By James Munroe
Almighty God, we ask you to save us from secondhand evidence, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The gospel passage that we have just heard (John 20:19-31), and the sermon you are about to hear, both can be summed up by what happens in the final thirty seconds of a movie that was named Best Picture in the Academy Awards of 2009.
The movie is called “Slumdog Millionaire.” In it, a young man and woman fall deeply in love. But they are never able to connect. And along the way, each of them is physically tortured by some bad guys. In particular, the woman receives a terrible wound on her cheek.
Finally, they do manage to find each other. And as the film ends, the two of them kiss for the first time. I expected to see a passionate embrace. What I saw was the young man leaning over and gently placing his lips on the scar on the cheek of the woman.
That moment is the gospel in a nutshell — a scarred God, kissing our own scars, and offering us forgiveness and healing and hope. That’s it. That’s the end of this sermon.
But… let me head toward the end of the sermon one more time and by a slightly longer route. This route has to do with a nickname I was given in grade school. Because of my last name — and listen, I’m really trusting all of you to be nice to me — because of my last name, some of my so-called friends would call me “Marilyn Monroe.”
And I tell you this because in today’s gospel, we have a man who has a similar problem. We have a man who is saddled with an unfair nickname.
The man is the apostle Thomas. His nickname, as you know, is “Doubting Thomas.” And it is a terrible injustice. The nickname “doubting” carries the implication of being wishy-washy or weak or cowardly. And Thomas is the opposite of all those implications.
Let me ask you a question. What would it take for you to drop everything in your life that gives you stability, in order to pursue some dream? What would it take for you to let go of everything in your life that offers you security, in order to follow some vision? That’s what Thomas does.
Thomas meets this itinerant rabbi. And he has enough courage, and he is somehow gripped enough by a vision, to be able to get way out on the limb in faith. He leaves it all behind, in order to be with this man — this man who is saying that our connection with God is no longer based on judgment but rather on mercy, this man who is saying that our relationship with God is no longer founded on law but rather of grace.
The next time we see Thomas, Jesus is telling him that he’s getting ready to go to Jerusalem. The other disciples try to stop Jesus. They tell him that it’s too dangerous, because the cops are out to get him. What does Thomas say? He says, and I quote, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Not very optimistic maybe. But what loyalty. What love. What getting out on the limb.
The next time we see Thomas is at the Last Supper. Jesus is speaking again about his death being just around the corner. He tells the disciple that they know where he is going. How does Thomas respond? It’s so honest. He says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus answers with words that echo down through the ages — “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
So let’s forget “Doubting Thomas.” Let’s go with “Loyal Thomas.” Let’s go with “Loving Thomas.” Let’s go with “Honest Thomas.” Let’s go with “Courageous Thomas.” Those are a lot more accurate.
Then we come to that last week. And we can scarcely imagine what it must have been like for Thomas — to go from that Alleluia Parade on Palm Sunday to the cry of a dying man on a cross just five days later. We can scarcely imagine the emptiness in Thomas’ spirit, as the body of his beloved friend is placed in a borrowed tomb.
There is a song by Hank Williams that’s titled, “Men with Broken Hearts.” One of the lines says, “Have you ever watched with helpless hands while the heart inside you dies?” That’s Thomas.
And then we come to the resurrection. And right here, we can understand Thomas if we think back to times in our childhood when something exciting happened, and we were left out — when there was some wonderful party, and we weren’t invited — when there was a group of special friends, and we were not included. All of the disciples have this amazing experience of seeing Jesus alive again. All of them except Thomas.
And Thomas is too honest to lean his weight on secondhand evidence. Thomas has the courage to say out loud the same thing that every single person here this morning has thought, at one time or other, in one way or another — “Unless I see the nail holes… unless I have some proof… I don’t think I’m able to believe… I don’t dare go out on that limb.”
It’s a little like that editor of a big city newspaper who was teaching a young reporter about the importance of verifying his facts and having proof. The crusty old editor said to the news reporter, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Have the courage, have the honesty, to need a firsthand encounter.
So that’s why, finally, we come to today’s gospel. And we see how God responds to Thomas’ honesty. Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples. He spots Thomas, and he walks up to him. He looks him right in the eye. He holds out his hand. I imagine that he’s smiling. And he says in a sweet, quiet voice, “Thomas, here are the nail holes. Here is where the spear went in.”
And this is the moment when the miracle happens. Thomas says, “My Lord, my God.” And he steps over the line, into a relationship with the living God.
And you see what finally does it for Thomas. It’s not the secondhand evidence of the other disciples. It’s not some vague, emotional feeling of loyalty. It’s not the teachings of Jesus before he died. It is coming face to face with those nail holes, with those scarred, living hands. It is Thomas bringing his own scars — to be kissed by the scars of Jesus.
This encounter of Thomas with Jesus is offered to us this morning as well. And here is a picture of how it may happen.
In my former church, we had a group that went out on Monday nights during the winter to look for people who are sleeping outdoors. And on one particular Monday, we saw a woman standing by herself on the sidewalk. So we stopped, wondering if she needed help.
We rolled down the window of our van. She smiled at us. Then she said, “Does anyone in here want anything?” And we realized that she was a prostitute. So we said, “Sure! We’d like to pray for you.” She told us that her name was Maria, and that she’d be glad for us to pray.
In the van that evening was a young friend of ours from Rwanda. Her name was Violet Uwera. Violet was four years old when the genocide hit Rwanda in 1994. Over 800,000 people were killed in one hundred days. Violet lost 10,000 people in her own Batwa tribe, which is a tribe of pygmies.
In the van that night, Violet said that she would like to pray for Maria. And as she prayed, she began to weep. When the prayer was over, Violet said she was weeping, because she had seen so many women forced into prostitution during the genocide — and meeting Maria brought back those memories. Then, sitting in the van, Violet told us one of those memories.
During the worst of the violence, Violet and her family were forced to run away. They fled on foot for many days. On the second day, Violet sat down and said to her mother, “I can’t go on. I want to die.”
When her mother asked why, Violet pointed to her own feet. She didn’t have any shoes, and her feet were swollen, and they were covered with cuts and blisters and sores. A doctor was with her group, and he said that if Violet survived at all, her feet might have to be amputated.
Violet’s mother knelt down in front of her. She bathed Violet’s feet as best she could. Then she cut strips of cloth from her own dress and wrapped them around Violet’s feet. Then she held Violet’s wounded feet and prayed.
As her mother prayed, Violet joined our friend Thomas in that upper room. As her mother prayed, Violet knew that a scarred God was kissing her own scars.
After her mother prayed, Violet got up and started walking. By the end of the day, the swelling in her feet had gone down. And by the time they reached safety, her feet were healed.
Today, Violet is back in Rwanda. And she tells me that it is physically impossible for her to walk by a stranger who doesn’t have shoes, without stopping to take off her own shoes and give them to the stranger. It’s driving her mother crazy, having to buy new shoes all the time. Violet just says, “God kissed my feet.”
A scarred God, kissing our own scars — that’s where the invitation to join Thomas is found this morning – the invitation to join Thomas in saying, “My Lord, my God,” and to step over the line.
A scarred God, kissing our scars, right here, this morning.
The Rev. James G. Munroe is associate minister of Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church, New York.