Touching the Place Where It Hurts

So, we’re talking about Thomas today. The Bible calls him the Apostle Thomas: one of the few who knew Jesus in the flesh and was sent to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Church tradition calls him St. Thomas: if the legends are true, Thomas traveled as far east as India, where he founded a church. The New Testament is silent on his fate and history is inconclusive, but it’s worth noting that when Vasco da Gama made his expedition to India in 1498, he discovered an already vibrant Christian church in the area, claiming to have been founded by Thomas himself.

But the name that Thomas is most remembered for is the nickname people give him when they read today’s gospel story: Doubting Thomas. It’s a big joke, right? People call you a ‘Doubting Thomas’ if you don’t believe some outlandish claim they make.

Personally, I think poor Thomas gets a worse rap than he deserves. After all, I can’t say that I wouldn’t do exactly as he did, given the situation. Imagine that you just lost someone important to you: your best friend, even. Imagine that this particular best friend is someone for whom you had given up everything: your job, your family, your reputation. Imagine that you had just seen that same friend brutally murdered only a short time earlier. Then imagine that you came back from lunch one day and saw the rest of your friends freaking out and saying that this person was suddenly back from the dead…

You poor, sad people,” I would say, “Your grief has driven you to the point of delusion. People don’t come back once they’re dead. You have to accept that and move on. Here, let me refer you to a professional psychologist I know…”

Even as a Christian pastor, that’s what I would say to someone who told me a story like that. In fact, it would be irresponsible of me not to say it. If said person in my office were to continue insisting that such a resurrection had happened, I would do exactly as Thomas did: ask to see evidence. I wouldn’t be able to just take their word for it. That kind of thing doesn’t just happen.

This being the case, I would recommend that we stop referring to Thomas as ‘Doubting Thomas’ and instead start calling him ‘the Patron Saint of the Scientific Method.’ He did what any rational person would do given the circumstances: he asked his colleagues to come up with evidence that supported their claims.

What strikes me as most significant is the kind of evidence that Thomas asks for. He doesn’t need a rational, philosophical argument on how it might be possible for someone to come back from the dead. Neither does he ask to see the results of a double-blind study published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. He doesn’t need the other disciples to quote passages of the Bible (or John Calvin, or the Westminster Catechism) at him. He doesn’t even ask to see Jesus himself.

He says to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in the spear wound, I will not believe.” Isn’t that interesting?

What Thomas needs before he can believe is to touch the place where the pain is.

Faith, for Thomas in this moment, has more to do with personal experience than logical reasons or absolute proof that something has happened. Thomas needs to get close enough to touch Jesus, specifically in those places where he has been wounded.

When I think about those people who have inspired faith in me, I think about the ones who have been present with me in life’s moments: big or small, good or bad. These are the people who have seen me at my best and my worst, and have continued to love me (sometimes in spite of myself).

It’s easiest to think about those who were there in the biggest, most memorable moments, be they good or bad. For example, I remember being deeply touched that Sarah’s father preached at our wedding. Now, I’ll be honest and admit that I was kind of distracted that day, so I don’t remember much about the details of his sermon… but the main thing I remember is that he was there, taking an active and loving part in this big moment of our life together. His intimate presence, more than the words he said, spoke volumes to Sarah and me on our wedding day.

I think the faith-inspiring power of presence becomes even more real in those moments of great crisis or tragedy. When my wife had to have emergency surgery in 2008, I will never forget my friend Fr. Ed Hunt, who brought me Chinese takeout and sat in the waiting room with me during Sarah’s procedure. I remember the sad privilege of sitting at a kitchen table with two close friends who had just lost their child.

The one question pastors and other caregivers get asked most often is, “What do you say to people in moments like that?” The answer is, “Very little.” Less is more, in fact. The faith-inspiring power comes, not from eloquent statements or Bible verses quoted from memory, but from a love that dares to come close enough to touch the place where it hurts. What I have heard from families in crisis, time and time again, is not “thank you for setting the record straight with your impeccable theology” but “thank you for being here.” And they usually say it right before they hug me.

This is the kind of faith Thomas is looking for when he says to his fellow disciples, “Unless I see the mark of the nails, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in the spear wound, I will not believe.”

He doesn’t need to hear a rational argument or a timely Bible verse. He needs to come close enough to his friend to touch the place where the pain is. He needs to experience for himself the reality that Christ is alive and present in this place where hurt and loss feel so overwhelming.

When we Christians proclaim our faith in the risen Christ: when we read the Scriptures, receive the Sacraments, and recite the Creeds, we are expressing our very deep, intimate, and personal experience of the presence of our Friend who comes closest to us where we hurt the most. We are trying to put into words our encounter with the mystery of a Love that is stronger than death.

This Mystery, this Love, this Friend comes close enough for us to touch the place where the pain is. With Thomas, we are invited to put our finger in the marks where the nails were and experience true faith, perhaps for the first time.

When Thomas exclaims, “My Sovereign and my God!” I imagine him collapsing into the arms of Jesus: falling, as it were, into the Love that will not let him go.

I want to invite you this morning to trust in that same Love yourself. Maybe you’ve come here today struggling with your own pain that threatens to overwhelm you, maybe you’re wrestling with doubts for one reason or another. I want you to know that you’re in good company here: we all come with unanswered questions, unresolved issues, and unhealed pain.

The good news is that none of these things is sufficient to keep the risen Christ at bay. In spite of closed windows and locked doors, in spite of closed minds and doubting hearts, Jesus was still able and willing to appear among the gathered disciples, breathing the Holy Spirit into them and speaking peace. The risen and living Christ is still among us today in the same way: inviting us to come close and touch the place where the pain is.

When I look around at the culture we live in, it seems to me that we live in an age of doubt. We are taught to question everything. Gone are the days when things like faith and church attendance could just be assumed as part of our culture.

Understandably, this new era of history makes a lot of people uncomfortable, people of faith especially. As a result, Christians of all theological stripes have undertaken the task of “defending the faith” from doubt: they’ve set out to show how the Christian faith is consistent with rational, scientific knowledge.

Following this approach, some have undertaken the task of showing that the Bible itself is a factually reliable document for historic and scientific purposes. They say, “If the Bible says the world is only six thousand years old, then it is. If the Bible says that Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea, then he did. If the Bible says that Joshua made the sun stand still in the sky for a whole day, then it happened.” Basically, their approach can be summed up like this: “If the Bible says it, then I believe it, and that settles it.”

On the other side of the theological spectrum, there are those who revise or reinterpret their understanding of the Bible to fit within a modern, scientific paradigm. This is exactly what Thomas Jefferson, one of the famous founders of the United States, did with his Bible. He was convinced that the laws of nature are absolute, therefore miraculous and supernatural occurrences cannot happen. He greatly admired Jesus as an ethical teacher, but didn’t like the parts about him walking on water or rising from the dead. So, Jefferson took to his New Testament with a pair of scissors and some glue. He cut out all the parts that seemed impossible to him, and kept the parts that made sense to his modern, scientific mind (mostly the teachings of Jesus). Jefferson’s Bible is a perfect example of this second approach to resolving the doubts of the modern age: “If we find something in the Bible we don’t like, we can just ignore it.”

Personally, I find both of these views to be equally problematic. On the one hand, if we subscribe to the first view (“If the Bible says it, then I believe it, and that settles it.”), then we run the risk of closing our minds to the ways that the Holy Spirit might be challenging us to learn and grow in new ways. We would have what Michael Dowd calls a “flat-earth” view of both science and theology. Sooner or later, we would end up living like the Amish: closed off from the world in a strict and tiny bubble, resisting all change and “dangerous” outsiders. It’s easy to see why the world finds this approach unenlightened, unkind, and uninspiring.

On the other hand, if we subscribe to the second view (If we find something in the Bible we don’t like, we can just ignore it.”), then we run the risk of closing our hearts to the deep mystery that connects us in ways that our eyes cannot see and scientific instruments cannot measure. The stories that shape us become little more than ancient mythology and Jesus Christ is our imaginary friend. The rest of the world might find this version of Christianity more palatable, but it also seems pretty insubstantial. Why would anyone bother to get up early on a weekend and go someplace to talk about something they didn’t really believe was true?

The approach to doubt that I am most interested in is the one we can take from Thomas’ experience with the risen Christ in today’s gospel reading. Rather than focusing on rational or biblical arguments to dispel doubts and “defend the faith,” let’s come close enough to touch the place where it hurts.

On a global scale, I think of organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), which helps communities in their long-term recovery from natural disasters. Did you know that PDA still has teams in New Orleans, helping that city to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina? I also think of International Justice Mission (IJM), which works to liberate people from slavery and human trafficking. These organizations (and many others like them) are “touching the place where it hurts” on an international level. These ministries, more than any rational or biblical arguments we can think up, serve to inspire people toward a deep, life-changing faith in Christ.

On a personal level, I think about the people around us in our community who live with a great deal of pain and doubt in these uncertain times. Do they really need to hear one more argumentative Christian waving a Bible in their face? Or do they need someone to walk with them, to listen to their struggles, to affirm their hopes, to come close enough to touch the place where it hurts? This, I think, has the power to inspire real faith in people: a deep, life-changing encounter with the mystery of the risen Christ, living in us and working through our compassion to change the world.

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