It is good to be together again celebrating resurrection even though it feels like we are still living in the tomb, in the midst of death. Death is all around us, creeping toward us, and yet we live in the midst of creation, in this gorgeous spring where Christ is revealed in so much life. Alleluia.
Today we hear the continuation of John’s version of the resurrection story. Like us, the disciples are locked in, scared of what is beyond the door. It is still Sunday night, the Sunday night of the mysterious disappearance (and resurrection) of Jesus. The disciples are terrified, hiding from the temple authorities, or in many translations, hiding from the Jews.
This is a shameful part of the Christian tradition, the scapegoating and blaming of the Jews, all Jews, for the death of the Jewish Jesus. We can try and explain it away: the story is told poorly, the translation is bad, it was really just an internal struggle between Jewish groups. But whatever excuse we use, the reality is we have to keep fighting back against anti-semitism, even now, 2000 years later. I know I have said this before, sorry to repeat myself. Unfortunately, anti-semitism is still real. It grows ever more visible and is even egged on by those in power in this country. We have to risk repeating ourselves. We have to call anti-semitism out when we see it, even among Christians, even in our sacred text.
The disciples meet in a locked room because they fear for their lives, a particular kind of social distancing. They hide from something they know all too well and do not trust. They worry that they may be the next to be arrested and crucified by the oppressive Roman government. As they commiserate with each other, in walks Jesus. A locked door can not keep him away from these beloved friends. Before they can even shout in fear – or in joy, Jesus speaks: Peace be with you. (in sign language)
And then he does exactly the opposite of what we are instructed to do in these days of the covid- 19 pandemic: he breathes on them. Up until recently, this has been a comforting image for me; Jesus takes in a deep breath and breathes out the Holy Spirit. The breath that joins all living things, Jesus passes on to them. They are part of him and he is part of them, all are part of the Spirit that hovers over creation from the beginning.
But hearing this text today, the scene has a whiff of the terror the disciples may have felt. Virus particles breathed into the air are left to linger for who knows how long. When does the danger dissipate? Is this how it works with the Holy Spirit, lingering even after we think it must have passed?
To make sense of this passage in our current situation we have to imagine back to a simpler time, a few months ago. Or maybe we can reimagine the text. What if instead of suddenly appearing among them, Jesus stands at the door, and knocks. He wears a mask and reassures them that he is not contagious but he wears a mask anyway, in solidarity with them.
In the text most of the disciples seem to understand that Jesus appearing among them unexpectedly, inexplicably, is somehow a new normal. But Thomas misses the first appearance and is not convinced of this new normal. So the next Sunday when the disciples gather again, anticipating an arrival by Jesus, Thomas is ready with his demand to touch the wounds. Again, this seems so wrong in our current reality, touching…
We usually call him “Doubting Thomas” but perhaps we might call him “Thomas the Realist.” Thomas just wants to know, desires evidence. He knows the proof he needs. He needs a sensory experience, not just a spiritual one.
Thomas is much like us, or we are like him: we need human touch. How we long for a hug right now, or to caress a beloved’s face, even standing near enough to feel the warmth of another human body would be luxury. Yes, it is good to see each other, in the zoom boxes on Sunday morning, but we long to be together, to breathe in and sing together, to huddle together for conversation in the foyer, to sit close and lean in at the potluck table. We are embodied. And Jesus was a body, holiness incarnate. It is this body that Thomas wants verified.
But Thomas does not want to touch Jesus’ knees that knelt to wash the disciple’s feet, or the fingertips that were used to heal. Thomas wants to touch the wounds, feel the places of suffering. (In sign language, this is how you sign “Jesus.”) If he can touch the suffering places then Thomas will know this is the real Jesus. And isn’t this how it is?When we touch the places where suffering happens, we know the pain – and we become connected to the realness of life.
It is a remarkable thing that we call Jesus the chosen one of God and that this chosen one suffered. It is scandalous, unheard of, that God would suffer. And yet here we have it, Thomas asking to see the proof that God suffers. And Jesus willingly offers that proof. Jesus offers his hands and side as proof to Thomas and shows us that we do not suffer alone; God suffers with us.
This woundedness, the suffering that God endures, has been reimagined over and over throughout the centuries. The late theologian James Cone understood a lynching tree as the cross. Artist and theologian, Maxwell Lawton, who lived with HIV AIDS painted Christ as suffering from AIDS. Today we might envision Christ with a police boot on his chest or Christ on a ventilator, struggling to breathe.
Of course suffering is not the only thing that points us to Christ. We rejoice that creation reveals Christ, the living, the unifying, the beautiful. And… as Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, we can see Christ in those who are hungry and thirsty; those who are in prison… those who are undocumented; who struggle to find work; who are sick without healthcare or insurance. When we respond to these injustices we see Christ, we touch the wounds of Christ; we are invited to “believe.”
I wish I was the kind of disciple that simply sees and believes when Jesus walks through walls; it seems like it would be easier than encountering the wounds, demanding to see the wounds. But I am a Thomas through and through. I want to understand, I need to understand. The story does not wrap up so easily for me as it does for the writer of John’s gospel: “Jesus performed many other signs as well – so just believe already.” I am stuck with the wounds, Christ’s wounds as well as the suffering and injustice of this world.
In these days of the pandemic, suffering seems to permeate our lives, at least for those of us who are willing to acknowledge the wounds, reach out and touch the wounds, whether literally or figuratively. I wonder what wounds, what suffering you are most in touch with? Does it point you to God, to Christ, to the Spirit? Or does it leave you feeling alone? I wonder how you find yourself responding to the wounds, the suffering you encounter?
There are no easy answers here. Jesus’ wounds were real in death – and visible even in his new and resurrected body. We are followers of a wounded Christ, that we can meet in creation, in those around us, in ourselves – in love and in suffering. What a mystery to live into.