Once when I was a young adolescent, my father described me to someone as a "doubting Thomas." I remember being surprised and puzzled by that statement, as well as perhaps a bit put off. I don't remember quite why I was, since in fact at that time of my life I wasn't what you'd call religious in any way. Nonetheless, I've always had a rather strong feeling about this scripture passage, or at least about “Doubting Thomas,” the famous term that springs from it. That feeling hasn’t exactly been positive, but, after all, my name is Thomas. And like the Thomas of this story, I’m a twin. So the story has somehow always seemed important to me. We usually think of this story as being about doubt. So you might think that today I would be talking about doubt and our need to have things about God proved to us. But often when I go to write a sermon about a scripture passage, I have found myself being drawn to some other aspect of the story than the obvious or better known one. So I'm not going to talk to you today about doubting and proof and seeing. I’ll just say: If you have doubts about your faith, don’t worry about it. Doubt is an unavoidable part of faith. Rather, I want to talk about the connection between two other aspects of this story and what they have to say to us today. Those aspects are Jesus' blessing of peace and the crucifixion, two things that would seem on the surface to be diametrically opposed to each other rather than necessarily connected to each other.
The scripture lesson this morning recounts two resurrection appearances of Jesus. In the first of these appearances, the disciples are hiding in a room behind locked doors. Thomas wasn't there. The story doesn't elaborate on their condition other than to refer to the disciples' "fear of the Jews" --a rather strange and disturbing way to put it since they were all Jews too; but John’s anti-Judaism, as offensive as it is, is a topic for another day. These disciples were suffering through the worst time any of them had ever experienced. The leader to whom they had devoted their lives, for whom they had given up work and homes and families, the one who they thought was the one to deliver Israel and usher in God's kingdom, had just been brutally executed as a political criminal. They did not yet know about his resurrection. They were demoralized, disillusioned, and in fear for their lives. All they could think to do was hide behind locked doors and hope it would all just blow over. And they probably didn't even have much hope of that. I suspect they really believed that they would be the next to go to the cross. They were both disillusioned and terrified.
It was precisely in this place of fear and despair, when all hope was lost and the future looked as bleak as it could possibly be, that the miracle happened. Jesus came to them and stood among them. When he came to them he didn't say anything dramatic. He didn't say: “Surprise! Guess what?! The most amazing thing just happened!” No. He said: "Peace be with you." And then he did something else. He showed them his hands and his side. That is, he showed them the wounds of his crucifixion. It was only when he did that that they recognized him. When they did, he again said: "Peace be with you."
During the second resurrection appearance in this story, a week later when Thomas was there with the others, the same thing happened. Although the door was shut, Jesus appeared, and said "peace be with you." He showed Thomas his wounds, this time inviting Thomas to touch them, apparently as proof of their reality. Thomas didn't actually accept this invitation. He didn't touch the wounds. The invitation itself was enough for him. I want to stress, however, that in both appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples in this story, the blessing of peace for them was directly coupled with a stark physical reminder of the crucifixion, that is, of a horrendous episode of mortal violence and unparalleled injustice inflicted upon the Son of God.
What's going on here? Why does the Gospel of John give us that direct correlation between Christ's message of peace and a reminder of the way in which Christ’s life ended anything but peaceably? To answer that question, we have to go back to the crucifixion. What happened in the crucifixion? A man was executed. A tragedy to be sure, but one that has been repeated so horribly many times in human existence. That's the historical fact. But for Christian faith, something much more profound happened. The Christ, God's Anointed One, the Word of God made flesh who was truly God, was executed, murdered by the political authorities. In fact, it is not wrong to say that in the crucifixion of Jesus God Godself was crucified. Indeed, Jürgen Moltmann, the leading German theologian who has developed the theology I’m giving you here this morning, called his book on the subject “The Crucified God.” The terrible truth is: God suffered and died in the person of Jesus.
The significance of this fact for us is that in the crucifixion God took upon Godself and endured the worst that evil can inflict upon us human beings. God took death itself into God’s own person. In the crucifixion God demonstrated in the fullest measure God's presence in the suffering of the world and God’s solidarity with those who suffer, with us when we suffer. And in the resurrection of Jesus Christ God demonstrated in the fullest measure God's desire and ability to overcome that suffering, to bring new life out of suffering and even out of death itself. In the Passion of Jesus Christ, God entered into every aspect of human life, even unendurable physical suffering. Even death itself, demonstrating in the fullest possible way God's solidarity with us when we suffer and when we die. That's what happened in the crucifixion--so much more than the unjust death of a single person, horrendous as the unjust death of any person is.
So, when Jesus showed the disciples his wounds, he wasn't being morbid or sensationalist. He wasn't seeking sympathy. A superficial understanding of why he did it might be to prove to them that the person standing there was really him, since someone without those wounds would not be someone who had been crucified two days earlier; but I think he was doing a lot more than that. He was, I think, reminding them of what he had been through. He was saying to them in this simple gesture: I know that you are suffering. I know that you are afraid and feel hopeless. I know that you are disillusioned and that your faith has been shattered. I know all of these things because I have been disillusioned too. On the cross, my faith was shattered too. That’s why I cried “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” I have shared in and known your suffering not from afar, not as an observer, not even merely as one who loves you and has compassion for you. Certainly not as God immutable, unchangeable, aloof, transcendent, above it all. No. I have shared and known your suffering in my own person. I've been where you are, and worse. In showing them his pierced hands and side he is saying to them, I am truly with you; and because of who you know me to be, God is truly with you in and through me.
OK. But what does this have to do with his saying: Peace be with you? Well, suppose you or I walked into that room and said to them: “Peace be with you.” What impact would that have had? Not much, I suspect. Coming from you or me it would have sounded empty and frivolous. I very much doubt that we would actually have given them much peace. But when Jesus, the risen Christ, said peace and showed them his hands, what did they do? They rejoiced! In the midst of abject despair and terror, they rejoiced! How is that possible?
A superficial reading of the story might say that it is possible because they were glad that their friend and leader wasn't really dead. That was surely part of it, but isn't there more to it than that? Isn't the good news here more than just: Jesus isn't dead? Isn't the good news that because God in Christ has taken into Godself all of the misery, suffering, agony, and despair that life can bring, and even taken death itself into Godself, then overcome them in Christ’s resurrection, that we can indeed have peace? Aren't the disciples rejoicing here because they know that when Jesus says peace be with you he, and not just he but God, is speaking out of personal experience of human suffering and out of the proven truth that God has the power to assume and overcome that suffering? The wounds give meaning and power to Christ's blessing: Peace be with you. You can have that peace because in Christ you know that God is present in your suffering and that in God the suffering is not the last word. Paradoxically, you can even be convinced that God is with you when you would bet your life that God had abandoned you.
Friends, that truth is not just for the 11 disciples nearly 2,000 years ago. That message is for each one of you, and it is for me. Most of us, I suspect, have been where the disciples were on that night, at least more or less. I know I have. If we haven't been, we almost certainly will be at some time in our lives. Fear, grief, anguish, pain, and despair are part of life. None of us avoids them entirely. But we have the good news of Jesus Christ. We know that Christ came to the disciples, showed them his hands, and said “peace be with you.” If we will let him, Christ will come to us in our time of despair too, show us his hands, and say: “Peace be with you.” And we will know that in Christ God has been where we are, that God is with us where we are, sharing our pain and wanting to give us comfort and hope and peace in that pain. We will know that no matter what, God is with us as our rock and our salvation. We will know that in God there is life, there is joy beyond the suffering and even beyond death itself. Friends, believe the good news. Christ suffered and died for you and for me, and in that suffering our suffering is made holy and is overcome. God is with us in our suffering and will lead us out of that suffering into peace and joy in this life and in the next life if we will just let God in Christ do that for us. It isn't always easy. Suffering has a way of closing us off, of making us lock the door the way the disciples did. But know that Christ can come through that door and does come through that door. Open your eyes and recognize him the way the disciples did, and Christ's message of peace can come to you and be effective in your life. The presence of God brings that peace. The peace of Christ which passes all understanding can indeed be yours and even mine. Thanks be to God! Amen.