Homily for Sunday, April 23, 2017
“Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God.’”
Today’s gospel lesson is the familiar story of “Doubting Thomas.” (Each year the Second Sunday of Easter uses this lesson, from the end of John.) As I said last Sunday, doubts are a normal and healthy part of faith. A healthy place to be is in tension with, on the one hand, the Bible’s stories and Church’s teachings about Jesus’ resurrection, and on the other hand our own doubts and skepticism about the resurrection. I compared navigating the tension between these to be akin to a ship navigating its way between rocks. The temptation is, when still off in the distance, to jump ship, as it were – or to try to convince our inner “captain” to turn around or to maybe incite a “mutiny” – rather than sail forward and risk the “rocks” of resurrection. But I noted that, if we sail forward and learn to navigate the “rocks,” we come to a place where we are not so much concerned about what “really” happened at Jesus’ resurrection, a place where we are not so much concerned either about what may be in our own future after we die, but a place rather in which we are focused on the “now.” And in this Easter “now” we discover that we can live fearless of death. Mot that we don’t fear death – I think the fear of death is normal, and I have a hunch that all healthy people have at least some fear of death – but a place in which we learn to live beyond our fears. And I suggested that it is in this “now” that Mary Magdalene lived, she who was not afraid to be present at the crucifixion or the tomb, and who – as soon as Jesus said her name – was brought back into the “now” such that she could notice – and savor and relish – the presence of the risen Christ.
John being John, the next story is of course connected to the previous. And so today’s gospel lesson, which follows immediately upon last Sunday’s gospel lesson in John 20, provides yet another example of living into the tension of Jesus’ resurrection, on the one hand, and our human and very normal doubts about resurrection, on the other.
Last Sunday Mary, when she recognized Jesus, exclaimed, “Rabbouni” (a more solemn address than “Rabbi,” and often used when speaking to God). In today’s gospel Thomas, when he recognizes Jesus, exclaims “My Lord and my God.” There, just like Mary was brought into the “now” when Jesus said her n[Tradition suggests that Thomas, too, learned to live beyond his fear of death, traveling to India where he founded the Mar Thoma church (with whom the Episcopal Church is in communion!) and where he was subsequently martyred.] ame, so was Thomas brought fully into the “now” of freedom to recognize and believe in Jesus.
In the past when hearing this passage, I’ve been drawn to notice Thomas’ continued participation in the Christian community even as he doubted, and I’ve mused that maybe it was Thomas’ continuing to gather with the disciples that enabled him to once again come to a place of faith. (Maybe we, too, when we doubt, will find our faith renewed as we continue to be present with the gathered community week by week.) This year in reading this passage, I’m noticing Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to touch his wounds. And I’m wondering about the role that Jesus’ invitation may have played in Thomas’ being brought into the “now” and being set free to live beyond the fear of death.
There is nothing like pain to bring us into the present. There is nothing like pain to cause us to examine our assumptions and thoughts, our judgments and interpretations. Pain has a way of driving us “into the wilderness,” as it were, and leading us to take a good, hard look at ourselves and why we do the things we do – respond as we respond, say the things we say, think the thoughts we think – and to notice “Where does this response – my words, my actions, these thoughts – get me?” Pain can teach us about ourselves; if we are able to let it, pain can be an extraordinary teacher, showing us which things we do – our actions, our words, our thoughts – do or do not lead to the joy, peace, and life abundant offered by Jesus.
I imagine Thomas to have lived a rather tortured last two weeks before today’s gospel lesson. Two weeks ago he had come from the countryside up to the big city, with all its noise, grime and narrow streets. He had come to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, when the city was especially crowded, including with many soldiers sent just for the occasion to help keep the peace. In the midst of an otherwise intimate evening (when Jesus even washed all of their feet!) Thomas would have seen one of Jesus’ inner circle turn on Jesus, betraying him to the religious authorities. Thomas probably didn’t sleep a wink when Jesus was in prison on Thursday night, and he was probably more than stung by Jesus’ sham trial the following morning. Had he stayed to watch, Thomas would have seen his mentor and friend not just killed, but crucified shamefully in a public spectacle. And – as if that weren’t enough for tender emotions – after three days of hiding in fear for his life, some of the disciples then came and told him that Jesus had appeared to them . “Enough already!” I can hear him say. “Stop messing with me – I can’t take it anymore!”
Maybe that’s why Thomas said he needed to see Jesus’ wounds. Thomas had been through so much over the last three years – and then the last three days – that, subconsciously, he knew he needed to see something – to touch something – that spoke to his condition, that assured him that he was understood, that somebody heard him and knew what it was like: “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands,” he said, “and put my fingers in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
And so when Thomas saw Jesus’ wounds, I imagine it was cathartic; it brought him right into the “now.” Thomas had been squeezed between the “rocks” of resurrection – between the tension of believing but not believing – for a full week longer than the others. A full week in which he re-lived and re-thought everything he had ever said and done with Jesus, in which he had wondered if there were anything he could have done to save him, in which he had wondered what he had committed the last three years of his life to, in which he had wondered if his “friends” were really his friends, in which he had wondered if all had been a sham and a waste. He had had a full week alone and in fear to take a long, hard look at his life, to be taught in a week by three years’ worth of doubt and pain.
When he saw Jesus’ wounds, then, he was in a way seeing his own wounds. He was seeing all of his own doubts, his insecurities, his irrational fears, his shortcomings, the things he’d said and done that he regretted, the dashed hopes, the grief, his unfinished business… All the thoughts that had been haunting him for the. As soon as Thomas saw Jesus’ wounds, he probably thought, “You know what it’s like; you’ve been there. You know about pain; you know about suffering. You know about fear and doubt and second-guessing the choices you’ve made. You know about wondering if you’ve wasted your life. You know about love and betrayal. You know about feeling abandoned by friends. You know just what it’s like to be alive – fully alive – and then to have that life taken from you. You know!” But Thomas could think only to say, “My Lord and my God.”
Like all Bible stories, the story of Thomas is about us. It is a story that invites us to live in tension with its claims of Jesus’ resurrection and our doubt. It is a story that invites us to look at our own wounds, at our pains, and to find connection to – and solace from – the wounds of Jesus. It is a story that invites us to be brought into the “now” and past our concerns about what is past or what may lie in the future. It is a story that invites us, like Thomas – whom tradition says brought Christianity to India and was martyred there – to live beyond our fear of death. Not to live without fear of death, for that is unlikely. But beyond our fear. Which, if we do, frees us to know His joy and His peace, a joy and peace that is to our hearts ultimately satisfying.