John 20:19ff Listen
April 7, 2013 – Touching the wounds
Empirical verification. I learned this week that that phrase: empirical verification, is used over 2 million times according to a single Google search. Apparently what an elder said to me a few years ago is true: “we like data; give us data.” I suppose that love for data and empirical verification means we are all scientists to some degree, which may come as a startling surprise to educators and policy makers who notice our woeful test scores and bemoan the loss of interest in science and math. But is search for empirical verification is the original science; as in “I need proof. I need to touch and see, before I believe.”
The Dalai Lama famously said to the monk Thomas Merton, on his first and last trip to Asia, “Show me the resurrection.” The two of them were having a lively conversation on their beliefs; what we would now call “inter-faith dialogue.” Merton was talking about the centrality of the resurrection to Christian faith and practice. “Show me the resurrection” was the Dalai Lama’s response.
I love that reply on many levels. Yes, it’s a request for empirical verification; but it also points toward here and now. Show me where what you believe is actually true. In the early years of the post-Easter church before everything settled into familiar institutional patterns, when believers were figuring out how to live with what had occurred in their lives, the small bands of believers were known as “resurrection communities” because their life together was so animated by the new reality that had captured their lives. In light of the resurrection belief – their lives were actually visibly different. The communities being formed were more diverse than any of them had ever known: Jewish converts joined Gentiles believers; the rich and the poor shared together, finding ways to love one another (not always easily, but they did). Women were strong leaders in those earliest years of the resurrection communities.
Show me the resurrection is another version of Thomas’ demand that is much more graphic and urgent: show me the wounds, he says, let me put my hand in the place of pain; then I will believe. In other words, Thomas wants empirical verification.
One might say this about Christian practice too: Until I feel the wounds of another and touch the painful places, I don’t really know the Other exists; really.
Later, in another resurrection appearance, Jesus’ himself asks for his own kind of empirical verification from Peter: “you say you love me?” “Well, then feed my sheep; then I’ll know.” But that’s a story for another time.
For now, we might give Thomas a break for his doubts. Doubting Thomas may be the first original scientist in the New Testament. We know that at heart Thomas is a believer and faithful disciple, even if he was absent the community of believers on that one fateful day of Jesus’ appearance. His role is to ask the questions that no one else dares to ask. When Jesus says, “you know the place where I am going …”, Thomas say, “actually, no Lord, we don’t where you are going, how can we know the way?”
I may have it all wrong, but I don’t think that chastising Thomas and his kin for their doubt is the only takeaway from this story nor the best one. It seems to me that Thomas, rather than simply playing hooky from church, is more like the unlucky one at a stargazing party. While everyone has their eyes turned to the skies, you bend down to scratch a mosquito bite just as they all scream in unison, “Wow! Did you see that; amazing!” You missed it all. Thomas is like that. I call him the unlucky one. Or maybe he drew the short straw and was chosen to run to the market for the rest of disciples. We don’t know.
We do know that when he returned, the other disciples tell him the wondrous news that Jesus is alive and has appeared to them. To which news Thomas replies: “Oh really?! When I see the evidence, then I will believe.” I don’t fault him for that. In many ways Thomas exemplifies the modern believer. Ever seeking and always skeptical.
Years ago, the writer Annie Dillard, asked: what’s the difference between a cathedral and a science lab?” Both, she said, are places made sacred by the pursuit of truth. The scientist bends over here data looking for clues and piecing the evidence together, enthralled by the quest. The seeker-after-God stands in the Cathedral, or kneels, seeking for truth, looking for clues, with hands raised in prayer, heart open, mind alive enthralled with the mysteries of faith; resurrection being one of them, and God-in-the-flesh, pure love incarnate being another along with our deep communion with Christ. These are the deep mysteries of faith that fill us with wonder standing underneath a dark sky with glittering stars.
Show me your way, Lord.
Let me in your righteousness.
Let your truth be my truth.
These prayers are akin to the questions of scientists asking for more light, more truth, more evidence.
So I believe Thomas deserves more credit than he is often given. He is the original seeker, the original scientist, searching for truth verified in his body. In the end, Jesus does offer himself to Thomas who touches his wounds. In that moment, he bears witness to the One whose pain he now knows fully – My Lord, and My God.
While he shows his wounds, Jesus’ lovingly implies that Thomas missed out on something greater. The greater blessing is when one can live with a faith that has no security – nothing to touch, nothing to stand on – only the invisible God of love. “Do you believe because you see?” asks Jesus. “Blessed are they who do not see and yet believe.”
This Word of the Lord addressed to us who live in a post-modern, post-Christian age of technology: empirical verification is the motto. Show me the resurrection.
But I think we live on both sides of the question. We want to see and touch the truth of Christ alive it all to shore up our own experience of faith. But, we who are disciples are also the ones who show the resurrection by the pattern of our life in Christ. The evidence is in our common life together. We call this the Body of Christ, who wounds we bear in our own life.
In the end, we are left with a blessing: Blessed are they who do not see, but believe. This is the truth by which we live.
Christ is risen. Alleluia! Amen.