Good morning on this second Sunday of Easter, the season (not just day, but season) that lasts fifty days.
In every church I’ve served except this one, not much is happening on the Sunday after Easter Day. It’s even called “Low Sunday” for the poor participation we typically expect. But not at St. James! We have people right now on a Breakfast Run taking food to the homeless in New York City. We have people making and delivering food for the St. Bart’s White Plains Food Bank. We have a forum scheduled after the 10:30 service. Our Bible Marathon group meets between services. Children’s Music and Arts after Church, Confirmation classes -- I can’t make you people stop!
I spent the better part of this past week at Sloan Kettering with my daughter Naomi, so I didn’t have a lot of time to put together a sermon; I trust you’ll pardon me. But I do love this reading, which we devote time to every year on this Sunday. That’s rare. Most Scripture stories only appear every three years in our liturgical cycle; this one comes up every year.
It’s the story of the disciple we call “Doubting Thomas” for this scene, in which he isn’t present when the resurrected Lord appears to the other disciples, and so (not having seen for himself) he refuses to believe their story that Christ is risen.
Some days later, Jesus appears again, this time with Thomas present. Jesus meets Thomas’ demands, showing him the marks of the nails in his hands and the wound in his side, and by this, Thomas’ doubt is assuaged. He believes.
Doubt is a wonderful topic, especially for the Sunday after Easter Day. It’s the church’s way of acknowledging that even our most closely held beliefs, such as Easter for Christians, are complicated, for most of us. I like what the playwright John Patrick Shanley calls the practice of doubt: a “passionate exercise.” It’s simply what we do with our most cherished beliefs. They deserve not to be taken at face value, but wrestled with.
Usually when I preach on this, I talk about doubt, and faith; the necessity of both in a religious life. This year I’m not going to do that, even though you would think a priest with a sick child would have a lot to say about religious doubt.
I’m drawn instead to a subtler theme in this reading, one that appears in other of the post-resurrection stories of Jesus, as well, but especially here in this reading from John’s Gospel: Jesus’ wounds. The display of them, and the very fact of them in these Easter stories.
In this story we heard today, Thomas goes out of his way to demand to see not just Jesus, whom you’d think he’d recognize with little trouble if he appeared, but to see his wounds. He has to recognize him by his wounds. And then Jesus, when he does finally appear to Thomas, makes a display of showing them. This scene always makes me think of the Baroque artist Caravaggio’s depiction of Thomas, almost photo-realistically, grotesquely, probing his finger into the wound in Jesus’ side. That gash almost seems to be the subject of the painting more than anything or anyone else.
But have you ever stopped to wonder, why do the Gospel stories even mention Jesus’ scarred body after he’s risen from the dead? Wouldn’t you think presenting a perfect body would be more compelling? Christ could have looked a lot more like the Victor if he returned without reminding everyone he’d just been persecuted and killed.
But no. Jesus wears these scars and wanted his disciples, and us, to see them. In Thomas’ case, even touch them.
This isn’t a simple, happy ending; it’s a complicated ending, and that’s one of the things that makes this central event in our faith so profound. Jesus doesn’t come back unblemished, perfect, bathed in a sea of forgetfulness about the pain he suffered in those last days of his life; he comes back now that much more compelling for those wounds he still carries.
We can all think of so many scars from our past that we’d just as soon erase if we could. But then think of all we’d be giving up. Each of those wounds drew you in some way deeper into somebody’s life; introduced you to some new thought or idea; maybe led you to a new place, a new relationship. We ARE the scars we bear, so much so that if we somehow could erase any of them, we’d be difficult to recognize--to others, to ourselves.
One of the most confounding and yet memorable things someone said to me after my daughter’s diagnosis came from a fellow priest and friend of many years whose daughter also had cancer, a similar type. He had read where people with or close to cancer, when asked much later to write things in their lives they’re grateful for and things they’re not grateful for--the grateful things were to be written above a line, the other things, below--the cancer was almost always put above the line.
Now, I don’t know what I think about that and I’m pretty sure at this point (or ever) I won’t be able to put this above a line. But I think often about what he said. Because the fact is, in our faith our wounds are more than endured; they’re paraded. They’re what draw us closer to God and each other. That’s the central story of the cross. There is no resurrection without the cross. There is no Christian story, without it. It is, the cross, definitely, above the line. Improbably so.
The Paschal candle here, which we lit for the first time at the Easter Vigil one week ago yesterday, has (as I explained then) five pins in it representing the five wounds of Christ. This will remain here throughout the fifty days of Easter, and it will remind us to honor the scars we bear. These Easter stories of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be told without them, and neither can the story of our lives. Amen.