April 27, 2014
We live in an age of scoffing; the people in today’s lessons lived in an age of belief. Of course, Jerusalem was filled with believers; however inadequate, that was the proper way to be for the Jews of the first century. Among them, in that multicultural city, there were many other believers, and gods abounded. But this god, the one who visits the disciples in the locked room, the one to whom they later testify with such eagerness, this was the only god with scars. And that is the huge difference.
It’s the evening of the first day. The disciples are afraid and confused. They are behind closed doors. They have just lived through the most horrific three days of their lives, having lost their best friend and teacher to the most terrible of slow deaths.
But on this day, the first day, they have received startling news. And though they are not sophisticated people, they are Jews who observe the Law, and they have avoided superstition. But one of their friends, the smart and loyal Mary of Magdala, has told them a story that has shaken them. “I have seen the Lord,” she had announced to them early in the morning, and they are not quite sure what to make of it. They are smart enough to know that after that awful death by crucifixion, reserved for the worst of criminals by the Romans, they themselves are suspect and what they say and do from now on will be taken by the enemies of Jesus as an excuse to discount his reality and his message. So they are together, waiting, confused, trying to decide.
And then Jesus comes. Jesus came to them when they needed him the most, and he offered them his peace. It seems that they didn’t immediately recognize him. The last time they had seen this body and this face they were torn, deformed and bleeding, not a pleasing sight for those who loved him. But this body before them is wholeness itself. After his greeting, Jesus shows them his scars. And now they know him. We can only guess at their joy.
What happens next is the beginning of the church as the body of Christ. He breathes on them as he says, Receive holy “breath” or “spirit.” It is important to note that in Greek the word pneuma means both breath and spirit, and also important to note that in its original use, it does not have the definitive article in front of spirit. In the Greek, the noun comes before the adjective here. It should be read: “Receive breath that is holy.”
Jesus breathes on all of them, the community of them, and to this community he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The baptism in Spirit, as John the Baptist had predicted, has arrived.
This is a dramatic story in two parts. One of the remaining 11 apostles is missing, and he will not be left out. We can imagine his friends seeing him after the first Sunday and crying out, “We have seen the Lord!” And we can imagine Thomas saying, “Unless I see and touch the scars in his hands and plunge my own hand in that hole on his side, I will not believe it.” We know Thomas. We are like him. We are creatures who demand proof, the proof of three of our senses, most especially: seeing, touching, hearing. For the dogs that love us, the sense of smell is enough, but we need more, much more in order to recognize, understand and believe. We need to dissect, analyze, compare. And in this age, when we have abandoned mystery, it becomes harder and harder to believe.
The resurrected Christ, ever mindful of those he has chosen and loved, grants Thomas his wish. A week later, they are all together again, Thomas among them, and Jesus appears as before to offer them his peace. He has come for Thomas, and he turns to him immediately. “Bring your finger here and see my hands; bring your hand and plunge it in my side.”
Thomas, without needing to touch, cries out the one declaration of belief that matters: “My Lord and my God.” He is confronted not by the familiar Jesus, but by the Christ of God. He doesn’t need to touch to know. He sees before him his beloved teacher who now bears the scars of human suffering unto eternity. We also, who have not seen, are blessed at this moment: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The disciples are beginning to comprehend the Incarnation, and they are ready to change the world, even though they don’t know it yet. The energy of God, the Holy Spirit, has been breathed into them. But they do understand that now they are to do the work that Christ has asked them to do: to bear witness to Christ by proclaiming the good news. They lived in a world where belief in a god was a given. Jerusalem, a multicultural city, was filled with Jews from other lands who worshiped the One God, and with pagans worshiping many gods. In that environment, Peter stands up to proclaim a particular incarnate god, crucified and resurrected.
In this season of Easter, we, too, need to be reassured and energized by the presence of Christ. We are surrounded by scoffers. And our ease of communication today makes us aware of the suffering of people we will never see or know. We want to experience the joy of resurrection, not just for ourselves, but for the world.
A century ago, the First World War created unimaginable death and suffering. Poets examined that suffering in their writings, longing to believe in a God who would allow such horrors among people who were supposed to be civilized. One of those poets, a Christian by the name of Edward Shillito, found the only answer that made sense to him:
“He showed them His hands and His side.”
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.
If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
We give thanks for this Jesus of the Scars, the resurrected Christ who has breathed new life into us.
— Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.