“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.” – John 20:25b NRSV
The words of Thomas come up in the lectionary every single year on this, the second Sunday of Easter. Every year we get the tale of “Doubting Thomas,” and perhaps the most regularly preached sermon as it relates to this particular scripture is a sermon about doubt as intrinsic to having a life of faith. It is preached countless times – not to fear having doubts in your own faith life but to embrace those moments as moments of calling you deeper into your own life of faith as you walk your journey of discipleship. While I do not discount the validity of the message, I do question if it is the best way for us to move forward in the contemporary era, and I question it as a way forward because that line of thought assumes a comfortableness with the Easter story – something that I think is, perhaps, deadening to our growth as disciples of Christ.
The interesting thing about the way that Easter is preached in the modern era is that we understand it first as a story of consolation. We enter into it with a sort of jubilant expectation. The story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection should be completely startling to us. It should be a story that, when told, invokes a sense of fear of a certain sort. It is the sort of fear that happens when our current systems of language, of processing the material world, of being able to understand what is taking place in front of us fail. The ways that we have, as creatures, to cope with the reality in front of us are short circuited, and we are left speechless because the information is too incredible, too impossible to be true. The fear that the story might create in us is the same fear of which Paul speaks when he admonishes us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. In other words, the fear will seize us for a moment until we are able to come to the realization that God has taken the ultimate action for the salvation of creation by virtue of the nature of God’s self.
It is here that I think that we find Thomas in today’s gospel reading, and I hope that it is precisely where we find ourselves – stuck in a moment of fear because we have been approached by something so terrifyingly beautiful that we are unable to process what is taking place in the here and now. The reality of the created order, the cosmos, has been so completely and fundamentally altered that the only initial response we can muster is a silence induced by the realization that all things have been completely reordered to the effect of eternal life now being a reality for all. The known world has been crushed under the weight of God coming so near to us – God is here, among us, in the form of the risen Christ. The words that we have used to describe God now seem to be void of meaning, and we are left silent.
And then, slowly, we come to this knew understanding of what God has done by coming so near to humanity – what God has done by becoming human through the Logos, the Christ. The God that we might want to speak of as being distant – as being up there somewhere in a place disconnected from the realm of humanity’s on-goings – is no longer the God that stands in front of us in the resurrection. It is the truth of Christ’s resurrection that wakes us up to this new reality of the nearness of God through the person of Jesus Christ. The reality to which we are awakened is this new world in which the old meanings no longer hold any weight; the old meanings are now vacuous words that have to be reshuffled, reconfigured, reconstituted in light of what God does in the resurrection.
The light that shines down upon us through the person of the resurrected Christ is a light so intense, so bright that, along with confusing the language that we use about God, also causes us to question the language that we use about the self and about others. I begin to ask new questions of myself and of God in the moment that the fear of the power of God’s love begins to fade into the glory that it inspires. The love that I encounter through the resurrection is a a love that is so powerful, so overwhelming that I am changed by that love, and I become, in the words of Rowan Williams, “strange to myself.” The strangeness of the self comes because I have experienced the unconditional acceptance of God, and I am forced to wonder why God accepts someone as broken as I am.
Almost just as suddenly as I realize the strangeness of my being, I also am struck by the newness of the world – a strange new world that is full of possibility, of opportunity. I am able to see creation through the loving of eyes of God and to see a world caught up in a tragedy that is desperate for a word of hope, a loving embrace from a friend, a savior that is able to make the impossible possible, the unknowable, knowable. I am able to look out at the tragic struggles of the world to see a landscape that is yearning for the kind of love that only comes from God and is shared freely with God’s creation if creation can open its heart just enough to allow God’s love to seep into it. Through becoming strange to myself, I am invited to view the world in a different light and to understand it not as a world that is to be feared but as a world that is to be embraced.
The power of the resurrection enters into our lives in the same way that it enters into the life of Thomas. It is the most surprising thing to have happened in our lives – to be welcomed into the nearness of God’s presence through the risen Christ. The power of the resurrection and of God’s grace is present in a way that knows everything about what it means to be human, and it invites us to see ourselves as strangers and to see the world as a new landscape that is full of promise and of hope. Our experience of the resurrection becomes, like it did for Thomas, something that is difficult to accept and to believe – until we come to this point of realization that the light that shines down upon us is the very light that shatters our ways of understanding the self and the world. Like Thomas, our initial reaction might be one of fear and an unwillingness to believe in what has taken place. We struggle to find the words to accept this strange new reality into our lives, and we struggle to process the strange new world that is a result of the power of the resurrection. At the moment that we are able to regain our faculty of speech – of our ability to say something about God – it comes out something like Thomas’ proclamation as we shout, “My Lord and my God!” The love that enters into our lives helps us to understand that we go out into the world not simply to convert others to our own understanding of what God has done and is doing in human history but to invite others into this new reality in order that they may have their own experience of being shocked by the weight of God’s love – a weight that is as light as air and yet heavy enough that it shatters our former understanding of God, self, and creation.
God’s love enters into our lives in such a profound manner that we have no choice but to go forward into the new landscape that lies before us in order to make our own proclamation known, and the primary way that we do this is by honoring our own baptismal covenant with God through Christ. We go out to respect the dignity of all human persons. We go out to seek and serve the Christ that is present in all persons and to strive for justice and peace among all peoples.
Though it takes us a little while to get there, we, like Thomas, finally muster up the courage to make our knowledge of the risen Lord known through the words and deeds of our lives. We share the same love that we have received. The words that we use to describe ourselves have changed into words of truth that recognize our need for the love and grace of God in our everyday lives. The way that we view the world is transformed from a skeptical lens into a lens of responsibility – a responsibility to help others know that God is present in the here and now. We enter into a strange new world – a world in which Christ is with us, in us, and among us to which we can say, “Thanks be to God.”