By His Wounds...
Painting above, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602), Sanssouci Picture Gallery in Potsdam, Germany.
The lectionary passage for Sunday, April 8 was 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.”
There are hundreds of sermons waiting to be preached in these rich verses. There is the little Pentecost of John, who is more interested in kairos time than chronos. He places the outpouring of the Holy Spirit well before the day of Pentecost as described in Acts. Luke had two volumes with which to tell his story (Luke, then Acts), and perhaps John had less papyrus on which to tell his tale.
There is the remarkably high Christology of John's confession: My Lord and My God! There is the general phenomenon of doubt, skepticism, and hard questions.
Of great interest to me, as I read the passage anew this year, is the theologically rich image of the wounded Jesus. The painting by Caravaggio, probably dating from 1602, captures the prosaic and holy moment imagined in John. Jesus appears as a human being, without a halo or a company of angels. He is human, all too human. The older disciples peer over Thomas' shoulder, with furrowed brow, deep in concentration. Thomas has a look of utter astonishment.
And yet, John never narrated this moment. There is always the possibility that what the text suggests is merely one of several multiverses. Perhaps when Jesus said Put your finger here...Thomas did in fact reach out. Caravaggio imagines Thomas actually poking his finger inside the wound. So much for hygiene, one of many anachronisms we could import into the text.
But on the most literal reading of the passage, Thomas never touched Jesus. He didn't need to. Perhaps he felt the pressure of being in front of the other disciples. They, after all, had already believed in the risen Lord. Did they too physically touch the wounds, or was seeing enough? Perhaps Thomas did not want to go all the way through with calling Thomas' bluff.
What do you make of the fact that Jesus appears with his wounds? On one level, as a Bible study participant pointed out last week, the wounds served the purpose of confirming to the disciples that this really was Jesus who appeared to them. He could walk through walls, so his body was different than yours and mine.
And yet, that body bore the marks of the physical suffering from the Crucifixion. This Jesus really did suffer and die. His wounds were real, unlike the docetic Christology that would arise in the later years, supposing that Jesus only appeared to suffer and die. The Apostle's Creed says that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried..." all highlighting the real historicity and corporeal nature of Jesus' suffering and death.
There is another level in which we can see the wounds of Jesus, and this was the way in which I developed the meaning in my sermon. I asked, rhetorically, if Jesus still retained his wounds. Does Jesus, as he sits at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3), carry about on his resurrection body the wounds of the Crucifixion?
Surely the second person of the Holy Trinity is capable of healing up wounds. God raised Jesus from the dead; could God not heal Jesus' wounds? I suggested, poetically, that Jesus retains his wounds so that he may be reminded of what it is like for a human being to suffer. Jesus is in solidarity with all humanity because Jesus became human in all respects. This will take some adjusting to for those who are inclined to see God as remote, abstract, unchanging, impassible. But at the heart of the Christian story is a God who suffers and dies.
A colleague of mine told me about this saying from the mystic Julian of Norwich:
With a kindly countenance our good Lord looking into his side, and he gazed with joy, and with his sweet regard he drew his creature’s understanding into his side by the same wound; and there he revealed a fair and delectable place, large enough for all mankind that will be saved and will rest in peace and in love.
I need to take some time to study Julian's writing, so I offer it here--acontextually--because it is a beautiful enough image to contemplate for the moment. The link between Jesus' wounds the salvation of humanity is not fanciful: it has deep roots in Scripture. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24. This theology is a re-working of Isaiah 53:5, But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
And there it is: salvation comes through the suffering body of Jesus. Rather than imagine--as many have--that the sacrificial metaphor of this theological narrative is at root a deeply inhumane system, I believe it reveals a God who suffers alongside of humanity.
Now, back to Thomas. Perhaps when Thomas saw Jesus' face, that was enough. He didn't need to go through with the ruse of actually touching the wound. After all, Jesus said the same thing to Thomas which he had said on Easter Day to the disciples sans Thomas: Peace be with you! A fitting benediction from Jesus. Not where were you when I was crucified? Why did you abandon me? No, he just said peace be with you.
Our questions are legion. We are always adding to the list. Did the Resurrection really happen? Did it happen just like it was written? What about the differing accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospel narratives? How do we square our understanding of science with the proclamation of Resurrection? These merely touch the tip of the iceberg.
But in the face of the risen Lord, Thomas' questions melt away. He was not at peace. He had, after all, missed out on the Easter party. What he sought more than anything was the one thing he could not ask about: how to get peace in his life.
And then Jesus showed up with this benediction: peace be with you. We are left to infer tone, facial expression, and the other various non-verbal gestures that give rise to meaning in human interaction. But I imagine however that was heard, what Thomas felt in his spirit was peace everlasting. May that be our response this Easter season.