Confessing Thomas

by Pastor Brian

The disciples lasted eight days. Abandoning Easter, they huddled behind the dead-bolted door with the curtains drawn and the candles extinguished. In the dim light, some were scribbling out applications for work back on the fishing docks; others were rehearsing alibies in case the authorities came knocking; Peter was cussing himself over the denials. And all of them, despite Mary’s testimony, knew it was over.

Except Thomas, the strange disciple. Months before, after making a wrong turn, he raised his hand and asked for directions. When the teaching involved crucifixion, he didn’t rebuke the Teacher. After Lazarus stumbled out of the grave, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”1 Unlike the rest, he didn’t tremble through life. Instead, Thomas pursued the truth, refusing to settle for secondhand news.

He was likely out combing the streets, interviewing the undertaker, checking the morgue, and chasing the evidence all over Jerusalem when he remembered his terrorized brothers. Circling back, Thomas rejoined the group still locked in the Upper Room. Then, without warning, Jesus, like an apparition, reappeared among them. After offering shalom to his followers hiding under the table, the crucified One laid himself bare.

Brain damage from the blunt head trauma, wrist and ankle bones crushed from the nails, dangling ribbons of muscle from the flogging, decaying flesh from the stabbing, Jesus’ body impaired by the torture of slow execution. In one of the most faithful acts in the New Testament, Thomas falls to his knees saying, “My Lord and my God.” Why does Thomas, at this moment, believe Jesus is the resurrected Christ?

John 20:24-28 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!”

Congregational Responses: 

It took him a week to take Mary’s witness seriously.

Doubt needs to ask lots of questions before committing.

Jesus showed up in exactly the way he needed.

Born in 1962 with spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative condition, Ben Mattlin has always looked up at the world. Living as a person with quadriplegia, he breathes through a trach in his neck, operates a computer by voice command, and moves his motorized chair by manipulating a joystick with his lips. Despite needing assistance for most tasks, he graduated from Harvard but couldn’t land a job because of legal discrimination in the workplace. Determined to forge a career, he hired himself as a writer and activist, eventually contributing to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. In 2005, NPR interviewed Ben on Morning Edition. He recounted attending the funeral of a paralyzed friend. The young minister presiding at the service said the deceased was “a free spirit, trapped in an unresponsive body. Now that spirit is truly free.” Ben’s reaction was fierce. “How limited is this vision of life,” he thought, “and of the afterlife? Are there no wheelchairs in heaven? I’m not buying it. For me, [heaven’s] not a place where I’ll be able to walk. It’s a place where it doesn’t matter if you can’t.”2

We’ve all heard some version of the same eulogy. The psychiatrist couldn’t fix Momma’s schizophrenia at the institution, but the divine physician cured her in paradise. Even though Daddy learned to read braille, he got new eyes at the pearly gates. Uncle lost his hands in Baghdad, blown off by an I.E.D. But now he’s bass fishing on that lake in the sky. Despite the intention to comfort, what’s often preached isn’t Christian theology. It’s ableism.

After the empty tomb, Jesus was anything but able-bodied, dispelling any promise of a “heavenly body” made perfect by eternity. After being maimed and killed, he returned from the grave injuries intact. Limping and lame, somewhere between a cadaver and the Christ, Jesus appeared in the same Upper Room where he had broken the bread and poured out the cup, foretelling what was to come.

Through the thick stench of rotting meat, Thomas moved toward the ghastly figure. Fingers outstretched, he touched the marks, mixing blood and belief, until the material proof converted his searching heart. For Thomas, Jesus can only be confessed as Lord if the cross leaves him permanently handicapped.

“Jesus Christ,” said Nancy Eiesland, “is the disabled God… consonant with the image of Jesus Christ the stigmatized Jew, person of color, and representative of the poor and hungry- those who have struggled to maintain the integrity and dignity of their bodies in the face of physical mutilation and rituals of degradation. Here is God the survivor.”3

For the survivors among us, there’s no blame in joining the frightened disciples trying to disassociate and disembody. But if resurrection is what you’re after, then resurrection of the body, this Word made flesh, is required because no one enters the kingdom of God uninjured. When your time comes and Simon Peter asks for your admission credentials, show him your scars.