Poor Thomas. Thomas the Twin. Doubting Thomas. It seems we never remember poor Thomas except for what he isn’t—he isn’t his brother and he isn’t faithful, he doesn’t believe.
But Thomas is—in his own right—the first and greatest of believers. And what he comes to believe is still astonishing.
The disciples are huddled in fear of the authorities, locked up and safely behind bars when Jesus is suddenly among them. His first word, “Shalom.” “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and his side. And that vision is enough to get them going. “Shalom,” he says again. The absent Thomas returns and finds the group all a-flutter. And this is where we jump to conclusions at Thomas’ expense. Thomas is not willing to trust their testimony so we label him Doubter. But what do they testify? “We have seen the Lord.” Yet for Thomas seeing is not believing. Or rather believing is too important to be left to sight: Thomas wants to touch. Wants the confirmation of the flesh. Doesn’t just want to see the truth but wants to entrust himself to it. And truth not just about the reality of this apparition. Thomas knows, I believe, just what an outrageous claim the others are making without their knowing it. Not that Jesus, once dead, is alive but that Jesus, alive, still bears the wounds of his death. The others don’t see deeply enough—the holes just serve to convince them of the truthfulness of their eyes. They don’t go far enough … but Thomas, who once offered to walk with Jesus all the way to his death, does—he grasps something more.
A week later, as John tells it, nothing has changed. For all they’ve seen the living Jesus the disciples are still behind locked doors. Still Jesus comes with Shalom on his lips. He comes to Thomas: “bring your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” And Thomas touches his friend, not to confirm his reality but to know him through his wounds. And where the others had got all excited Thomas becomes solemn. He sees with his fingers what the others could not see with their eyes and he testifies to what he has discovered: “My Lord and my God!” Not just his risen Lord that he can feel beneath his fingertips but his God. This is God and God has wounds.
It seems that you can have the Holy Spirit breathed upon you, even by Jesus himself, and still not grasp who Jesus is. Seeing is not believing. Seeing is something you can do from a distance, above all from an emotional distance. You can see—and maybe know—but still not feel and still not entrust yourself. You can see pain but not feel it. You can know another’s wounds but not take the risk to enter them.
God’s wounds are our place of entry into God. Maybe they are all we have in common with God. John tells us that he writes all this down for our sake, so that we might go beyond seeing to touch the reality of God.
Look around you this morning and what do you see. An Easter people, rich in the Risen Lord, alive in his life. Look around you this morning and what touches you. An Easter people still wounded like their Risen Lord. Only through our own wounds are we able to touch the reality of one another. Only through our own wounds are we able to be touched by the reality of God.
The mystery here is beyond me. The marks of evil, of dying, of violence are things we hate. We hate them for what they do to us and to those we love. For how they mar the beauty born there, and ruin the wholeness of life. We pray to be healed, to be made whole, to find freedom. But in our one glimpse of a human being fully healed from death, completely whole, and absolutely free—in Jesus Risen—we find the marks remain.
If Thomas is right, the very things we spend our lives trying to escape turn out to be what we have in common with Jesus, with God.
If Thomas is right, Jesus—Risen, Alive, Wounded—is here today offering in his hands and his side a way into God, a way into each other.
If Thomas is right then peace and joy have come to us today.
April 19th, 1998
I live in Berkeley, just north of the Cal campus, just across from a fraternity house, the band fraternity in fact. And whatever the reputation that such places might have this house is a decent one, pretty quiet, pretty considerate. And as part of that consideration there was a knock at the door last Wednesday evening and two student-types standing there wanting to let us know that they would be having a party on Friday and they promised it wouldn’t go on too long and if we wanted to we could come along. A party on Good Friday? Blank looks. OK Well thanks for telling us.
So on Good Friday evening there was a party. Nothing extravagant or unusual. Just a party. Here we were, in our house, back from churches and prisons and services and processions – a little tired, a little emotional, pondering once again what it means to walk alongside Jesus on his unpopular way. And across the way the guys were whooping it up.
And that’s probably how it should be. Probably how it was that first passion weekend. As Jesus was nailed up for his troubles most of his followers were hiding while the rest of Jerusalem went on its busy way preparing for Passover. What percentage of the population even noticed? 10? 5? Jesus death was a non-event. The parties continued, considerately I’m sure, and the slaughtered lamb was eaten, the bread broken and maybe one too many cups of wine poured.
Saturday must have dawned with yawning hangovers for the many and yawning emptiness for the few huddled away for whom this one grisly death did matter.
And now it’s Sunday, the third day. The headaches are gone. The relatives are going and Passover is about to be forgotten until next year. But for a few nothing will be the same ever again.
Maybe forty years later when the Roman army sacked Jerusalem and fought their way into the bitterly protected Temple to the Holy of Holies. They were astonished at what they found. Past the gold and the finery, past the candle sticks and the veils, past the blood of lambs and defending Jews, they came to a small empty room full of nothing but the absent presence of God. The heart of the earth, the Holy of Holies, the sanctum sanctorum, was empty. Expecting treasure, expecting ornament, expecting glory they found instead an emptiness, a bare, vacant space. Only such an emptiness can hold the God of Israel.
It is fitting then that we are confronted this Easter, every Easter, with the truth that confronted Mary Magdalene that first witness, that first Easter. An empty tomb. A small space full of nothing. Where Jesus should be, where a corpse should be, only absence.
In weeks to come we are going to hear all the stories of meetings with the once-again-living Jesus but the first fact, the first awkward Easter fact is the empty tomb. It confronts us just like it confronted those first friends of Jesus with a puzzle and a challenge. Where we expected only death and decay, ruin and rot, we do not find them but we do not find life either … we are faced with a hole in our understanding. As the angels told us last night: “He is not here.” He is no longer dead but he is not here.
Each of us has to fill that hole. Together we have to fill that hole. Because Jesus did not come back to life to teach some more, or heal some more, or work some more miracles. He disappeared. He didn’t turn up to thumb his nose at Pilate or Caiaphas. He didn’t force out the Romans or depose the priests or shatter the temple. He is not dead but is not here. He is not here. The parties go on to this day. To most of the world Jesus does not matter. To most of this city he doesn’t matter.
But to us he matters. You and I are a people bound together by nothing, nothing but the empty air of an empty tomb. He is not dead but he is not here – but we are. And though he doesn’t matter to our friends and our neighbours, we must matter. He has left us this charge and challenge. We must matter. We must be his presence. We must be the living empty heart of our city, our nation, our earth.
April 12th, 1998