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Sunday, May 1, 2011

See My Hands

Easter 2A, 2011

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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.”

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.” Then 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.

Poor St. Thomas. He gets such a bad rap in Christian history, I think completely undeserved. What nickname did he acquire? Doubting Thomas. Thomas would identify with the minister I know whose family still calls him Stinky from his childhood. Or my old Baltimore friend Bill Kilchenstein, whom everybody in the Boy Scout Troop called Ketchup stain.

It’s especially not fair given the other stories in the gospels about Thomas. In the 11th chapter of John, when there’s a plot to stone Jesus, Thomas says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Why not call him Gutsy Thomas? On the other hand, in chapter 14, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is leaving them to prepare a place for them, and they know where he’s going, Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” So, why not Clueless, or at least Bewildered Thomas? Instead, he gets stuck with Doubting Thomas.

It’s not fair for at least two reasons. Thomas wasn’t around when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples on Easter evening. When they told Thomas that they had seen the crucified and dead Jesus alive and well, Thomas didn’t believe them. Think about it: you’ve seen a man tortured to death and you’ve seen him buried. Two days later people say he’s not dead. Thomas doesn’t doubt – he’s perfectly sane and rational. People do not ordinarily come back to life after they’ve been killed. So, Thomas demands exactly the same proof that the other disciples say they’ve been given: in John 20:20, it says (Jesus) showed them his hands and his side. So, it seems to me that the correct inflection for the reading of John 20:25 is not 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. I think the better reading is 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. Thomas is simply asking for the same proof as Jesus has given everyone else. That’s not doubt – that’s consistency.

But the second reason why Thomas is mislabeled is because Thomas is simply being a good Jew, who refuses to separate a human life from a human body. We Western Christians have been so infected by Greek philosophy that it’s nearly impossible for us to recover the integrity of Jewish belief about humanity. Greeks separated human existence into at least three parts – a physical body, an intellectual mind, and a spiritual soul. The Gospel of John is written to people so influenced by that division of human life that they believed that anything physical – like the human body – was bad, and the goal of life was to free the soul from its physical prison so it could return to God, who was pure spirit. For these Gnostics – from the Greek word for knowledge – physicality and spirituality were not just incompatible, but opposed to each other. The idea that God could become flesh was utterly impossible, which is why the first chapter of John is written in very precise language to say that, no, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And that everything in the Creation, including all things physical, was created by God as a good thing, just as Genesis 1 had said. Jesus did not come to tell people to shuffle off their mortal coils and be more spiritual – he made wine for a wedding; he healed the sick; he raised the dead; he ate with sinners and enjoyed it so much he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. And the night before he died he gave his followers a meal to remember him by, with real bread and real wine.

So, Thomas doesn’t believe in ghosts. If all the disciples saw on Easter evening was a figment of their imaginations, then Jesus is dead and so is everything he told them. When I was studying theology in college and seminary, New Testament scholarship was still greatly influenced by a German scholar named Rudolph Bultmann, who said that much of the Bible is written using symbolic language. So, Bultmann said, Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead on Easter morning, but the disciples came to a whole new understanding of who Jesus was and what he was trying to tell them, a conversion so radical that it was as though Jesus had risen from the dead.

Well, Thomas is not a Bultmannian. For Thomas, as a good Jew, to be alive means to move and breathe and eat and laugh and cry. He agrees with something St. Paul would write later to the Corinthian Church: If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (1 Cor. 15:17). There is no spiritual resurrection and no intellectual resurrection if there is no physical resurrection.

Lo and behold, a week later Jesus, in the language of the Cotton Patch Gospel, walks through, and I mean, through the door to be with the disciples, including Thomas. Instead of chiding Thomas for any doubt, Jesus confirms Thomas’ insistence on resurrection by inviting him to touch the wounds in his hands and in his side. Thomas cries out in response, My Lord and my God! So shouldn’t we call him Faithful Thomas?

This passage has at least three implications for our life together as Jesus’ disciples:

1. We cannot separate spirituality from physicality: God made all things and said they were good. So, to seek spiritual health is to seek physical and intellectual health. Hospitals were founded by churches. Colleges were founded by churches. Our denomination is mobilizing to provide help for the communities devastated by the tornadoes this week – not just to pray for people, but to feed them, shelter them, and rebuild their homes. There is no resurrection that is not physical. And this world and its water and soil and air are part of God’s good creation and any spirituality that does not love and care for what God loves and has made is a false spirituality.

2. There is no Christian spirituality that is not expressed physically: Baptism. Communion. Gathering. Touching. Feeding. Playing. Singing. Giving. This is why we cannot be faithful Christians by staying home – this is an utterly physical religion. Ask our shut-ins and hospitalized what it’s like to not be a physical part of the Body of Christ.

3. Christian faith does not believe that at death people’s souls separate from their bodies and fly up to heaven like Casper the Friendly Ghost. We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. There is no human existence in this life or in the next that is not embodied. In the resurrection, Jesus’ body is different from his body before, but he can be hugged, he bears the wounds of his suffering, and he eats and drinks with his disciples. There is no disembodied life in Jesus Christ, which is exactly what Thomas understands.

So, come to the Lord’s Table this morning, and enjoy it. Watch the great circle dance of Christ’s people as we come forward and circle back. Touch someone with love as you pass them in the pew. Hug someone before you leave. Laugh. Weep. Savor your meals. Smell the flowers, and feel the breeze. Sing loudly, and dance freely, because God has made all this for us, and Jesus is risen, in the body, from the dead.

And when you doubt in mind or soul, touch the wounded Body of Christ, and like Faithful Thomas, believe. My Lord, and my God!

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