(This sermon is dedicated to the victims of anti-semitic terrorism. Churches must be on the front lines of combating hate and healing wounds due to hate.)
Thomas gets a bad rap. He’s famous for being “Doubting Thomas.” That’s because of the story in the Gospel of John, where Thomas didn’t happen to be with the other disciples when Jesus happened to show up, as the risen Christ. And later when the others told Thomas about it, he said, “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.” So, Thomas has gotten the reputation for being “Doubting Thomas.”
Now, in all fairness, Thomas was far from the only disciple who was skeptical about reports that Jesus had risen from the dead. Just a few days before the “doubting Thomas” episode was when a group of female followers of Jesus first went to his tomb, and found it empty, and received the message that Christ is Risen, were a group of female followers of Jesus. But when they tried to tell the others about it, all those others, who were the men, blew off the women and said they were talking nonsense. Then, as we know, Jesus shows up and blows their minds. But, somehow, it is Thomas who takes the fall for all the other guys. He’s the one known throughout history as being the big doubter.
“Doubting Thomas” – how often have we heard that? Preachers love trotting out old Doubting Thomas whenever they want to scold those of us who tend to be of a more skeptical bent of mind.
Yes, I am talking about “those of us”: I am here I am confessing before all of you that I among those of a more skeptical bent of mind. It’s just the way my mind’s wired. I’ve never been among those naturally blessed with a readiness to believe without seeing it for myself. Thomas is my buddy, with his “Well, friend, maybe so, maybe not. That’s something I gotta to believe.”
And, here I am, before you, just like my buddy Thomas – a believer in the end. I don’t doubt the truth of what Jesus says here: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Yet for me it’s been important to question and seek. And I, for one, have come to know, by the grace of God, the truth of what Jesus also says: “seek and you shall find,” “knock and the door shall be opened.” Our questioning and seeking can open doors, by the grace of God, to the divine as present on Earth.
That’s what happened for Thomas. So, let’s take it seriously, this story about Thomas. He’s not just a straw man. Let’s take a serious look at the details of this story about his encounter with the risen Christ. How did this become real for him?
One of the more pressing details of this story is that Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ is an encounter between one body and another.
This message, by the way, will be part of a series about the embodiment of the Holy. Through this Easter season, the 40 days and 40 nights after Easter, we’ll explore what all it can mean for us for Christians incarnation is central, through Christ, we find God embodied, in the flesh. The experience of the resurrection is this unfurling of that union between the Divine and the Creation, the spiritual and the physical.
So, returning to Thomas: The first thing to notice, if we take this story seriously, Is that what Thomas needs to see and touch to know that Christ is risen. And he doesn’t just need to see and touch the body of Christ, but the wounds on the body. And Christ graciously offers himself to be known in this way. For Thomas, it’s the experience of seeing and touching the wounds on Christs resurrected body that brings him to know that his Holy redeemer lives. It’s such a tender scene.
When we imagine the scene it can evoke in us sensations of tenderness and vulnerability and woundedness and strength, our own reaching out for a God who knows us, knows our wounds and our strengths and can carry us through the pains and pleasure of being embodied souls in this world.
It’s because of this kind of holy encounter in the early days after Jesus died a humiliating end that the movement of Jesus followers became a movement at all. Good Friday should have been the end of the whole Jesus story. People hoped he was the Messiah to liberate Israel, and he failed. He didn’t do it. Things didn’t get better for his people, in fact they got worse.
It’s important to know some of the history here. Jesus was far from alone in suffering the kind of mortal fate that he did. Very important if we’re going to take seriously the meaning of the testimony that Christ is the Holy One embodied.
We’re talking about an occupied people. And, so you know, I’m going to talk a little about war here. I won’t get very detailed. And the outcome is resurrection. The Roman Empire dominated Judea and Galilee, and the rest of the Mediterranean world. For one generation after the other, groups of Jewish militants would rise up and try to fight their way free from Roman control. They trusted God would deliver them, just like God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. And for one generation after the other Rome always stamped out these uprisings. There was a big uprising in Galilee just be for Jesus was born. There were various messianic rabble rouser around Jesus’ time and after, which all escalated into a full-blown rebellion the generation after Jesus. In 70 CE the Romans marched in a bunch of Legions of soldiers and put an end to it. They ruined Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple. That could have been the end of Judaism altogether. In the course of these kinds of things, the Romans used crucifixion as a tool to sew terror and assert dominance. In the course of putting down these Jewish uprisings, they crucified countless Jews. So when we’re reading the Gospel stories, we need to keep in mind that the first communities who told these stories and held them sacred, they are by-and-large traumatized people. Maybe if the Gospels were written these days they would have started with trigger warnings.
Among Jews at time, no one talked about crucifixion. It was unspeakable. And in fact, among Romans themselves the word “cross”, crux, was a vulgar word, not to be spoken in polite and proper company. But for Jews and for the other occupied people who knew too well the terror of the cross, it was more than vulgar, it was the mark of what is unspeakable, soul-shattering.
So, what does it mean for a group of Jews, the followers of Jesus, to have the cross at the center of their experience of salvation? What does it mean that they can tell a story in which they speak this unspeakable, soul-shattering X, and place it not at the bitter end of a tragic story, but in the low middle of a larger testimony of Good News that sets people free? This is a testimony that has been bringing generation of folks to the reality of the risen Christ in a way that has set them free.
It is a testimony about our relationship with ourselves, with each other, and with the Holy One, our God, our Creator. It is a testimony about the rupture in these relationships that happen when we suffer trauma. It is a testimony about the reunion in these relationships that is possible because of a God who has come to know deeply the human condition.
With Christ we can be Wounded & Risen. Resurrection is the stuff of the Resilient Soul.
What Thomas experienced was an embodiment of the Holy, a Holy Body of tremendous power and tender mercy, that receives and bears the wounds that that can shatter us … a Great and Holy body that pieces us together and binds us back up, embraces us in a Great and Holy being far more vast and powerful than ourselves, bears us on into renewed life.
For that I am so deeply grateful. May we know that our redeemer lives.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered April 28, 2019, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla)