The Gospel Lesson: John 20:19-31
What is life in the wake of resurrection? Most of the time, if I’m really being honest, I don’t believe in resurrection, as historical reality or symbolic novelty. This feels odd to say out loud, especially in church, like a candid confession, some kind of admission of guilt. Maybe Easter has worn out its welcome for me: years upon years of driving to church, dressing up in Sunday’s best to hear someone preach way too long only to be followed by eating a proportioned meal of dried out ham, glowing with its sweet, honey glaze.
I hear the music playing, but I just can’t feel it: perforated and hollow “Alleluias” resounding, detuned and broken bells faintly chiming, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” I sit and simply wonder. Do I even believe this stuff? Did I ever really believe this? The following day, the following week, I’m left with the same haunted specter. The tomb is surely empty, but that’s because resurrection feels like a vacant room.
Somehow the gloom of ashes on our foreheads, the sacred catastrophe of Good Friday, the void that remains on Holy Saturday feels more spacious, more substantial, more connected to the creaky reality that many of us feel embedded within our very bones, the kind of reality that exists in vulnerably expressing our inner heartache, the real agony that puts its weight on our shoulders. Where is the resurrection in that? Is the vacancy of Easter one of open possibility and concrete hope or one of ill found-ambition, delusional determination that navigates us to holy abstractions, a sacred dead end?
Like the disciple Thomas, my reply is, “Unless I see and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas is of course the perpetual doubter. His legacy is solely seen through the interpretive lens of doubt cast in contrast to religious faith—religious faith that the other disciples supposedly possessed. Throughout Christian tradition, the finger that Thomas puts in Jesus’ side is seen as descriptive of nothing but his lack of faith.
But what if Thomas’s reaction wasn’t of doubt, but a different kind of belief? Theologian Shelly Rambo asks, What if Thomas isn’t the doubter, but a defiant and subversive believer, the one who demands to know if God can really reside in nail marks and wounded sides? Rather than mere disbelief, what if Thomas is the believer leading others into a new way of knowing, a way-maker, one who makes a way for wounds to exist in the world?
In an allusive nod to the opening words of Genesis, the Gospel writer emphatically refers to this new day in the wake of resurrection as, “The first day of the week.” And yet this new day of new creation begins behind locked doors, locked doors that seek to suppress the unrestrained fear and anxiety of the disciples. Jesus’ repeated phrase, “Peace be with you” seems to indicate Jesus’ persistent reaching towards the disciples with forgiveness. Theologian Rowan Williams writes, “There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness.” Resurrection was an experience of forgiveness, for disciples who had abandoned Jesus and had become complicit in his death.
The text says that Jesus showed them his hands and his side and that the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord, but right after this, Jesus again says, “Peace be with you.” Why repeat this phrase? It’s as if Jesus is trying to reassure his friends, attempting to speak directly into the fear and anxiety that keeps them behind locked doors. Perhaps this fear and anxiety keeps the disciples from engaging the wounds that are present in the room, despite Jesus’ attempt to show the disciples his hands and his sides.
Thomas, who of course was not with the other twelve, declares that unless he sees the marks and puts his finger in his side he will not believe. Unlike the others, Thomas’ belief doesn’t hinge on merely seeing a resuscitated Jesus, but a Jesus who carries the wounds of betrayal, beatings, and crucifixion. Life in the presence of resurrection isn’t the erasure of woundedness, but the vulnerable act of moving towards them, moving towards wounds with compassion, curiosity, empathy, love, and forgiveness.
The Greek word for doubt, ἄπιστος (a-pistos) is meant to counter the word πιστός (pistos), which is traditionally translated as belief. But some scholars argue that πιστός has more to do with relationality or loyalty rather than religious or intellectual belief. In this light, doubt and belief have little to do with intellectual comprehension or historical accuracy. Instead, doubt and belief concern whether one is to remain with Jesus or not, remaining with the resurrected Jesus who walks with pierced hands and sides.
Rather than holding the title “Doubting Thomas”, maybe Thomas is the one to lead us into a new way of knowing, a new way of relating: to Jesus, to ourselves, and the world around us. A way of relating that doesn’t bypass wounds by looking for good news elsewhere, but one that seeks to discover, to know, to feel the God who resides even in the most haunted spaces, for if God cannot be found there, then like the tomb on Easter, life on the other side of Resurrection is simply vacant.
But this is more than a story about merely recognizing Jesus and his wounds on Easter morning. This is a story about being sent out into the world. Jesus says to his disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Life on the other side of resurrection is about cultivating an imagination, an awareness, a way of relating that dares to step into haunted spaces, spaces of woundedness, with the hope of communion, kinship, joining, and intimacy: reaching out and declaring that the world and all of humanity is called beloved.
“As the God has sent me, so I send you.”
So here we are on the Second Sunday of Easter, another day in the shade of the rumored Resurrection.
I don’t know about you, but I’m still feeling ambivalent, I often struggle to see how the resurrection connects to life lived in concrete places with embodied people in mind. But if resurrected hope is to be found, I want it to be found in these concrete places for embodied people, especially in the midst of heartache, anxiety, and death.
I do not want to avert my eyes from sorrow and suffering when the Resurrected Christ calls out, “Peace be with you.” With forgiveness and compassion, love and justice, resurrection kindles a new imagination, one that seeks traces of life and hope where all seems lost, one that looks for belovedness even in the midst of woundedness.