It was the evening of the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked because they were afraid of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, “Peace be with you.” After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side, and when they saw the Lord the disciples were overjoyed. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain people’s sins, they are retained.”
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!”
Welcome to the first Sunday after Easter – a day often referred to in ecclesiastical circles as ‘low Sunday’, for reasons that are surely too obvious to require explanation.
Today shares the title of ‘low Sunday’ with the first Sunday after Christmas – again for reasons too obvious to bear repeating.
And this year at this time we do as we do every year on this low Sunday – we hear the story of Doubting Thomas again.
Most stories in the Bible are read every three years in accordance with the cycle of readings spelt out in our lectionary. This story though is scheduled to be read every year, and again for reasons that I presume are obvious.
We love this story. The church universal loves this story. The church throughout history has always loved this story, and we can understand why. We identify with Thomas in his doubting. We understand his scepticism, we stand with him in his struggle, we see ourselves in his tornness and in his confusion.
All this makes perfect sense to me, as the need to have a low Sunday makes perfect sense to me, and yet there is one aspect to this story that, to my mind, does not fit with all the obvious good sense of the first Sunday after Easter but which stands out like a sore thumb for me every year when I hear this story repeated, and it is this: why did the resurrected body of Jesus have holes it?!
I’m assuming that you know the story as well as I do. Forgive me if you don’t. The date was Easter Sunday evening. The doors were locked where the disciples were out of fear that the authorities who had destroyed Jesus might come looking for them next, and yet somehow it was not the authorities that came crashing in on their private gathering but Jesus Himself – previously dead but now very much alive, and He showed them, we’re told, ‘his hands and his side’.
Thomas apparently wasn’t with them at that fateful meeting but only heard about Jesus’ bizarre appearance to them second hand. He was understandably sceptical and wanted to see Jesus for himself – expressing a particular interest in seeing the wounded hands and side: “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 passed, and it must have been a long and tense week between Thomas and the rest of the disciples, yet happily Thomas was with the others when Jesus repeated exactly the same stunt again – somehow appearing in the room despite all the doors and latches that should have kept Him out. And the first thing He does after saying ‘G’day’ to the group was to show Thomas His hands and His side. “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Take your hand, and put it into my side. Stop doubting, but believe.”
And I don’t know if Thomas stuck his fingers into the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, and I don’t know whether Thomas thrust his hand in Jesus’ side as invited, but what I do know and what is quite clear at every step of the narrative is that Jesus was, in some sense or another, still carrying the wounds of Good Friday in His Easter Sunday body or at least the marks of those wounds, and that bothers me!
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 in and out of locked rooms as Jesus appeared and disappeared, and that body evidently looked different, such that Jesus’ disciples sometimes at first failed to recognise Him.
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’ (a sign) of what is to come (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, if Jesus is truly our model here, all these resurrection bodies will still carry with them the disfigurements that came to them during their earthly lives?
Maybe that’s how we recognise each other in Heaven? Maybe one day one of you will come up to me and say, ‘Dave, I’d recognise that broken nose anywhere!’ It’s possible.
If you’re familiar with Homer’s Odyssey, you may remember how Ulysses, after he returned from the Trojan war, was unrecognisable even to his own family but how, as the story goes, he was given a bath by the aging nurse, Eurycleia, who recognised him through a scar that he had on his leg.
In truth, it is our scars that identity us to those who know and love us best and, conversely, I suspect that the most significant part of getting to know someone intimately is in getting to know their wounds. Even so, it is remarkable how the woundedness of Jesus 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 experience real pain.
Islam, of course, followed in the path of the Docetists (in a sense) by denying that Jesus really suffered and died on the cross. While Christians claimed that Jesus had suffered in their place, Mohammed claimed that someone else had suffered in Jesus’ place, for it just could not be that a prophet like Jesus could suffer and be wounded and die in such a terrible way!
St Paul reflected very similarly, that while the Greeks might have considered the concept of resurrection to be silly, for his fellow Jews the very idea that God’s Messiah could suffer and die in such a humiliating fashion was not so much foolish as downright offensive!
Evidently the religious mind struggles with the idea that any Son of God could suffer and be wounded and die such a terrible death, for it just rails against our entire concept of justice, and yet we know that the Gospels entirely embrace this.
Rather than trying to skirt around the death of Jesus, the Gospel writers 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 were reconciled to Him!
In truth, I do not know why Jesus continued to carry His scars in His resurrection body and I do not know whether this means that all of us will somehow carry our scars into eternity, but what I do know is that there is no way of sanitizing the story of Jesus if we are going to remain true to the Gospels, any more than we can rationalise pain out of the Christian life. We cannot remove the scars of Jesus for there is no Jesus apart from the suffering Jesus, just as there is no resurrection without the cross!
When I was a younger believe I figured that if your life was touched by Jesus you would be instantly and completely healed 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 healing takes place, scars remain – old fears, struggles, memories that won�t go away – they remain a part of who we are.
Can we be the people we are without those scars? I don’t know. What I do know is that we are broken people. And even when we have experienced the healing touch of Jesus in our lives we remain broken people. And it is in our brokenness that we find ourselves reaching out to Jesus, knowing that He has been broken too.
And maybe that’s the biggest reason of all as to why we love this story of Thomas so much, even if it might not be so obvious at first. Perhaps it’s not only that we identify with Thomas in his doubts, but even moreso that deep down we, like him, are wounded people yearning to make contact with the wounds of Jesus?
And so on this low Sunday when everything seems so straightforward, let us take a moment to reflect on what is perhaps the greatest miracle of Easter, even if it is not so obvious at first – that He who is risen is the one who was crucified, and (thanks be to God) that the one who was crucified is risen!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.