I want to begin today with a powerful sentence from Ernest Hemingway – who had a way with powerful sentences: “Life breaks us all and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
With that sentence in mind, I want to concentrate our attention on a particular detail in this Gospel story. John records, “He showed them his hands and his side.”
Can you see it? The risen Christ bears the scars of crucifixion. Whatever else the power of God did in the resurrection, it did not remove the marks of his humanity, the signs of his suffering. He comes to the disciples still bearing the broken places of his pain, defeat and death. That first Easter Sunday, the disciples are hiding behind locked doors – petrified, paralyzed, powerless and shaking with fear. I love the simplicity of John’s description: “Jesus came and stood among them.” No thunder and lightning, no trumpets blaring or drums rolling, no choirs singing the “Hallelujah” chorus.
None of the pyrotechnics that make a good ending to B-grade religious dramas. Just the awareness of the presence of the risen Lord, standing among them. He showed them his hands and his side, and that broken place of fear became a place of peace.
Thomas wasn’t there on that first Easter evening. The disciples tell him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” expecting him to believe on the basis of their experience. But Thomas was from Missouri, the “show me” state. He had to see it, feel it, experience it for himself. “Unless I see the mark of the nails on his hands, unless I put my finger into the place where the nails were, and my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
I like Thomas. I don’t much appreciate the folkss who try to put him down. Thomas is like a whole lot of us. He could not believe the resurrection on someone else’s experience; he had to know it, feel it, experience it for himself.
A week goes by. John doesn’t tell us what went on, but I can imagine the rest of the disciples working on him all week trying to convince him to believe on the basis of their experience.
I discovered a long time ago that honest doubt is not the opposite of faith. Biblically, fear is the opposite of faith. Reverent doubt is a necessity on the way to mature, healthy faith. I get real concerned about folkss who say they have never doubted, never questioned, never struggled with the faith in the dark night of their own soul. Those folkss may never have a mature faith.
The only way I know to move toward strong faith is the way of searching, questioning, struggling until it becomes real in our own souls. I hope your church will always be a doubting place where people search and question reverently until they find a living relationship with God in their own experience.
There are, sure enough, some folkss who just have a closed mind. Across the whole spectrum of religious belief, from right to left, liberal to conservative, there are folks who for some reason are unwilling or unable to stick out their hand and feel the scars, people who are unwilling or unable to stretch their hearts, to expand their souls, to think, to question, to grow. The kind of folks who say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with facts.”
But for most of us, honest, genuine faith is the result of asking tough questions, struggling with doubt, wrestling with the evidence until we come to a place where, in the integrity of our own souls, we can look this Jesus in the face and say, “My Lord and my God.” I had a friend in college who was like that. He had to search, had to doubt, had to question everything. Sometimes it was downright frustrating. I remember hearing him ask a professor/friend, “How can I make a commitment to Christ when I don’t know all that it might mean?” And I still hear that professor saying, “None of us know all that it means, but we know enough to make that commitment and we spend the rest of our lives finding out what it means.” Today, that friend is one of the most effective pastors in Florida ... still questioning, still searching, still growing in his discovery of what it means to follow Christ.
Thomas saw those broken places in Jesus’ flesh, and the place of honest doubt became a place of growing faith.
There is an amazing twist in this story. John says that when the disciples saw his scars, they were filled with joy.
I think I would have wanted it the other way. If I had been there at the crucifixion, if I had seen the blood drain from his body in the horrifying humiliation of crucifixion, I would have wanted the resurrection to wipe out those scars. But John says that when the disciples saw his hands and side, they were filled with joy.
As I have lived with people as their pastor, I’ve learned that joy can come from the same place as pain. Laughter comes from the same place as tears. The only people who know how to sing are people who know how to cry. The only way to discover real joy is to acknowledge our pain, our brokenness, our need. This risen, wounded Jesus comes to stand among us, and even the broken place of our pain can become a strong place of joy.
With minor adaptations, I think Ernest Hemingway got it right: Life breaks us all – it does, you know. If it hasn’t yet, it will. We will all be broken along the way. Life breaks us all, but by the power of the risen Christ, we can be made strong at the broken places. And by his grace we can live with peace, faith and joy.
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.