Sermon for 2nd Easter, Year C, on John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and
stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 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.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Bringing Peace, Breathing Spirit
Ever since I was quite young I have had a job. When I was in middle school I had a friend whose father, Mr. Burke, owned rental property on Dayton’s west side – the poor side of town. Mr. Burke employed his son and me to cut grass, paint walls, remove overgrown shrubs, and haul loads of trash to the dump.
One day, trying to cut some branches off a fallen tree I got hurt. I was holding the branch I was cutting too close to the tree-saw blade – it was just a hand-saw, but as I pushed and pulled it back and forth, trying unsuccessfully to hold it still, the saw jumped out of the groove and onto my hand. It bled like crazy before we could get it stopped. I still have the scars.
I owe a huge debt to Mr. Burke. He worked us hard, and taught us how to work. I learned some skills like painting and laying tile, and the importance of being careful with a saw. And I also learned deeper things: what it means to work an eight-hour day in the hot summer sun, that it’s okay to get your hands dirty, that you have to keep going until you finish the job, and how to wait until the end of the pay period for the reward. Those were crucial lessons.
Sometimes when I look at my hand and see those scars I remember those days and I’m thankful for how they helped form me as a person. Those scars are part of who I am.
Scars of Identity
Scars become the focus of the text we read from John’s gospel. When Jesus want’s to assure Thomas, he offers his scars; exactly what Thomas said he needed to see.
“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.“
Somehow, instinctively perhaps, Thomas knew that the way you tell who a person is, is by their scars.
And we all have them. Some we can see, others are invisible. Some have healed so well that we rarely notice them; others are still sources of pain, and they show up all the time: in our memories, our precautions, and our personal treatment strategies.
Show Me Yours
I think it would have been fair for Jesus to have said to Thomas, “Now, you show me yours.” Turnabout is fair play, as they say, right? But he didn’t need to. It was obvious. Thomas was, like all the rest, behind shut, locked doors. Their jailer was fear, and they were all immobilized by him. The scars were in plain sight.
At least some of them were. Maybe others weren’t. They had reasons to be in fear of the Romans, who had crucified their leader, so hiding behind locked doors was a strategy that seemed, for the moment, to be working. But Thomas shows us another fear-scar – one still causing pain. The fear of being hurt again. The fear of trusting again, and being left alone.
You see, Thomas, and others of the group, had expected that Jesus was going to be the successful Messiah to liberate the people from, as they believed, their worst problem: Roman occupation. It was all looking good, until around the time Lazarus got sick and died. By then the heat was on, and Jesus had made enough people angry that he was a marked man.
When Jesus announced his plan to go to where Lazarus was dying, Thomas knew that Bethany was literally a stone’s throw from Jerusalem – the heart of Jesus’ fiercest opposition. It was Thomas who said to the other disciples, (I imagine in frustrated bitterness):
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
Love’s Labors Lost
In his mind, he got absolutely nothing he had hoped for, by following Jesus. He felt betrayed. Love’s labors lost. Why go there again? Why stick your neck out a second time, trusting one who had let you down?
For many of us, like Thomas, the very fact of getting scarred the first time makes it harder to trust in the God who let us down, and let it happen. The name Thomas means “twin.” Who was his twin? Maybe we are. Maybe we are identical to him in this respect. “Once bitten, twice shy.”
The scars that we carry around, on our bodies and in our memories, make us cautious. We develop defense strategies to avoid repeating the pain that we went though. We try to treat the pain that continues – and we are often quite unwise about our self-treatment schemes. What once caused pain, forever after, causes fear and doubt. We can sympathize with those immobilized disciples in that locked up room, doing nobody any good.
Hear the good news: Jesus will not be locked out, even by our worst fears, even by our most painful memories, even by immobilizing doubt. In fact it is exactly at the moment of the pain that he shows up. Past the defenses, in spite of the strategies, Jesus shows up to be with us, inside our locked down hiding places.
When Jesus shows up, what does he say? Three times in this short text, he says “peace.” It’s not just “hello,” but “peace,” or “shalom,” that is, wholeness, wellness, in other words, healing.
Resurrection did not remove Jesus’ scars. Jesus’ presence doesn’t remove the disciple’s scars. But but his presence there, with us, brings peace, shalom, healing of the pain.
For Absent Readers
John writes this story for us with deep sensitivity to his readers. Writing probably sixty years after that first Easter day, John is well aware of the fact that his readers, in his generation and ours, will not have the benefit of seeing Jesus and his scars. How will Jesus be present to us?
Though the details of time and place are quite different from the way the story of the Holy Spirit’s arrival is told in the book of Acts, the answer is the same: Jesus continues to be present to his followers by his Spirit. John cannot resist including the Spirit right here, right now, in this moment of pain and fear. So, instead of waiting until Pentecost, he has Jesus breath out his Spirit on the disciples, right here on this page of the story.
“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.”
Just as God’s Spirit was present with Jesus when he was being scarred by those nails and the spear on Good Friday, yes, even as he was crying out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” so, God is present with us, by his Spirit, bringing God’s peace, God’s shalom, God’s healing. All he asks is that we simply trust him to be there.
Invitation: Go All In
Where are your scars? Where is it still hurting? God is inviting us to trust that he is there for us, because he is present with us, by his Spirit, even in the pain. We are invited to believe that he will bring his shalom-giving Spirit to every painful wound, and that though they mark us for life, the scars themselves will become part of who we are, and will be redeemed for good.
We will look back and be able to say, those scars made me who I am today. God was with me then, is with me now, and will be with me at every moment, by his present Spirit.
And so the locks can come off the doors. The fear-jailor can have a vacation. The followers of Jesus – that’s us – are sent out to go to the world with a purpose.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Then Go All Out
We all have a purpose. We were not put on earth to hide in fear and to live in perpetual pain. We are here to receive the Spirit, and then to go out as Spirit-people, “wounded healers” (as Henri Nouwen said). We are people who go around, not wagging the finger of shame at other people behaving badly “retaining their sins,” but rather, as people who bring the healing, peaceful, forgiving presence of God with us.
We are sent out with our scars, allowing them to be invitations to others that say: “Hey, look at me: I’m scarred like you. But it doesn’t hurt so much now, because I know God is with me, and with you. The Spirit is here.”
What are your scars? Have you gone though a divorce? An addiction? Have you been a victim of abuse? Have you had doubts? Depression? Despair? Do you have the scars to prove it? They are there to be a bridge to other people going through the very same things. They are there to give you empathy because we, who know what pain feels like, are exactly the ones to reach out to others in pain.
Did Thomas ever actually touch Jesus’ scars? I don’t know. Did Jesus touch his? I think so. Because Thomas was willing to go, “full-in” and cast himself utterly on the scarred one before him.
“Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
And here is where we enter the story:
“Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Believe that God is present by the Spirit now, and trust that healing will come, peace will come, all will be well. And then go help someone else who is hurting.