Preached via Zoom to All Saints, King City, ON, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 11 April 2021. Readings for this Sunday: Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133; 1 Jn 1.1 – 2.2; Jn 20.19-31.
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.” (Jn 20.25)Video version: https://youtube.com/embed/NHae4iQXyhs
When I was a child growing up in the church, I used to dwell on this verse from John’s gospel around Eastertime. Just how big were these wounds, that Thomas could put his fingers and hands in them? It was gross but strangely fascinating, as the macabre often is to children.
As we grow up in the faith, I think that we have a tendency to spiritualize the story of Thomas, so that we downplay the physical reality that the doubting disciple demands to see. Instead, we place the emphasis on how Thomas gets past his doubt. When he meets the risen Christ, he does not seem to want to touch anymore, and says simply “My Lord and my God!” Jesus seems himself to make this point when he says “Blessed are those who have not yet seen, and yet have come to believe”.
The story is often taught in moralistic terms as a parable of faith. Don’t be a doubter like Thomas, it is often said, but rather have faith in the resurrection and the spiritual reality of Jesus. As N.T. Wright notes in his commentary on John, the story of Jesus and Thomas is “an encouragement to those of us who come later, to people of subsequent generations … [who} are all ‘blessed’ when, without having seen the risen Lord for ourselves, we nevertheless believe in him” (John for Everyone 2.154).
The architecture of Protestant churches, which typically feature an empty cross behind the altar, make this point as well. The absence of a body on the cross points to the resurrection and the presence of the risen Jesus somewhere in the world. As the angel says to the women at the tomb “He has been raised; he is not here” (Mk 16.6). Perhaps its fair to say that Protestant devotional practices have led us away from thinking of the physical reality of the resurrected Jesus (dwelling on the Wounds of Christ was a common focus of prayer in the medieval church), and to focus more on Jesus as a spiritual presence in life.
Sometimes the best theological answers use the word “both”. Jesus is both a spiritual presence (he gives the Spirit to the disciples in his first post-resurrection appearance, sad that Thomas wasn’t there! Jn 20,22), and a physical presence. John is very clear that Jesus is there in bodily form, bearing the grievous wounds of nails and spear. These wounds, which Jesus offers to Thomas, who now seems abashed by their reality, speak profoundly to who Jesus is.
In his very perceptive commentary on this gospel reading, Jin Yin Choi notes that the wounds themselves become a testimony to Jesus’ true identity. Pilate tried to capture that identify, mockingly, in the words he put on the cross, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews”.
Normally a king in the ancient world would have an elaborate tomb and monuments with inscriptions describing his deeds and glory. Instead, Jesus comes with wounds inscribed on the body which God has raised from the dead. Jesus could have appeared in some blinding and radiant form, as he did in the Transfiguration, to show the glory that the Son shares with the Father. Instead Jesus appears to show his wounds, horrifying and graphic, which testify to a different understanding of God’s glory.
I said on Easter Sunday that John’s gospel begins with the Word/Spirit of God which takes flesh, and dwells among us. Now, at the end, Jesus remains very much in that same flesh, though his body has been sorely abused. Just as Jesus at the tomb told Mary that he would ascent to “my Father and your Father”, here Jesus is once again showing God’s solidarity with the humanity God loves. It is as if Jesus says “Look at my body – here is proof that I am in this with you”. The glory of God is thus seen in Jesus assuming our wounded and broken human condition, the fullest expression of his servanthood. This pierced and broken body is the one that God chose to raise. This pierced and broken body stands for our broken bodies.
As we grow older, one of the things we learn about our bodies is that the wounds accumulate. Bodies that we know and in the case of our families and partners, that we love, become battered and diminished over the years. We learn to trace the scars of accidents and surgeries on our loved ones, even come to terms with ostomies and amputations and all the many ways our bodies become roadmaps and books speaking of pain and sadness, while becoming graceful and beautiful in ways that those who still love them could not once imagine. We also learn that not all scars – of trauma and abuse and loss – are visible. Thus, as Jesus holds out his maimed hands to his friends, he is God saying, “I chose to bear and share this, all this trauma and loss, with you that I love”.
This Easter, before we talk of new growth and new beginnings, let’s take a moment to think of the scars and wounds that we carry, inside and out. Jesus, who healed so many in life, stands before us in his very particular, very broken, very resurrected body to show that nothing in human experience and human suffering is beyond the knowledge and power of God. St. Paul writes in Romans that all creation groans for its healing and restoration. Here is where that groaning is answered, here in a room whose door could not keep Jesus out. Here is where our healing begins, in the outstretched and pierced hands of the one who death could not hold.