Our text has two scenes, set one week apart. Both take place on the first day of the week, the day we call Sunday.
In scene one, it’s Easter evening. Three people have been to the tomb where Jesus was supposed to be, and found it empty: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the disciple Jesus loved whom we know as John. They have all seen that the tomb’s stone had been removed; it was strangely open. Peter and John have seen stranger things – grave clothes with no corpse; a neatly rolled up head cloth – but what do these things mean? John starts to believe that Jesus is not dead anymore, but alive, but Peter is simply puzzled – they return to their homes.
Mary alone stays behind, and it is Mary who is the first to see Jesus, risen from the dead, alive. Jesus commissions her to go and tell the others whom Jesus calls, “my brothers” – and she does. She returns to the place where they stayed and says, “I have seen the Lord.”
Hiding for justified fear
Now it’s evening that day. Mary has given her testimony. Let us place ourselves in that group. What are we thinking? We have been part of a movement that the people with the hammers, nails and crosses have decided is an enemy of the state. Our leader has been captured, tortured, and executed. The only reason we were not also hanging there on crosses to the left and the right is that we all cut-and-ran like cowards. “Take up your cross and follow me” was supposed to be a metaphor, we thought.
There is no reason to believe that it’s over simply because Jesus was crucified. A couple of years after Jesus was born, (6 AD) a man named Judas the Galilean tried to lead a revolt against Rome. Rome’s response was not neatly limited to punishing him alone; the Roman army sacked the whole town he was from, and anyone left alive they enslaved! And, by the way, that town was a short walk from Nazareth (Sepphoris). Jesus’ family probably had had relatives there. No, there is no reason to believe it’s over.
It’s even more complicated than that; let’s say Mary is right – Jesus is alive. What does that mean? A Roman death sentence doesn’t get suspended if it didn’t work the first time. It’s not over for anybody, including Jesus – who was not able to keep from being crucified once; best keep low, and lock the door.
Other causes for fear
Maybe there is another layer here. John’s gospel tells us that the disciples had locked the door for fear of the Judean authorities who had led the plot to arrest Jesus – but perhaps there were other causes of fear now, after hearing Mary’s testimony. What if he is alive? What if we have to face him? He is the one we all abandoned in his darkest hour. He is the one we left hanging out on his own for the Romans to “meet and greet,” as only Romans could.
It would be like a platoon in Afghanistan that had abandoned their lieutenant and left him in the hands of the Taliban. Seeing him again would mean looking him in the eye. Talk about a scar on your conscience!
So here is the bind we are in that evening: we are not sure the testimony of a woman is reliable (it’s the first century) – so there is still lots of doubt. And if it is reliable and he is alive, there is cause for shame for what we have done. Our options are doubt and guilt, in the context of quite justifiable fear.
A lot of us know what it is to live in fear, between doubt and shame. We go through times when it seems like nobody is there listening when we pray, no one is there with us in the dark; perhaps the skeptics are right after all. Of course when we get together we don’t admit to our doubt. We sing our songs, recite the liturgy, meet with our Ministry Teams – and pretend all is well. I have gone through times of doubt – so has everyone. Did not even our Lord say, from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yes he did! Even he did.
But we have also experienced regret, guilt, and shame at the idea that He really is there, and he has seen what we have done, heard what we have said, and knows – even down to our motives – all the way past our excuses. And there we are, like Adam with the half-eaten apple in our hands; guilty. Life is not wonderland for anyone; no one makes it through without scars; big ones.
Back to the story: And then it happens: Jesus is there! Lock or no lock, he is there. Was there a brief pause as he looked around that room making eye-contact before he spoke? Were there any eyes not averted away from his as soon as they saw him? The room has to be filled with both amazement that he is there and searing, painful shame. What will he say to us?
Remarkably, he says, “Peace be with you.” And then he shows us his hands and his side; he shows us his scars. They are fresh, red, still swollen; they make us wince just looking at them. But there they are. What is it that convinces us that Jesus is real? His scars.
And then he does something utterly unexpected: to us, the ones who abandoned him: he commissions us! He doesn’t just forgive us, he actually takes up with us where he left off, believing, in spite of what we have done, that we are the ones who can accomplish something. It says:
Jesus said to them again,
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In scene two, we learn that Thomas has not been present for any of this. When he comes around, the others tell him, but Thomas is a realist’s realist. He was the one who, when Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem despite growing hostility, said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11:16). When Jesus spoke about going to the Father, it was Thomas who wanted concrete specifics, saying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5).
Now, realist Thomas says,
“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.”
We do not get to see into Thomas’ heart. Was he scarred by the guilt of abandoning Jesus? Was he especially ashamed at having been the one who said he would stick with him all the way to the bitter end? Actually it doesn’t seem so does it. His “I will not believe unless…” condition seems cold; almost bitter.
Maybe Thomas is the one who feels abandoned. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah – but it all came to grief on a Roman cross. Now who is the fool? Maybe the scars on Thomas’ heart are the scars of disappointment with God.
Well, if so, we have been there too. There have been times when we cried out for help and were left on our own. There were times we prayed for healing, for a job, for guidance and were turned down. There were times we tried to pray our kids or our spouses out of bad decisions – but they made the wrong ones. We all bear the scars of the pain of what went wrong.
Thomas will not be persuaded by merely seeing the scars; his own are too raw to be mollified so easily. He needs to touch them. Even if his touch causes pain; that’s how people in pain feel.
Jesus is back
A week goes by; it’s Sunday again, the first day of the week again. And again, despite shut doors, Jesus appears among them. Again, to heal their guilty aching memories (because he knows that healing takes time) he repeats, “Peace be with you.” Thomas is there this time; they make eye-contact. Jesus does not wait for the request: he makes the invitation:
27“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Did Thomas reach out and touch him, as Caravaggio’s painting depicts him doing? We don’t know; the gospel of John doesn’t say. I don’t think so. In that moment, Jesus has swallowed up all of the past – the betrayal, the false claims of bravado, the doubt and skepticism – all swallowed up in his offer. Look at the scars, Thomas: they show who Jesus is.
When do people see the risen Christ today? Not when they see our stained glass, not when they see our steeples, not even when they see our cathedrals. People see the risen Christ today when they see scars. People see Jesus today when they see people like us who are imperfect, people who struggle with doubt, people with a past, with regrets, with disappointments, people with scars, who do what Jesus did.
That is exactly what he wants. He told us,
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.“
Jesus is saying to us: I send you to go out and do as I have done. Say “peace be with you” to people who have hurt you. Don’t retain their sins; forgive them – that’s what I have done, and I am sending you to do likewise. Not because you are perfect – you aren’t. Not because you never doubt: you do. But because you know me, the one who was scarred for you, that you might go bear the scars of the world.
Be the “wounded healers,” the scarred ones who believe (as much as we can believe) in the One who was scarred for us, whom we, like “doubting Thomas” confess as,
“My Lord and my God!”