April 28, 2019, Easter 2C, John 20:19-31
In my Easter sermon last week I shared that the image from the previous week that connected with me in thinking about what Jesus’ resurrection means for us today was that image from the night of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral of Christians singing songs of praise on the streets of Paris in the shadow of the cathedral in flames. It spoke to me of how the risen Christ is still bringing us the hope of the resurrection today as shown through those Christians who could have hope that the church – the body of Christ in that place – was still alive and active though all signs pointed to the fact that its physical home was likely destroyed. That image spoke to me as to how Easter is not a one and done occurrence, but something that is still being lived out by us as Christians today as we witness to the promise and hope of the resurrection in our lives.
Then as I sat down to reflect on this week’s gospel reading and saw the two more resurrection appearances of Jesus we have in it, I thought about what image from this past week might speak to us of resurrection hope in light of this reading. And it was yet another sad and tragic image that came to my mind. A warning to those who are triggered by images of violence that the image is from the Easter morning bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. The image from that day that stuck with me was the picture of the statue of the risen Christ from one of the bombed churches. You may have seen the picture of that statue of Jesus in his white robe with with the wounds from his crucifixion clearly showing on his palms with one hand down by his side and the other raised up in greeting and the wounds of those injured and killed in the attack clearly showing on the statue as well, with with their blood spattered over it.
This image reminded me, like our gospel story today, how the risen Christ comes to us with the wounds of his crucifixion still showing to remind us that our wounds are never the end of the story for us either. Because he has overcome death and has been raised to new life he won’t leave us there with our wounds – our confusion, our fear, our doubts, our brokenness – but will raise us to new life too. He will meet us in our woundedness to give us whatever it is that we need to believe in the promise and hope of the resurrection in our life too.
Often I think we narrow our focus on this reading on from John’s gospel to Thomas’ doubt. We tend to think that is really what this reading is all about. A warning to us to not be like Thomas. A caution to not doubt, but simply believe even though we don’t have the opportunity to see with our own eyes or touch with our own hands the physical wounds of the risen Christ.
However, I think Thomas gets a bad rap. It is like that cartoon that maybe you have seen that usually appears around this time of year since this Thomas passage is the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter every year. The cartoon has three disciples talking together. The one that is Thomas says to the other two, “All I’m saying is that we don’t call Peter ‘denying Peter’ do we? And we don’t call Mark ‘runaway naked Mark’ do we? So why should I be saddled with this for life?”
I think Cartoon Thomas brings up a good point. There is more to Thomas than his doubt though that tends to be all we see in this story. For me, I believe that Thomas isn’t so much a doubter as a realist. He’s that person who lets you see who he is and what he is feeling and going through – he lets all his messiness and imperfections hang out. Thomas is kind of like that guy we all know who doesn’t have a filter and just says what he is thinking. After all, our two previous encounters with Thomas in John’s gospel don’t have him doubting in any way. Instead, it is quite the opposite.
Back in chapter 11 Mary and Martha want Jesus to come to their home and see their brother Lazarus because he is sick and they want Jesus to heal him. The rest of the disciples try to discourage Jesus telling him that he shouldn’t return to Judea because he just narrowly escaped being stoned there by the Jewish leaders. Thomas, however, doesn’t discourage Jesus from returning. Instead, he says to his fellow disciples in response to Jesus saying that he is going back there anyway to raise Lazarus from the dead, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yeah, Thomas wouldn’t win any awards for most optimistic disciple, but he calls it like he sees it and he doesn’t resist doing what he knows likely won’t end well for any of them.
Then in chapter 14 Jesus says to his disciples in his Father’s house there are many room, he is going ahead to prepare a place for them, they will be there with him, and they know the way. The rest of the disciples clearly don’t know what Jesus is talking about and yet all you hear from them is silence, crickets. Thomas however doesn’t care if he looks dumb. He needs to know where they are going if he is going to follow so he says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas is the disciple who lays it all out there for everyone to see. He knows the risks of following Jesus and he isn’t afraid to do it. And he isn’t afraid to say what he needs in order to do it – whether it is asking for directions to where he needs to go in order to follow or risking getting labelled a doubter by demanding to see and touch the wounds of the risen Christ for himself. We label Thomas as a doubter because of his request and assume that makes him somehow less than the others, but his fellow disciples seem to miss the mark for discipleship just as much, if not more, than he does in our reading and we tend to overlook it.
Remember, at the beginning of our gospel reading we find the disciples holed up behind locked doors together. They have already heard from Mary Magdalene that she has seen the risen Christ and instead of heading out into the world to immediately share the good news of the resurrection like you would think good high quality disciples would do, they find a place to hide out and hunker down because they are afraid that their lives are in danger as Jesus’ followers. They have heard the good news from Mary and it’s like they don’t believe it by the way they run and hide from the world.
It is only when Jesus appears to them in the locked room and shows them his hands and his side and gives them his peace that they are set free from their fears to leave that room. It is only when Jesus meets them where there are at – in their grief and their fears and their struggles – and gives them exactly what they need that they are able to move beyond it and respond to the good news of what they have heard about the resurrection.
Even Mary Magdalene needed more to believe. Two angels appear to her in the tomb and she doesn’t get it. She is still stuck in her grief and confusion thinking his body has been stolen. Even when Jesus appears to her himself, at first she mistakes him for the gardener. It isn’t until he calls her by name that she receives what she needs from him to be able to believe.
All of them need something different to believe and Jesus comes to each of them to provide it. Mary needs Jesus to speak her name to believe. The disciples need Jesus to come to them in their locked room, to show them his hands and side, and to give them his peace so they can believe. And Thomas says he too needs to see and touch the wounds on Jesus’ side and hands to believe. Yet, when Jesus comes to him to offer just that, instead, of taking him up on it Thomas exclaims in his usual impulsive and unfiltered way, “My Lord and my God!” and makes the first profession of faith of any of the disciples of Jesus as God.
Perhaps, then, what Jesus is doing isn’t condemning Thomas for being a doubter because of his need to see like everyone else in order to believe, but maybe instead Jesus is blessing those – like us – who won’t see with their own eyes, but will still believe because the risen Christ meets us all where we are. Maybe this gospel is meant to be less of a condemnation and judgment of Thomas and his doubt and more of a promise that though we won’t see with our own eyes either, the risen Christ will still meet us and offers us exactly what we need to believe in the resurrection too, just as he did with Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and Thomas.
For me then Thomas isn’t an example of who we shouldn’t be – people who question our faith and struggle with doubt, instead he is an example of how Jesus meets us where each of us is – with our own confusion, our own questions, our own fears, our own doubts, and our own wounds and our own brokenness – and offers us exactly what we need to help us to believe in him right here just as we are. When we can see Thomas in this way instead of an example of who we shouldn’t be and what we should avoid being like, Jesus sets us free to have our own questions and to ask them, to have our own fears and not let them imprison us, and to have our own wounds and to know that we aren’t abandoned and alone in our brokenness. Jesus is right there with us in our imperfect, messy, and struggling faith just as he was with Thomas, Mary, and the other disciples. He is right there where we are and is at work setting us free so that we might have what we need to believe that just as his wounds were not the end they appeared to be for him, neither are our wounds the end we often feel them to be for us. Instead, although we are wounded and broken Jesus will raise us to new life too. Because he lives nothing will keep him from coming to us and giving us what we need to believe and know that the promise and hope of the resurrection are ours as well . Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!