Sunday, April 12, 2015

Probing Wounds on Low Sunday

Readings: Acts 2: 14a,22-32; 1 John 1:-2:2; John 20:19-31

Anyone who has ever had to gather witness statements or reports after an accident or some traumatic event will know how difficult that task can be and how confusing!  Sometimes it is the effect of shock and trauma that ‘witnesses’ are muddled or confused in some way: the evidence of those who should have seen the same thing is not consistent: what they saw, what they thought they saw, and their interpretation of what they thought they saw become entangled. Imagine the questions, and the doubts: Did I really see that?  Is that what I heard? Clarity is lost.

Today we might claim that a Coroner’s Court would deal with such matters.
But in the days and weeks after the crucifixion a clear and impartial adjudicator was not an option.  Anyway the debate would not have centred about cause of death but what happened afterwards.  Did he really die?  What is this talk about resurrection?

So, this First Sunday after Easter we can at least think our way into the possible mental state of the disciples and followers of Jesus who had reported an experience of a risen Jesus.  They had nothing in their previous experiences to account for their Easter experience – though I think Lazarus was still very much alive at this time and he might have had something to say about it; about the boundaries of life, matter and experience being extended and reformed in ways we can’t understand.  There might have been rich conversations to be had.

John’s detail of the Thomas story is particular to his gospel and shows very evocatively the way unbelief connects to belief.  The story shares with the other gospels (Luke) the appearance as taking place among a community of believers and despite locked doors.  Jesus’ invitation to Thomas is not to just see the wounds to establish identity but also to probe them and verify them as tangibly as may be imagined.  It’s a detail I find always a little unnerving, knowing myself to be squeamish and rather useless about something like that.  In Caravaggio’s painting of the subject, ‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ (1601-1602) Caravaggio has the risen Jesus holding Thomas’s hand and guiding his finger into the wound in his side.  The whole emphasis of that painting is on the unmistakeable physical reality of the resurrected Jesus – as John says in his First Epistle:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life--

1:2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—

So this Sunday, gathered in solidarity with those first disciples, the witnesses of the resurrection, we share their confusion and something of their wonder.  Perhaps the first and most obvious thing is that we pay serious attention to this gospel and don’t try to evade the strangeness of the event that we are confronted by.

We tend to dismiss as nonsense what we don’t understand.  The story of Thomas takes us directly to the limit of that approach.  The evidence of the Thomas’s senses – ears, eyes, touch – can’t resist the claim of the risen Lord.  His mind can’t get there, but his mind is overridden by what his mind has previously demanded – ‘Show me the evidence’!  Be careful what you pray for!  

Accordingly this Gospel’s clear insistence on evidence and its importance is not something that we can simply ignore – it speaks to us now and to our doubts.  This probing of the wounds marks the limits of our reason and demands our response.

These wounds of Jesus speak also to us in other ways.  

For instance, one of the English mystics, Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1614) had a series of visions or ‘shewings’ as she called them: in one Christ’s wounds are revealed to her and she speaks of them as ‘a fair and delectable place, large enough for all mankind that will be saved and will rest in peace and love.’  Those wounds probed by Thomas become for Julian the image of divine purpose: the mark of a love that draws us into a reality beyond our comprehension.

Reflection on these wounds of Christ must change how we live and see ourselves.  We are used to a society where self-defence, self-justification and self-interest is the norm but the wounds of the cross contradict this way of being. To be wounded is to know about vulnerability; and to be vulnerable, to endure vulnerability seems to be one way in which we who follow Christ may understand the love of God and share and work with one another.  I think of Henri Nouwen’s classic ‘The Wounded Healer’ as one example.  Another is Jean Vanier in his meditation on John’s Gospel.  He writes:

Jesus invites each one of us, through Thomas,
to touch not only his wounds,
but those wounds in others and in ourselves,
wounds that can make us hate others and ourselves
and can be a sign of separation and division.
These wounds will be transformed into a sign of forgiveness
through the love of Jesus
and will bring people together in love.
These wounds reveal that we need each other.
These wounds become the place of mutual compassion,
of indwelling
and of thanksgiving.

We, too, will show our wounds
when we are with him in the kingdom,
revealing our brokenness
and the healing power of Jesus.
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