Doubting Tiger, Suffering Dragon

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Second Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was John 20:19-31.

Poor Thomas. He never wanted that nickname, but he got it. Our gospel today tells us he was known as “the Twin,” but that’s not the nickname that stuck. No, thanks to the events of this story, he’s been known as “Doubting Thomas” for almost two thousand years. And all he did was demand what the other disciples had already received. They had gotten to see Jesus, but he didn’t. Knowing about Jesus wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to see Jesus for himself.

Two things strike me today about Thomas. First, I find it interesting what specifically Thomas wanted to see. He wanted to see Jesus’ wounds, and touch them. It’s like Thomas is less interested in proof that Jesus is alive, and more interested in proof that he actually died.

And secondly, it strikes me how quickly and completely Thomas’ heart changes. The instant he sees Jesus, the instant he sees those wounds for himself, he says, “My Lord and my God!” The story of Nathanael, from the first chapter of John’s gospel, comes to my mind. As I remind you of that story, listen for all the similarities with this story.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses and the prophets wrote about; it’s Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

Philip was so excited that he found Jesus, so he told Nathanael, “We found the Messiah, it’s Jesus of Nazareth!” Just as the disciples told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” Nathanael was skeptical, saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Just as Thomas was skeptical, saying, “I will not believe.” And then something amazing happened. Nathanael met Jesus, and Jesus said something that seems pretty trivial. All he said was, “I know things about you, and I saw you under a fig tree.” But Nathanael was completely dumbstruck, and proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God! Just as Thomas was completely dumbstruck by Jesus, and said: “My Lord and my God!”

Both Nathanael and Thomas were very skeptical about Jesus until the moment Jesus stood in front of them and spoke. And then they both did a 180, immediately. And I think there’s something very interesting about each of these encounters. Nathanael was shocked and moved by the fact that the Messiah, the Son of God, actually knew him, and Thomas was shocked and moved by the fact that the Messiah, the Son of God, actually knew suffering. And I think maybe that’s the point.

Perhaps the whole point of Jesus was to show us something we’d never know about God otherwise. Perhaps the whole point of the Word of God becoming flesh, living among us, and dying among us, was to show us who God is, what God is like.

To show us that God is not some distant heavenly emperor, sitting on a throne eating grapes. Jesus reveals to us that God is interested in us. Jesus reveals to us that God loves us, intimately. That God wants to get to know us, intimately. God becomes a human being, living and breathing and laughing and crying with us. God walks to the cross, enduring beatings and mocking and death for us.

One of the most helpful things for people who live with various kinds of suffering is support groups. People who live with chronic illness, with mental illness, with grief, with alcoholism, have found it very helpful to gather regularly with other folks who have the same troubles. It is so helpful to be surrounded by people who know what it is to experience something similar to what you’re going through. There is something very special, and healing, about someone who knows your suffering. Support groups are available for so many types of troubles, and I am grateful that they are. They show us we are not alone. They enable us to be authentic, to be real. In support groups, we can stand before one another, and truly know each other.

And I think that if we take Thomas and Nathanael’s experiences together, we can see something similar. These stories show us that when we learn firsthand that God knows us, and when we learn firsthand that God knows what it is to suffer, it changes us. It means we don’t have to put on any masks before God. We don’t need to hide what we’re going through, or try to go it alone. It means that Christ is, and will always be, our wounded God. Our Suffering God. Our Crucified, yet Risen Lord. He knows us, he suffered with us and for us, and he has risen to lead us into the eternal life he provides. We can trust him, we can follow him, we can love him. We can be who we are, and know that Christ is with us even then.

And that is good news. Jesus stands before you, wounded yet healed. Scarred yet whole. Crucified, yet risen to life eternal. And he comes to you. He stands before you. He speaks your name, and gives you your new nickname: “My Beloved Child.” And all we can say in response is, “My Lord and my God.”

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