It is our custom in the church, and I include myself in this, to wax rhapsodic on Easter. The magnitude of the resurrection, paired with the buildup of Lent and the pull-out-all-the-stops liturgy for the day set us up emotionally to go over the top a bit with our rhetoric. Easter becomes the panacea for whatever it is that’s really bugging us about the world right now.
I’m not here to criticize that. I gleefully take part in it every year, and have been moved to tears by that moment in the vigil where a priest proclaims “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” A huge burden lifts, both liturgically as the lights come on and also spiritually as we feel the onrushing grace of the moment.
In the wake of Easter Day, though, I find myself feeling like the disciples have maybe not been treated fairly in our hearing of the story. Last week we heard about how, after the women reported that the tomb was empty, Peter rushed out to see it himself. He was, we might speculate, a bit incredulous about their story, and no doubt still emotionally raw from the events of Good Friday and his tri-fold denial of Christ as things got grim.
Jesus had told them he would be raised, and Jesus had been right about pretty much everything else. So, on Easter, we kind of feel like Peter, instead of going to see for himself, should have maybe high-fived Mary Magdalene, and said “sweet!”
It seems like Peter wanted to believe the women. He did go running to confirm the story, which he might not have done if he were so skeptical. Why run to the tomb?
Peter wanted to know. Faith is great, and will move mountains, but knowledge is so, so much easier to maintain. He needed to witness the Resurrection himself.
This week, doubt’s Christian mascot, Thomas, takes center stage. Jesus has appeared to the others, but Thomas wasn’t there. Let’s spot him that credit first. The others had seen the resurrected Christ, and he hadn’t. But Thomas needed to know he wasn’t hallucinating it, or that some elaborate disguise was not at play. He wanted to see the wounds from the crucifixion, and to touch them.
Jesus, as we all know, obliges, and Thomas gets his tangible proof of the Resurrection. And then Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The point is simple enough; not everyone is going to get proof like Thomas gets. For me, and for you, the Resurrection is an article of faith. For Thomas, it was an article of knowledge. Maybe you join me in being more than a little jealous.
But more than faith or knowledge, I think today that this story, if we take it a little too moralistically, can edge vulnerability and touch out of the frame of our practice and theology, and that would be a tragedy. If we choose to identify with Thomas rather than simplistically say that doubt is dangerous, this story is beautiful in ways that might draw us farther into the mystery.
It’s striking that the wounds are so central, isn’t it? Personally, I would probably have guessed that a bodily resurrection would mean all wounds are healed. But Jesus still bears those marks of his painful history as one of us.
There’s incredible grace in that for us. Our own wounds are not things that keep us from being perfect. The scars from the traumas in our life are no longer blemishes on the pristine canvas God created, but are blessed.
I always think here of my friend Sharon, who lost a leg in a tragic car accident while in graduate school. Sharon emphatically insists that she does not particularly want to have her leg back when she arrives in heaven. Her life after the accident will not be summarized by a deficit, but would be made holy by God’s all-encompassing love, made part of the Kingdom of God, precisely in the particularity of her experience. She has fought for that wisdom, and had experienced the physical and emotional space of the world differently. Profoundly differently. Easter doesn’t mean all of that goes away.
If Easter just restores us to some imagined perfect state—if it fixes everything, as we might have found ourselves thinking last Sunday—then our hard-won faith and our times of struggle—things that make us who we are—are washed away too. This resurrected Jesus bears the marks of his history, though, and they are made holy in this new life. We don’t go back to whatever optimal state we might think we have fallen from. It’s better than that. God’s love sweeps us, just as we are, into God’s kingdom and makes our story, our struggles, and our scars holy in their particularity. God’s love comes to us, and as hard as it is to understand, God’s love honors us right here in our weather-beaten existence.
This does not glorify suffering, or justify it, or sugarcoat it. Suffering is not redemptive, but it is redeemed in this story. Jesus shows new life beyond suffering, and puts God in the middle of it with us. The scapegoating violence of Good Friday is exceeded by the vulnerable love of Easter.
Then there’s the matter of touch. The intimacy of Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds is almost white-hot. It’s almost too tender to handle. But it’s so primal… the first things we know in this world come to us through touch, from that reflex to grab our parent’s finger to the warmth of being held. Before we have useful sight or words to express things, we are learning hugely important things by touch. Before the intellectual exercises and Hellenistic philosophy that will drive a lot of our orthodox theology, we learn by touch. So if we let Thomas’ desire for more evidence become profane, as though it’s an example of being weak in the faith, we lose the beauty of the fact that JESUS LET HIM TOUCH HIM.
We just can’t abstract our bodies and our experience of touch out of our Christian lives. And we haven’t. At the passing of the peace, we touch each other as a sign of community, and at the Eucharist, we touch before we taste, a bodily experience of participating in Jesus’ fellowship. Baptism, confirmation, marriage… so much of our sacramental life is signaled by touch. Touch grounds us in our world, reminds us that some days are hot, and some days are cold, and that a hungry stomach can drown out even the most righteous of sermons. Touch, too, is holy, and is here an avenue of revelation for Thomas. The abstract ideals of the Nicene Creed have a certain nobility to them, but the nitty-gritty hand to hand, arm-in-arm touch of Christian existence tells us things no theological claim can convey.
This may seem like I’m bringing us all back down to earth after Easter, but the bigger point might be that Easter itself came right back down to Earth. That seems like a pretty big deal. This is God’s way, reaching out, gracing us with divine love and presence right where we stand, right in our imperfections and woundedness. When Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, I don’t think he was saying that Christian faith is henceforth an intellectual exercise. I think he knew that faith is hard-won and sometimes frail. In the context of the vulnerability and touch of this story, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe” sounds like a call to extend God’s love to one another in the touch of a handshake, in a scrap of bread (or a filling meal for a hungry body), and in the sharing of our particular, wounded lives with one another.
It feels scandalous that God’s love can be known in wounds, that, as Eucharistic Prayer C has us say: “by his wounds we are healed.” Perhaps it’s even more scandalous that God honors us even in our doubt. This is not the trimphalistic superhero we might have designed for ourselves. But this profound connection also gives us strength to share that love without having to be perfect first. We remember today that God does not regard the wounded as weak or the doubters as lost. The grace of Easter comes to us, and there is no better news.