3 April 2016
Second Sunday of Easter
Easter 2C (RCL)
It’s almost too bad that these lessons have been assigned traditionally to the Second Sunday of Easter, often called “low Sunday.” These lessons are some of the richest to preach on, and so many miss the chance to hear them. A local ELCA congregation has the name St. Thomas/Holy Spirit, and they celebrate this day as their feast day.
Thomas is an interesting character in early Christianity. His Gospel is often taken to be the kind of sayings source that would have had currency in gnostic circles. John seems to be using him as the spokesman against a kind of docetic Christianity in this story. It would have horrified gnostic/docetic Christians to touch the wounds of Jesus. Could anything be more fleshy?
When Thomas does see Jesus, he responds with the divine title, “My Lord and my God.” The emperor Domitian, sometime between 85 and 89 CE, began to insist on being addressed in court as “Dominus et Deus” — Lord and God. If this “appendix” to John’s Gospel were written in that time frame, it represents a response to the crisis that the Domitian persecution caused within the Christian community. If one were gnostic, and believed that Christ only appeared (dokein) to suffer on the cross, then there would be no requirement that Christians should suffer. One could, because of superior knowledge, simply swear loyalty to Caesar, because what happened in this fallen realm of flesh was immaterial (pun intended).
To have Thomas, the spokesman for gnostic Christianity, insist on touching the wounds of Christ would be John’s way of insisting on the necessity of Christians accepting persecution: this wounded Jesus is Lord and God, not that megalomaniac over there in Rome. But, if this passage were written in 90 or so, then the Jesus present in it is a figurative Jesus. This Jesus is in fact the Johannine community. Even in our day, gnostic Christians claim that their Christianity means that they shouldn’t have to suffer. Everything is always ok, and when it isn’t, that is an indictment of a person’s faith/knowledge. Like those early gnostics, we often understand Christianity as an escape from this world of flesh — it’s all about getting in to heaven, that sublime, spiritual realm.
Thomas gets a bad reputation. We call him doubting Thomas. In fact, he doesn’t doubt. He refuses to trust. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and put my hand in his side, I will by no means trust,” is what he says. He will by no means trust the witness of the community. If the community cannot show its own wounds, Thomas will not believe it is the resurrected Christ.
When Jesus shows up on the evening of the first day of the week, he comes through the door, despite its being locked. This reminds us of the Good Shepherd discourse, in which Jesus says, I AM the door. Those who climb over the wall are thieves and robbers. one must enter the community through the door, the flesh of Jesus. It also echoes the tearing of the curtain before the inner sanctum at Jesus death — the door to the inner sanctum is now open for all to pass in and out. After speaking peace to his disciples, Jesus breathes on them and gives them the gift of holy breath, so that they may release or retain the sins of any. This is precisely the role of the high priest on the great day of atonement. The community itself has become the inner sanctum and high priest. This is an awesome responsibility. The community sets its own boundaries. This would be crucially important for a community under persecution: who is in and who is out? What constitutes an unforgivable sin?
Thomas insists on touching the wounds, precisely to insist that the community itself is wounded and the only way to heal those wounds is to touch them. And in touching them comes the recognition of the risen Christ as Lord and God.
Thomas also says, when Jesus and the disciples are getting ready to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus, “Let us also go die with him.” He says this in response to the warning that the Judeans are trying to kill Jesus. It is easy to be a martyr: one only has to die for the cause. Martyrdom is its own kind of gnostic escape: nothing about the situation that invites martyrdom changes. To live a resurrected life is another thing altogether. One must be ready to be transformed. One must trust the community of the resurrection to touch one’s wounds and be transformed thereby. One must acknowledge the wounds that need to be touched, so that they can become the source of the revelation of the risen Christ. For a community, that is the hard work of revelation.