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There Are Still Scars

There Are Still Scars

John 20:24-29

I don’t know which is worse: misunderstanding the words or intentions of someone else, or being misunderstood. Either one can hurt. Both can lead to confusion. Sometimes the result is funny. Sometimes, it isn’t. The events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus are full of people misunderstanding, missing the point, getting it wrong. Peter thought that the time for the rebellion he thought Jesus came to bring about had come, and so in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss on the cheek, Peter drew his sword and struck off a man’s ear, thinking that his action would be the first, the spark in the wildfire of rebellion against Rome that would propel Jesus to the throne of God’s people in Jerusalem. Only … Jesus touched the bloody stump where the man’s ear had been and made him whole. Three days later at the garden tomb where Jesus’ crucified body had been laid, Mary Magdalene thought someone had stole Jesus’ body. When she told Peter and John what she thought had happened, they raced to the tomb, saw the graveclothes laying there, and didn’t know what to make of it all. The disciples didn’t understand the scriptures that spoke of Jesus’ death AND resurrection. Then the angels speak to Mary and she still doesn’t know what is going on. And then when Jesus does appear to her, she thinks he’s the gardener and wants to know where he placed Jesus’ body. When he speaks her name, she realizes who it is and falls at his feet, clutching them in her hands, and he tells her she mustn’t do that either.


Read John 20:19-23. On the surface, all of this confusion, recorded for us to read, speaks to the authenticity of the words written by Jesus’ disciples. If they had been made up by the next generation, as some have claimed, none of the confusion, the misunderstandings, the things that cast the authors in a negative light, made them look foolish, would have been there. The first three times disciples encountered the resurrected Christ, at the garden tomb, on the road to Emmaus, and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee cooking breakfast, they didn’t even recognize him! Why wouldn’t they recognize one whom they had traveled with and been instructed by for two years? One they had eaten with, camped with, laughed with, cried with? Because they saw him die. Their minds are reeling, trying to keep up with event after event that just doesn’t make sense. His raising of Lazarus from the dead, and Jesus’ ensuing victorious march into Jerusalem to the shouts of the people. “Hosanna! Save us!” And then a rapid turn of events. Betrayal. Capture. Trial. Torture. Sentencing. And then their messiah crucified, his movement over practically before it began. And now, his body was missing. One thing even first century Jews were fairly certain of is that no one survived crucifixion, and  crucified rabbis stayed dead. The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus were exactly that … well-trained Roman regulars. They had marched into battle for the glory of Rome. They had killed before and they would kill again. They knew death when they saw it and they knew how to snuff life out. They made no mistakes when they took Jesus down from the cross. They missed nothing. They saw that he was dead. Medical researchers today tell us that it’s a surprise that Jesus even made it to the cross. His torture was more than enough to kill a man. He survived to make it to the cross. He didn’t survive the cross. No one survived crucifixion. Ever.


And there was something else the disciples were absolutely sure of – the Roman army dealt very severely with would-be Jewish saviors who tried to rise up in rebellion. They’d seen it with their own eyes in the past. Rome dealt severely with would-be saviors, and with their followers too. Jesus had been crucified. They would be next, made examples to the masses of what happened to those who tried to defy Rome. And so, in the hours and days after the crucifixion of Jesus, when they dared to meet, they did so in hiding, behind locked doors. Confused. Scared. Trying to work out together how they’d gotten things so wrong. Then Mary Magdalene said his body was missing. And now she was claiming that he had appeared to her, that he had risen from the dead. The fact that Mary Magdalene is recorded as the one who first encountered the risen Christ, and the one who told the others, is remarkable. Why? Because in that society, in that culture, the testimony of a woman wasn’t even permissible in court. If you were making a story up and wanted it believed, you certainly didn’t place it in the mouth of a woman. Or a tax collector. They were seen as being so corrupt, their testimony wasn’t permissible in court either. And what was Matthew, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew? A tax collector. If you were making this up, you’d never have allowed the story to be told by a tax collector. Well, at least Jesus had the sense NOT to make him the treasurer of his group. That job fell to Judas, the one who’d betrayed Jesus. You can’t make this stuff up, because if you did, you’d do a better job. No, the disciples are beyond confused. They’d seen him raise Lazarus from the dead a little over a week ago. Could he have raised himself too? Their world was spinning. Their heads were swimming. What was going on?


And so on the evening of the day on which his body went missing, Mary said he was resurrected but they were still trying to figure out what was going on, they gathered in a room behind locked doors. All but one of them. Well, two. Judas had hanged himself when he realized what he’d done, and Thomas had gone off by himself somewhere. Grief is like that. Some people want to be with others as they process a deep loss. Others just want to be alone. Most people experience a mix of both. Sometimes you don’t want to be alone, and sometimes you do. That’s just the way it is. And at this moment, Thomas just needed to be alone. But the other ten disciples, and probable several other followers of Jesus, were there.


And suddenly Jesus is standing there among them. Without having opened the door. Just, like, poof, “Sup guys.” Now, I don’t know about you, but in every ghost story I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard stories about ghosts being able to appear and disappear suddenly, but I’ve never heard about one having a real body. But Jesus did! He was, like, poof, standing there, but he showed them his hands and his side (Jn. 20:20). Is wounds. They were still there. It still didn’t make sense to them, but it was real. He was real. And he was standing there. And there are tiny details in the story: the door was locked, Jesus breathed on them, they could see his wounds. These words were written by St. John, who was behind those locked doors, who felt the breath of Jesus on his skin, who saw the wounds in his hands and side. This bears all of the marks of eye witness testimony. John is telling us what he saw and felt, and he’s been honest about his fear and confusion, and the fear and confusion of the others too.


Now we come to the verses I’d like to read this morning. Turn in your Bibles to John 20:24-29. So Thomas hadn’t been there the first time Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. But as soon as they see him, they tell him what happened – “It’s all true! We’ve seen the Lord!” Now, Thomas gets kind of a bad rap here. We’ve all heard the phrase “doubting Thomas,” right? And it’s always said like “Don’t be a doubting Thomas.” Kind of like, why are you not believing (insert whatever is to be believed here), when the evidence is so strong?” But that isn’t how Thomas is cast here at all. In fact, his response isn’t all that different that that of the other disciples before Jesus poofed into their presence with a real body that still had scars too. In fact, this encounter Thomas has with Jesus is exactly like the encounter the rest of the disciples had, only it’s a week later and this time Thomas is present too. Again they’re behind locked doors. They’re still trying to figure out what it all means. And again Jesus poofed into their presence, like, “Sup guys.” And this time he turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” What no one seems to notice is that this is exactly the same opportunity that the resurrected Christ had given the rest of the disciples a week ago. They had doubted, wondered, struggled with believing too until Jesus appeared to them, because it just didn’t make sense. Now he did the same for Thomas.


And it wasn’t that Thomas was somehow denser than the rest of them. He is only singled out on two other occasions in the Gospels, other than when he was selected as one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. The first is in John 11:16. Jesus was preparing to go to Jerusalem, and the disciples were trying to talk him out of it, because they were afraid Jesus would be killed if he went to Jerusalem. By the way, turns out they were right. But Thomas pipes up and says, “So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas was incredibly courageous. In fact, when he didn’t understand something, he was perfectly willing to speak up and ask for clarification. In the upper room, as Jesus was telling the disciples that he would soon be going away from them, we read, “Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Until this moment, that was Thomas’ full contribution to the Gospel story. Some uncommon courage and quite a bit of confusion.


But the truth is, Thomas reveals to us an important step on the journey of faith. Doubt. Seems oxymoronic doesn’t it. Doubt is the first step on the journey of faith. Doubt is the first step toward belief. Because when you doubt, you are now wrestling with whether something is true or not. You are no longer dismissing it out of hand. Scientists have understood this for a long time. How do you prove something in the scientific sense, whether it be in the realm of physics, or astronomy, or medicine? By trying to disprove it, right? That’s the scientific method. Develop a hypothesis and try to disprove it. And only when that hypothesis has withstood all of your efforts to disprove it, and your efforts have been replicated by someone else, is it considered to be true, right? That’s what Thomas is doing here. “I’ve heard your story guys. But unless I get the same proof as you, I will never believe.” Why? Because he saw Jesus betrayed. He saw him bloodied and beaten. He saw him crucified. He watched Jesus die a slow and excruciating death on that cross. And then he’d watched as his lifeless body was lowered to the ground. He’d watched, perhaps helped, as his body was laid in Joseph’s tomb. He’d watched as the stone was rolled into place over the entrance to the tomb. And he’d seen two trained Roman guards take position in front of the tomb to guard it so that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t steal it. He knew his confusion. He knew it well. He knew he’d jumped to conclusions in the past. He knew he’d misunderstood. He wouldn’t make the same mistake again.


Now, notice what Jesus says to Thomas. Don’t make too much of it. Jesus had given the rest of the disciples the chance to touch his hands and side too if they wanted. But Jesus uses the exact words Thomas used. Almost like he’d heard Thomas speak them. Almost like he’d been right there with Thomas, though not visibly, listening.


Now, look at Thomas’ response. “My Lord and my God!” First, Thomas was invited by Jesus to touch his hands and side, but there is no evidence that he did so. When Jesus stood before him and offered, Thomas immediately dropped to his knees and proclaimed his faith in Christ. There is no evidence that any of the disciples needed to touch him. Seeing him was enough. But the wounds were still there, reminders of what Jesus had been through. And second, Thomas went farther than any of the disciples had in his proclamation of faith: “My Lord and my God.” He fell down before his friend Jesus and worshipped him. John tells us that the others “were glad when they saw the Lord (20:20). Thomas went beyond joy, to worship. He put the puzzle together completely.


You see, Thomas knew what it would mean if Jesus had really risen from the dead. He understood that Jesus’ resurrection would demand of him the rest of his life. And that is exactly what, in this moment, Thomas gave. It is what all of the disciples gave. Every one of them would give the rest of their lives wholly to Christ. And they weren’t priests. They weren’t ministers as we think of religious professionals today. They were regular men. Common men. Too common for the likes of many. And every one of them was either brutally killed, or, in the case of John, exiled, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Because they couldn’t shut up about their Lord and their God, their friend who had been crucified and resurrected to life to defeat the real enemy – not Rome, but sin and separation from God. According to tradition, Thomas was sent to India with the good news of Jesus love and the forgiveness he won for us on the cross. To this day the Thomist Church in India traces its roots to Thomas. And he was martyred there. And it was said of the earliest followers of Jesus, by their enemies, that they were turning the world upside down. “And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also …” (Acts 17:6). According to German theologian Wolfhard Pannenberg, who is still alive, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”[i] And Thomas understood that. If Jesus really was raised from the dead, and the evidence is striking, it would demand the rest of his life. And he gave it, and gladly.


In his book Has Christianity Failed You? Ravi Zacharias points to one of the greatest proofs for the truth of Christ and the reality of his resurrection: the changed lives of Christians. He writes: “During the course of nearly 40 years, I have traveled to virtually every continent and seen or heard some of the most amazing testimonies of God’s intervention in the most extreme circumstances. I have seen hardened criminals touched by the message of Jesus Christ and their hearts turned toward good in a way that no amount or rehabilitation could have accomplished. I have seen ardent followers of radical belief systems turned from being violent, brutal terrorists to becoming mild, tenderhearted followers of Jesus Christ. I have seen nations where the gospel, banned and silenced by governments, has nevertheless conquered the ethos and mind-set of an entire culture.” Then in his own words Zacharias lists examples of Christ’s power to transform lives: “In the middle of the twentieth century, after destroying all of the Christian seminary libraries in the country, Chairman Mao declared that … Christianity had been permanently removed from China, never to make a return. On Easter Sunday in 2009, [however]  the leading English language newspaper in Hong Kong published a picture of Tiananmen Square on page 1, with Jesus replacing Chairman Mao’s picture on the gigantic banner, and the words “Christ is Risen” below it. I have also been in the Middle East and marveled at the commitment of young people who have risked their lives to attend a Bible study …. I have talked to CEOs of large companies in Islamic nations who testify to seeing Jesus in visions and dreams and wonder what it all means. The British author A. N. Wilson, who only a few years ago was known for his scathing attacks on Christianity … celebrated Easter [in 2009] at a church with a group of other church members, proclaiming that that the story of the Jesus of the Gospels is the only story that makes sense out of life and its challenges. [Wilson said], “My own return to faith has surprised none more than myself …. My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known—not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in light of the resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.” Matthew Parris [a British atheist who visited Malawi in 2008] wrote an article titled “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.” [Parris wrote], “I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa …. I used to avoid this truth … but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it.”[ii]


Sometimes people wonder, What difference does it make if Jesus really rose from the dead or not? It makes all the difference. The reality of the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, from the dead turned upside down the lives of the men and women who had followed him, witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching, saw him brutalized and executed by professional killers, laid by their own hands into the tomb, and saw him raised to life. And they in turn turned the world upside down. May we, as the body of Christ in the world today, with the risen, living Christ as our head, be his hands and feet in our neighborhood, in our community, and may we, like those who have gone before us, proclaim with our hands, our hearts, and our mouths that He is risen. Thanks be to God!

[i] Wolfhart Pannenberg, in a conversation with Prism magazine

[ii] Ravi Zacharias, Has Christianity Failed You? (Zondervan, 2010), pp. 105-107