God brought Jesus back to life—this is the pivotal event of history. But it is not a historical event in the same way the Battle of Waterloo is, or the signing of the Magna Carta. Because the resurrection of Jesus is ongoing. Easter morning was the continuation of the work of Jesus’ life, of bringing others back from physical, or moral, or spiritual death. And it was also the beginning of a process of renewing the life of the whole creation, a process that is ongoing in our present and is our hope for the future. God is bringing Christ to eternal life in us, and this is ongoing, and gradual, and happens in different ways and at different times for different people.
Which is what today’s text from the Gospel of John is about. The story of Thomas shows us ourselves, and how it is that we come to know and to live Jesus’ resurrection. The process can’t occur without our participation, but just for that reason it is something of a problem. Because we aren’t always sure it’s what we want, or how to do it? In part it is a question of evidence—how can I affirm what I do not believe, and how can I believe what I have not seen or touched or experienced for myself?
It is also a problem of recognition. We may feel like we can see evidence in our lives, or in the world around us, for the living presence of the Spirit, or of God, but it is not always clear what these have to do with a man who lived 2,000 years ago. In what sense are they signs of Jesus?
Finally, there is the question of action, or practice. When I am asked whether I believe in the Resurrection, isn’t this a question about the way I live and act, about what I do?
Today’s gospel story addresses all these aspects of the problem, and it does so in the way it describes the risen body of Jesus. It is a remarkable body, one that passes instantaneously through locked doors, one whose physical breath is the Holy Spirit of God, the kind of body that speaks of a transformation in which it has become something more than human.
And yet this body bears the marks of crucifixion, and this is precisely what makes it recognizable as Jesus. It is in his demand to see the marks of Jesus’ wounds, and to put his own fingers in the places where the nails pierced his hands, and in the opportunity that Jesus graciously provides to do just that, that Thomas knows the truth. But Thomas is not alone. John says explicitly that this story is written for us, so that we also may believe. So I don’t think it is stretching the point to say that this story’s message is that it is in touching the wounds of Christ that we come to know and to believe that he is our Lord and our God.
Now, when I say “the wounds of Christ,” there is probably at least one person here in this room who thinks about guilt. Centuries of Christians have thought this way, meditating on the crucified body of Jesus and feeling responsible for his wounds, because of our own sins. And that isn’t such a bad practice—for Lent. But the body in this story is the resurrection body, and these wounds are not bleeding accusations of guilt and judgment, but openings—to insight, to reconciliation and peace, to awe and gratitude, joy and faith.
Maybe the wounds of the risen Lord are the places where the work of Jesus is still open, still unfinished. They invite our exploration and participation, because we also are unfinished. Christ’s resurrection is still not a reality in our lives and in the world because we have been afraid, or unwilling, to see and to touch his wounds.
We struggle to affirm that Jesus is Lord, because we don’t see the evidence. But what if that longing for direct, personal knowledge of God, that sense of missing the most important thing, that nagging dissatisfaction with a superficial, conventional, and materialistic approach to life, that hunger for something more vivid, more meaningful, more enduring and true—what if that wound was the evidence?
We may wonder what this longing has to do with Jesus, or with the church that claims to do what it does in his name. But maybe this itself is an opening, an invitation to feel our way into Jesus’ own pain over religion. He experienced the immediate presence of the Kingdom of God, and then he looked at the indifference and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day: their sterile rehashing of old arguments, and quibbling over minor differences of interpretation; their pursuit of worldly power and prestige, and easy accommodation to corrupt and violent elites; their contempt for the outcast, the poor and the mentally and physically disabled, and inordinate focus on petty offenses and sexual sins. Jesus saw this and was wounded with anger, and with a burning compassion for the sufferings of God’s people. We could turn away from the corresponding problems of religion today, as so many people do, and say “that’s someone else’s problem,” but then there would be no opening for us in the risen body of Christ, only a old and fading scar.
And when we think about how we are to practice, how to live in a way that is consistent with Jesus’ compassion, and his urgency for the Kingdom of God, we often assume that this a question of knowing what to do. But here also we might find greater freedom and power if we understood that here, too, there is an open wound. We think of Jesus as supremely sure of himself and his plan, so we forget how often he had to go off by himself to pray for guidance and for strength. We forget his prayer in the garden that the cup of betrayal and suffering should pass from his lips, but that, in the end, “your will, O Lord, not mine, be done.”
Last night, I attended, along with some members of our congregation, and several hundred others, a celebration of the ministry of the Reverend Tim Kellgren, who is retiring today, at the end of this morning’s services, after 37 years as pastor at Elim Lutheran Church. There was a lengthy after-dinner program of songs and remembrances and tributes, and many people made mention of the ministries that Pastor Tim and the Elim congregation helped to found that have had a transforming impact on this community and the world. These include PEP, providing subsidized senior housing, COTS and the Petaluma Kitchen, sheltering homeless persons and helping them get back on their feet, Petaluma Bounty and the Interfaith Food pantries, that feed the hungry. But for me it was also inspiring, and encouraging, to hear passing mention of the many false starts, the big ideas that never got off the ground, or were attempted, but later given up as impractical, or just too difficult to sustain.
Maybe we bring Christ to life not when know what to do, but when we know that we are sent, as Jesus was sent, and go in his peace and try something, anything, to touch the wounds of the world. And in this we could ask for no better patron saint than Thomas. In the popular imagination, Thomas is most associated with his doubts about the resurrection. But the Gospel of John also depicts him as the apostle of courageous action. When Jesus announces he is going back to Judea, to the grave of his friend Lazarus, the other disciples say, “Rabbi, they were just seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” But Thomas is the one who says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And when the rest of them were hiding out after Jesus’ crucifixion, with the doors locked, and the lights out, and the shades drawn, Thomas wasn’t there. So where was he? Out and about, abroad in the city? I can imagine him saying, “This is crazy. We can’t just cower here in fear forever. Life has to go on—the Sabbath is over, I’m going to the market to get us some bread.” In church tradition, Thomas is the apostle who went the furthest to spread the Gospel. Others went to Syria, or to Asia Minor, or even to Rome, but Thomas, it is said, went to India, and died a martyr’s death there.
Maybe for some people discipleship begins with believing in the resurrection, and moves from there to recognizing the wounds of Christ, and then to doing something about them. But for Thomas it works in reverse. His story suggests that we first should overcome our fears, and just try something, anything to touch the wounds of Jesus. Then, maybe, our doubts will begin to fall away and we will be able to cry, with the joy of firsthand experience, “My Lord and my God!”