“My Lord and my God!” If you feel so moved, take a breath and say it with me….”My Lord and my God!” What I hear in these words of our Gospel is a disciple who has been, in C. S. Lewis’s words, “surprised by joy” —and even more than that, transformed by joy. This one phrase for me encapsulates the awe, wonder and complete surrender we experience when we decide to turn toward God and embrace the Paschal mystery. For Thomas, this transformation occurs directly after he is invited to place his hand in Christ’s wounds, an utterly intimate experience.
Let’s face it, most of us do not want to see the wounds of other people, let alone touch them. As a hospital chaplain, I sometimes open a patient’s chart and see what their blanket or johnny keeps hidden—deep, penetrating wounds on arms, legs, sides, backs, wounds with ragged edges, wounds that reach to the bone. I recoil, but as the saying goes, there are things you can’t unsee. Similarly, when we witness people wounded by broken relationships, by violence or indifference, by unjust human systems, it is really hard to gaze into those wounds, and many times we are tempted to avert our eyes, and protect our hearts. But again, as we have discovered in this very visual age of ours, the real-time images of people being harmed can be burned into our very core. A police officer beating a black man who cries for his mother. Parents collapsing in grief as they discover their child is among the injured or dead in another school shooting. A transgender youth who takes his life after one too many bullying experiences. Emaciated bodies in a refugee camp our well-intentioned humanitarian aid can’t reach. Protesters executed for speaking truth and challenging power under autocratic regimes around the world. We may be left feeling helpless or paralyzed by the sheer volume and seeming intractability of the world’s wounds.
And I don’t know about you, but for me the temptation is also there to hide or minimize my own wounds. We are, as we often say in the Episcopal Church, an incarnational people. And yet sometimes we are so disconnected from our bodies. I invite you to take a moment to notice your own body, sitting here, today. Let your attention travel through each part of your physical self, and pause at any wounded place. Maybe you ache from the wrist you broke when you were six, the shoulder you dislocated playing sports, the hip recently replaced or not yet replaced. Maybe you draw your shirt up over scars from a bad burn or injury every morning, maybe you even have had an amputation and daily strap on a prosthesis. Do you ever put your hand on that broken place and let it rest there? If you have such a place, let your hand rest there now.
And traveling further inward, we all bear spiritual and emotional scars born of loss, betrayal, cruelty and shame. These wounds shape our worldview and our actions, and can be the ones we are most reluctant to reveal. Our bodies bear witness to our wounds, even when we cover them, even when they lie deep within us.
And so the question arises, what do we do with these things we can’t unsee, with these wounds we are tempted to hide or turn from? How do we share our wounded selves with each other, and open our broken selves to be conduits to God and Jesus?
Over and over again, in the Gospels, Jesus shows us how.
The transformation Thomas experiences upon seeing and, I imagine, touching Jesus comes in the context of a sequence of revelations in Chapter 20 of John. First, there is the open tomb, discovered by Mary Magdalene, who runs to the disciples and shares her discovery. The Beloved Disciple and Peter rush to the tomb, enter it and see the empty wrappings. We are told the Beloved Disciple sees and believes, and yet neither of them understands how this has fulfilled the Scripture, that Jesus has risen from the dead. Next, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, who does not recognize him and “supposes him to be the gardener” (one of my all-time favorite moments in the resurrection stories!). Only when he speaks her name does she recognize him, and she calls him “Rabbouni,” whereupon he tells her she cannot touch him because he has not yet ascended to the Father. Instead, she is instructed to tell the disciples she has seen the Lord and that he is ascending. In the third scene, part of today’s Gospel, Jesus miraculously materializes through the locked doors. To those gathered there he speaks, bestows on them his peace, shows them his wounded hands and side, and breathes on them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit. In the final scene, after Thomas expresses that he will not believe until he sees the pierced hands and side of Jesus, and puts his fingers in these nail holes, Jesus appears to them all again and invites Thomas to touch his wounds.
Let’s take a moment to consider the movement these episodes contain and build toward. At first, Jesus has disappeared, cannot be seen, heard or felt. The enormity of this emptiness cannot be overstated. There is nothing of Jesus there. The rock is cold, the wrappings are crumpled, mirroring the deflation and desolation of the disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion. Mary is very concerned, perhaps more concerned than the disciples, about the physical absence of Jesus’s body, and she is seemingly unstartled by the angels at the tomb with whom she shares her grief and consternation. She begs the man she thinks is the gardener to let her have the body. Up to this point, similarly to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus is not seen for who he is. Mary hears his voice speaking her name, and he is revealed to her. First heard, then seen. But there is still a distance. In her joy, Mary must have wanted to throw her arms around him, to feel completely his restored body against hers—or at least to have him take her by the hand. But Jesus cannot be touched or held onto—he has not yet ascended. And even when he comes to the disciples, they see him and hear him and feel his breath upon them, but it is not recorded that any of them touched him, or even wanted to.
But Thomas did. Thomas, who earlier in John says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas, who has come to be framed primarily in terms of doubt and faith. What I see is not a skeptic but a fundamentally hungry disciple, hungry for contact, for connection, for intimacy. He could have just left it at, “I want to see what you all have seen.” But instead he wants to touch, and not just touch the hem of Jesus’ garment but Jesus’s actual body, and not just Jesus’s actual body but the gruesome wounds of his very recent crucifixion. Stay with that for a minute!
And Jesus gives Thomas what he asks for. “Put your finger here…reach out your hand and put it in my side.” It is Thomas who is invited to touch the unjust wounds that Jesus bears —and bares. The arc of these successive resurrection stories, as I read it, is toward ever greater intimacy with the risen Jesus.
And so it is for us. We can’t physically touch the wounds of Jesus, but he tells us we are blessed when we abide in him. Jesus continually calls us into deeper and more intimate relationship with him. Indeed, in one of our Eucharistic prayers, we say, “by his wounds we are healed.” If we, like Thomas, can fully open ourselves to the wounded Jesus, we will be blessed and strengthened for what lies ahead.
Because of course the invitation to greater intimacy is not the last word. Jesus revealed himself ever more fully not just to reassure his disciples that all would be well—though certainly his victory over the grave does give us an enduring hope and is the wellspring of our faith. Jesus also came to remind his followers that God’s work is not finished and that those who believe in him will “do the work that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these,” as he tells us earlier in John.
And so, growing into intimacy with Jesus, like any growth, will challenge and provoke us. This increasing intimacy may require painful self-examination as we confront our sins and our complicity in the “evil done on our behalf.” It may embolden us to reveal our wounds to one another so that we may be fully healed through God’s love and within a loving community inspired by the Spirit. And it may remind us that we are deeply connected to the suffering world around us, and thus are commissioned by Christ to speak truth and seek healing in all circumstances.
Friends, our Easter joy is not a cocoon! Easter joy opens us up to fuller communion with Christ so that we may embrace our wounds and those of others, move out with courage into this broken world and offer ourselves in service and love.
As this Easter season unfolds, I wonder how each of us will respond to Jesus’s invitation to draw closer. How will we be transformed as a body of Christ, strong in our diverse backgrounds and perspectives, as we respond to the wounds and needs of the world? I don’t know yet, but I am eager to be surprised!
Alleluia! Christ is risen. (Invite: The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!)