Easter People: The One Who Doubted?

Scripture (John 20:19-31) can be found here

It is still Easter! Though today is not the High Holy Day we celebrated last Sunday—complete with banks of tulips and guest musicians—let me assure you, it is still Easter. The church does not look upon the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a story we tell and then, immediately, move on from. Resurrection changes us. Resurrection makes a difference in our lives, and so we will be steeped in the resurrection, and its implications, for a full fifty days, including today.

If your response to this morning’s Gospel passage is, “Don’t we hear this story every year?” the answer is, probably, yes. I observed from as distance as some clergy colleagues verbally jousted about it this week on Facebook. My friend Richard, in his customarily timid style, said. “The greatest disservice of the Revised Common Lectionary is making Doubting Thomas the Gospel lection EVERY YEAR on the Sunday after Easter… I'm going rogue with a passage from Acts.” I thought, This oughta be good. And I eagerly read the comments that followed.

I was not disappointed. There followed a spirited debate as to whether this story is the very worst one to follow such an exalted celebration as Easter Sunday, or, in fact, the very best.

Another friend, Ann, said “Really?!? I find that the doubting Thomas passage is the one we need to hear the most often. Mostly because I think our congregation is full of people who are skeptical and doubtful and want to grow in their faith.”

Let’s talk about this passage, and about Thomas, and see what we think.

As our story begins, it is still the day of resurrection, only it’s much later in the day. It’s evening. Our passage begins with a strong statement about fear. We are told, “The doors are locked for fear of the Jews,” and so I want to stop to interrogate that statement. In a climate in which hate crimes against Jews are on the rise, we must cast a critical eye on any words from scripture that could be misused as an excuse for anti-semitism.

First, let’s not forget that the disciples, themselves, are Jews, every single one of them. So “the Jews” seems a funny way to talk about people they are afraid of. Is it possible there might be some other cause for their fear?

Second, John tells us that, earlier on this day, Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty, and remember: her fist instinct was that Jesus’ body had been stolen. Is it possible that the disciples are hiding because the empty tomb could implicate them in some kind of shenanigans? That the authorities may suspect that they stole Jesus’ body? That’s another possibility.

Third, the Romans are the ones who arrested Jesus, who put him on trial, who tortured him, and who executed him. And yet the writer of the gospel is hesitant to state that the disciples were afraid of the Romans. It’s estimated this gospel came into its final form between the years 85 and 95 CE—following Rome’s brutal response to the Jewish uprising: the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem itself. Isn’t it likely the Romans are still the greatest threat to followers of Jesus—and that this is the very reason the gospel writer refuses to “say it out loud”?

And finally, assuming that the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus has somehow trickled back to the disciples, and it is such an outrageous, improbable story, is it possible that they are locked behind closed doors for fear the story might, actually, be true? After all, if Mary has seen Jesus, his closest friends would most likely fear that, this is not really Jesus, but some kind of ghost or spirit. In Deuteronomy we read:

There must not be anyone among you… who converses with ghosts or spirits or communicates with the dead. All who do these things are detestable to the Lord! ~ Deuteronomy 18:10-12a (Common English Bible)

The biblical view of spirits is that they are demons—trying to trip you up, fool you, lead you to destruction. The idea that Mary Magdalene has seen Jesus is not automatically going to be met with joy and excitement. It’s far more likely to be received with dread.

The doors are locked, but they are locked in vain, because Jesus appears in the midst of his friends, and speaks to them, saying “Peace be with you.” And the next thing he does? He shows them his hands—where the marks of the nails are—and his side—where a soldier pierced him with a spear. In other words, he shows them signs of his physicality, the fact that he has a body, and is no ghost. Then, and only then, do the disciples respond with joy, because now, they, too, have “seen the Lord” (John 19:20).

Jesus, again, says, “Peace be with you.” He tells them that, now, they are the ones who are being sent, just as God has sent him. And he shares another reminder of his physical self with them—he breathes on them. He tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. And he tells them, in no uncertain terms, that they are to be about the business of forgiveness.

This is a remarkable moment. Think about who is with Jesus in this room. These are the remnant of Jesus-followers… the ones who ate with Jesus on the night before he died…the ones whose feet he washed. The ones who, instead of following Jesus to his trial and cross, ran away. Here is Simon Peter, the one who Jesus correctly predicted would deny even knowing him. And at least one person is missing who, by now, everyone knows was the one who betrayed Jesus for a bag full of silver.

And Jesus has just told them, their work, their mission in the world, from this moment on, is forgiveness. I imagine first on their list of people to forgive—for many of them—would be themselves. And that’s what Jesus wants. Until they can forgive themselves, they will certainly not be able to forgive one another. They certainly will not be able to forgive Judas.

And Jesus wants the first priority of the church to be forgiveness.

There is someone else missing, of course. That would be Thomas. For some reason—we don’t know why—Thomas is not with this group that is hiding behind locked doors. Maybe Thomas is done with Jesus and with Jesus-followers. It’s possible. Or maybe, Thomas is out finding provisions for all those who are hiding—which either means, he’s incredibly brave, or he’s numb to the danger, or maybe, he’s courting it. He wouldn’t be the first person to put himself in harm’s way while in the depths of sorrow.

We don’t know why, but Thomas isn’t there.

He returns, eventually, and is told what happened. He’s told, “We have seen the Lord!” One colleague of mine describes what happened next:

Then Thomas had to listen to their tales for the next week. How many times did they say, “You should have been there?” or “You should have seen him, he looked so different.” Or “Did you see those wounds?” Thomas had to listen to them all week… He is having none of it. He won’t believe in Resurrection until he sees it for himself. He needs to see, hear, and touch before he will believe that Jesus lives.

Now, a week later, Jesus returns, again, mysteriously, through doors that are still locked. And again, Jesus greets them with “Peace be with you.” And looking right at Thomas, and knowing that his heart has been questioning, Jesus says, ““Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27).

But what was it that Thomas doubted, exactly? Was it that Jesus was risen, that he was alive? For the first time, this week, I’ve been considering another possibility. It seems that it’s the wounds of Jesus that reveal the truth to Thomas. Jesus’ wounds confirm for him that Jesus is real, and not an imposter, or a ghost, or worse. But what are the implications of that?

The letter to the Philippians (2:6) tells us that Jesus, as God’s presence among us, took on human form—but that’s a terrible way to describe it, because it sounds as if Jesus was God putting on some kind of a human suit, a disguise. If the cross saves us, it is precisely because Jesus’ death on it was not something we could gloss over, or view as a kind of show. If Jesus’s suffering wasn’t real, he was hardly one of us, was he?

The issue for Thomas isn’t whether Jesus is alive; it’s whether, in his risen state, he is still wounded. If God’s loves us human beings fully, that love has to include our woundedness too. Theologian Richard Rohr says,

… great love and great suffering (both healing and woundedness) are the universal, always available paths of transformation because they are the only things strong enough to take away the ego’s protections and pretensions. Great love and great suffering bring us back to God, and [he writes] I believe this is how Jesus himself walked humanity back to God. It is not just a path of resurrection rewards but a path that now includes death and woundedness.

Jesus walked through suffering and death, the way we do, the way we must. As the children’s story says, you can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you can’t go around it, you have to go through it. And because of that, Jesus reveals to us that, as he was God becoming like us, so we are now gathered in, becoming like him… and that includes death and resurrection. Great suffering, and great love, just as Rohr said.

The implications of this are enormous. This is what makes it possible for us to look around our world and to see the many crosses on which people are hung—because of their race, because of their faith, because of their sexuality, because of their gender expression, because of their poverty. This is what makes it possible for us to understand that to pick up our cross today—to be one with Jesus in all he is and does—includes walking with all these people, and allowing the fullness of Jesus’ love to be shared with them, even in their suffering. Great suffering, and great love.

And Thomas, Easter person that he is, shows us this profound truth: Jesus’ wounds include us, and his death includes us, and so his resurrection includes us. As Rohr puts it, “Easter is not just the final chapter of Jesus’ life, but the final chapter of history. Death does not have the last word.” As Easter people, we can embrace this as profoundly, cosmically true: “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing” (Frederick Buechner).

It is still Easter! We are in the midst of the beautiful fifty days of Easter, when we are steeped in the stories and songs of resurrection: the revelation of God’s power and presence among us in Jesus. Easter is the ultimate “come-as-you-are” party. We bring our best and brightest selves, and our most devastating wounds. We bring our joy and our grief. We bring the fullness of who we are, and give it all to God’s great love and healing power.

Thanks be to God. Amen.