United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“Want to See Jesus?"

 - Jn.20:19-29

By Rev. Dr. Daniel Migliore

April 11, 2021


     Easter is pure joy, but the days after Easter-- well, they can be difficult.  Just ask Thomas.  He was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, but the eight days after Easter had been difficult for him.  He was not with the other disciples when the risen Jesus appeared to them Easter evening.  Yes, he had heard the report of Jesus’ resurrection.  Yes, he hoped with all his heart that it was true.  Yes, he wanted to believe.  But Thomas wasn’t in a believing mood.  He had questions and doubts.  He needed to see Jesus just like the other disciples had. You heard Thomas’ words in our morning Gospel lesson: “Unless I see him, see the print of the nails on his hands, place my finger on those marks, and place my hand on his side, I will not believe.”

     We sometimes call him “doubting Thomas.” That’s the familiar label--but I don’t think it’s fair.  We aren’t told why Thomas wasn’t present when the risen Lord appeared to the other disciples eight days earlier.  Was he too grief stricken even to leave his house?  Had he gone alone to the last place he had seen Jesus to mourn his lost leader there?  Whatever the reason, he was certain that the other disciples would also have had their doubts about Jesus being alive, if he had not appeared to them.  Thomas was tormented by his doubts.  “Unless I see him, see the print of the nails on his hands, place my finger on those marks, place my hand on his side, I will not believe.”

    We could ask ourselves whether we, too. would have had our doubts had we been in Thomas’ shoes.  Even now, wouldn’t we, like Thomas, also like to see Jesus with our own eyes, hear him with our own ears, touch him with our own hands, especially this year in these low days after Easter?  Is it really so hard to have a little sympathy for Thomas?  Who of us wants to know Jesus only by hearsay?

    Who of us is perfectly content with pictures of Jesus in stained-glass windows?  Who of us wants a Jesus who is only a fantasy of our imagination?

    Seeing is believing.  Isn’t that how the saying goes?  Do we have to be from Missouri to understand what Thomas is feeling and wanting? Wouldn’t we really like to see Jesus now?

     Wanting to see before believing is not a character flaw.  It’s just part of our human nature.  We are embodied creatures.  We acquire most of our everyday knowledge by what we experience through our physical senses.  Something is real to us if our eyes see it, our ears hear it, our hands touch it.  Let me ask you:  How do you know your little granddaughter loves you?  It’s not because you have heard the rumor that she does.  Isn’t it because she gives you a big smile when she sees you, and for good measure she runs up to you and hugs you?

     I saw a cartoon in a journal recently.  A man and a woman are talking with one another.  The man says, “Sometimes I believe, and sometimes I don’t.”  The woman replies, “That’s weird.  Sometimes I don’t believe, and sometimes I do.”  The cartoon is amusing because it describes our common human desire to see for ourselves, to have our most fundamental beliefs confirmed.  It’s a factor in our life of faith too.  We would all like not just to hear, but to know, really know, that Jesus is risen, that he is risen indeed. “Unless I see him . . . ,” Thomas insisted.  He is asking a lot, but really, can we blame him?  Didn’t he simply want what all of us want?  Truth to tell, isn’t Thomas a stand-in for all of us?   

    So how do we see the risen Jesus on this Sunday after Easter?  Well, here’s the first thing I want us to take from this precious story about a disciple that many have labeled “doubting Thomas.”  When Jesus appears to Thomas, he invites him to do all that Thomas wants to do.  Jesus lets Thomas see him, hear his voice, touch his hands and side.  That’s amazing enough, but there is something more, something equally astonishing, packed in this Gospel story.  The something more is what Jesus doesn’t do.

    Sometimes when a person doesn’t do something, it can be as significant as what they do. What Jesus doesn’t do is that he doesn’t reprimand Thomas.  He doesn’t say anything like, “Thomas, you are such a disappointment to me.

   I had great expectations of you, Thomas, but you are far from what I had hoped you would be.”  No, Jesus says nothing like this to Thomas.  He says, “Put your finger here, see the wounds in my hands, place your hand in my side” (He means the place where the sword went in). 

    My friends, the Lord God knows we all have doubts.  Just open the Bible.  It’s full of people who have lots of questions and plenty of doubts.  When God tells Moses to go to Pharoah and tell him to let my people go, Moses replies in effect, “Lord, I’m not really very good at this sort of thing.”  When God tells Jeremiah to preach to the people of Israel, Jeremiah answers, “Lord, I’m just a child. I hardly know how to speak.”  When Nathaniel is told that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  But here’s the good news--amid all of our uncertainties and doubts, the good news is that the grace of God is strong enough to hold on to us even with all our reservations and our doubts.   We are accepted and loved by God not because we are perfect in all that we say and do, and certainly not because we can brag that we never had any uncertainty or any doubt.  God is gracious to us and holds on to us even when we doubt.     

    Now of course, there are different kinds of doubts.  There is the soul-crushing doubt of utter cynicism.  This is the attitude of not believing anything, of dismissing the quest for truth and even the idea of truth itself.  Soul-crushing doubt is contemptuous of every human longing for a better, kinder world.  For the total cynic, the words truth and goodness and hope are just fake news.

    What we learn from our Gospel story, however, is that this deep cynical kind of doubt is not Thomas’ form of doubt.  Thomas simply wants some concrete evidence of what he hopes with all his heart to be true.  He wants to really see the risen Jesus.

      You could make a strong case that Thomas would have been a good modern scientist, or a good modern investigative journalist.  Scientists and investigators in all fields want to see the evidence, and until they do, they are inclined to reserve final judgment.

    So listen again to the good news about people who have doubts--people like Thomas, people like us.  Jesus doesn’t reprimand Thomas for doubting and wanting to see Jesus with his own eyes.  And that’s good news for all of us who, as we journey in faith, have many unanswered questions and troubling doubts.  But neither Thomas nor we are rebuked on that account.  Hold on to the good news that God’s love in Jesus Christ embraces us even in our times of anguished questions and tormenting doubts, of which we have experienced many in these days of pain before and after our Easter celebrations this year.            

    Jesus does have a question for Thomas, however.  He asks, “Thomas, have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  Now we need to consider carefully just what Jesus is saying here.  Is Jesus implying that all his followers who come after the privileged first disciples who saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes will have to believe without seeing the risen Jesus in any form whatever?  I don’t think so.  I say that because Jesus has promised to be with his followers in every age in a new form called his Spirit.  So I understand Jesus to be saying something like this to Thomas and to us: “Those who come after you, Thomas, will not see me in the form you have seen me, but blessed are they who believe without seeing me as you have.”  The larger context of the Gospel story makes it clear that, by grace and in faith, believers after Thomas will indeed experience the presence of the risen Jesus but in a new and different form.    

    And this brings us to the second thing I want us to take away from this striking post-Easter story of Jesus and Thomas.  Although we who come after Thomas and the other early witnesses will not see Jesus as they did, the risen Jesus presents himself, his living presence, in a different form to those who look for him.

     And yet for all the difference, our morning Gospel story suggests that there will be at least one thing common to the form in which Thomas saw Jesus then and there, and the form in which we are able to see Jesus here and now.   The risen Jesus has wounds.

  This story of Thomas has the power to astonish us far beyond assuring us that Jesus can handle both Thomas’ doubts and our doubts.  The story confounds and disturbs us by its description of the risen Jesus with visible wounds.  “Put your finger here, see the marks on my hand, and put out your hand and place it in my side.”  Jesus invites Thomas to see and touch his wounds.  Just think of it.  The risen Jesus has wounds.  Well, let’s be more exact.  The story does not tell us they are open wounds.  There is no mention of the wounds bleeding.  Instead of wounds, maybe it is better to speak of the risen Jesus’ scars.  The risen Jesus has real, visible scars. His wounds have healed, but the scars remain. 

     Now think of the meaning of this for our Christian faith and life today.  Think of the meaning of this for our yearning to see Jesus.  If we want to see Jesus in his post-resurrection form, if we want to experience the real presence of the living Jesus, we had better prepare ourselves to see him with all his wounds.  Not open wounds, but scars, and they are real and visible.  If we really want to see Jesus, we don’t have a choice.  We will have to see him with all his scars.

    Now it turns out that this too is good news.  Just as it is comforting to know that we too have our doubts, and that God doesn’t stop loving us on that account, so it is also strangely hope-giving, it’s a telling of good news, that the risen Jesus has visible scars.  Who of us can begin to count the number of wounds and scars people have today one year after the breakout of a horrendous pandemic?  Who can grasp the toll of the persons lost, the survivors left in grief, the jobs of workers erased, the hopes of young people eroded, a whole society, an entire world shaken to its foundations?

    And on top of all that misery, who has the algorithm to measure the mountain of wounds caused by our long and continuing legacy of racial injustice in this country?  Who can calculate the number of scars left on the body of a human being, a person tortured and murdered by a police officer on a busy street in a large American city?

   Who can begin to imagine all the wounds and scars of guilt and helplessness and despair now being borne by those witnesses of the event who wanted to help the victim in distress but were prevented from doing so?  They weep inconsolably, and so too do many who viewed the horror on television screens. Indeed, we all weep with the bereaved family and with those first-hand witnesses because the scars they now bear are scars on our humanity too.

    Let me put it this way, we may thrill to the story of Jesus walking on water; and we may listen in wonder to the story of Jesus transfigured on the mountain.  But just now, just now on this Sunday after this Easter in a wounded world, in a scared nation, we need a risen Savior who has wounds, who has scars on his body, lasting signs that he is still really present with us in our scarred and broken world.  Don’t be too hard on Thomas.  Even after Easter, he needs to see the scars of the risen Jesus. And so do we.  Thomas is a stand-in for all of us.      

    Which brings us finally to the question we all want to ask.  Okay, where?  Where do we see the risen Jesus in his new form here and now--present, alive, leading us in our journey of faith, with resurrection power but always marked by his scars? 

    According to the Bible, seeing the risen Jesus in a new form depends on two things.  First of all, it depends on the grace of God, on the work of the Spirit of Jesus that he sends to us.  The gifts of the Spirit include love and joy and kindness and peace, summed up in the way of life that Jesus summarized as love of God and love of our neighbors.  And second, being able to see the risen Jesus in his new form requires our being willing to take a second look, to see something in the everyday of discipleship that we may not have seen at first glance, that we may have overlooked.

    It requires our readiness to look again, to see what we saw before, but now to see it differently. 

    Taking a second look, seeing things differently when you do that, is something portrayed for us in a number of stories of the resurrection in the Gospels.

    In the story of Mary weeping at the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, the risen Jesus approaches her and asks what she is looking for.  At first, she mistakes him for the gardener.  Only when Jesus calls her by name, “Mary,” is she startled.    She turns around, she looks again, and she sees not a gardener--but the risen Jesus.             

    Are there ways we can see the risen Jesus with his scars if we turn, if we take a second look, if we see things differently from what other people might see, even differently from what we too might have seen at first glance?  Let’s briefly count the ways we can see the risen Jesus in a different form if by grace and in faith we take a second look. 

    Jesus promised that “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”   What does this promise of Jesus mean?  It means that if we take him at his word and look again, we may see by the power of the Spirit and with the eyes of faith the presence of Jesus in the new form of a community of his followers gathered and enlivened by his Spirit.  We bring not only our praises but also our laments to God.  We are given the courage to do that because we are in the presence of the risen Jesus with his scars.  When we hear the gospel proclaimed, when we welcome one another, friends and strangers alike, with all our scars, when we practice forgiving and being forgiven, when we dare to pray with and for one another with all our scars, dare to pray for our world with all its many scars, when we do these things, if we take a second look, we are learning to see our wounded selves, our hurting neighbors, our broken world differently because we now see all of it happening in the presence of the risen Jesus with his scars. We can see him if we turn around and look again.     

    And we will also see the risen Jesus with his scars when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, coming to his table at his invitation, breaking the bread and drinking the cup together.  Remember the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter day?  They were dispirited and hopeless when Jesus, unrecognized by them, joined them on the road.

    Only when he interpreted what Scripture said about the sacrifice of love that the Messiah would make, only when he sat at table with them and broke bread and shared the cup with them, only then upon taking a second look, did they at last recognize him just before he disappeared from their sight. 

    When we eat the bread and drink the cup together, when we share the meal with thanksgiving, it becomes, by the power of the Spirit, a communion with the crucified and risen Jesus until the kingdom comes.  In this sharing a meal at the Lord’s invitation, we will see him if we look again at what is happening here, look at all the people who are moved by his Spirit and coming from east and west and north and south, people of all races, all nations, women and men, old and young, welcoming each other at this table as brothers and sisters, all created in God’s own image, all in some way wounded and broken—yet all having a reason to hope because all are beloved children of God reconciled by the living Jesus with his scars.  Eating and drinking together, we’re learning to see ourselves, to see others, to see the world differently.  We’re learning to see Emanuel, God with us, the risen Jesus with his scars.  Seeing things differently in his presence, we’re learning to become a reconciled, renewed humanity, praying and working with the risen Jesus with his scars for God’s coming new world.         

     And friends, it doesn’t end there.  This living presence of the crucified and risen Jesus is also present in his new form by his Spirit and with all his scars beyond the walls of the church where we gather.   He can be seen out there, too, can be seen by our own eyes and touched with our own hands.  And where is that, you ask?

     Well, just where Jesus told us he would be in his new form.  “Where did we see you,” the people ask the king of Jesus’ parable of the end times, “where did we see you hungry and thirsty and give you food and drink, where did we see you a stranger and welcome you, where we did we see you in prison and visit you?”  And the king answers, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”   

    This past year, this congregation has been engaged in a remarkable effort to help provide thousands of meals to food-insecure families, many of whom have hungry and malnourished children.    

    And why do we do it?  It’s a fair question.  Some observers might say, it was your civic duty.  There’s truth in that answer.  Others might say, you are just a bunch of do-gooders.  Well, it’s not a very nice name, but maybe it’s not something you need to be ashamed of.  And still others even more caustically might say, it made you feel good inside, didn’t it?  

    But we know otherwise, don’t we?  It all has to do with the gospel message of God’s unfathomable love and the thanksgiving it generates in us to respond in love to God and to one another, as Christ has loved us and all people.  Hold on to that gospel message.  It guides and sustains us in our journey of faith.    

    Will we ever see the risen Jesus with all his scars just like Thomas did?  Well, Scripture says someday, but not yet.  Right now, just be assured, he’s not absent.  He’s not tucked away in a far-off place called heaven.  He’s here, in a new form.  All we need to do, with the love of God in our hearts, the summons of Jesus in our ears to love all our neighbors, the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives—all we need to do is just look around, take a second look.  A second look over there at the family with no food to give their children.  A second look over there at the grieving survivors of the covid devastation.  A second look over there at the people without health care and affordable housing.  A second look over there where people are organizing and marching in support of justice for all and recognition of the dignity of all people.  A second look over there where the world of nature, suffering the pains of abuse that we daily inflict on her, groans to give birth to God’s new world.  If we just take a second look, we will surely see the risen Jesus with all his scars.