by David Baer, April 8, 2018
Text: John 20:19-31
Maxwell Smart the title character in the 1960s spy comedy series Get Smart, played by actor Don Adams, had a strategy for getting himself out of a jam. If he got captured by enemy agents during one of his missions, he would try to bluff his way out. The trouble is, he wouldn’t stop to ask himself whether his enemies would believe the bluff. For example, “… at this very moment,” he says, “this warehouse is being surrounded by one hundred cops with Doberman pinschers. Would you believe it? A hundred cops with Doberman pinschers.”
And his captor responds, “I find that hard to believe.”
“Would you believe ten security guards and a bloodhound?”
“I don’t think so.”
“How about a Boy Scout with rabies?”1
It never worked. When you start with wild, outlandish claims, it’s difficult to regain your credibility, and when you respond to skepticism by simply scaling down your story, you sound even more ridiculous. When you tell a bold, incredible story, no one is going to believe you until they can see for themselves that you’ve been telling them the truth.
This seems to be what happens in our gospel lesson. Before we talk about what took place in the locked room, though, I want to take some time to paint a picture for you of the disciple Thomas, the central character in this story. It’s unfortunate that this story seems to have defined Thomas for all time, so that his very name has become an epithet: “doubting Thomas.” But there’s more to Thomas than meets the eye. Thomas is named as one of the Twelve disciples in all four gospels. But it’s only in John’s gospel that he ever gets any speaking parts. And the first time he shows up in the story, it’s when Jesus is telling his disciples that he’s going to go to Bethany, where Lazarus has died, and where the authorities have an APB for Jesus’ arrest. And what Thomas says is very much to his credit. He says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas is loyal–he is not going to abandon his teacher. And he’s also a realist–he understands that following Jesus might put all of them in mortal danger. Lastly, he’s persuasive! Having laid out what is at stake for Jesus and the rest of them, Thomas convinces the disciples to go with him anyway.
The only other place Thomas appears in the story before the resurrection is when Jesus is speaking with the disciples after their Last Supper. Jesus tells them that he is about to leave them, but that they know the way to the place where he is going. And while all the other disciples are too afraid to say anything, it’s Thomas who interrupts him and says, “Excuse me, Lord, but we don’t know where you’re going. How could we possibly know the way?” And in response, Jesus tells them all, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Thomas is not afraid to ask the important questions whose answers they all need to know.
One more thing… lest we forget, the reason that the other eleven disciples are in a locked room on that first Easter night is that they are afraid. Thomas, the disciple who already announced his willingness to die with Jesus, is outside in the city alone, probably expecting that he’s going to be arrested and killed too—and he’s OK with that! So let’s not think of Thomas as a failure, as a deficient disciple deserving of our scorn.
“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,” Thomas says, “I will not believe.” Those are his terms. The death-dealing powers of this world that Thomas takes so seriously left their mark in Jesus, as they do in all of us.
We all carry wounds, or scars. Some of them you can see. I have a scar from a childhood surgery that saved my liver after a bad bike accident. I have a scar on my knee where a metal edge on a chair sliced it, when a sixth-grade bully decided to dump me out of my seat. A physical scar forms when the body closes wounds up and covers them over with skin, protecting our insides from the elements and germs on the outside. But scar tissue is not the same as what was there before—normal skin includes hair follicles and sweat glands that aren’t found in scar tissue. There are physical scars, and there are also emotional scars from experiences that linger with us years afterward. Sometimes they even go together. Our scars are closed wounds that testify to us and to others that we’ve been hurt, and we’ve been forever changed by that hurt.
When the risen Jesus shows up in the gospel stories, he shows up with his wounds—both in this story and in the gospel of Luke, Jesus shows the disciples the holes where the nails pierced his hands. Here he also shows them his side, where a soldier ran him through with a spear. Why is this so important? Why depict the risen Jesus with his wounds? Maybe one reason is to show that the risen Jesus isn’t an impostor or a spirit, but that the same body that was put to death on the cross now lives. Over the years, too, many faithful people have found in Jesus’ wounds the proof of God’s love for them. In the Middle Ages, when people came to priests and other spiritual guides worrying that they were too sinful to be saved, they were often told, “Look at the wounds of Christ!” But I don’t think either of these reasons explains why it is that Thomas wants to see and touch the wounded, risen Jesus.
Remember that Thomas is bold. He’s a truth-teller. And he’s willing to follow his Lord to the grave, if that’s what it takes. But maybe it’s those exact qualities—Thomas’s courage and determination to deal with the world as it actually is, with all its cruelty and danger—that make it all the more difficult for him to believe in resurrection and new creation. What Thomas needs is a re-orientation to the life of resurrection. And he gets it in the form of a risen Jesus still bearing his wounds.
What if the risen Jesus shows his wounds because he wants Thomas, and us, to see that even in our woundedness, even in our frailty, even with the scars we bear, that we can rise to new life with him? Jesus is a walking paradox—broken, but healed; buried, but risen; killed, but alive. His wounds are still there, but they no longer have any power over him. And our hurts don’t need to have power over us either. One day they will be made whole. That’s God’s promise too—an end to death and mourning and crying and pain. But our new life isn’t on hold until that day. It begins now, when we trust that Jesus is risen, and that, because he lives, we also will live.
Thomas insists that he will not believe until he can touch Jesus’ wounds. There may be some folks close to you who won’t believe in the resurrection, who won’t connect with your faith, unless they can see that you’re someone who’s found peace and abundant life even as you continue to wrestle with illness, relationships, or a past that’s still present. When we share our joys and concerns here in the place, for example, this can be one way we show our wounds, even while at the same time we live in and for the new life we have in Jesus. But even if you’re not someone who can speak about these things in public spaces, there can be grace and freedom when a close friend knows the scars you carry, and when you know theirs. In the resurrected life beyond the empty tomb, there is still hurt, but in the midst of that hurt there is joy. And as a resurrection people, we bear witness to the crucified and risen Christ when we are truthful and vulnerable, but when we also live with hope. Do you have a relationship where you can be like this? The Easter season is a good time to deepen or re-establish these relationships where we can live as resurrection people.
So, would you believe in a risen Jesus? Maybe not. But a wounded Jesus, a crucified-and-risen Jesus, carrying the hurts he received but no longer suffering from them; a wounded Jesus present in the wounded-and-yet-raised lives of ordinary disciples like Thomas, like you and me; a Jesus who allows you to feel his wounds and your own, who shows us that there is life abundant in the midst of our imperfections, our failings, and our hurts… Thomas the realist, the skeptic, the doubter speaks for all of us who have glimpsed this Jesus: “My Lord and my God.” Amen.
“Get Smart, Again! (TV Movie 1989),” IMDb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097423/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu. accessed 4/6/2018.