This is the sermon I preached today at Holy Trinity Roehampton. The text for today was John 20:24-29 (Jesus and Thomas), often referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas‘.
I am sure that all of you here today are completely addicted to superhero movies. No doubt, you are all familiar with the most recent cinematic outings of Superman, Wonderwoman and Spiderman. You know your Captain America from your Thor; your bedrooms are full of Hulk posters; and you are on the edge of your pews in anticipation of the latest Avengers’ film. Well, perhaps not!
Whatever our views, though, it is clear that superhero movies are, once more, all the vogue. Every few months, a new film is released, detailing the exploits of the latest creation from DC Comics or Marvel. These are accompanied by endless comic books, action figures, duvet covers and other merchandising opportunities. And they are all incredibly popular. I, for one, know that, if I wish to have an extended conversation with my godsons, I must have at least a passing knowledge of some of these characters.
For some children, though, we know that this passion for such superheroes goes beyond a mere passing interest. Many commentators have observed that for certain children – and perhaps more than we might think – these characters speak to a deeper psychological need. They provide a beacon of hope in a constantly changing and potentially dangerous world. For children who see their mothers being abused, for example, or who are themselves being bullied at school, it is understandable that some of these characters’ stories would speak deeply to theirs. The sudden acquisition of enormous strength or super powers, like Peter Parker in Spiderman, would be a dream come true for many children, who long to be vindicated and see their own tormentors – and the tormentors of the ones they love – receive their just desserts. No need for a trial, or for the slow process of human justice. Just a quick punch up in a back alley, and ‘Pow!’ – everyone gets what they truly deserve.
Unfortunately, many Christian organisations that work with children and young people discover that they hold similar beliefs about Jesus. To some extent, we in the mainstream church are responsible for that through the way we often talk about Christ. ‘Jesus’ is the answer to all questions; he can perform any miracle; he can triumph over any foe, even the arch-nemesis himself, Satan. As the popular children’s song goes: “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that he cannot do.”
This is especially true in the story of the resurrection perhaps. Indeed, the Easter story could, arguably, be an episode straight out of a comic book, in many respects. The misunderstood hero is hated by those he came to serve; his true identity is hidden from even his closest friends and family; and the bad guys have their moment of triumph, when it looks like our hero is down and out for good, unable to use his powers. The cross is his kryptonite. Yet, just when everything looks bad, and it seems that evil has indeed triumphed, the Man of Steel rolls away his own tomb stone and confounds his enemies.
Traditional depictions of the Resurrection in Christian art arguably aid this interpretation of events. Jesus is usually portrayed as literally bursting out of his tomb, with the previously smirking guards now quivering in fear at his feet, and his grave clothes artistically fluttering in the breeze behind him, much like Superman’s cape. He is ‘Super Jesus’: faster than a speeding bullet; more powerful than a locomotive; able to escape even the most gruesome of deaths in a single bound!
Today’s reading from John’s gospel, though, puts the lie to that interpretation of Jesus and his death and resurrection. While the traditional focus of the passage is poor Thomas and his – arguably understandable – doubts, for me the crucial part of this passage is what Jesus tells us about himself:
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (John 20:27)
Jesus does not emerge from the experience of Easter unscathed. He is explicitly unlike the superheroes of our comic books and films, because he still bares the scars of his torture and execution. Bullets, or nails in this case, do not bounce off his skin, like Superman’s. His wounds do not miraculously heal themselves, like one of the X-Men. Even after his glorious resurrection, and his triumph over the grave, he is still able to say to Thomas, and the other disciples, ‘Look upon my scars.’.
Jesus, as one commentator has observed, is not an ‘Etch a Sketch’ Messiah. His wounds do not disappear but will remain with him, for the rest of his earthly life. And not only the physical scars, but the mental and emotional ones too: the experience of betrayal, loneliness and despair in the days and hours leading up to his crucifixion. They do not vanish overnight, either.
That is what is so important about this story of Thomas for me, and speaks deeply to my own experience. On several occasions, and one in particular, I, as a minister, have been called upon to lead my congregations in Easter praise and joyful celebration. To sing the inspiring, upbeat hymns and to deliver a positive, smiling sermon, to a church full of families and daffodils. Yet, in all honesty my heart has still been in the tomb. I have still been contemplating my own sadness and worries; and I have known that many members of my congregation are there too. The rolling over of the calendar from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday has not changed their lives. It has not taken away their grief, their pain, their anger. They have still been in the Garden of Gethsemane, weeping with Christ, or on the cross of pain, writhing in agony.
The reality is that, even in the face of Easter joy and the good news of death overcome, we still bear the scars of life on our bodies, in our hearts and in our minds. And that is what makes Jesus our true superhero. Because he bears them too. He cannot simply brush aside the crown of thorns and nails; he cannot forget what his best friends did to him on that night, he still bears those wounds now. Yet because of what God did through his supreme sacrifice, he gives all of us the courage to believe that these scars are not the end of the story. That pain, and terror, and loss shall not have the final word. He is not like a false friend telling us to ‘buck up’ or ‘pull yourself together’ – ‘everything’s fine now!’. He is our closet companion, telling us, ‘Yes. I know what it is to hurt, and to suffer, and to fear death. I know the absolute reality of grief, anguish and loss. We can sit down and show one another our scars. But when you are in a place to hear it, I have good news for you: those wounds are not the end of our story.’ Truly, the prophet Isaiah was right when he said: “by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). For it is through the scars of Christ, borne for Thomas and for us all, that we know the true love of God. Not a false superhero, impervious to pain and want, but a true Saviour and friend, who shows us how to live the best life we possibly can, and who waits to welcome us all into eternity. Alleluia. Amen.