a reflection on John 20:19-29 for the season of our grief
All summer long, we have been exploring, in worship, what it means to be “unravelled” by the circumstances of our lives. When I chose this theme, I was thinking, of course, of the ways in which our lives and plans have been unravelled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Little did I know that before summer was out, we would be facing a wildfire season that is devastating our own communities, as well as communities all along the west coast, beyond even our most dire imaginings.
This is a season in which our own lives, the life of the earth and all her creatures, as well as many of our assumptions about our own nation and the world, seem to be unravelling all at once. And so today, we turn to our friend Thomas, who, in the wake of Jesus’ death, has had his heart shattered and seen his hopes and dreams go up in smoke.
It’s important to remember that when we meet the disciples this morning, their beloved teacher has been executed by a terrorist regime—a regime that very intentionally and publicly crucifies its enemies as a warning to anyone who might be planning disobedience of any kind. This is the reason that Jesus’ friends are hiding out in a locked room, knowing that any moment now, someone down on the street could point to their window and identify them as followers of Jesus. Any moment now, the police—an armed and dangerous state police force—might come knocking on their door. And so it is that we find them locked in a room together: confused, terrified, and unravelled by grief.
And it is into this room that Jesus suddenly appears, saying “Peace be with you.” Then he shows everybody his wounds. And they see. And believe that he’s really there.
Everybody, that is, except for Thomas, who has the bad luck to be absent on the day when his teacher appears. Of all Jesus’ closest friends, it is Thomas who does not get the benefit of seeing what the other disciples have already seen. When we meet Thomas today, he’s still terrified and traumatized. Most important, Thomas is still heartbroken. When we meet him this morning, Thomas is a guy who has been badly wounded by the loss of the friend he trusted and loved, and by the loss of a dream he cherished. The dream of a better life for himself and for the people he loves.
I have to admit that I find it perplexing that church tradition takes a guy like Thomas and blames him for having so little faith. “Doubting Thomas,” the church calls him. Imagine seeing a man whose life and dreams have been unravelled by the violent execution of his friend and teacher, and blaming that very man for doubting the possibility of new life. It would be like blaming someone who has just lost their home to a raging fire for being afraid to rebuild and trust in life again.
I find it strange indeed that the church has done exactly this with Thomas. It’s strange because if we look closely at the text, what we see is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to blame Thomas at all. After all, if Jesus blamed Thomas for his lack of faith, Jesus could have just left him to stew in his own disbelief! Why bother showing up again, just for a guy who has no faith?
And yet, this is exactly what Jesus does. One week later, while the disciples are once again huddled in a locked room, Jesus appears yet again. It’s as if he’s going out of his way to make sure that this time, Thomas will be there to see the wounds that the other disciples have already seen. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to need some evidence before we can believe in resurrection and new life.
I’m pretty sure that Jesus does understand what Thomas, along with the rest of us, needs to see. Because Jesus, of all people, knows what it feels like to have our hopes and dreams and lives be unravelled by tragedy. Jesus, whose own ministry of healing and peace was destroyed by a police state determined to cling to its power. Who better, then, to understand Thomas? Who better than the wounded Christ, the Christ of Compassion, to understand that it is Thomas’ own wounds, his own pain and disappointment, that make him afraid to believe again; afraid to believe in new life, in hope, and in the possibility of joy.
For those of you who can believe without seeing, well, lucky you, Jesus says. You are blessed. But to Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says: I know it’s hard. I know how hard it is to believe, to trust again after you have been wounded. After your dreams have gone up in flames. To Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says, I know you need help to trust God again with your wounded heart and your unravelled life. So, I will show —I will show you—exactly what you need to see.
I suspect that many of us are hesitant this season to even imagine the possibility of new life in the midst of a global pandemic; in the midst of catastrophic climate change and devastating weather; in the midst of the systemic racism and violence against black and brown bodies that screams daily across the headlines. In the midst of fierce wildfires that are raging all across the western states. Beloved, our own trusting souls, our own expansive hearts, have been wounded and unravelled by the traumatic events of this year. And so, even as summer slips into autumn, we too may find ourselves locked in our homes to escape both the virus and the smoke-filled air. We may find ourselves locked in by our own fears, unable to imagine, let alone trust, the possibility of new life for ourselves and for the world. Just like Thomas, we need some help! We need a visible and reassuring sign that it is safe—and sane—to accept God’s offer of new life even now.
Lucky for us,Thomas, of all the disciples, has the courage to ask for the help he needs. Thomas asks to see for himself. And it is Thomas’ asking—his willingness to name what it is he needs—that seems to call Jesus in for a second visit.
It is often said in the church that the Good News of Jesus Christ is always both: always good and always new. And I wonder if perhaps, like Thomas, there is some part of you that is skeptical about God’s promise of new life. A part of you that might, just like Thomas, be feeling a little afraid. Maybe it’s your grieving heart. Maybe it’s your exhausted soul. I invite you to take a moment now and let that Thomas part of you find its voice. Here in the silence, just listen for the part of you that is wounded, skeptical, and afraid. Just listen and allow this part of you to ask for whatever it might need in order to be willing to trust again.
Whatever it is that you heard from your doubt this day, I invite you to carry it with you this week. You might even want to look at it every now and then. And maybe, when you look at your own doubt, you might pray, as Thomas did, “Show me. God, show me the sign I need to see.” The sign you need to help you believe in the promise of new life that God is extending even now, in this long season of our collective unravelling.
Above all, I invite you to be compassionate with your own doubting self. At least as compassionate as Jesus is with his beloved Thomas, the doubting one.
Because none of us gets through this life without being wounded. The world has its sharp, jagged edges; the world has its novel viruses and its ancient injustices. These catch us, friends. And when they do, we suffer, and we are afraid. And yet, even as we unravel and reweave the sacred threads of our lives, we are called — we are always called, by the Christ of God — to carry new life into the world. If our friend Thomas is any indication, God is ready, on a moment’s notice, to slip into the locked room of our fear and deliver to us a sign of hope, a sign of new life, if only we will ask.
And so we remember this day that “Show me” is a complete and perfect prayer. And we give thanks to Thomas and to all the faithful friends who teach us how to pray it. Thanks be to God.