Here are some songs for the second Sunday in Easter and for reading John 20 in the midst of a pandemic and a sermon preached at Evergreen Lutheran Church on April 19, 2020. “All my favorite people are broken, Doubting Thomas… You ain’t broken, you’re just scared” and other sung truths are part of this playlist. Admittedly, this is an odd playlist, and it gives me a lot of joy. There are a lot of “we’re all in this together” lyrics here, but the song from High School Musical was just a little too sappy for my mood, so it didn’t make the cut. Also, if Thomas (and for that matter, Jesus) isn’t a Dark Horse, then I don’t know who is…
OK, here are the videos of the playlist and sermon. The reading from John 20 and the sermon manuscript follow. Hang in there, friends. Good music helps. You can find this playlist on Apple Music and Spotify and YouTube.
John 20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
John 20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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 20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
John 20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Sometimes seeing is believing and there’s just no way around the fact that intimacy isn’t something that can be easily manufactured from a distance. Real intimacy cannot be embodied in a tweet, and it isn’t in a roll of toilet paper no matter how many colorful cartoon bears attempt to sell comfort to us with a shlocky melody. These days we’re even struggling to find toilet paper, so it seems likely that genuine intimacy may also be taking a hit in this season of pandemic partisanship. Focusing our attention on Thomas today feels like the right move because Thomas’s world, like ours, was filled with doubt and was deeply cut into partisan factions.
It may be that Thomas has already moved on and is looking for a way back to normal; that’s why he’s out of the room when Jesus appears, and ultimately why he’s not able to trust the words and experience of his closest friends. Thomas’s world view, one that had Jesus as a righteous king and head of state in an earthly kingdom, has been shattered. It’s not so much that Thomas is doubting as it is that he is unbelieving. That’s what the original word we read as “doubt” in our English translation suggests. Jesus appearance to Thomas is not fanning back to life a flickering ember. It is breathing a blow torch flame onto a cold coal and willing new life out of death in the same way that Ezekiel prophesied to the bones and God breathed life into all creation.
Even in the midst of this pandemic most of us today are in a more secure position than Thomas. And from our relative security it’s easy to read a rebuke into Jesus’ response to Thomas’s doubting, but I don’t think that is what’s happening here. The Gospel of John is reframing the scene from the time and place of that room into all times and all places. We need to see now more than ever that Jesus’ appearance to Thomas happens in the midst of the family we now call the Church. The resurrected Jesus chooses to reveal his wounds both then and now in the intimate communion and kinship of the Church family. This Gospel wants us to know that this level of intimacy between Thomas and Jesus is still available even all these years later in a crisis of our own time through the wounds of Christ. The question that’s pulling at me this morning is whether or not we will be able to see Jesus in the midst of our crisis as Thomas saw Jesus resurrected in the midst of his dead set doubt.
I’m going to share a story that I hope will illustrate this point of intimacy as a healing connection in the midst of a crisis. Like Thomas’s experience, mine involves a direct experience of another’s wounds. The only thing you really need to know prior to this story is that one of the main professions in my family is health care. Natural health, science, faith, and the intersections of these fields were intimately woven into my childhood.
This story takes place in 2004 when one of my brothers has joined Aimee and I for some days off in Napa Valley. One of our favorite stops on the West Coast was Bothe Napa Valley State Park. We were camping there; in 2004 it was only $15 per night for a campsite which helped us justify the very expensive wines we were enjoying around the campfire. Two days into the vacation my brother was riding his bicycle alone and was struck by a drunk driver who fled the scene. He was found unconscious in the ditch and taken to a local hospital. Upon consciousness my brother could not remember his name or any of the details around the accident. The responding police officer had found his cell phone in the ditch and called the most recent number in the call history which happened to be my phone.
My brother’s injuries were significant. One whole side of his body was a massive bruise with long scrapes from his slide on pavement, gravel, and dirt, but he was allowed to leave the hospital that night. As we relayed our experience back home to Wisconsin inquiries started flying through the airwaves for any health care professionals in Napa Valley who might have specific expertise to aid in my brother’s healing. A doctor was found and an appointment made for the next day. Upon witnessing the severity of my brothers injuries this doctor made a request of me. He asked if I would stand as my brothers body surrogate. I didn’t know what that meant but said I’d be happy to help.
My brother was lying on the doctors table. The doc was trying to ascertain which of his injuries were skin deep and which were deeper. As he examined my brother he would direct me to raise one arm out at a 90 degree angle from my body, then place my hand or fingers on or near a specific position on my brothers body to connect us. He would then lightly touch my extended arm and if the underlying injury in my brother was deep my arm would repeatedly fall as if all of my strength had been stolen. My arm did not fall every time, but it fell enough for me to be a bit freaked out by the experience. The only words I have for this experience is mind-blowing.
Due to a severe concussion, my brother was experiencing double vision and vertigo so the doc kept the room dimly lit. I couldn’t see if I was touching or hovering over an especially deep bruise or scrape. It was both terrifying and astonishing to have my strength stolen in such an intimate way knowing that my weakness was mirroring the damage my brothers body was experiencing in real time. I know this may sound like some kind of trick, but as the examination continued the doctor was able to ascertain where internal damage was and bring blood flow and nerve function back to those parts of my brother’s body. Then a repeated test would confirm this as my arm would not experience the same weakness as moments earlier when connected to that part of my brothers body. It was a truly amazing experience.
Now with this in mind let’s return to this intimate story of Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ. What if what is ultimately so deeply powerful about this experience for Thomas and for us is not just experiencing the resurrected Jesus, but experiencing the breathing, walking wounds of Christ’s body? One of the things I find so powerful about the Gospel of John is that it intensionally includes us centuries later. What if we are seeing Jesus, as he told us we would, but our “seeing” is now in the wounds of the most vulnerable among us? What if in the timelessness of this Gospel we are seeing the wounds of Jesus on display in the walking wounds of Covid-19?
When Jesus enters the room the first time, when Thomas isn’t present, our scriptures say Jesus “breathed on them.” Karoline Lewis suggests that this is a mistranslation of verse 22 and that a more accurate translation is that Jesus breathed into them. There is no Pentecost story in the Gospel of John outside of this deeply shared exchange of breath with the risen Christ. Jesus’ breath is a Pentecostal blow torch that brings peace and the fiery declaration of “my Lord and my God!” In this intimacy the disciples truly start to see Jesus for who he is, not a partisan earthly king, but a king who will end all partisanship, who unites heaven and earth, death and life.
Let me be clear. There is no room in my confession of faith in Christ for any pandemic to be condemnation for sin. Not my sin, not your sin, not any sins past nor present nor future. Anyone who suggests otherwise is selling Christ short and mythologizing Jesus’ death and resurrection into yet another partisan division. Covid-19 is not God’s judgement on part of our world, but it is showing us the fresh and ongoing wounds which cover all of creation and which make some of us more vulnerable than others due to our own selfish desires for security at one another’s expense. As you have now heard throughout this past lenten season, conversion is messy. It’s messy for Thomas in that his world view of Jesus as a partisan king is destroyed, and it’s messy for us as Jesus walks through the walls of our self-made security. Here’s the good news, though our conversion is messy God is in the practice of resurrection. Jesus doesn’t leave us in our dead set doubt and unbelief. Jesus doesn’t tear down our walls to leave us alone but abides with us and breathes new life into an intimate community which transcends all walls and all distances.
At the end of this reading Thomas is reunited with Mary who met Jesus on Easter morning and the other disciples who met Jesus behind locked doors. The intimacy of Jesus’ wounded body and close breath unites them and unites us. May the weakness we feel in our limbs be a sign to us as the Church (as it was to me on that first day of my brothers healing in 2004) that we are hovering close to another’s wound and therefore closer than ever to Christ. For it is the poverty of our shared woundedness which ultimately brings the powerfully whispered “my Lord and my God” forth from our lungs! My prayer for us this week is that we too may be reunited beyond our partisan divisions as we see, touch, and tend to the wounds of Christ’s body on display in this world. Amen.