I think it was about a week before Commencement. Everything was finished. Exams were done. Papers completed. Thesis submitted. Harvard Divinity regalia ordered. Woot woot! Then seemingly out of nowhere, welling up from my subconscious, I had this terrible dream. I dreamt that everyone was at my graduation except me. My grandparents and friends were asking for me and my professors were disappointed in me. When finally I made it to Mem Church, waves of jubilation turned immediately into a sea of blurry faces scowling at me in judgment. I felt small, humiliated, defeated as I bore up under the scrutiny of a thousand unfriendly eyes.
We enter upon a scene in today’s Gospel that in many respects resembles a kind of graduation for the disciples. The one they called “Teacher” in life has come back to life and has found his disciples perhaps a bit wanting. Instead of celebrating Christ’s victory over death and the grave, they cower in fear behind closed doors; their anxiety sealing them in a tomb of their own making as they huddle together waiting for the nightmare to be over. But rather than flunking them, the Teacher bestows upon them the power they need to rise to every future test – not in spite of, but actually in and through their very human brokenness. All lined up, they seem ready to receive their diplomas as Jesus breathes on them saying “receive the Holy Spirit” as if conferring a degree, their apostolic credentials.
But poor Thomas. He went outside to get a Starbucks or something, or maybe overslept – we don’t really know what happened – but he misses his own graduation! We feel badly for him because the Teacher seems to have acted unfairly. Thomas couldn’t have known graduation was about to happen. And when the moment comes, he’s held to a higher standard than his peers. Did they have to believe before they saw? So, it’s not surprising that many read Thomas as a kind of foil in this larger plot to get the message out that you’re only blessed if you believe. Don’t expect Jesus to show up with his scars n all. And if you grew up in an evangelical church, you may know that this passage, rather than humbles, often has the opposite effect. We are the blessed, after all. We are those who believe, but do not see. We are the smug chosen.
But that’s what makes this Gospel so strange, because, of course, Jesus does show up – scars and all. And despite his rebuke to believe unquestioningly, the focus doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s exaltation or certitude. That’s not the focus. If we read with the tenderness, the care with which Thomas puts his fingers in Christ’s nail-scarred hands, we hear a very different message from this Gospel. Instead, it reads to me as a profound moment of intimacy and love and humility – the kind that can only be known between us and our Maker.
Any Lectionary geeks here tonight? Did any of you cheat before getting here, and look at the readings scheduled for the day? If you did, you will have noticed that I changed the two readings. Because I think our Lectionary got it wrong. The first reading from Acts slated for today was Jesus’ apostles being dragged before the powers that be in Jerusalem, telling off the authorities, saying, “Hey, you were the ones who killed Jesus, and now he’s risen, and it’s awesome and screw you!” That’s kinda the tenor of what’s going on there, and then we get this very short reading from Revelation that you may recognize from one of the our beloved Advent hymns, “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending,” which sets Jesus up as Divine Judge come back to get His revenge: “…every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.”
We want so badly to be like Thomas: we want so badly to be able to separate the real from the unreal, and to clearly delineate life from death. We want categories, and finality, and clear, measurable data. And this is a great liability of what is otherwise a wonderful treasure of the church: the liturgical year. You see, I think that whoever created the Lectionary was perhaps embarrassed by this odd reappearance of Lent. It’s Easter; it’s not Lent. We just did Lent for forty days. So what’s up with all this doubt and sadness, pain and loss, and profound ambiguity – the kind we are most familiar with in the ashes of our lives. Even Jesus’ body seems to evade simple definition. And what do we make of Thomas’ self repudiation – my Lord and my God – what amounts to a confession or repentance of sorts after insisting he would not believe.
This is all very inconvenient for us if we hope to effect a tidy separation between suffering and death during Lent and Triduum, and life and hope during Easter. Like the roots of the tree, the finer they become, the deeper they go, the harder it becomes to see where they end and the soil begins. The other passages from the Lectionary would be so much more satisfying to read next to this otherwise shifting, unsettling account. But I think we don’t do it justice when we pretend that the mystery of Easter is in anyway even remotely comparable to the Hallmark cards and Disney animations of light bursting from tombs and pastel bunny rabbits.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a new life here! There is good news here! But it’s not divorced from the realities of sin and death. It’s deeply entangled with them, even as it takes up and transfigures them in God. Our Savior’s resurrected body still bears the wounds. Faith does not protect us from pain, nor guarantee that we’ll get ours in the end. God’s humility is very problematic for us in the face of everything we wish God would wave a magic wand over and make right. And for my money, this is partly why I remain a Christian in the face of very difficult questions about where is God in the midst of deviating tragedy and suffering. Where was God in the synagogue shooting last night in San Diego on the night of Passover? There is no attempt in the Gospel to whitewash the messy truth of our salvation: that it does not come all at once, that the world and even we continue to do things that hurt each other, and that it’s ultimately effected in the least efficient way imaginable, one broken life to another at a time.
Paradoxically, or maybe not, this is where our greatest hope lies. The same God who molded us, molded our flesh from the clay, whose hands sunk deep into Eden’s mud to fashion our tibias, and big toes and ear lobes – that very same God now allows us, invites us, to sink our fingers into the red earth of His side, to feel with our own hands – the same human hands that nailed Him to a tree – that His divine claim over us has been pierced by our brokenness. His divine body bears the flesh wounds of our unresolved anxieties and fears literally welling up into a crimson flood of violence, betrayal and death. The same One who breathes upon the apostles as He breathed upon Adam, the One who is nearer to us than our very breath, also allows us to deny Him with that same breath. Remember, Thomas wasn’t the first. Peter denied ever even knowing of Jesus. Remember that from last week? The whole “before the cock crows” thing? So what are we to make of this? Where is our hope here?
It’s a very odd picture of discipleship that John is painting, not at all a flattering one. And I think that’s the point: it’s a very realistic picture of what it means to follow, or rather what it means for us to try and follow Jesus in the world; this picture is not disconnected from the depths of our every day human existential dilemmas, and the troubling ambiguities that arise therefrom. There is a great honesty here – the kind of honesty that wants us to probe its fleshy interior that we might affirm the authenticity of its identity, that wants us to cry out, or perhaps sigh with relief: “Ah, yes. This really is what discipleship looks like. Yes, this really is what being in relationship with God feels like.” Our Lectionary may want to erase any trace of skepticism on this side of the Resurrection, but our Gospel is just not having it. There is no hint here of a Vengeful Jesus riding on the clouds with a sword in his hand, ready to mete out punishment on those who pierced his side. Neither do we get the sense that this Jesus, John’s Jesus, would particularly approve of the apostles’ tone toward the authorities in Acts 5 – excepting His gratuitous verbal victory lap around poor Thomas. Why? Because that triumphalist fantasy never ends well for any of us.
In Thomas, we are confronted with the inescapable truth that we pierced Christ’s side and pierce it still. The Lectionary wants us to believe that Thomas’ exclamation, “my Lord and my God!” is a sudden, confessional outburst of praise to the Risen Lord standing before Him. Or maybe a not so subtle swipe at Domitian, hence the inversion of the imperial paradigm in Revelation where Jesus looks an awful lot like a Roman emperor. But I don’t read this moment that way. I don’t think it’s, “Oh my God, praise You!” so much as it is, “Oh shit, this is real!” We are Thomas. Thomas is alive and well in the Church. In my less charitable moments, I wonder if that’s not partly why we built things like liturgical calendars and lectionaries and collects. Because if we can just contain it, if we can just keep it thematically neat and tidy – with Lenten groveling over there and Easter victory over here – if we can reduce this awesome and terrifying mystery of death and resurrection down to a theological cliché, then perhaps we might escape unscathed. But, again, the Gospel is simply not interested in that outcome.
Instead, the risen Lord stands before us pointing to his side; staring, glaring at us. What will you do? What do you say now? What would happen if the truth of the Resurrection were made known to you that fully today? Wouldn’t everything need to change? Nothing could remain the same. And that’s dangerous. Maybe the most dangerous thing. So we box it up and we wrap a yellow ribbon around it and we fill it with milk chocolate – which, I mean, I’m not criticizing; I’m for sure down for some milk chocolate Easter bunnies – but what do we do when even our tradition prefers the empty calories of saccharine triumphalism to the deeply nourishing organic truth.
See, there is profound truth here – welling up from Christ’s side like the springs of water gushing up from Eden. There is more grit and more grace here than we could ever ask or imagine. Have you ever noticed that in all the Resurrection appearances we remember during Eastertide, Jesus never once waits for His disciples to be ready for the Resurrection? The reason Jesus does not wait, the reason He dares Thomas to touch His side and invites all His disciples to inspect His hands and feet (Lk. 24:39), the reason He is not completely insulted and returns for vengeance, but instead demonstrates mercy and models humility, the only reason Jesus does any of this at all is because He is big enough to absorb all our anxieties, He is big enough to hold even our most searching questions. Jesus is not afraid of our doubts, misgivings, fantasies, and neither is He indifferent to our suffering. God is so much bigger than we want or imagine God ever to be, and that is REALLY good news.