Sermon on John 20:19-30 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about childhood is how dangerous it can be. It is mystifying. Even though children are surrounded by people who care for them and tuck them in at night and hold their hands as they cross the street, even though parents and teachers constantly tell kids to slow down or remind them not to run with scissors or holler at them to “STOP!” as they chase errant soccer balls into the street, children get bumped and bruised and scraped and cut all the time! There is nothing that is more terrifyingly entertaining to watch than a little girl running as fast as she can down a hallway and splaying out on the floor as she loses her balance. The amazing thing is that this is a typical experience. There are some little boys who fall so frequently that they don’t know that they are actually supposed to have skin on their knees. And it’s not as if there is some vast conspiracy of parental negligence; part of being a kid is getting a little bruised and battered. Those various owies and boo-boos are, in some ways, the marks of a child’s development, symbols of the fact that kids are growing into their bodies, finding their center of gravity, learning that hot things are hot and sharp things are sharp. Those skinned knees of our students and daughters and sons are reminders to us that even when we get a little bruised by life, there is hope for growth and renewal. Those wounds remind us that there is always hope for another day.
There are few people in Holy Scripture who understand that there is always hope for another day as well as Thomas. Today, as we do every second Sunday of Easter, we hear the familiar story of Thomas and his doubt. This story is so familiar that we can almost rehearse it in our sleep. Jesus appears among the disciples (except for Thomas) after his Resurrection, wishing them peace and breathing the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas returns after Jesus departs, and the other disciples excitedly tell him that they have seen the Lord. Thomas refuses to believe it and says “Unless I put my fingers in the wounds of his hands and place my hand in his pierced side, I will not believe.” About a week later, Jesus returns, but this time Thomas is there. Thomas is invited to place his fingers in the wounds of Jesus, and Thomas falls down in worship, saying “My Lord and my God.” It seems like a very simple formula: Jesus appears among the disciples, Thomas doubts that he appeared and demands proof; Jesus appears again, and Thomas believes. Thomas seems to be the hero of a skeptical age, a proto-agnostic who refuses to believe in the supernatural unless he is offered definitive proof. Thomas seems to show us that we are right to be obsessed with certainty and to demand proof at every turn.
Apart from being overly simplistic, this interpretation misses the point that underlies this story. In order to understand the true meaning behind this passage, we need to remember who Thomas is. Most of the disciples in John’s gospel have bit parts; they’re either completely silent, a kind of apostolic window-dressing, or they’re given one line that moves the story along. John is far more concerned with what Jesus has to say; you could be forgiven for thinking that John calls Jesus Word made flesh because he never stops talking. Jesus, in other words, always drives the story in John’s gospel. Unlike most of the other disciples, however, Thomas has an integral part of the narrative. Not only is there the story we read today, Thomas is also the one who gives Jesus the opportunity to say “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” More importantly, Thomas plays a critical role back in chapter 11, just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Jesus announces to the disciples that he needs to go to Judea and see his friend Lazarus who has fallen asleep. The disciples are incredulous. “You can’t be serious Jesus! Don’t you remember? They just tried to kill you in Judea! Why on earth would you go back?” It was a reasonable question, one borne from fearful practicality: if you can avoid being killed, why wouldn’t you avail yourself of that opportunity? But even as the other disciples warn Jesus of the danger, possibly resolving to stay behind as Jesus marches on to his death, the one whom we so callously call “Doubting Thomas” says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Before anyone else, Thomas proclaimed that he was willing to die with Jesus. Before anyone else, Thomas affirmed his total trust in the Word made flesh. Thomas demonstrated the kind of faithfulness that Jesus expects of all his disciples; Thomas showed us what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
But here’s the thing. Given Thomas’ faithfulness, given his willingness to die with Jesus, we would expect him to be right there as Jesus walked the way of the cross. We would expect Thomas to clamor to be crucified in the place of Jesus. But like all of the other disciples, Thomas abandons Jesus. Like all of the other disciples, Thomas runs and hides, afraid even to watch as Jesus is crucified. Instead of showing us the ideal path toward discipleship, Thomas shows us the very depths of unfaithfulness. Instead of keeping his promises, Thomas shows us how easy it is for human beings to fail. Instead of following Jesus to death, Thomas denies that Jesus is part of his life. Thomas’ questioning of the Resurrection, Thomas’ demand for proof is tied to his own painful awareness of his failure, of his unfaithfulness, of his denial of Jesus. Thomas simply cannot believe that Jesus would have kept his promise that we would be raised from the dead after his disciples, after the world had so thoroughly abandoned and rejected him. And so Thomas doesn’t simply demand to see Jesus. Thomas does not say “Unless I see Jesus in this room, I will not believe.” Thomas asks to put his fingers in the wounds that he and his fellow disciples had been complicit in inflicting. Thomas asks to see his Lord’s wounded hands so that he could know that it was indeed the same Jesus whom he had rejected. And Jesus does not use his wounds to condemn his disciples. He does not point to his hands and say “You did this to me!” Instead, the wounds of Jesus are redemptive; they are symbols of the fact that in spite of our unfaithfulness, in spite of our willingness to reject Jesus, he keeps his promises to us. The wounds of Jesus are reminders that there is always hope for renewal.
One of the curious things about this story is its chronology. We might wonder why there is a week between the appearances of Jesus. Unfortunately, this is a failure of our translation, because Greek does not say “a week later,” it says “on the eighth day.” Remember how important the number seven is in the Jewish tradition. According to the creation account in Genesis 1, God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh day. The Jewish Law commands that the seventh day of every week should be a day of Sabbath rest. The seventh day is the day of completeness, the day when creation reaches its fulfillment. John’s mention of “the eighth day,” then, is supposed to unsettle us a little bit. The normal trajectory is that the seventh day is followed by the first day: the week starts over again. The normal course of creation continues; time marches on. This reference to the eighth day clues us in to the fact that God is doing something new in the world. We are not talking about the created universe as we know it anymore; we are talking about an entirely new creation. Through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is transforming and renewing the world. God is showing us that even our deepest unfaithfulness will be forgiven.
This is a hard message for us to accept. The logic of the world we live in says that we must be held accountable for our misdeeds. The logic of the world we live in says that the punishment must fit the crime. The logic of the world we live in tells us to discard forgiveness in favor of vengeance. At one point or another, all of us stand with Thomas and question the Resurrection, not necessarily because we do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but because we refuse to accept what the Resurrection means. We refuse to accept the forgiveness we have been offered. We refuse to acknowledge that God is ushering in a new creation. We refuse to believe that God has kept and is keeping God’s promises. The Resurrection, however, is not contingent upon our assent to it. God is remaking the world whether we believe that he is or not. A friend and mentor put it best, saying succinctly, “It is not we that question the Resurrection; it is the Resurrection that questions us.” It is the Resurrection that questions our complacency as we sit idly by and allow others to care for those who are hungry and homeless in our community. It is the Resurrection that questions our willingness to turn our backs on racial and economic injustice in our country. It is the Resurrection that questions our decision to ignore what God is calling each and every one of us to do with our lives. It is the Resurrection that questions our hopelessness, that questions our faithlessness by reminding us that on the eighth day, Christ showed us his wounds and fulfilled his promise to bring about a new creation.