Keeping in Touch
© copyright 2013 Robert J. Elder
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Second Sunday of Easter: April 7, 2013
In 1899, Congressman William Vandiver coined a phrase when he said, “I come from a state that raises corn, cotton, cockleburs, and Democrats; and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.” The bit about frothiness didn’t stick, but that “I’m from Missouri ... show me” business sure did. People who require evidence have been saying, “I’m from Missouri” ever since. Probably Thomas was the one disciple who could be said, in Congressman Vandiver’s sense of it, to have been “from Missouri.”
“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.” Sermons are often based on this episode by focusing on the doubts which Thomas harbored. I have heard Thomas’ doubts compared to everything under the sun. Frederick Buechner once called doubts “the ants in the pants of faith,” because, he said, “they keep it alive and moving.” Talking of ants-in-the-pants leads me to think on the equally stimulating value of fleas. The chief character of Edward Noyes Westcott’s late 19th century novel, David Harum, declared, “A reasonable amount o’ fleas is good fer a dog – keeps him from broodin’ over being a dog.” Which goes well with the observation of Sir Francis Galon, the nineteenth century English scientist who said, “Well-washed and well-combed dogs grow dull; they miss the stimulus of fleas.” All this has reminded many preachers of a similarity between the stimulating effect of fleas on a dog and doubts in a person.
Today, though, I have found my eye returning to a different aspect of the story from John’s gospel. It has to do with Jesus’ wounds and his invitation to Thomas – to all of us – to touch them.
Every so often, it seems almost on a daily basis, we hear reports about a roadside bomb going off somewhere in the world, sometimes right here at home, killing and maiming X number of innocent bystanders. A couple of decades ago, we would have been shocked reading such reports. Now they seem as common as a morning cup of coffee. We have become awfully calloused to the suffering that human beings visit on one another. To the weary world, these must seem to be just more wounds on an already much-wounded planet.
I don’t know about you, but every time I read the story of Thomas, I am shocked at his desire to touch Jesus in his wounded places. Yet I am equally undone by the fact that this does not seem to bother the risen Jesus all that much. He invites Thomas’ probing fingers into his wounds, into the places where he was injured, battered, killed for the sake of the gospel. The week before, when Thomas wasn’t with them, Jesus invited all of the other disciples to see his hands and side. Jesus invited Thomas, as he invited all of them, as he invites us, to touch his wounds.
“Unless I touch your wounds, I will not believe.” If finding wounds to touch is the problem, then the solution is as near at hand as the latest disaster, the nearby suffering of innocents. Pictures coming across our TV screens on a daily basis remind us that wounds are near at hand indeed. I believe that we can touch Jesus’ wounds today. Indeed, I believe we must.
Remember in John’s gospel how the disciples reacted to the news of Jesus’ resurrection? They heard the report from Mary Magdalene, that she had met the risen Jesus. Did they suddenly sing out for joy, begin praising God in the streets, challenge the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees? No, John reports what they did: “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 out of fear...” The resurrection of Jesus did not embolden the disciples, nor did it grant them faith. It sent them scrambling to the safety of a retreat to the room where they had last eaten with him. Thomas is called the doubter, but looking around that chilly upper room, I don’t see anything passing for faith on the faces of those fear-filled disciples that Easter evening, do you? Thomas, when he found his voice, merely said what everyone else was thinking when they first heard that Jesus had risen. “How can I know Jesus is risen?” He sought some tangible assurance. Why is it that he thought of contact with Jesus’ wounds as the way to receive that assurance?
Thomas, always the practical one, thought he found the other disciples deep in the denial stage that some folks go through when they lose a loved-one to death. Practical Thomas, who tried to keep Jesus from traveling to Judea to be with the family of Lazarus – after all, the last time he was there they tried to stone him! – Thomas, who finally agreed to go along, but with his eyes open: “Let’s go, then, so we can all die with him,” he said.
When the end came, Thomas ducked for cover like the rest, but he was also the last to emerge from hiding. He was, as I said, the practical one. He found the others in denial. “We have seen the Lord!” they said. “Unless I ... put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The translators may be too tame, out of deference to our tender sensibilities. It’s a pity. The original word for “putting” his hand means to thrust or jab. “Unless I thrust (Gk.: Balo) my finger in the mark of the nails ... unless I jab my hand into his wounded side...” Ouch. Thomas seems to need to observe Jesus wince in pain to believe that what was human and very much dead had now become immortal. I am undone by this whole scene, but especially by the fact that Jesus responded to Thomas’ words by inviting his probing touch. It did not seem to bother the risen Jesus. He invited Thomas’ to jab at his wounds, the places of deadly injury, if that’s what he needed. Jesus invited Thomas, invites us, to touch him in his wounded places, just as for so many in Galilee Jesus had touched wounded places to make them well.
Somehow this moment, this knowing of Jesus’ wounds, transformed Thomas – and all of them – so that fear melted into joy. But this is more than an arrival at the condition we call faith. It is also a story about a commissioning:
“‘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.’”
Having invited them to participate in his own wounds, suffered for their sakes, Jesus commissioned them, the wounded, fear-filled disciples, to show their wounds to the world, to touch the world in its wounded places. The world says in reply to all our pontifications on faith and doctrine, about resurrection and the ministry of Christ, “Unless I thrust my hand into the church and find real wounds, no way I’ll ever believe.”
I am often asked about the decline of members in the Presbyterian church nationally. I am afraid I have no really good answers to the question. The sum of what I know about the church as a denomination is that if its individual churches fail to be faithful, no amount of conversation about faithfulness as a denomination will suffice. Ask any group of gathered Presbyterians to raise their hand if they have grown children who are not active in any church. Dozens of hands will go up. It is our own people we have lost, more than people who have left in a rage over some obscure point of doctrine. We don’t lose members due to strife over big issues of dogma. We lose our own children when they are bored with what the church isn’t doing. The world is broken and wants to touch our wounds to see if there can be healing. But when we dress up our wounds to hide them from the world, we do a disservice to the gospel.
I read once about a psychiatrist who said, “‘Good mothers tend to be a little bit messy. At least their grooming isn’t perfect.’ He knew that the touch of the small child, seeking assurance of safety and love, should not be hampered by warnings not to spoil makeup or displace carefully arranged hair. Jesus, our good Lord and our good friend, would pass [the] test for a loving, embracing presence.”
I think Jesus always moved, and still moves, toward the wounded ones. Like fire fighters weeping over children they cannot save, or physicians and nurses pausing solemnly in the ER over a patient they can’t manage to resuscitate, Jesus moves toward the wounded places on the earth, touches the wounds of those who suffer, and brings healing where there had been despair. When we touch the wounds of others to bring healing, we are touching the very body of Christ.