Coming to Our Senses with St. Thomas

I’ve always loved St. Thomas. For years, when I’ve thought of Thomas, I’ve imagined him as someone who is honest with his doubt, who takes his doubt directly before God, and gets an answer. In his boldness to ask for what he wants, he reminds me of some of the great Old Testament characters—like Moses, or Sarah, or Jeremiah—those strong characters who at some point question God, doubt God, but stay around long enough to get an answer.

I can’t hear today’s Gospel story about Thomas without thinking about that painting of Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of Thomas.” I’ve never seen the original, now in Berlin, but I’ve seen plenty of reproductions in books, and I bet you have, too. The painting gives one a sense of being right there. Light comes from above, giving warmth and helping focus the attention. The fabric of Jesus’ clothing looks soft, like bedclothes. Thomas is shown as a man of action, so preoccupied with what he can believe or not believe that he has no time to notice the rip on his sleeve. While Caravaggio’s painting heightens the senses of the viewer, calling us to look closer, to peer more deeply, it focuses, of course, on the great sense Jesus uses to meet Thomas: the sense of touch.

Thomas refuses to believe the testimony of the other disciples and wants proof that Jesus has risen. He wants evidence. He says to his friends, your word will not do. Your experience will not do. I’m not going to believe you. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But as we hear in today’s Gospel, not only does Jesus rise from the dead, but he also rises to the specific challenge of Thomas. He appears to him, and as if to turn Thomas’s questions back on himself, Jesus shows him the wounds, where the nails were, where the spear went in. Jesus offers Thomas the chance to touch, to see, and to believe.

There are many blessings in the Gospel for this morning: The blessing to the disciples when Jesus appears and the blessing when he breathes on them and they receive the Holy Spirit. There is the blessing of forgiveness—the power to give and received forgiveness that is entrusted to the disciples and is handed down to all of us. There is the blessing when Jesus appears to Thomas and invites him to link the wounds of Christ with the resurrected life of Christ.

But all of these blessings seem to build in the Gospel until the very end, when Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Blessed are those who come to God in spite of their senses, and through their senses. Thomas got to see, but as Jesus suggests, we come to believe even without seeing.

We have our hearing, for one thing. Every Sunday we process the Gospel into the midst of the assembly. The Gospel is honored—it is incensed, music is sung around it, and unless it’s Lent, there’s a special “alleluia” to acclaim it. The first letter of the text is kissed by the gospel reader. All of this dramatizes our belief that it is the Living Word of God that is proclaimed in our midst. It happens. Christ is alive here, through the reading and the hearing of the Word. The Word made Flesh, when it is proclaimed and heard by others, becomes the Word made flesh in each of us. Our hearing the commands of God, the stories of God’s loving purpose in salvation, the intricate ways of God’s movement and love—everything we hear becomes a part of us. It informs us and builds us for faithful living. What we hear is processed by our brain and our heart and it goes into what becomes our faith. And so, from what we hear there is reason to believe.

We have our touch. When Jesus appears to Thomas he offers him the opportunity to touch. But the Gospel doesn’t say whether Thomas took Jesus up on the challenge or not. Caravaggio’s painting goes a step further than the Gospel and shows Thomas actually probing the wound of Jesus, his finger digging into the wound made by the soldier’s sword. We don’t have the wounds of Christ to touch. Or don’t we?

Jesus has told us that to touch others in his name is just as good, just as holy, just as life-giving and in some sense, even more sacramental. The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger; the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—they are all among us to reach, to include, to touch. Jesus says, “As you do to one of the least of these my brethren, you do it to me.” There are parishioners among you who teach those in schools and after-school programs, who equip those who are homeless, who feed the hungry, who support the mentally ill, who care for the sick—ask them and you’ll hear how because of who they touch, their faith has been strengthened. From how we touch, from whom we touch, we have reason to believe.

In addition to possibly seeing or hearing, we also have our taste. In many cultures there’s the custom of a get-together before someone goes away. There is the farewell party, the goodbye meal, or the despedida. Maundy Thursday remembers this meal with the Last Supper and its proximity with the Passover meal. But soon we see this is no despedida, the last supper becomes the first supper, really. No goodbye meal, but a meal lives on as table is added to table, more food is made and the welcome is extended. It’s a meal that continues to recall, to remember, to be communion for us.

Taste is a funny thing. The same food can taste different depending on the circumstances of our eating. In times of anguish or worry, good food can seem tasteless or bitter, while in happy times, everything seems especially savory. Together, in communion, we rely on each other to support us at the table, to remind us that the good taste will return, to remind us that while “weeping may spend the night, joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30)

St. Augustine reflects on God’s use of the senses, when he writes

You called, you shouted, you broke open my deafness. You blazed, you gleamed, you banished my blindness. You lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I long for you. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and now I burn with desire for your peace. (Confessions, X, 27, 38)

We hear God, we touch God, we taste God. But our perceptions can only take us so far, really. When Jesus appears to Thomas, answering his prayer for sight and touch, more than answering Thomas’s prayer, Jesus overwhelms and silences it. There is that place for all of us beyond what we can sense or know—that place beyond perception. That place where we have no idea what will come next, no sense of where to turn or how to proceed. Thomas is there for a moment, some of us will be in that place for a longer time.

Whether that place is known as a “dark night of the soul,” a desert, or simply the place of surrender and helplessness, it is a place beyond the senses, but not beyond God. It is a place where, with Augustine, desire leads to desire, Christ rises again in us and we say, “My Lord and my God!”

In this rich season of blessings, May God call us to our senses and beyond, that we might know Jesus Christ’s rising and share it with the world. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Easter are Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, and John 20:19-31.

My thinking for this sermon was influenced by the wonderful little book by Canon Martin Warner, Known to the Senses (Morehouse-Continuum, 2004).

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