Second Sunday of Easter
The gospel text this week moves me – has always moved me. It’s something about John’s depictions of the vulnerability of the risen Christ, the generosity with his body, and the very relatable Thomas. It is breath and touch, joy and blessing, a different ending to a crucifixion marked by betrayal of friends and brutality of the state.
But somehow, this text feels different to me this year, here in what we hope are the late stages of the pandemic, here in the midst of the George Floyd trial and anguished witness’ testimony to his murder – even here in all the mundane daily losses we hardly know how to mark. We have loved ones we haven’t embraced for a year, faces hidden behind masks so long that we wonder if we are forgetting what of another we used to know, missed traditions and rituals. I haven’t received bread and wine in over a year.
For many of us, it has been a season of grief upon grief, of challenge, of fear, of pain, and without the practices of togetherness to which we are typically accustomed when faced with the worst, we are sitting on wells of need and ache waiting for relief.
Without Thomas in the midst of this story and its emotional resonances with our current moment, I would frankly find it challenging to stomach a passion story that ends in resurrection. That shift from Friday crucifixion to Sunday resurrection feels too abrupt. I’m still back there somewhere in the hollowed out shock of the sudden upheaval. I need Thomas, for he is true. I need him post-resurrection in the gospel of John and I need him in April of 2021. His witness to disbelief acts as a foil to those who would be sentimental about resurrection, who would move too easily to optimism and falsely name it as hope.
Often this week in reading articles about the trial, I have thought of my neighbors, some of whom surely knew George Floyd. He grew up here, in my neighborhood in Houston. Cuney Homes where he mentored young men is mere blocks from my home here in Third Ward. I see his face on half a dozen murals anytime I go anywhere.
We watched his death, all of us – or we chose not to, knowing that we might not come back from what we saw, haunted by eight minutes, his anguish, and our helplessness on the other end of a screen. But we know the story. We can’t shake the story from our knowing or undo it; that is its own kind of anguish.
What if I weren’t a virtual bystander to his death, but instead his friend? And what if tomorrow my neighbors told me that Floyd had resurrected from the dead, that they’d seen him alive?
Even if I could believe, even if I could overcome my skepticism and make my way to joy, would resurrection erase the gravity of the brutality? Would it erase the losses of Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Emmitt Till? Would it erase the history of a state with its sights trained on black bodies?
I wonder if this is close to where Thomas is. His doubt isn’t simplistic, a mere inability to “just have faith” somehow. But his disbelief of the testimony he has heard about Jesus is closer to that hollowed out shock about what has happened, no firm ground to stand on, no equilibrium from which to even weigh the possibility that such news could be true. And in the background, the history of an empire which crucifies as spectacle.
In Thomas’s insistence on seeing and touching the wounds, I wonder if what he is truly grasping for is a grounding in reality and some proof that he has seen what he really saw, that he didn’t make up the crucifixion of Jesus, but that what happened has really happened. The portrait of Thomas in John’s gospel is the portrait of a man unmoored from the life he had counted on and the community that has carried him to this moment. From Last Supper to crucifixion horror to resurrection hope in less than 96 hours feels like a certain kind of whiplash. In the disorientation he reaches for the flesh, for body, for the materiality of Christ to reorient him.
In Thomas, we are free to be real about what this year has cost us. We are free to weigh the context of this year against the history and political tides that have brought us to this moment. We are free from the need to tie life up with a churchy bow and a bible verse, dismissing the gravity of death that has been perhaps more poignant this year, but truly marks every year.
There is no shame in this.
There is no shame in being honest about death, about pain, and perhaps the doubts which may have plagued us.
Thomas is the foil to that urge to rush past the reality of suffering and into sentimentality about the gospel story. I’m reminded of Mark Labberton’s words in the foreword to Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care:
“Hope, first of all, must be realistic. That is, hope can be hope only if it admits that which is darkest while urging toward the light. Nothing glib, or blind, or deflective toward the depth of despair could be a contender for hope. If hope has not first been silenced before the profundity of evil and loss, then such a two-dimensional offering is more scandalous than fruitful…. Hope is more like a treatment plan than an adjustment: in other words, hope takes time to shift toward healing.”1
There is no shame in pausing, in reaching toward the wounds to feel where the nails have been, before running headlong into the hope of the resurrection.
Don’t be too quick, for in rushing forward past our reality we risk cheapening the quality of our hope and the profundity of the Easter reality breaking in. Even in reaching toward the wounds to honor the pain, we ultimately reach for Christ’s resurrected body. The reach toward the real and the reach toward hope that defies the real in order to define a reality more real than what we can presently see are one in the same move; in either case, we are met with Jesus and he is compassionate. Our frailty is known now from the inside out.
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” he says to Thomas and to us.
Go ahead: Reach.
1Labberton, Mark. Foreword. Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life, by Makoto Fujimura (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017), 9.