The Very Rev. Gary Hall
If you’ve ever lived in a clergy household, you know that while Easter is a joyous festival for everyone, for those of us who work in churches it is also exhausting. Don’t get me wrong. We love Holy Week, Easter, and all the special services we hold. But they do take it out of one. After last Sunday’s Evensong, someone said to me “Christ is risen!” I said, “I know. I saw it happen four times.”
When the final service of Easter (or Christmas) is done, the cleric slinks home and begins to unwind. Various clergy do this differently, but last Sunday I decided, rather unwisely, that I would decompress by starting to watch the HBO series, Game of Thrones, from the beginning. My son Oliver, whose tastes are remarkably similar to mine and therefore highly sophisticated, had told me recently that he had begun watching the series and really loved it. So on that recommendation I came home last Sunday and watched season 1, episode 1 of Game of Thrones on demand.
I gave up after about 20 minutes. Who were all these people? There were the Starks, the Lannisters, the Targaryens, and then the barbaric Dothrakis speaking some weirdo made-up language. It kind of looked like Medieval England and kind of like the old west. My wife Kathy walked through the room regularly asking, “How can you stand this made-up mythological stuff?” I was too tired and confused to make sense of the story and its characters. I gave up. That night, I talked to Oliver on the phone and told him of my disappointment. He said that I needed to give Game of Thrones at least three episodes.
So after a night’s sleep I gave it a second try. While my adorable but skeptical wife was out of the house I watched the first three episodes back-to-back. I am now hooked. I am a full-blown Game of Thrones junkie. The world is watching season 4. I am galloping through season 1. I am late to the party, but consider myself one of the family. Look for me soon to be wearing all the requisite Game of Thrones insignia wear. I’m trying, as well as I can, to catch up with a story in which I’m still way behind. In that respect, I’m just like Thomas in today’s Gospel.
According to John’s account, Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them as a group. Everyone else has had an experience that he was not in on. Like a latecomer to an episodic TV series, Thomas needs to catch up rather quickly. In his most oft-quoted remark, he says, “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).
If we want to understand Thomas, we need to hear both what he is and what he is not saying. Enlightenment rationalism, nineteenth-century empiricism, and twentieth-century existentialism have given rise to many attempts to claim Thomas as the first skeptic. I’ve heard many sermons over the years that make Thomas an intellectual hero and treat this story as a parable of faith and doubt. As important as those concerns are, they are not central to the story on its own terms. Thomas is not so much a hero as he is simply a latecomer. He wants to be brought up to speed. Touching Jesus is the quickest way to do that. His request to examine Jesus’ wounds as proof is exactly like binge watching the first season of Game of Thrones.
So listen again to what Jesus and Thomas actually say to each other:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26b–28)
Thomas is trying to understand whether the person before him is or is not Jesus. When he wants to know if the man claiming to be Jesus is real, he asks to see the marks of the nails in his hands and the wounds in his side. And when Jesus wants to prove that he is who he says he is, he points Thomas’s hands to the places where he has suffered. What we often miss when we hear this story is the connection between Jesus’ credibility and his wounds.
One of the reasons why Christians have always treated Holy Week—from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—as a whole is that the resurrection of Jesus makes no sense if it is not grounded in the reality of his suffering and death. Without Good Friday, Easter is merely a sentimental celebration of spring. And as wonderful as spring is—especially after this last winter we’ve been through—it cannot contain the meaning of Easter. Spring is lovely, but it’s nothing compared to the resurrection.
So Jesus’ wounds in this story are not some kind of parlor trick. They are central to who Jesus is. The whole drama of God being involved in human life and experience—especially in human suffering—is represented by the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side. Those nail and spear marks remind us, as nothing else can, the extent to which God is willing to go to love, bless, and heal us. Like Thomas, we know who God is by tracing the wound marks in the flesh of Jesus. This encounter with us at the cross has cost God something. Yet even still Jesus comes to us and proclaims, “Peace be with you.”
Our relentless focus on the “I won’t believe it unless I see it” aspect of this account from John’s gospel has obscured for us some of the story’s bigger truths. Listen again to how it starts:
When it was evening on the day of Resurrection, the first day of the week … Jesus came and stood among them and said … “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:19–23)
“Peace be with you.” “Receive the Holy Spirit.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” This is not so much a story about faith and doubt as it is about woundedness and mission. The risen and wounded Jesus sends his companions out to spread the news. We know who he is because his wounds establish his identity. And it is precisely because he is wounded that he can send his friends out on a mission of peace and forgiveness. “Peace be with you.” “Receive the Holy Spirit.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
Just as we can miss what this story is about, so we can forget what Easter itself is about or what the church is here for. Easter is about the triumph of God’s suffering, wounded love over human enmity and hate. It is about the ultimate victory of empathy over power, of community over empire. God comes into human history not as Caesar but as a Palestinian Jewish peasant. God engages with human beings not as subjects but as companions. In response, people take Jesus to the cross. In dying on the cross, he experiences the depths of suffering that each and all of us can know: physical suffering, persecution, oppression, grief, loss—they’re all there in those three hours on Calvary.
One week after Easter, Jesus comes among his companions and wishes them peace, sends them out in love, and gives them the authority to forgive each other and the world. One week after Easter, Jesus comes among us and wishes us peace, sends us out in love, and gives us the authority to forgive each other and the world. All of us have suffered. And each of us is offered a choice this day: we can dwell self-protectively in isolation or we can allow our wounds to open us up to the suffering of others. If we do the first we will perpetuate the cycle of retribution and violence. If we do the second we together will heal and bless the world.
Let us use this day and this hour to remember what Easter is finally about. You are wounded. I am wounded. So are those we who have injured us. They too are wounded. Remember who Jesus is, what he suffered, and what he says to us this morning: “Peace be with you.” “Receive the Holy Spirit.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” We have been given authority to let go of our own wounds and extend forgiveness to others. As Easter’s greatest and ultimate gift, let us take that wounded authority and use it to spread peace and forgiveness both as near and as far as we can. Amen.