03 April 2016

Sermon – “Unless I see the scars” (John 20:24-29)

It seems that on the Sunday after Easter there just isn’t another story to tell than John’s account of Thomas and his unwillingness to believe. I have to admit that I looked hard for one, since I just preached on this passage a year ago and did not want just to rehash an old sermon. However, just six weeks ago my wife Karen and I had the enormous privilege of visiting what tradition claims as the sites of the martyrdom and burial of the Apostle Thomas in Chennai, India—so I decided to take a look at Thomas once again.
Thomas is a character who occupies very little prominence in the gospel story up to this point. The first we meet with him is in the lists of Jesus’ apostles in each of the first three gospels. The lists divide into three groups of four, and Thomas is in the second group, suggesting, in the words of one scholar, “neither eminence nor obscurity”.[1] We do not meet with Thomas again until towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had been informed that his friend Lazarus was grievously ill. The disciples tried to dissuade him from going to him for fear that Jesus’ life might be in danger. Thomas, however, challenged them, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). The next time Thomas comes into the picture is in the upper room. Jesus had been saying puzzling things about going away to somewhere that they could not come and yet that he was preparing a place for them. It was Thomas who protested, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus famously replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:5-6).
Fast-forward now a few more days. The disciples were again in the upper room—all of them, that is, except for Thomas. The doors were locked, just in case the religious authorities decided to come down on them now that they had managed to dispose of Jesus. A mixture of fear and puzzlement filled the room because of the recurring reports that Jesus, who had been executed only days before, had been seen alive. Whether it was the weak flickering of the oil lamps or whatever, we do not know. But for some reason they were not aware of the other person in the room until they heard the familiar words, “Peace be with you.” Their fear turned to joy as he showed them his hands and side and they realized it was Jesus. When they told Thomas what had happened, he could not bring himself to believe them. We all know his words: “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.” It was a week later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples once again and this time Thomas was among them, that his adamant refusal to believe melted away. “My Lord and my God!” was all that he could manage to sputter out—one of the greatest and most famous professions of faith in all of history.

A little more about Thomas

The story of Thomas does not end there, however. Twice more we meet with him in the New Testament: the first time on the shores of Lake Galilee as Jesus appears to the disciples (John 21:3), and finally in the upper room once again with the other disciples following Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:13).
Although the New Testament has nothing more to say about Thomas, early Christian tradition does. And while we cannot guarantee its accuracy, the odds are pretty good that some of it has a basis in historical fact. So here is how the story goes. Thomas, a carpenter by trade, was sold as a slave to an Indian merchant and ended up in the service of a king named Gundaphor, who is known from contemporary records and coins to have reigned from about 20 AD at least until the year 46. Thomas was engaged to build him a palace. The king gave him a substantial sum of money, the entirety of which Thomas promptly distributed among the poor. When the king insisted on seeing some progress, Thomas told him that the mansion he was building was in heaven. His words were these: “You cannot see it now, but when you depart this life, then you shall see it.”[2] For that he was immediately sent to prison but miraculously escaped, and King Gundaphor was converted to Christianity.
Thomas’s missionary journey then led him more than a thousand miles southwards along the west coast of India, where he arrived in the ancient city of Muziris in the year 52. Muziris had enjoyed a longstanding trade relationship with the Roman Empire, in addition to a Jewish settlement that had been established for six centuries, and it was probably both that drew Thomas there. Clearly Muziris was ripe for the gospel. During his short stay Thomas is credited to have founded seven and a half churches. (I’ve never found out what the half-church was all about!)
The next we hear of him is on the southeast coast of India, in Mylapore, part of modern-day Chennai. Through his ministry both the king’s wife and his son came to profess the Christian faith. Thomas, however, was sentenced to execution. Under the king’s orders he was led to a hill outside the city by four soldiers, who pierced him to death with their spears in 72 AD. Nearly fifteen centuries later, when Portuguese missionaries first traveled to India, they discovered that there were already well-established Christian communities, which traced their origins back to St Thomas’s evangelistic exploits. Right down to the present day the Mar Thoma Church of India, or Nasrani as its members are called, continue, as Thomas did, to worship Jesus as their Lord and their God.

The wounds we have received

I confess that all of that is really off-topic. So let’s go back to the upper room, a week to the day after reports of Jesus’ resurrection had begun to circulate. Thomas’s dogged insistence on seeing Jesus’ scars may seem almost ghoulish to our sensitivities today. I personally find it difficult to be faced with the sight of an open wound. Yet I have always appreciated the story of Thomas. It assures me that there is a place for healthy skepticism in the church and that Jesus is more than able to deal with our doubts.
This time around, however, I have begun to see the story of Thomas from another angle. In the past my focus has always been on Thomas and his transformation from doubt to faith. This time reading the story I have found myself attention drawn to Jesus—and not just to Jesus but to those nail marks, those scars that Thomas was so insistent on seeing. I have been helped in this by an article I came across recently by Leonard Vander Zee, interim editor of The Banner. He wrote this:
We all have scars … countless inner wounds: the griefs that never quite heal, wrongs that can never be righted, memories that cannot be erased, hurtful words or betrayals that still seem to have a direct line to our tear ducts or to the recurrent knot in our stomach. We are all scarred in one way or another. You can’t get through life without scars, inside or outside.
So it’s fascinating that when John tells the story of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after the resurrection, he tells how Jesus shows them his scars—not once, but twice.[3]
A generation after the events in the upper room (as Thomas was far off in south India) the apostle Peter reflected, “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Peter was of course quoting from the famous passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, from which we drew our Old Testament reading this morning:
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4,5)
And so, as we stand with Thomas and look upon Jesus’ scars, we recognize that those scars are ours: the hurts we have carried with us since childhood, the betrayals that have left us feeling forsaken and destitute, the losses of deep and abiding friendships, or perhaps the physical pain and deprivation of illness and disease—all of what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.[4] Jesus has borne all of these upon himself on the cross, so that we can look forward to that day when sorrow and sighing will have fled away and our only tears will be tears of joy.

The wounds we have caused

Yet as I look upon Jesus’ scars, I recognize that these are not the only wounds he bears. What about the injuries, not that others have done to me, but that I have caused to them?
I remember years ago being asked by a doctor friend to visit one of his patients in the hospital who was suffering from intractable pain. It should have been amenable to treatment but it was not, and he had begun to wonder if her problem was not physical but spiritual. She was German originally and in conversation it turned out that she had been a member of the Nazi party, and while she had never personally tortured or killed anybody, she could not forgive herself for her complicity in the untold sufferings of millions of innocent people. Sadly, she was never able to recognize that Jesus had taken those wounds upon himself, never able to accept the forgiveness that God offered to her through the cross.
I don’t know about you, but as I look back on my life, there are things of which I am deeply ashamed: unkind words spoken without thought—and sometimes quite deliberately, not responding to others in their time of need because I was too busy with my own preoccupations, allowing my actions to be dictated by prejudice or preconceived notions about others, not to mention my complicity in global injustices and inequalities. The list could go on and on and indeed it does. And while there are some things for which I may be able to make amends and should, there are far more that I cannot, some of which I am not even aware of. These scars too Jesus has taken upon himself on the cross.
One year after the carnage of World War 1, Edward Shillito, a Free Church pastor serving in England, wrote these words:
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;

Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;

We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,

We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;

In all the universe we have no place.

Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?

Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,

Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;

We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,

Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;

They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;

But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,

And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Today let us thank God for Thomas and his doubts. But even more let us thank him for the scars that Jesus revealed to him. Surely he bore our sorrows and was bruised for our iniquities.

[1]        Robin E. Nixon, “Thomas, Apostle”, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church

[2]       Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 51

[3]       “He Showed Them His Wounds”, Reformed Worship, December 2012 http://www.reformedworship.org/article/december-2012/he-showed-them-his-wounds

[4]       Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

[5]        “Jesus of the Scars”

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