We commonly seek a connection to the story. I’m currently reading The Lord of the Rings to my girls. The story in The Lord of the Rings is foreign to us. It involves fairy creatures in a world with a deep history and forces at work barely hinted at in the text. While dedicated Tolkien fanatics delve into this deep history (and even I find it fun to wade in it a little) the story is simply beyond most of us (and arguably beyond any of us). Tolkien draws us into the story, indeed makes the events into a story, through the hobbits: Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry. These act more like you and I than any of the humans do, despite their not being human, and their wonder at what they see gives us permission to wonder at it ourselves.
Similarly, we seek a connection to our Christian story of the Incarnation. It involves the creator of the universe being a creature and is set in the entire cosmos. How do we approach this story? Today we approach through Thomas. Thomas is St. John’s Hobbit, at least in this scene. Thomas is the literary device that allows us to enter the story, that gives us permission to wonder at it. For, Thomas asks what any of us would ask: to see and touch the Jesus his friends swear appeared to them. He is each of us demanding further proof. Indeed, there is little difference between Thomas on the Eighth Day and the frightened apostles on Easter Sunday, or between Thomas not accepting the Jesus is risen and Mary Magdalene being surprised by Jesus in the garden. Nor is Thomas terribly unlike those who doubt Jesus throughout the story, or those who upon seeing a sign request another just to confirm, or those who hear Jesus identify God with humanity and ask him to say plainly what he means as if he has not just done so. Thomas, here, is St. John’s Hobbit, acting just like we would: requesting yet again proof of incarnation, when he should already know all about it.
Incarnation has been the whole point of Jesus’ public life in John. Not to make light of the cross, but in John it simply does not contain the horror and disgust that it does in Paul’s letters or the other gospels. The scandal in John is not the cross; the scandal in John is the Incarnation. We don’t have time or room in John to be upset about the crucifixion because we’re overwhelmed that God is a human and a human is God. As a disciple, one of the Twelve, Thomas should know this. He should know that Jesus makes the radical claim to be God in the flesh, and even more radically demands that his followers treat each other as God in the flesh. That whole “I’m God washing your feet now go wash other feet” bit on Maundy Thursday, that whole “even as I have loved you, love one another” spiel? Jesus meant that. He wasn’t just making light dinner conversation. If Thomas hasn’t gotten it by now, I have to wonder if further visual proof would matter to him. His own words seem to say not. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and jam my fingers in there, and thrust my hand in his side and root around a bit, I will not believe.” He doesn’t say that if he does these things he will believe, just that without them he won’t. He reserves the right to continue refusing to believe.
So do we. Oh, Thomas is the perfect hobbit. In this big story he acts just like we would. We’ve all watched this week as seeing has not led to believing. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was charged with battery by police in Jupiter, FL. The incident took place at a campaign rally on March 8 when Lewandowski forcefully pulled aside reporter Michelle Fields, who was walking alongside Trump trying to ask him a question. Fields was able to provide pictures of the bruises she sustained, a rival reporter nearby corroborated her story, and finally this week the police released surveillance footage that confirmed her version of events. Both Trump and Lewandowski have taken to social media, Lewandowski calling Fields “totally delusional,” and denying he’s ever been near her, and Trump saying Lewandowski is having his life ruined unfairly. Many Trump supporters have weighed in online as well. (If you ever doubt the existence of Sin, read the Comments section on any website.) While many supporters have stated that they think Fields deserved to be battered (alarming enough), many more have joined candidate Trump in saying nothing happened, or, even more ridiculously, that Fields was assaulting Trump. Regardless of who you’re voting for (or against) in this election, you should be able to see and believe. And many don’t. Why would a full resurrection appearance matter to Thomas? He could just say it didn’t happen, or ask why his fellow disciples would make up such a story, or claim Mary and Peter are totally delusional.
Yet Thomas is made to perceive. Jesus forgives him, and in doing so makes it possible for Thomas and Jesus to engage one another as humans. Lutheran talk about forgiveness usually gets wrapped up in the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and sometimes it is hard for us to see more. Lutheranism was born in the late Middle Ages, when you could only get back into the Church’s sacramental economy if your sins were forgiven; Luther declared that God forgave them independently of your will or work. This mattered a great deal to medieval Christian. I don’t mention this so that I can complain about it or decree it an outdated historical curiosity; rather, I mention it so that I can say “This probably is not what Jesus had in mind when he appeared in the house where the disciples met and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” If we want to understand what our creator meant when he said “Peace be with you” instead of something else, maybe we can turn again to St. John’s Hobbit, Thomas.
Jesus forgives Thomas, and gives Thomas the same gift of forgiveness as the other disciples. But what has Thomas done? If we look closely at John, we see that when Jesus is going to Jerusalem despite death threats Thomas encourages the disciples to go with him. That can’t be it. Peter, not Thomas, denies Jesus, and John really doesn’t dwell on abandonment—heck, it seems at least some disciples are present at the crucifixion! The only other thing Thomas has done in John so far occurred the night before, when Jesus says he is going to the father but the disciples know the way, and Thomas says, “You’ve never told us the way” despite the fact that Jesus has said all along that he is. Thomas’ sin is precisely his failure to believe in the Incarnation. Jesus forgives this, not with the formulas we’ve come to expect from two millennia of worship, but in that he offers Peace. He doesn’t say, “Must crush disciples!” or “Let’s go down to Pilate’s house and smash the place!” He says, “Peace be with you.” He bears the marks of our repeated refusal to believe that God is in our neighbor. He even invites Thomas to poke around in them and feel. And he doesn’t dwell on it or hold it against Thomas but urges him again to believe what he has said so many times before. Forgiven, Thomas gets it. Forgiven, Thomas sees God in the body of his friend.
Thomas is St. John’s Hobbit, our route into the story. Thomas calls us to seek forgiveness and opportunities to forgive, so that we may see God in each other. It may be too much to ask us to think of how to open us to each other’s humanity on a national scale. I don’t think it is reasonable for me to expect those of us gathered here to approach our five remaining presidential candidates, their campaign teams, and the directors of all major media outlets, forgive them their sins, and try to get them to see each other’s humanity. At least not right now. Let’s scale it down to Valpo.
Our city is in the process of evaluating a proposed Human Rights Ordinance. A draft of it was unveiled in Holy Week and a rewrite is due to be presented and discussed this Tuesday at 5:30 pm at City Hall. The folks who’ve written this have put a lot of hard work into it and produced something that has the potential to be great. They’ve thought through what sort of exemptions there might need to be. For example, the Fraternal Order of Police cannot be sued for discrimination for refusing to allow non-police into its ranks, or the Pines cannot be sued for refusing to allow the Leitzkes to move there when none of us are close to 55. But it’s got this clause, Section 4(a)(9), that allows small businesses that provide personal services to refuse to provide them if they can claim a religious objection. And this is one of those that while it is vague we’re pretty sure we know what we’re talking about, right? Do I have to bake a cake for a gay wedding? Never mind that as it is written I could claim that my religion forbids cutting blond hair or selling flowers to women with green eyes.
I cannot speak for all religions, but I think I’m in a good position to speak as a Christian. And while some Christians locally have spoken in favor of having this exemption, I was asked if I could offer my feedback, and I’ll tell you what I said. I am called to see Jesus in everyone I encounter, regardless of that person’s color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. Whatever my vocation, I am called to do it as best I can and to love my neighbor, as though she were God, in doing it. I have no Christian grounds for deciding that God is not in a particular person. Christians wishing to be Christian in their vocations can practice Christianity by not discriminating against their clients, employees, and coworkers.