(A sermon preached at Grace Anglican Church in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 16, 2023, the Second Sunday in Easter. Access the original sermon audio, with slight differences, here.)
Scripture: John 20:19-31 (NRSV)
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.
Please, don’t get my hopes up. I can’t bear to be let down again. It’s an all too familiar sentiment for many of us. We find ourselves so wounded that we can’t face the possibility of something good for fear that it’s an empty promise. Oh, some instances may be of little consequence. We might, for instance, fear getting our hopes up about Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny after the bitter disappointment of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But some are much deeper wounds that have formed scars that are tough and resistant. Perhaps it’s the thought of embarking on a new relationship after years of heartbreak. Maybe it’s hearing a doctor say, “I know nothing else has worked, but there’s a promising new treatment. Would you like to give it a try?” Our hearts reach a point of weariness, afraid to climb that tower of hope only for it to crumble under our feet.
When Mary Magdalene and the other women first tell the apostles of Jesus’ resurrection, St. Luke tells us, “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Lk. 24:11). And when, in today’s passage from John, Jesus appears to the apostles for the first time after his resurrection, he enters the room they have locked out of fear. Thomas is absent on that occasion, and so he still doesn’t believe. Indeed, he doesn’t say he cannot believe; Thomas says he will not believe unless he touches Christ’s wounds. He digs his heels in. He knew who he believed in and saw him crucified on a cross—nails through his hands and feet and a spear driven into his side. All of Thomas’s hopes and dreams, the culmination of a three-year journey, were dashed to ruin in a matter of six hours. He refuses to be crushed yet again. He won’t believe.
In the aftermath of a devastating loss, it can be difficult to find hope and comfort. We are reminded of this as we gather this morning, just days after a violent tragedy left our community drowning in grief and sorrow. So often, during our tragedies, during our struggles and pain, we convince ourselves that God has abandoned us. How easily our faith is shaken. We don’t see him, so we think he isn’t there. How could he be here if things are this dark and chaotic? If he is here, does he even care? But in today’s reading, Jesus steps into the pain of his reeling followers—most of his apostles first and, later, Thomas—with a greeting and a gift that breaks through the locked doors of our fear: “Peace be with you.”
Jesus Meets Us in Our Pain
Twice in his resurrected appearances, Jesus gives them what nothing in this world can: peace. On the one hand, it’s a common greeting amongst Jews: the famous Shalom. On the other, it is a profound expression of peace with God and with one another. It is a gift we rehearse every week in our liturgy. However, its inclusion here immediately calls to mind Jesus’ promise a few chapters earlier: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 15:27). Because of Jesus, the troubles and fear of this life are put in their place. Jesus gives more than just momentary peace, more than the solace anything on earth can provide; this is an abiding peace. For Thomas and the apostles, the anxiety and hopelessness of the last few days falls swiftly away.
The Glory of Christ’s Wounds
An interesting matter here, though, is how Jesus appears. When Jesus shows up in his resurrected body, why did he still have a trace of his wounds? For sure, he could have been resurrected entirely without blemish. The apostles, Thomas included, knew that Jesus was crucified. They were with him the night he was betrayed. Some of them saw him hanging on the cross. They knew the wounds on his body—the nails through his hands and the spear hole in his side. The wounds are a powerful reminder that Jesus suffered greatly and died. And in these wounds, they can see themselves and we see ourselves: we did this. We crucified him.
But what they also show is that he is alive. This is the very Jesus they saw crucified. What we have here is not some ghost—some disembodied spirit perhaps bearing the spectral resemblance of wounds. Ghosts were not a foreign concept in First Century Palestine. They were just as much a part of cultural lore as in our Western world today (you can start imagining an Ancient Near East version of Ghostbusters here). The apostles even think Jesus is a ghost when he is seen walking on the Sea of Galilee. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the apostles, since they believe him to be a ghost, he even asks them for food and eats a piece of cooked fish to show his materiality. This body and these wounds are real. This Jesus is flesh and bone and blood. Here is the glory, for it means these wounds which marked his death now mark the very defeat of death, the sin that destines us to death, and Satan who lures us into sin. The curse that marked us in Genesis, the one we symbolized on Ash Wednesday, is now being worked backward for those who are in Christ Jesus.
My Lord and My God
This scene’s most famous artistic depiction is Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. It’s a powerful image because, in it, Jesus not only invites Thomas to touch him, but he guides Thomas’s finger into the wound in his side. However, in scripture, Thomas never makes it to Christ’s wounds. He doesn’t need to. At the invitation of Jesus for Thomas to touch him, Thomas does the only thing he can do to the one who has conquered the grave—he falls to his knees and makes the first straightforward confession of Christ’s divinity in all scripture: “My Lord and my God!”
Other disciples, Peter first, have confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God. Now, Thomas confesses that which the whole Gospel of John has pointed to: Jesus Christ is God himself. Jesus has stepped into his moment, his reality, and his pain. Thomas must realize at that moment that Jesus has heard his anxiety and doubt even before showing himself. Jesus has been with him all along. At that moment, as Jesus stands before him, the thing that has seemed to be the surest defeat becomes the surest victory. The crucifixion of Christ becomes the vehicle of life. For Thomas, and for us, the thing which was the loss of all hope becomes the way of hope.
That You Might Believe
Jesus tells Thomas after this great confession, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The first sentence is for Thomas, but the last is for us. St. John closes out this story with an aside that could just as well close out the entire book if not for Chapter 21’s almost cinematic epilogue. There is a close relationship between John 1:1-18 and chapter 20. The first chapter establishes that Jesus is the Word—God himself—who has come to dwell among us. Chapter 20 shows the first confession of that truth through Thomas. And John tells us that he is recording these things so that we might believe. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That same faith that was given to Thomas and the apostles, that of God made flesh in Jesus, is the very faith we still confess to this day, 2000 years later. Blessed, indeed.
In a few moments, we will see a little girl baptized into the household of God, based on the profession of the Christian faith by her parents and their commitment—and ours—to raise her in that same faith. And with them, we will be asked to recite that faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
And in these actions, though we do not see Jesus standing before us and showing us his wounds as he did for Thomas, he presents himself to us. In the liturgy and sacraments, we are not only recalling what happened long ago, but we step into how it is still true today, still unfolding today, and still bringing life today. Jesus is alive. In the sacrament of communion, we receive Christ’s body and blood he gave in his death for the forgiveness of our sins. In the sacrament of baptism, we are raised to walk in Christ’s resurrection life, which is now ours, sharing in his victory over death. In these signs, we receive his grace and promise. We receive a hope that overcomes all fear.
I’ll close with the words of a gospel hymn written by Bill Gaither that I heard hundreds of times growing up Southern Baptist. A friend who lost a family member in this Monday’s tragedy posted the lyrics online, and they capture well what hope in the resurrected Christ means to us:
Because he lives, I can face tomorrow
Because he lives, all fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
And life is worth the living just because he lives.
(Cover image: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1602. Courtesy of WikiArt.)
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