Scripture: John 20:19-31
“Doubting Thomas.” To one of Jesus’ most faithful followers, we have given a rather bad name. As if all the other disciples believe without a wisp of doubt, and Thomas is the poor reprobate who just doesn’t seem to get it. Everyone else believes, and Thomas doubts: that’s the way we so often think of the story.
So let’s set the record straight on his behalf. Thomas, as the story goes, happens not to be with the other disciples on the night that Mary has met the risen Christ in the garden. We can only imagine where he is. Maybe he’s so frightened that he’s off hiding by himself. Maybe he’s so distraught that he simply can’t bear to be with the others. Maybe he’s doing something as simple as preparing a meal for his friends, or running an errand for them. We have no idea—the story doesn’t say.
All we know is that, after Mary’s visit to what she discovers is an empty tomb, she runs to these others and tells them what she’s seen. She’s “seen the Lord,” she says (John 20:18). And how do the disciples react? Far from being reassured or comforted, they go and lock themselves in a room. They are petrified of the religious authorities, the ones who have attacked Jesus and been part of the mob who has put him to death. They find an out-of-the-way room and lock themselves in, hoping not to be found. And all this happens after Mary has told them that Jesus has risen from the dead. Some faith they have! You talk about doubt—all the disciples in that locked room have failed to take in the message Mary has brought to them.
So what is it that changes them and lets them believe? You might think it’s the appearance of Jesus. Jesus comes into this room and makes them all feel better, right? But no. Jesus somehow makes his way into this locked room, and stands among them, and wishes them peace. And still they don’t recognize their Lord and master. What is it that lets them recognize who this stranger is? It’s not until this risen Christ shows these petrified disciples the scars and contusions that have felled their savior that they then get it and can breathe a sigh of relief. Scarred and bloody hands and side—this is what reveals who it is who has come to them.
So it happens that Thomas, when he later hears about this astonishing visit, can’t quite bring himself to believe. The testimony of his friends is not enough to convince him. What does he need to prove that the one they’ve seen is Jesus? He needs exactly the same thing they needed: he needs to see scarred and wounded hands and side. Thomas is no different than the others. They all are persuaded of the identity of the risen Christ by being confronted by the signs of Jesus’ terrible death. Scars and wounds: that’s where they all recognize Jesus.
We say all this this morning, not merely to rehabilitate Thomas, but also and especially to remind ourselves that the risen Christ comes to life most vividly not in the triumphant moments of life, but in the very places of aching and brokenness that cry out for the love and mercy of God. It’s not in the promotion at work that God is most evident, though God is indeed there. It’s not in victories and raises and gorgeous sunrises that God is most present, though God is indeed present there. No, God shows up most fully in the very places where life falls apart—in the oncologist’s office when the alarming diagnosis is delivered; in the workplace where news of the layoff is announced; in the kitchen where the spouse declares that the marriage is over. That’s where the risen Christ is—right where life is scarred and wounded.
And all these awful scenes are so often the very places where we question God’s presence, aren’t they? When life falls apart, that’s the time we so often say, “I just don’t understand it—a child stricken with cancer, a tornado laying waste to whole neighborhoods, a cold-blooded killer on a rampage. Where,” we wonder, “is a good God in all that?”
A minister named Frank Honeycutt once received a letter from a good friend of his. “Dear Frank, . . . Answer these questions. Answer everything in here, [and I mean it]. What do you mean by God? What is your God? How does your God interact with you? What makes your God important to you? Define God. Christians see God’s work in the world selectively and see God in the Bible selectively. What I always think is that God, if anywhere, is everywhere, good and harsh, and if harsh, then we must make God accountable. If God is revealed in a sunset, or anywhere in the Bible, then is God revealed in a bald-headed man I recently met? This man was born without one single hair. He was a bald-headed two-year-old and thirteen-year-old. That is a tough thing to do to a little boy. Does that reveal anything to you about your God, or is your God only in sunsets and curly-headed babies? God must be more consistent. If he chooses not to share himself with us, and not to explain himself, I choose not to respect him. I will not be rude. God knows where to find me. But if he wants me for a constant companion, he must stop being cruel or tell me why.
“The letter went on. For fourteen pages it went on and then: ‘I will not sign this letter, and then perhaps you will not know from whom it came.’
“Of course, I knew. It was from the same person who once asked why in the world the pope dressed like an angel; who promised me that if he ever met God on the road one fine day, he’d chase the deity down with a pitchfork; who vowed that if there is a hell and he ends up being a resident, he sure hopes I know about it.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us didn’t feel just the same way as Honeycutt’s correspondent. Who of us can honestly say we wouldn’t like God to remove the pain, and make bald-headed two-year-olds have hair and make cancer go away and end this novel coronavirus once and for all? If God is all-powerful, isn’t this what any God worth her salt would do—end the pain, remove the scars, eliminate the wounds?
As Honeycutt says, though, the biblical response to his friend’s questions is that “God reacts to the suffering of the centuries [not by ending the suffering but instead] by sending a sufferer. God does not pretend to wipe out the suffering . . . but instead voluntarily enters it.” Jesus doesn’t pretend to explain the suffering that he endures or that others will experience. “Instead, he walks right at it.”
As much as you and I might like to explain and understand the suffering we see all around us, the strange and painful truth is that there is no explaining or understanding it. It just is. It’s a byproduct, in a sense, of the tremendous beauty all around us and the love that holds us close. And as it turns out, pain and suffering are integrally related to life’s highest gifts. Without pain we would not know comforting relief. Without tears we would not know unbounded joy. Without fear we would not know deep peace. Without hatred we would not know transforming love.
The phrase that Jesus utters three times in today’s story is one we’ve heard a thousand times in church: Peace be with you. He says it twice to the group of disciples locked together behind closed doors on that first resurrection day. And he says it again when the Thomas who had missed Jesus’ first visit, shows up a week later. Peace be with you. Or, as Jesus has told them earlier, while he is still alive, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (14:27).
And what’s key here is that the peace Jesus gives is not the absence of pain. It’s not the ending of all struggle. It’s not the removal of challenges. No world we’d really want to live in would be free of those difficulties—who would we be if life were only and always happiness and sunshine and ease. Those challenges are a big part of who we are. No, the peace of Jesus has nothing to do with excising all suffering. It has nothing to do with “free[ing] us from all ills” (“Now Thank We All Our God,” v. 2). It has only to do with the sense of trusting God to be present in all the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene i)—the strains and pains, the struggles and losses, the tensions and the fears. Peace, for Jesus, is about tending to us in the scars and wounds. It’s about entering the suffering. It’s about being fully present in the terror, as well as the wonder, of life.
I have a sense that true peace has to do with welcoming the full range of life. My own spiritual director suggests, if I’m sad or angry or frightened, that I welcome the feeling, that I invite that feeling in as a friend, to look for the gift it offers. The way to peace, she is showing me, is to befriend the full range of human experience. So if I’m despondent, I’m learning to say, “Hi, Sadness. You have something to teach me.” If I’m ticked off at someone, I’m learning to say, “Hi, Anger. What are you showing me of God?” If I’m frightened, I’m learning to say, “Hi, Fear. In what way might you teach me about the rich company of the Holy One?”
Peace, for Jesus, is not about erasing the suffering; it’s about entering it. It’s not about evading pain; it’s about engaging it. And ultimately it’s not about avoiding death; it’s about coming to accept the mysterious gift of even its finality. Honeycutt, the minister who wrote about suffering even as his own brother was dying of brain cancer, says “Life without suffering is indeed appealing. . .. But [without suffering there is no possibility of compassion. And] a world without compassion is something fundamentally different than life as we now know it. Compassion [and the peace that it entails] cannot exist in our lives without the presence of suffering” (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/jesus-doesn-t-explain-suffering).
You want to know where God is? God is with the homeless man wracked by mental illness. God is with the single mother just let go from her job. God is with the widow or widower whose sorrow is bottomless. This is where God is. And it’s where you and I are beckoned to be, as well. If we want to be with God, maybe we’ll sit with someone who’s lonely; maybe we’ll call someone who is grief-stricken; maybe we’ll simply play with the toddler for whom the whole world just feels unglued. Keeping company with pain: that’s where to find God. And it’s where to find the children of God—you and me—as well. We see the presence of God at a hospital where nurses and doctors salve psyches and wounds. We see the presence of God where a parent astutely realizes that a teen’s nasty barbs are psychic pain born of isolation and boredom, and the parent just sits there silently, and rubs the teen’s back and listens quietly and without judgment as anguish and sorrow and loss pour out. And while the parent can’t erase the agony, they can be very much present in it all.
“In his 1993 book I Want to Remember, David Dodson Gray writes about his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and his daily visits with her. He learned to ‘listen to garble’ and ‘speak to garble.’ He fed her, read to her, told her the latest family stories, and sang lullabies. Gray writes: ‘There is much I regret about the disease and what a wasting it was of her in those years, but I am grateful [for] the use we made of that time, salvaging so much even while we were both losing so much’” (cited by Honeycutt). Right there, in Gray’s patient attention, is the presence of the risen Christ, the presence of the living God. There’s no solving the apparent problem. There is only the opportunity to love. And it is in that love that the peace of God is born.
It’s not easy to find peace at such a time as this, a time of such pronounced turmoil and unease. We worry about ourselves and each other. We agonize about jobs and finances. We fret about tense households, and about health care and other front-line workers, and about going grocery shopping. And in the midst of it all, Jesus says to you and to me, “Peace be with you.” That peace is there for us to receive. And so often that peace descends as we open ourselves to be present with each other in the turmoil and the tension and the fear and the pain. So may you and I receive the gift of peace, and offer it. May we let go of control. And may we welcome the risen Christ into the very places that feel dead and broken. Because it’s in those scars and wounds that the peace of Christ is most richly present. The wounded Christ is risen, risen indeed! Alleluia!