Second Sunday After Easter
2 Easter 2.21 “The Mark of the Nails” John 20:19-31
Many of you, but probably not all of you, have heard my quirky take on Thomas before. In a nutshell, I don’t think he’s “Doubting Thomas” but rather “Pouting Thomas”. That is to say, I don’t think some kind of epistemological/philosophical skepticism is his problem. He’s not like a delightful meme I saw with a dog sitting on a seawall, gazing pensively over the water, looking like the canine equivalent of David Caspar Friedrich’s infamous Romantic painting “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds” except, unlike that painting, the meme has a title: “My Dog After Eating My Philosophy Homework”, and a thought bubble: “Am I Really a Good Boy?”
That’s not Thomas. He’s not the guy sitting around in a beret, smoking Gauloises with Camus and his pals at the Cafe Flores in Paris, writing essays about Sisyphus and his rock. No. Having been a lurker there, I can confidently say Thomas isn’t that…
Thomas’ trouble, when we meet him today, I would suggest, is not methodological doubt, or religious skepticism, but passive-aggression is the real problem. He’s not a thinker as much as an action guy; and the action he’s most concerned about is getting ahead of his fellow apostles. All the Gospels, John’s included, show us the apostles not as guys competing to see who can write the most moving story of Jesus (that they wrote anything, and that it was pretty good surprised everyone who knew them. “Florida Man Writes Book” kinda thing). No, they were jockeying constantly for position in the Apostolic Elite, scrambling to be first in Christ’s Kingdom.
They are always arguing about who’s the greatest, the Twelve are; and they can be like the worst little sect of mean girls at a tony private high school, backstabbing and preening and pouting. “Jesus likes me better than you!” “I followed him first”. “Well, he made me walk on water.” “And you sank; while he had me lean on him at the Last Supper.” “He named us Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder, because when it’s time to call down fire from heaven on the pagans, guess who’ll be doing the calling, baby?” And so on. Endlessly.
There is a lovely vignette in John’s narrative that shows us Thomas’ unique angle, his spiritual gift, if you will, in the constant struggle for Apostolic Elitism. They’re on the way to Disney-Galilee with Jesus when news comes that Lazarus, his friend, is real sick—a dry cough, high fever, lost his sense of smell/taste. Jesus brushes the news aside, “It’s just a bad cold, not anything Kierkegaardian, like a sickness unto death. Besides, our passes for Disney-Galilee are nonrefundable. Lazarus would want us to go.” The Apostles readily agree.
But two days later, on the lazy river ride, Jesus goes, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps. We should go to Judea and wake him.” And the Apostles, delightfully clueless, go: “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get well. Patience, rest, lots of orange juice, maybe hydroxychloroquine, is the best way to beat this thing. Also, there’s a vaccine coming. Besides, the last time we went to Judea, they tried to kill us.” Jesus goes, “Lazarus is dead. And for your sake, I’m glad I wasn’t there, that you may believe. Come, let us go to him.”
And the 11 go, “Jesus! We thought you said this thing wasn’t serious! Judea is also kind of a corona hotspot. There’s really nothing you can do for Lazarus; so, better to social distance and not infect others. Safety first, dontcha know!” And Thomas goes, “You guys are a bunch of ninnies. Let us go, that we may die with him!” And they do go (fairly reluctantly 🙂 and I think you know how that story turns out.
Courage is Thomas’ spiritual gift. It’s his way of getting ahead of his fellow apostles in the race to #1 in the Kingdom of Christ. And he’s playing it up to the hilt! John apparently assumes you remember this when he says that on that evening (the first Easter Sunday!) the disciples were locked inside for fear of the coro… uh, for fear of the Jews, when Jesus appeared to the disciples, re-apostled them, showed them his hands and side, the mark of the nails, gave them Peace, and the Holy Spirit, and the power to forgive (or retain!) sins…
But, Thomas wasn’t with them. And John (who turns out to be every bit as brilliant, laconic and cool a writer as Camus) lets you, the hipster-absurdist reader, connect the dots. Why wasn’t Thomas with them, hiding out with fear and trembling behind locked doors? Because courage was his spiritual gift! He has embraced the Absurd, uh, I mean Xnity. He wasn’t afraid to die, for Christ’s sake! If he dies, refusing to cancel services because of a little pandemic, he’ll be an absurdist-martyr-hero and that will almost certainly lock up a 1 seed in the Tournament, er, I mean the Kingdom of Christ…
But when Thomas does breeze in, “Hey, girls, hope everyone’s staying safe” they wipe the smirk right off his face by going, “Oh, guess who you just missed? The Risen Lord Christ just appeared to us (sheltering sensibly in place!). It was spectacular! He showed us first the mark of the nails in his hands, feet, the spear wound in the side, in-spirited us—almost like a reward for his true friends who care about others and can follow the rules 🙂 Sorry you were out! Oh, and he also gave us this cool, new super-power to forgive or retain sins. Right now, we’re thinking retain is the right way to go with you, our rule-breaking, arrogant friend!”
And Thomas goes, “That’s bullsh… Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, put my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I won’t believe—certainly not on your say so! Because, if he were going to appear, doling out super-powers to anyone, it should have been to me, first!”
Of course, like any great writer, John leaves some mystery, leaves it to you, the reader, to decide what’s going on beneath the surface events.
But that would be my read on Pouting Thomas. Now, it’s not like I could relate or ever be pouty like that myself, or be chafed at being bold and kind of getting no love for it. Oh, no, I don’t see myself in Thomas at all!
I’m sure you don’t either, you safe and sensible sort!
But let’s say, hypothetically of course, that we could relate to this take on Thomas, just a tiny, little bit. It would be a bit humiliating wouldn’t it, when 8 days later—after stewing in our resentment and wounded pride, Jesus appears and goes, “Hey, does some pouty little princess need to stick her finger in the nail holes or the spear wound in my side before she’ll join the team? Were someone’s feelings hurt?” Thomas is chagrined. Jesus goes: “You believe because you’ve seen me? Blessed are those who’ve not seen and yet believe.”
That might bring you down a peg, I’d suppose, hypothetically speaking. It is so easy to think it’s our strength, our courage, our goodness, our scientific astuteness (or, our smart mouth) that gets us into the Kingdom, when it’s only ever the mark of the nails. Sad to say, wounded pride’s never saved anyone; only the crucified Christ has done.
Jesus is always turning the tables on us like this—that whole first last, last first Thing. Just when you think you’ve got it, the script suddenly flips—pinning you underneath, like you’re a villain, not the hero! But, it’s OK. The nails leave their mark on each of us, uniquely; but, whether flayed alive in India or smoking quietly in Camus’ cafe, Faith’ll grab you by the scruff so Peace, surpassing understanding, guards your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.