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.
The Second Sunday of Easter is when preacher after preacher will rescue the poor Apostle Thomas because of the bad rap he gets for doubting. This has been going on for years, so I suppose that one could argue that Thomas doesn’t get a bad rap anymore, at least in the more latitudinarian mainline churches. Nonetheless, I will probably do some of that rescuing later in this reflection, just because I can’t help myself.
But I must tell you, that although Thomas is such a familiar character, even to people who have a scant familiarity with the New Testament, he never catches my eye when I first read the appointed Gospel.
What catches my eye is the fact that the Jesus of Easter, the Jesus Glorified in Resurrection, the triumphal glowing Jesus of all our Easter hymnody, still has nail punctures in his hands, and an open gash in his side. . . even after resurrection.
If John really wanted to just make up an idle story about Jesus walking out of a tomb unscathed, then wouldn’t you think that he would have the Apostles saying something like, Jesus, this is amazing. You are not only risen, but you are completely healed. There’s no evidence that you were crucified at all. Why it’s like Good Friday never happened at all.?
But nobody says that. Jesus offers them peace when he enters that locked room, but he offers them so much more than that. He offers them his woundedness.
This is what makes Christianity so remarkable. The existential human condition is always a part of God’s life. God doesn’t want to lift us out of our humanity; God desires to BECOME part of our humanity, and Jesus is, without qualification, the consummate sacrament of that desire.
Those wounds represent God’s love and compassion for each one of us. Those wounds represent God’s identification with and empathy for every one of us. Those wounds represent God’s intense thirst for justice, forgiveness, acceptance, and mercy . . . because those wounds are also our wounds!
Now for the rescue. What do we know about Thomas? Well, we know that when Jesus was determined to go to visit the tomb of his friend, Lazarus in Bethany, just two miles out of Jerusalem, all the disciples begged him not to go; all of them except one. . . Thomas.
We tend to mostly remember him being saddled with the grand title of Doubting Thomas, but do we also remember that he was the one who said, Let us go and die with him in Jerusalem.?
And there is a tradition, admittedly unproven, but alluded to enough times to make one think there is an element of truth to it, which has Thomas traveling east with the Gospel, perhaps as far India where he was martyred. To this day there are many churches in those regions that are named for St. Thomas. Maybe Doubting Thomas was a bit rash, but perhaps he should be known as adventurous and dauntless Thomas instead.
Now, I’ll take a little creative license and say that such a man wouldn’t need to only see simple identifiers, the physical wounds, to prove Jesus’ Resurrection.
Instead, Thomas also wanted to see the Jesus he was willing to die for. He would believe it was Jesus if he could see that divine love, compassion, empathy, justice, forgiveness, acceptance, and mercy!
He witnessed this Sacrament named Jesus firsthand, and he wanted nothing more than to feel those qualities again. . . to know that they were alive. . . to know that there is still a Gospel to preach, and Thomas found those qualities in the resurrected Jesus.
When in the Gospel of John, Jesus told his apostles that they knew the way where he was going, it was Thomas who said, But Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way? Thomas wasn’t afraid to look like a fool in front of the class.
In our baptismal service, the priest prays, on page 308, that the one being baptized be given an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere. That sounds like Thomas to me.
So . . . no more Doubting Thomas, I would say instead, Inquiring and Discerning Thomas.
How we mis-labeled Thomas begs the question: how well has the Christian Church dealt with doubt, inquiry, and discernment?
Is it a value from our baptismal covenant that we hold dear to our hearts, or is it a nuisance to get around? Most all the fights in the church throughout the centuries have been about black and white theology versus a theology of inquiry and discernment; about finally settling on truth, versus allowing truth to be fluid and dynamic.
Almost everyone who has ever left this church angry, has left because their version of black and white was being called into question.
Anglicanism has always interwoven fluidity and dynamism into its very fabric. Anglicanism knows no black and white except that God is love, and yet, we so often act like the other apostles who were afraid to ask the question, and we look sideways at the skeptic and those who are unsure about everything we say and do on Sunday mornings.
As one priest, The Rev. Charles Taylor puts it:
Faith is acquired and nurtured, deepened and strengthened, not by grasping for security at the fragile straws of certainty, for they are too easily broken; nor by church leaders giving a lead by telling us what to believe and how to behave, because if it’s not the lead or the creed people want to hear, they’ll ignore it anyway. Rather faith is an exploration and an adventure, not a fixed position but a commitment to travel.
It is in the suffering, risks and uncertainties of this world – other people’s suffering as well as our own, in Palestinian townships as well as at Ground Zero – that we draw closest to our risen Lord; in the deprivations of the poor and the hungry; in the powerlessness of the oppressed; in the crippling debts that economically enslave the Third World, and drive some to sell their children into physical
slavery; in the desperation of the refugee seeking political asylum; in the sorrow of the sinner, the degradation of the prisoner, the fear of the hospital patient, the tears in a broken relationship.
We too are confronted by the wounded hands and side of Jesus – And in the end, the strength of our faith, the depth of our belief, will not be measured by our passive acceptance of doctrinal formulae or the unthinking repetition of ancient creeds. Rather it will be measured by our response – whether we walk away from the signs of suffering and sacrifice, from the challenge of living and dying for Christ, or whether, in the face of it all, we proclaim by our worship and our lives, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (*)
Are you ready for the ride? We won’t have Mapquest or GPS devices to guide us. Because Jesus was wounded for the inquiring and discerning hearts, the skeptics and even the unbelievers . . . those wounds are all our wounds!
Jesus was truly Lord for Thomas, Lord for all the reasons that we should elevate Jesus and hold him up as the very vision and mind of God in human, wounded form.
To truly live this proclamation, we must reach out and touch the wounds of others and see in them My Lord and my God!
Let us pray in the words of Thomas Merton:
Loving God, we have no idea where we are going. We do not see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think we are following your will does not mean that we are actually doing so.
But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And we hope we have that desire in all that we are doing. We hope that we will never do anything apart from that desire. And we know that if we do this, you will lead us by the right road, though we may know nothing about it. Therefore, we will trust you always though we may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. We will not fear, for you are ever with us, and you will never leave us to face our perils alone.
(*) From a sermon by The Reverend Canon Charles Taylor Canon Precentor, Lichfield Cathedral as preached at St. Marks, Capitol Hill on April 7, 2002.
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