April 3rd, 2016
I think the strangest thing about this tale isn’t that Thomas doesn’t believe the other disciples that Jesus is risen from the dead—after what’s more likely, a group hallucination by grieving friends, or a that a dead man walks through a locked door. Thomas is a rational man, and as all en. No, the strangest thing about this story is that Jesus still has wounds. He comes to the disciples and says, “Look! It’s really me. See the wounds where they nailed me to the cross?” One can almost imagine, almost, Jesus saying, “Yeah, this one really hurt—they didn’t quite get the angle of the nail right, but you know, I was already dead when the guy stabbed me in the side with a spear, so that one was ok.” I mean, this is sort of the strangest of all things. Do the wounds still bleed? Does Jesus leave a sign with his blood, as wounded animals do when they are hunted and shot? And then, when Thomas does see Jesus, he actually invites Thomas to put his hand in his side. As if he were lifting the flap of the wound and saying, “See! Put your hand right there! Don’t worry about it being sanitary—I’m a really good healer.” It’s a strange tale, and I think most people would be like Thomas—doubting. Doubting this. And if we were to see this, surely we would doubt our eyes.
I can only imagine that Jesus wants us to know him by his wounds. John Calvin says that he believed that when Christ was crucified, he bore the marks of a hard life on his body, the marks of poverty and hard manual labor, the disfigurement that comes from working yourself to the bone. Jesus was a nobody, as Isaiah prophesied, “…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” And then he was crucified, nails driven through hands that had made a living driving nails, perhaps already scarred by cuts and swollen at the joints from his labors. In life he started low, and ended at the lowest stratum of society, tortured to death, a sign of state power and intimidation. By design, his death showed his insignificance and the power of Rome. The risen Christ wants his followers to remember him in his suffering, even as they encounter him in his resurrection. Jesus proves himself to his disciples by his wounds.
Jesus is where the divine and the human meet, and the crucifixion is the sing of God’s steadfast love for us. God wants us to know him through the crucifixion, because that is the moment that reveals God’s commitment to our human nature. God is the God of every human being, and God loves all who have life and breath. The lowest criminal, the most powerful king, the most exploited laborer, the richest man on earth: each and every life is God’s, and God loves them all. Paul says that the cross is God reconciling us to God’s own self. It is the outpouring of life for us, death so that we may have life. When we encounter the risen Christ, Christ wants us to notice his wounds, to recognize him by his suffering—because it is by his suffering that God has reconciled humanity to himself.
And so Thomas says a wise thing—until I put my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. Thomas may not know it, he may be an unbeliever now, but he wants the real Jesus, the one who has been crucified, the one whom he has followed to the cross. And, I think, so do we. Those wounds are for us--that suffering, for us. That body, that nondescript, marred and unremarkable body, that is for us.
When I think of this world, I often think of its beauty and its evil. When I was a boy, we spent summer vacations at Rocky Mountain National Park. These were some of the best days of my life. We'd load up the station wagon and lumber onto I-80, the same I-80 that starts right across the river, and drive into Colorado. We loved the campground on the west side of the park, and once, for a whole week, we a moose and her two calves came to drink at the river. Every day we saw them, and we slept under the sweet Ponderosa pines. It was a beautiful spot, chosen for the tall timber and the proximity to water. But a plague of pine beetles began to kill the trees, and the campground had to be logged to prevent the beetles spreading. But that is happening all over the park, because the winters are no longer cold enough to kill the beetle eggs and larvae. It's a small thing, but climate change ruined my campground, and is ruining my park, and is ruining our world. And it's the fault of people like me, who drive around in cars, fly in airplanes, and use vast amounts of electricity and oil to enjoy the decidedly cheap pleasures of modern life. And so when Christ comes to me with his wounds, I see in them the cross, and I see where my own hands have wounded him. I see the Christ that has suffered because of me, and I see the Christ that has suffered for me, and I see, in the wounds, the promise that God will love me through suffering and into resurrection. In my shame and in my suffering, God comes to me in the body of Jesus Christ and says, “I am giving my life for you—be strong, take heart.”
We need a real Jesus, a wounded Christ. Luther said that one of the marks of the church is that it bears the cross—that it suffers. To be a follower of Christ means that you will share in the sufferings of Christ: the assaults of sin that draw us from God, the assaults of the works of evil and the devil, that try to pry us away from God, the forces of injustice and oppression, that try to get us to give up on God. We need a real Christ that shows us that none of these powers can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus—the crucified one, the wounded one, the risen one.
I think that to forgive means to open our wounds. Just as Jesus spreads his hands and bares his side, so we too, when we forgive, open our wounds to others. The church, if it is a place of forgiveness and grace, is a place where we feel not only safe, but ready and willing to open our wounds for healing. It is by Christ’s wounds that we receive grace—by his crucifixion and his resurrection. He opened a way for us in the flesh, and our flesh finds strength by his flesh.
I never really saw this before, but this Gospel is a text that points us to Holy Communion. There we meet Jesus again. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, Jesus says, and Holy Communion is a moment for us to believe—to believe that he is here, opening his wounds so our wounds can be healed. He is here, because we bring to this table the sufferings we share with him, and he feeds us with his risen life. He is here to comfort us and strengthen us, to encourage us and to forgive us. He is the real Jesus, and he is here. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack