If I had a nickel for every time I said something I couldn’t live up to, I’d have a lot of nickels. It happens a lot at faculty meetings, sometimes in the classroom, and not infrequently from the pulpit. Actually I speak rashly a lot, wherever I am.
Maybe that’s why I feel a particular sense of sympathy for Thomas in John’s Gospel. Sure, he was a bit vehement (“I won’t believe until I put my hands in his sides!) but his reaction to the news of Jesus’s resurrection is really just one of those things that people say. Hyperbole, we call it, when you exaggerate without intending to be literal about it. The Gospels are actually full of hyperbole. Matthew the Evangelist is possibly the champion hyperbolist—If your eye offends you, cut it out! If your arm offends you, cut it off!—but even here in John’s Gospel there are examples of hyperbole. The woman at the well in John’s fourth chapter is eager to testify to Jesus’s wisdom: “He told me everything I had ever done!” she says to her friends. That’s hyperbole. Jesus surely didn’t talk to her about everything she had ever done, he just noted that she had had five husbands. That’s not everything, though we can agree it’s a lot. “All men come to him” say the disciples of Jesus in John 3:26. That’s hyperbole. Lots of people came to Jesus but famously not everyone. John 12: “Behold, the world came after him.” Hyperbole again.
If you’re wondering whether I’ve recently gotten hold of a handbook of figures of speech in the Bible, the answer is yes, I have (E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible)
Let’s keep going. Here are the final sentences of John’s entire Gospel: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” It’s a funny thing about hyperbole. It’s not hard to tell that there is exaggeration creeping in. The language is usually, obviously, false. It points to something extraordinary—the deeds of Jesus that surpass our imagining—but the language itself falls flat. “The whole world wouldn’t be big enough to hold the books.” It’s strangely childlike and obvious. Almost boastful.
But here’s my point: the scriptures are full of hyperbole and other exaggerated forms of speech, so it’s strange that Jesus takes Thomas literally when he says he wants to stick his fingers in the resurrected messiah’s wounds. Who would take that literally? In fact, the text never tells us that Thomas himself took it literally, that he actually put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus. The invitation is apparently enough to overwhelm the poor disciple. So why does Jesus get so literal here? Why even make the offer? Wouldn’t it have been enough for the risen Lord just to show up?
It feels a bit like Thomas is being taken down a notch, doesn’t it? His rash speech, his big boast about not being gullible, his childish declaration of superiority, it all suddenly becomes an unimaginable encounter with Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead. It’s as though, after the resurrection, the little boasts and figures of speech we use start to wear thin, as the Word of God himself exceeds anything we can imagine or say about him. It’s as though, after the resurrection, all speaking about God is a kind of childish boasting. Big tough skeptics, we are, with our doubts and our need for signs.
But there is another way to think about Thomas’s seemingly-empty speech here. We could think about the Word of God, and how the Word of God is a figure of interest in John’s Gospel, right from the beginning. You remember: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Is it too much to imagine that the word of Thomas here is being made flesh in the person of Jesus?
It sounds odd or even blasphemous, but really this is something we live with all the time as Christians. “The Lord be with you,” we say, or “God bless you,” and sure enough the Lord is with us, and God does bless us. No, we don’t usually have the kind of physical encounter that Thomas does, but we do have the presence and blessing of God, reliably. We may speak these words without much thought sometimes but our thoughtlessness does not mean that God’s response is constrained. If Thomas’s experience is any indicator, we should live our lives expectantly, waiting for the moments in which our risen savior fulfills our half-serious language of faith. It could happen at any moment that we discover that the words we have spoken without strong intention have been taken up and made real. And maybe, like Thomas, we would find that fulfillment as disconcerting as it is wonderful. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.
Surely when Thomas spoke so glibly about the wounds in the body of his Lord, he wasn’t picturing the intimacy and love and vulnerability of Jesus right there with him.
“The Body of Christ,” we say, as we distribute the consecrated bread from the altar. Most of us try to take that one as seriously as we can, but surely we too are underestimating the power of his presence. We in the Church speak the words that the Word himself has given us to say: “This is my body.” We break him in our own hands. And we do everything we can liturgically to mark the fullness of the language of our prayer. We genuflect and bow and cross ourselves. The incense rises. We kneel and receive. We allow reverence and tenderness and awe to fill us. “Amen,” we say, which is a way of repeating what Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.”
But even so, even though we strain to speak our words of faith as fully as possible, we know that we have spoken only the merest fraction of the truth. We know that Jesus waits to fulfill his promise of presence within us, and that our lives as disciples are subject to the interruption of his visitation.
There is another key sentence in this morning’s Gospel that can sound like an offhand remark, but we would do well to take it as seriously as we can. Blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed. It sounds again like hyperbole. You think Thomas’s story is important? Just wait until you have a story of your own! But I tell you truly: Jesus himself will make those words fulfilled, by his presence here among us today and always. Jesus himself will be the guarantor of their veracity.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
The Second Sunday of Easter, 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia