April 19, 2020
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
So there is something powerfully familiar about the way John starts this story: “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 …”
We know about being stuck in our homes. We know about feeling fear – the kind of fear that our rational mind tries to reason with and put in its place, only to have it slip in through the mail slot, or the inbox, or in the anxiety that wakes us in the middle of the night. We know about feeling powerless against a very real enemy that may or may not be deterred by the locks on the door.
Of course, for the disciples the fear was not of some virus but of being rounded up in a sweep of Jesus’ know associates, being targeted as fellow conspirators, being chewed and swallowed by the same beast that had mauled their Savior. This fear was so great that even though Mary Magdalene had alerted them that morning that the body was gone, a fact verified by Peter and another disciple, and then that she had seen the risen Lord, they were still paralyzed.
Her experience was not enough for them. They needed their own experience.
So when Jesus appeared to them, bringing a word of peace, and flashing his scars, and sending them out into the world to carry on his mission of reconciliation, something changed in them. They went from blinding fear to the beginnings of belief.
But their experience was not enough for Thomas. He needed his own experience.
We don’t know why he wasn’t there that evening. One scholar guesses that he was out “getting supplies, or gathering news, looking in on others, or maybe just taking a break from his overanxious friends.”1 Whatever his reason, he was absent, so he did not see Jesus, or hear his voice, or view his still-fresh wounds.
Denied all that evidence, Thomas went with what he could see – the 10 weren’t behaving like people whose fears had been chased away, whose world had been made new, who were emboldened to testify about a risen Lord. They were still holed up in the upper room.
As if to underscore the point, a week later they were still there. Thomas was with them … and Jesus appeared. He repeated what he had done for the others – he spoke a word of peace and invited Thomas to touch his wounds, so that he might believe.
We read this story every year on this first Sunday after Easter. We hear about Thomas’ doubts and his great statement of faith, for when he finally sees the risen Lord he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”
But here’s the problem: for many people, his experience is not enough. They need their own experience of the risen Lord.
Thomas had a face to face encounter with Jesus. The 10 did. Mary Magdalene did. And they believed. But where does that leave the rest of us?
We cannot probe his wounds. We cannot see him for ourselves. What are we to do?
The Pew Research Center has documented, as of 2014, that 23% of people surveyed in the US considered themselves religiously unaffiliated. Young adults in particular are more likely to identify as “nones”. For them the number rises to 35%.
“[They] are waiting to see the marks. They are not looking for the marks in Jesus’ hands and side anymore. [They know that ship has sailed. But they do wait] to see the marks of the church – the wounds in our hands and our sides – the evidence that we are really connected to the Jesus who was crucified and raised.”2
Debie Thomas tells the story of looking at college websites with her daughter. They noticed certain repeated buzzwords: “high achievement,” “success,” “accomplishment,” “attainment.” Her daughter grimaced. “They want battle scars,” she said bitterly, “not open wounds.”3
“Her remark stopped me cold,” the director of children’s and family ministries remembers. “I don’t know if it’s an accurate assessment of college admissions in the US these days, though I suspect it is. What struck me is how painfully relevant it is to the church.”
We are all scarred. All of us. We have had to endure all sorts of difficult things.
I’ll never forget attending a surprise birthday party for a member of a former congregation. She was turning 80. She had been lured to the community center under some pretense. While she sat waiting for her family, she and a contemporary got to talking about recent knee surgeries … and that’s how I ended up witnessing a couple seniors baring a scandalous amount of flesh to compare scars! They were laughing and bragging!
I can imagine others sharing signs of a car wreck, and industrial accident, or how they won a purple heart. It would take a lot more vulnerability or trust, but some might show acne scars, or the reminders of an abusive spouse, or talk about the toll an addiction had taken.
Churches are meant to be places of vulnerability and trust. We should be able to share our scars – not just with people who are already members, but with people who are exploring their options, people who doubt our stories, people who aren’t ready to commit yet.
Can the Church do that? Will we?
Debie Thomas says the Church, like much of society, prefers to tell a story of triumph – how we have overcome, how we are doing fine, how we have put our problems behind us. To use her daughter’s phrase, we want to show battle scars not open wounds.
She says we do so because, “we misunderstand the nature of witness. We don’t want to air dirty laundry. We don’t want our secret struggles to poison our message as Christ’s followers. How will Christianity appeal to people if it’s not presented as beautifully as possible?”
[But] Jesus’ resurrected body doesn’t bear faded scars signaling a long-ago victory on a half-forgotten battlefield. They are fresh wounds, still raw enough to allow a doubting disciple to place his fingers into Jesus’s side. Open wounds.
I imagine Jesus winces when Thomas touches him. That pain — that openness — signals real life and engagement. Real presence. It speaks the very words Thomas hungers for the most: I am here. I dwell in the hot, searing heart of things. Exactly where you dwell.”4
So how might people look at our scars and experience the risen Christ?
Like Jesus, we must engage the world in all its messiness, even though it will leave scars.
Like Jesus, we need to be willing to show our scars rather than hide them.
And like Jesus, we can admit that our wounds are still open, that we are still hurting,
but that we are being healed by a loving God who is not done with us yet.
These are all ways of witnessing to a people who are skeptical, probing, demanding honesty, about a church that cannot help but be the body of Christ, with all his wounds. Amen
1 from reflections on the text by Paul Simpson Duke in Feasting on the Gospels, John, Vol. 2, page 327
2 from reflections on the text by E. Elizabeth Johnson in Feasting on the Gospels, John, Vol. 2, page 330
3 from “Why do we prefer faded scars to open wounds?” at www.christiancentury.org, 4/13/20