My little boy came to me the other day and showed me his right side where he had a nasty brush burn from colliding with the street after crashing his bike last week. “Look, Mommy,” he proudly showed me, “It is healing.” His brother wasn’t as convinced. He, himself, had taken a different sort of fall recently and badly skinned his kneecap. He sat on the sofa and pointed to his knee. “Is it healing?” he asked me. He poked around at the crumbly, brownish inner core of the wound and the surrounding reddish skin. “I think it is infected,” he said to me. “No,” I reassured him, “it really is healing, but this may leave a scar, in any case. See how the new skin is forming?” He nodded.
We encounter this passage with Jesus after Easter each year. Each year, Jesus appears after the resurrection to the huddled disciples in their confinement to let them know he is truly alive. He, too, shows them his scars, but instead of asking the disciples for assurances, he reassures them. He breathes peace on them—essentially telling them that he has come through the whole bloody ordeal intact. It reminds me of phone calls that loved ones will sometimes make after an accident or a tragedy. The first thing they often say—if they’ve somehow survived the ordeal—is “I’m okay, but…” and then tell you the whole grisly tale. Unless, of course, they aren’t okay—in which case, it is likely that someone else is making that call.
The disciples are huddled away in a room somewhere out of fear when Jesus comes to them. They feared the ramifications of Jesus’ death, as if his crucifixion by the authorities were a contagious punishment. With Peter, they also realized that they’d all be held guilty by their association and friendship with the itinerant rabbi—now perceived by Rome as a rebel of the Empire. But perhaps they also feared Jesus—after all, one had betrayed him, one had denied him, several had simply fled his dying fearing for their own lives.
We recognize their fear. The disciples are still in shock, still processing the news that Mary and Peter have shared, still roiling from the images of death at the cross and the impress of crushing power over human lives, fragile lives. They want to believe and yet they don’t, or can’t; they trust and yet they don’t trust.
It is both poignant and powerful that the first words that Jesus utters to the disciples, the words that have been passed down to you and to me, are “Peace be with you.” It is uttered 3 times in this short passage, this “peace be with you,” as if Jesus were saying, you need not be afraid on my account; I am not angry ghost out for revenge or a figment of your imagination come to haunt and criticize you. I am here and I come in peace to reassure you.
And then he breathes on them, but it is not the kind of breath that brings fear of contagion and disease, but the breath that brings the disciples new life in the midst of their fear of him, of the authorities, of what is next, of the unknown, and of death itself. He breathes on them and bestows the Holy Spirit—the breath of the Divine itself– and thereby gives them a holy calling. It is a commission to go and decide for themselves who and how to forgive sins and meet others in the pain and hurt of this world.
Friends, this is a powerful commission because we see what happens—all around us—when grudges and slights are kept at both local and international levels. We see what happens when leaders refuse to take the high road, refuse to compromise or work beyond differences. We see what happens when some practice quid pro quo, or the bestowing of favors depending on who panders to whom. The disciples are commissioned to practice the forgiveness of God—the forgiveness demonstrated by Jesus—with a warning (and I think that it is a warning) that the sins not forgiven are sins retained. And retained sins are gaping wounds that refuse to heal; they harm both the sinner and sinned against. It is as if Jesus is saying that we are all in a good deal of trouble, if we do not forgive as we are forgiven.
While they are meeting, Thomas—the twin—is not there. Perhaps he was out and about trying to get groceries for everyone—perhaps his role among the disciples was so essential that he could not and would not sit there in fear and distress when new arrangements needed to be made. He would set fear aside and risk his personal safety for the group by getting needed supplies for their little band. Nevertheless, he is not in the room the first time that Jesus appears, and I can imagine how his mouth must have curled down in disbelief when the disciples first shared of Jesus’ appearance. You know how someone goes on and on about some experience that you may have missed and then your friends just turn to you and say, “You just had to be there to understand”?
But Jesus doesn’t leave Thomas alone in his disbelief or doubt. There is no judgement and no recrimination for his unbelief. Jesus comes to him – a second appearance— and approaches him on his own terms. “Unless I see…” Thomas says, and he wants not only proof, but reassurance that this thing, this horrible thing—while not okay, not okay at all—is not the end, not the end of Jesus and not the end of him. I think that Thomas needed reassurance in the same manner that we need reassurance, in the same manner that my son pointed to his wound and genuinely asked, “is this healing or is it infected?”
Debi Thomas has written,
“Jesus’ resurrected body retained its scars. Not old scars. Not neat, faded scars signaling a long-ago victory on a half-forgotten battlefield. But fresh wounds still raw enough to allow a doubting disciple to place his fingers inside. I imagine Jesus winced when Thomas touched him, but that wincing, that pain, that openness, signaled real life. Real engagement. Real presence. It spoke the very words Thomas hungered for the most: ‘I am here. I am here with you. I don’t float a few sanitized feet above reality; even after death, I dwell in the hot, searing heart of things. Exactly where you dwell.’
“We live in a culture that worships artifice. All around us, people package themselves, market themselves, pummel themselves into versions of perfection that choke their souls. But if Jesus, even at the apex of his resurrection victory, sported his open wounds without shame or apology, then maybe we don’t need to worry so much about glossy presentation. Maybe Christianity’s best appeal is in its willingness to embrace real bodies, real scars, real pain.”1
We can look at the open and gaping wounds in our own lives and see places where we or others have refused to forgive, infected places and times where we have allowed the evil of the world to gain an upper hand, wounds in our communities and in our world and on our planet earth that have been festered with our negligence or our greed or our disbelief that we can and must do better for the general welfare of all. And this Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the wounds that humans have inflicted not only on the body of Christ, or the body of humankind, but human society itself, not to mention the planet. It is as if we are asking God and each other today if these wounds will heal or if they will continue to bleed and weep.
Yet, there is evidence of healing, if only we can see that we are part of the salve as well as the wound itself. These communal wounds require a communal response, as much as an individual response. We are like Thomas calling out, “Unless we see the wounds…unless we see the marks and touch them…” we will not believe, we will not trust that our small part will make a difference. And who could blame us for our doubt that we could and would make things better when we have, over the years, had a track record similar to the disciples: betrayal of the common good, denial of climate change and its many effects, and fleeing the scene of too many social crucifixions to count. And yet, the body of Christ can heal.
Terri Chaseley, 45, of north suburban Highland Park, Chicago, was recently hospitalized and treated for Covid-19. She told reporters that she felt it was a life-altering event and her priorities have definitely changed. Yet, like the disciples in today’s story, she experienced guilt and disbelief when she considered the medical providers who cared for her. “When they would come in my room, I felt extreme guilt and disbelief,” she said. “They knew that I had a disease that could potentially be fatal to them. And they were still coming in my room and treating me, and I’m so grateful.”2
Sisters and brothers, Jesus comes to us breathing his peace and showing us a way out of the locked rooms in which we find ourselves living, even now. Jesus comes to us in our doubt and disbelief and gives us a commission to tend to and to heal the many wounds of the world with what we have and with who we are as a people of God. For some, it may be a changed perspective; for others, changed priorities. For still others, a willingness to put themselves at risk for the common good in ways they never believed that they could or should. This pandemic vividly shows us, yes, where we have fallen short as a society, but it also opens a way to move forward together—if we would choose to be part of the healing.
May it be so.