The Gospel for April 19, 2020: John 20:19-31
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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.”
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.” 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.”
Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.
The “Doubting” Thomas Gospel is one of the readings that is the same every year – unlike most of our Sunday lessons, which cycle around once in three years. Those repeating texts can be challenging to preach! But this year, this text spoke to me right away – as a text about presence. Not presents with a T, like Christmas presents. Presence with a CE. “The state of being present in a place.” Being somewhere; or, often, being somewhere with someone. Showing up. Being there. thesaurus.com offers only a few synonyms: Nearness. Proximity. Being. Companionship. Company. And then there are some antonyms: Absence. Distance. Remoteness. Confusion. Distress.
Right now, in April of 2020, we have a lot of experience with, and a lot of feelings about, the difference between presence and absence, or presence and distance – and about the shades of presence that are possible for us as we shelter in place. Many of us are keenly missing actual physical presence of friends and loved ones. I’ve seen a rash of posts on social media this week from people saying, Okay, I’m an introvert, and this was fine at first, but it’s not fine anymore…!
Zoom, Facetime, even email and the old-fashioned telephone call – they’re a lot better than nothing. I hear it often in our Zoom church gatherings: people say, It’s so good to see one another’s faces. It’s so good to talk a little about what’s going on in our lives. It’s so good to still feel connected, to feel cared for and to extend care to others. This is presence, of a sort, and it matters. It is sustaining us. It’s so, so very much better than nothing.
But it’s not the same. We are grateful for it; AND there’s no mistaking it for the fullness of actually being able to be in the same room. To see each other’s faces without computer screens in between. To hug, laugh, sing together.
At the same time, in this season, absence takes on an extra weight of concern. Are the people we’re not seeing, doing OK? Are they just busy, or just enjoying the opportunity to join worship anywhere they please? Are they sick or struggling, physically, mentally, spiritually? COVID itself is far from the only threat. Addiction, depression, anxiety, and loneliness lurk close in this time of isolation and distancing.
It’s an interestingly double-edged situation. Some who can’t usually worship with us, now can – whether that’s friends from afar, or members who live close by but can’t easily attend our physical services. That’s a big deal; it’s important and precious.
And: some who usually attend our “IRL” services at church, aren’t attending online. I’m sure that’s for a variety of reasons, but I’m also sure that for some, it’s because the physical, embodied aspects of gathering as a church are what they treasure and need. Making music together. Receiving the Eucharist. Basking in the beauty of a beloved space. Watering the plants. Sharing – or providing! – snacks at coffee hour. Just sitting close to a friend, shoulder to shoulder. Running around having epic stick battles with your friends on the Pine Island.
The phrase “Real Presence” is a churchy shorthand for what Episcopal and Anglican churches say about the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Our church teaches that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine; they are not just symbols. But we don’t claim to understand exactly how Christ is present; we don’t have that locked down, scientifically or theologically.
Real presence could just as easily be shorthand, right now, for what we’re missing. Sure, there are lots of ways we’re being present for and with one another, from Zoom to phone calls to notecards to sidewalk chalk. But even as we engage in elaborate dances to maintain social distance in the grocery stores, we miss the real presence of our friends and loved ones.
We long to break the taboos that bind us: to be closer than 6 feet. To share a meal. To touch; hold hands; embrace. To breathe the same air – so risky, so precious. Real presence.
The story of Thomas’s encounter with Jesus is important for the Church. It asserts that the risen Jesus is something more substantial than a Zoom avatar. He’s not a ghost; he is embodied. He can pass through locked doors, but he can also eat fish, as Luke tells us. In addition, his humanity is not just a costume. Jesus did not only appear to suffer and die; the blood wasn’t ketchup or chocolate syrup. Jesus has a real body which still bears the marks of what was done to it. These were important points of doctrine for the first Christians and the early church, as they made the bold claim that Jesus Christ has risen bodily from the dead, and promises new life beyond death for all of us.
Father Tom McAlpine, a member of this congregation and friend to many of us, has been writing short, rich, thought-provoking commentaries on the Daily Office readings every day for the past couple of weeks. You can follow along on Facebook by joining the St. Dunstan’s Church Daily Lectionary Group, or on Father Tom’s blog – email me or Father Tom for that address. Earlier this week he posted a quotation from Scripture scholar Richard Hays that speaks directly to why the idea of actual physical resurrection – Jesus’ or ours – is so fundamental.
Hays writes, “The resurrection of the dead is necessary in order to hold creation and redemption together. If there is no resurrection of the dead, God has capriciously abandoned the bodies [God] has given us. The promise of resurrection of the body, however, makes Christian hope concrete and confirms God’s love for the created order… Furthermore, this teaching is consistent with what we have come to understand about the psychosomatic unity of the human person. Contrary to the ideas that held sway in much of Hellenistic antiquity [or, I would add, in a lot of contemporary New Age thinking], we are not ethereal souls imprisoned in bodies. Rather, our identity is bound up inextricably with our bodily existence. If we are to be saved, we must be saved as embodied persons, whatever that may mean…. To affirm the resurrection of the dead is to confess that the God who made us will finally make us whole – spirit, soul, and body.” First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox, 1997), p. 278.
Bodily resurrection is one of the mysteries, for me. There’s no question that when we die, our bodies decay and go back to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our very atoms are reused as building blocks for new living things. I don’t know what it means for God to promise a new life beyond death that is somehow embodied. It’s one of the things we’ll understand better by and by. But I believe it. I believe.
Thomas longs for – demands – the real, bodily presence of the risen Christ. I’ve long been frustrated with Thomas’s Sunday-school nickname: “Doubting Thomas.” The nickname suggests Thomas was wrong to doubt, when the Scripture itself says that Jesus showed up ready and willing to respond to Thomas’ desire. Yes, Jesus tells him, “Do not doubt, but believe” – WHILE Jesus is literally holding out his hands to Thomas, inviting him to touch the holes left by the nails of his crucifixion.
Thomas’ insistence on touching Jesus – and Jesus’ willingness to offer his real, and really broken, body to Thomas’ hands – asserts, along with so much else in Scripture, that our bodies and our embodiment matter. Touch matters. Woundedness and illness matter. Healing matters. Real presence matters. It all matters, to God and to us.
God, who made us, soul and body, and who has lived in a human body in Jesus Christ, understands that we need one another’s real presence.
And… Notice how this passage ends. The writer of John’s Gospel knows he’s doing something paradoxical here. He is telling the story of someone whose belief was ratified by meeting the risen Christ… to people who will never meet the risen Christ – at least, not in the flesh, the way Thomas did. He’s saying, Thomas didn’t want to believe based on second-hand stories… but you, reader: Please believe, based on second-hand stories. “This is written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
According to the Gospels, only a few people ever got to meet the risen Jesus in the flesh. After the first weeks, Jesus went on ahead to wherever we go when we’re finished here, and the Eucharist became our primary experience of the real presence of Jesus among us. And during the decades that followed, there were a lot of times in which Christians were limited in even being able to be really present with each other. Travel was difficult, and there were waves of persecution which made it dangerous to gather. The early church by circulating letters, sermon texts, and other written documents. Indirect – second-hand – but enough. Enough to survive. Enough to sustain. Enough to grow.
We may miss one another’s real presence, and the real presence of Christ in our shared Eucharistic meal. But our ancestors in faith knew about keeping in touch across distance; about maintaining faith practices when you have to hunker down for a while; about leaning on our holy stories of healing, redemption, and release to sustain us during hard and fearful times.
“This is written so that you may come to believe ….” John breaks the fourth wall here; he’s talking to US. He’s saying, I know I’m asking you to take this on faith, but truly, truly, there is life with Jesus. There is hope with Jesus. For our bodies as well as our souls.
Stay the course, beloved friends.