that when the time comes we will all carry our scars with us into the Kingdom of God?
Again, I don’t want to waste time in useless speculation, but I always figured that when the Kingdom comes, our resurrection bodies would be somewhat idealised versions of our existing bodies. I figure you’ll still be able to recognise me in the Kingdom, though my nose will be a bit smaller and I’m sure I’ll look a lot more muscular! I certainly don’t expect to still have a wonky right leg with a plate in it, nor to have ongoing nasal problems – blowing my nose all round the streets of the New Jerusalem!
OK. Enough armchair musing, but it does lead me to think that if there is indeed some link between the earthly body and the resurrection body, such that the resurrection body is recognisable because it retains the essential characteristics of the earthly body, perhaps the wounds of Jesus are His essential earthly characteristics!
There is a mystery in the suffering of Jesus – we know that. His wounds are special, because they are God’s wounds for us! We know that Jesus’ wounds are deeply tied to His love for us and indeed, that they are somehow essential to the whole salvation of the world! So perhaps it should not surprise us that the wounds of Jesus are an essential part of His resurrection body.
To His Disciples, Jesus is recognised by His wounds. In the process of reconciling Himself to them, Jesus shares His wounds with them by showing them his hands and his side. And in the case of Thomas, Jesus invites the struggling disciple to feel His wounds – to make genuine physical contact with His damaged flesh!
“He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (vs. 27)
It seems a rather gruesome invitation, and there’s no indication that Thomas actually took Him up on it. Even so, the pattern is there – Thomas is looking for healing, and Jesus confronts him with His wounds.
This is how the New Testament depicts the resurrected Jesus – gentle, forgiving, loving, reconciling, and still wounded!
And this is what distinguishes the resurrection story, as we find it in the New Testament, from the type of happy ending you get in Hollywood interpretations of the life of Jesus. In the Hollywood version, the resurrection is the happy ending to the terrible story of the persecution and suffering of Jesus. Now that He is risen, we can put the past behind us – the cross and the suffering fade into the background as we celebrate His new life.
This is not the way it works in the New Testament, is it? The resurrection of Jesus does not lead his followers to forget the cross and move on. On the contrary, the resurrection of Jesus leads them to refocus on the cross and to preach ‘Christ crucified‘! The cross is not moved into the background and forgotten. For the disciples, It becomes the focal point of their understanding of Jesus, as indeed in His resurrection His wounds are still visible.
Now I didn’t want to stray too far from the text we are focusing on today, but let us at least reaffirm at this point that what we are dealing here is the essential core of our faith. The cross of Christ is the nucleus of the Christian faith, and it is what distinguishes it, objectively speaking, from any number of world religions.
Whereas religion in general, and perhaps most especially the new age religions of contemporary culture, focus on spiritual practices as a form of self-improvement, Christians proclaim Christ crucified.
Notably, this is the key point at which Islam breaks with Christian understanding, in that it cannot accept the fact that Jesus suffered and died on the cross. Islam holds that the crucifixion of Jesus was a divine illusion and that He actually ascended bodily into Heaven! It seems that the fact that the Son of God suffered and died is too much for most people to accept, as indeed we don’t want to face the fact that at the very centre of the universe, at the very heart of the Divine being we are dealing with a God who suffers!
Conversely, of course, some contemporary Christian thinkers have asked, ‘what other sort of God can we believe in, in a post-Auschwitz society, but in a God who does suffer?’
German theologian Jurgen Moltmann indeed suggests that the ‘good news’ of the Gospel is not simply that Christ who was crucified has now been raised, but that Christ who has been raised is the same Christ who was crucified! And so there is hope for us all!
As I said, I didn’t want to stray too far from today’s text, but I do want to acknowledge that central point in the text – that the wounds of Christ are still visible, as indeed, if we look around our world today – at the suffering of the people of Gaza and Dafur and Iraq, and even at the struggles of so many people within our own community, we see that the wounds of Christ are still visible.
And that is what disturbs me about this passage. As I say, it’s not Thomas, who I sympathise with completely, and it’s not the other disciples, who are all too human of course, but hey, aren‘t we all! It’s Jesus who disturbs me – Jesus who loves, forgives, shares His peace and reconciles us to Himself but who remains wounded in His love for us.
I do believe that a day will come when the wounds of Christ will no longer be visible – when all of creation will be fully reconciled to God and to our Lord Jesus, ‘when the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ – but that time is not yet.
In the meantime, we who have met the resurrected Jesus share in His peace, find healing in His forgiveness, and rest in His love, but we know too that we must join Him in His pain.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, April 2007.