Touching the wounds

27 April 2014
Second Sunday of Easter
Easter 2A (RCL)
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

We call Thomas “Doubting Thomas” — unfairly. Thomas does not doubt. He resolutely refuses to trust, unless he can touch the wounds. Jesus shows up, speaks peace to his disciples, breathes on them and charges them to release or hold the sins of whoever they will. They tell Thomas, and his proclaims, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will never, ever trust.” It is one thing to believe in the resurrection, to be convinced mentally that it happened. It is altogether another thing to trust it, to stake one’s life on it. This is what Thomas refuses to do, unless he can touch the wounds.

Thomas is often the spokesman for a gnostic kind of Christianity (see the Gospel of Thomas). Among the gnostics were those called Docetists, who believed that Jesus only appeared to suffer and die, because suffering and death were not part of the divine condition. As a result (of opting out of the Body), they believed they also did not have to suffer for being Christian (see Pagels). The could deny Christ and not really apostasize, because what happened in the flesh didn’t really matter (pun intended). So, the Evangelist ironically places these words about handling the wounds on the lips of Thomas.

We know this passage of the Gospel was written sometime after the year 80 or so, when Domitian ascended to the throne. Domitian insisted on being addressed as “dominus et deus“, Lord and God, exactly the title Thomas gives to Jesus. Giving that title to anyone other than Domitian would have been punishable my death. Thomas is clearly serving an important narrative function here.

The docetics would have been free to escape punishment by calling Domitian whatever he asked. Thomas refuses to trust such a community. If even the resurrected Jesus carried wounds, then surely the community of the risen Lord must be willing to bear wounds. If Thomas couldn’t see them and handle them, then it wasn’t the community of the risen Jesus. When Jesus shows up and invites Thomas to touch the wounds, Thomas recognized his lord and god on the basis of those glorified wounds. Jesus then says to him (in one of the worst mistranslations of the NRSV), “Do not be untrusty but trusty.” The Greek words are apistos and pistos, which of people mean something like faithful, trusty and true, and its opposite. Anyone willing to deny Christ in the arena would be apistos, anyone willing to witness would pistos.

In our day and age, people often feel like they have to have on their Sunday best to come to Church. There are no wounds in the Body of Christ. Thomas would refuse to trust such a body. It is only in touching the wounds that the risen Jesus is recognizable. There is no guarantee that being Christian will prevent suffering — in fact the opposite. Being Christian requires being trusty in the midst of persecution or suffering — for us, gladly, not the organized persecution of Empire, but nevertheless being willing to see the transformation in the midst of what life has for us.

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