Sermon for April 11, 2021

Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021
John 20:19-31

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

19When 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 for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
    24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”
    26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
    30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book. 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

They say that “seeing is believing.” This adage seems to apply well to so-called doubting Thomas’ desire to see Jesus first-hand. And seeing is the focus of Jesus’ response to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

For all of the decades that I have engaged this passage from John’s Gospel, I have generally focused on the physical dimension of sight, of seeing the risen Jesus first-hand.

This view is reinforced by other New Testament writings that focus apostolic authority on being eye witnesses to all of the events surrounding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In fact, in the book of Acts, when the apostles seek one to replace Judas, a key criterion is that they need to select someone who also was a first-hand eye witness like the other apostles.

But this year, engaging the post-resurrection account that involves Thomas, I am struck by a wholly different dimension of the text which I generally overlook when I focus on sight.

If I were to give a title to what follows it might be something like, “Touching is believing.”

As Thomas said, “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.”

Touching is so much more than seeing! Thomas wants to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ wounded side. That is all very visceral, fleshy, focused on the body.

So it is that Jesus invited Thomas, upon appearing to him a week later: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas did so and then exclaimed in faith, “My Lord and my God!”
Indeed, “touching is believing.” For it was the tactile encounter with Jesus’ wounded hands and side that convinced Thomas that the one who was crucified, the one who died, was the one standing before him in resurrected life. Touching the wounds helped lead to Thomas’ belief, his faith.

The important connections between the sense of touch, along with sight and other senses, and the proclamation of and belief in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection is reinforced in today’s second reading from 1 John where it states: “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 John 1:1). What is declared, as confirmed by the senses, including touch, is that Jesus Christ Jesus is risen, bodily and not just spiritually or metaphorically.

In short, what we learn from this is that all of the physical senses are central to the Christian faith, for we center on the Word of God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, sensate creation is affirmed. Christianity is not reduced to the ephemeral world of intangible spirits.

Christianity emerges out of Judaism, itself a faith tradition that, while centered on the abstractions of God’s word in Torah and more, is nonetheless a very earthy and fleshly tradition, as beautifully expressed in the psalm for today, “How good and pleasant it is, when kindred live together in unity! It is like fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, flowing down upon the collar of his robe.” (Psalm 133:1-2)

Then think, too, of other stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry where touching is a distinctive feature of the narratives. There was the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment for healing and Jesus realizing that when she touched his garment, power went out of him. And also Jesus making mud with spit to rub on the eyes of the blind man for sight to return. And more and more.

You get the point: Christianity is all very tactile, embodied, and sensate. Again, as if to say, “touching is believing.” Likewise, all of the other physical senses play their roles, too.

Touching and the senses are not just features of historical accounts, it all plays a role in our coming to belief, too.

There’s the tactile experience of feeling the water poured over our heads at baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in the context of which we like Thomas come to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

Then, when we return to it, there’s the touching of the blessed bread, taking it into our hands, and lifting the cup to our lips – touching and tasting and smelling here, seeing and hearing, all of the senses – as the risen Christ is made known to us in the breaking of bread.

Remember that Lutherans and many other Christians believe that the real, bodily presence of Christ is made known to us in the meal at the sacramental table.

And then there are the handshakes and hugs during the sharing of the Peace. And more for we are the body of Christ, the church, today.

The comparative absence of tactile and other sensate relational and communal experiences is one of the most difficult features of the pandemic and its restrictions.

To refrain from touching in these pandemic days is a challenge at home and at church on those occasions when we see each other in person outdoors.

How many times I have had to resist the urge to reach out and to shake your hands when I see you!

And then for us generally not even to see each other in person at all let alone shake hands or embrace one another – it is quite the deprivation.

Human beings, to remain well, need a certain amount of touch. It is one of the most primal of the senses. The reality of the infant needing to be cradled in loving arms doesn’t go away when we become adults.

People enduring the pandemic speak of “skin hunger” during this season of tactile deprivation. Indeed, we humans need touch for well-being.

We Christians also need sensate, tactile experience to be spiritually healthy and to know well-being in the faith.

There is something radically missing when Christian gatherings are reduced to the ether of cyberspace. Zoom has been a great gift to us in the church in making some gatherings for worship and for meetings possible, but a Zoom encounter simply is not the fullness of Christian assembly in person, in the flesh.

Let us not lose sight of this when the time comes for us again safely to meet in person.

And may our fasting from our embodied communal encounters stir in us the desire, the yearning to return to the same in due course. May this fasting heighten our appreciation for each other in person, as reflections of God’s word that continues to be made flesh in the church, again, the body of Christ.

The significant number – 95 – of you who attended our outdoor continental breakfast and worship service on Easter Day suggests to me your hunger for embodied encounter. That encourages me.

God in Christ keep us patient in confident assurance that the Holy Spirit will again assemble us in person and in doors where the fullness of Word and Sacrament will be celebrated with gusto and joy.

In the meantime, may God keep us patient and yearning and renewed in faith even in the absence of fully embodied community. Amen.

And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • Recall and reflect on occasions when perhaps your faith was renewed through sensate, embodied encounters – something like “touching is believing.”