Doubt and Wounds and Overlooked Things

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.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24  But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 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.”

26  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.”  27Then 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.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 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.”

30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 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.

 

I have a tendency sometimes to overlook very important things because I’m focused on other important things…or even, sometimes, not so important things.  I think we all do that to one degree or another.

Last year, for example, there were a lot of important events:  the US/China trade war, Brexit, tensions with North Korea, tensions with Iran, the migrant exodus from Central America, the burning of Notre Dame, fires in the Amazon, wildfires in Australia, and, of course, the impeachment of President Trump.

But here are some important things that also happened last year that seem to have got lost in the shuffle.  Humpback whales in the South Atlantic came back from the brink of extinction and now number almost 25,000.  Dolphins are breeding in the Potomac for the first time since the 1880s.  100 seal pups were born on the shores of the Thames 60 years after the river was declared “biologically dead.”  Millions of Ethiopians working together planted 353 million trees in 12 hours.  The Netherlands became the first country in the world to eliminate all stray dogs—not by euthanasia, but through education, free veterinary care and pet adoption.  In Kenya, poaching rates dropped by 85%.  In Mozambique, one of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves went an entire year without losing a single elephant.  Malaria infections dropped by 76% in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam and deaths fell by 95%.  Algeria and Argentina officially eliminated Malaria altogether.   The WHO announced that not one single case of H1N1 Bird Flu had been reported worldwide since 2017.  The CDC announced that cigarette smoking among US adults was at an all-time low of 13.7%.  Type 3 polio was declared officially eliminated—now only type 1 remains and it can only be found in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [1]

So why am I telling you all this?  Well, in this familiar story about Thomas being absent when the risen Jesus appears to the other disciples, I think there are some important things that we tend to overlook.  So let’s adjust our focus for a minute.

First of all, let’s not call it the story of Doubting Thomas.  For one thing, it’s not at all fair to Thomas.  Remember in chapter 11 of this same gospel, when the other disciples tried to tell Jesus not to go back toward Jerusalem because certain people were trying to kill him, Thomas is the one who said, “Well we might as well go with him so we can die with him, too.”  So maybe we could call him Brave Thomas.  Or Stalwart Thomas.  Or even Fatalist Thomas if you’re feeling cynical. But Doubting Thomas?  Let’s put that name aside because it slants how we read or hear the story.  But maybe we should take our eyes of Thomas altogether for a moment.

This chapter, chapter 20, was where the Gospel of John originally ended.  Someone other than the original author later added chapter 21 as an epilogue, but John’s gospel originally ended at the end of chapter 20.  That being the case, I would think that the things Jesus says and does in this concluding chapter are particularly important.  I have to wonder if focusing on Thomas hasn’t distracted us from what Jesus is saying and doing here.  Make no mistake, Thomas is important here, but is he really supposed to be the central character?

I think maybe we’ve made him the focal point of the story because his “doubt,” his original disbelief of the news that Jesus has appeared to the others, resonates with the doubts and disbelief we all feel sometimes if we’re honest with ourselves.  That’s normal.  That’s human. As Frederick Buechner said, “If you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Doubt is an important thing for us to think about and to come to terms with, and it seems pretty clear that belief and disbelief are among the themes in this story.  But again, are we missing something else that’s at least as important because we’ve focused so much on Thomas and his skepticism?

Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.  It’s the first day of the week.  The doors of the house are locked because the disciples are afraid.  So right off the bat we see something important.  Fear locks doors.  Fear locks us into small places in our hearts, in our minds, in our thinking, in our lives.  Even physically.  As we are all sheltering in place with stay at home orders right now during the pandemic, I think we can sympathize.  Fear locks us down.  It might be a very sensible, reasonable fear—theirs was.  Ours certainly is during this pandemic.  Staying behind closed or even locked doors might be the safest, most right thing to do.  But the fact remains that behind all that sensibility is fear.  In our case with the Covid pandemic I’d like to think the fear is tempered by love—we stay home not just because we’re afraid of catching the disease but to avoid spreading it to others.  But the lesson here is that fear locks doors.

But look what happens next.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus comes into the locked down places in our lives and speaks peace.  Jesus speaks peace to our hearts, to our minds, to our anxieties, to our fears.  Jesus speaks Shalom, that word of wholeness and well-being and blessing that bleeds all the strength and energy out of our fears.  Peace.

Our dog, Tramp, is a brave little guy, but for some reason our smoke alarms scare the feisty right out of him.  If one so much as chirps from a low battery he panics.  He tries to be brave and stay close to us but I think that’s mostly because he can’t find a place to get away from the sound.  He tucks his tail between his legs trembles and quivers until Meri wraps him in a blanket and speaks gently to him to tell him everything’s okay while I change the battery on the alarm.  She speaks peace to him until he calms down.  She goes into the locked down place in his little canine psyche and speaks peace until he can stop trembling and come back to normal.  That’s what Jesus did for his disciples in that locked house.  That’s what he does for us when we’re locked in our anxieties.  Shalom.

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

 Jesus, risen and eternal, still has his wounds.  That alone is worth thinking about.  What does it mean that, resurrected from death, Jesus still has the wounds from the cross?  Don’t rush to an answer.  That’s one of those questions that’s better to sit with than to answer.  And there’s also this to wonder about: the disciples don’t seem to fully recognize him until they see his wounds.  His wounds authenticate him.

They see his wounds, they recognize him and, the Greek text says, they are filled with joy.

I wonder.  I think I would feel a lot of things.  Joy would certainly be in the mix, but looking at those wounds on the body of someone whom I knew had been dead, even if he had predicted his resurrection… hearing that voice… Yes, there would be joy, but also fear and wonder and hesitation and a whole confusing cocktail of wrestling emotions.  Which is probably why Jesus had to say a second time, “Peace be with you,”  just to get their attention, because the next three things he said were really important.

As the Father sent me, so I send you.  In saying this they went from being disciples to being apostles.  Messengers.  Evangelists.  Ambassadors for the Resurrection and the Love of Christ.  They now had a mission: they were being sent into the world to proclaim Jesus as the Christ and announce that the Reign of God had begun.

When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  He empowered them for the mission he had given them.  With his own breath he breathed the breath of life into their ministries.  This is not the rambunctious, noisy and fiery Day of Pentecost described in Acts.  This is the personal and intimate trinitarian empowerment for a life of service.  This is the Word who became flesh breathing into them and us the Breath of the Creator who hovered over the waters of creation, breathing into them and into us the Spirit of creation for the work of re-creation.  And then…

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  Jesus authorizes them and us to unlock the closed doors in the human heart and soul.  If a person is to become a new creation, as St. Paul so beautifully described it, there has to be an end to the old business that keeps people locked in destructive patterns and thinking.  There has to be a way to let in the light and fresh air.  Forgiveness unlocks transformation and Jesus empowered them and us to pronounce forgiveness.  Or not.  It’s a tremendous responsibility.

And now back to Thomas.  When Thomas finally does get to see the risen Jesus, note that he doesn’t berate Thomas.  Again, the first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.”  Shalom.  And then he invites Thomas to touch his wounds, a deeper more intimate encounter than merely just showing his wounds.  Then Jesus says to him, I like to think gently, “Do not doubt, but believe.”

 Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God.”

Dorothy Sayers, writing about this moment, said, “It is unexpected, but extraordinarily convincing, that the one absolutely unequivocal statement in the whole gospel of the Divinity of Jesus should come from Doubting Thomas. It is the only place where the word God is used without qualification of any kind, and in the most unambiguous form of words. And he does not say it ecstatically, or with a cry of astonishment but with flat conviction, as of one acknowledging irrefutable evidence that 2 + 2 = 4, that the sun is in the sky. Thomas says, you are my Lord and my God!”[2]

Jesus’ response to Thomas’ spontaneous confession of faith is meant, I think, more for us as it was meant for him: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We may not have seen the risen Jesus with our own eyes, but we have experienced the living Christ.  It’s the living Christ who moves our eyes past what we expect to see so that we notice the other important things we might otherwise have overlooked.  It’s the living Christ who moves past our locked doors to breathe the fresh air of the Spirit into our lives so that we can be transformed and empowered.  It’s the living Christ who sends us out as apostles, ambassadors of God’s love, with a message of forgiveness.  It’s the living Christ who eternally shows us his wounds to show us the authenticity and depth of God’s love and forbearance.

We may not have seen the risen Jesus with our own eyes, but we have been shown the living Christ, and by the breath and Spirit, we show the living Christ to the world and carry the renewing breath of the Spirit out to restore the world.

[1] FutureCrunch, Angus Hervey

[2] Dorothy Leigh Sayers, Dramatic Readings on the Life of Christ, BBC, 1943

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