Last week for Easter I mentioned that Mary Magdalene had “leveled up,” and that this week we would talk about the same thing happening with Jesus’s disciples.
And we will, but first I wanted to tell you about a conversation I had with Christine Killen. Christine is a member of our community who serves on our steering committee. One of the things I appreciate most about Christine is that she asks clear and concise questions and makes clear and concise statements. As we talked, one of the things she said changed her faith was that she “needed love with skin on it.”
I missed the next few words because my mind was blown by the beauty and honesty of that statement.
I needed love with skin on it.
It’s not just about getting past a faith that’s bloodless and digging into one that has real substance. It’s about making something abstract into something particular. Something not just with weight and sinews but with moles and freckles, with quirky mannerisms, with a smell all its own. Love with skin on it.
This is what the disciples lost in the crucifixion. Oh sure, Jesus told them he would love them to the end. But that’s not what we mourn when we mourn someone who has died. We don’t mourn their abstract love. We mourn their physical body. We are forced into a solitude we did not choose. This is why we get so angry at platitudes when we’re grieving: “Everything happens for a reason.” “He’s in heaven now.” “He wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Whether you believe those things or not, they tear up the particularities of grief and try to re-assemble them into something universal, and that just reminds us ever more of what we’ve lost, because it’s the particularities we miss the most.
Thomas isn’t with the disciples when they first see Jesus, who despite passing through locked doors is clearly still solid. He invites them to explore his solidity, showing them his hands and his side. They rejoice when they see it. The invisible holes within them he is filling up again, even as he returns with holes and scars himself.
But there’s an added beauty to this which I don’t know that the disciples quite understand as yet – not until Thomas, who I argue is the hero of this story, points it out.
It's not just that Jesus returns to them in that solid form which heals the hurt of his absence. The scars are also a sign of his complete forgiveness. He has not erased the horror left by his death. He can’t because this is the only way the disciples can truly be forgiven for their betrayal. Forgiveness comes when we bear witness to the harm we have caused. The disciples are confronted with it, and yet Jesus sends them peace.
But Thomas isn’t there. We don’t know why. Sometimes I wonder if he was doing his best to just get on with life, or maybe it was too painful to be with his friends, particularly since Thomas was a deeply devoted disciple before, stirring up the disciples to return to Bethany for Lazarus even if it meant death, and asking for details on how they could know the way Jesus was going. Maybe he was angry with his friends for betraying the one he loved. And yet here they come claiming Jesus has returned offering total forgiveness.
Of course Thomas wanted to see the wounds. He wants to know that his friend isn’t offering cheap grace. Under the old order of death, Jesus would come in a brand-new sparkly body with no scars, no signs of what had happened to him under the brutal hammer of the state. He might have looked like a totally different person or creature – an angel or some idealized Adonis. Heck, maybe he wouldn’t have been embodied at all; just a voice or a light. All sunshine and rainbows, no change.
No acknowledgement of the love the disciples had had for that particular body, that particular voice, that particular physical presence. No sign of what had happened on the Cross, nothing that allows those who harmed to understand the depth of the harm they had caused and thereby facilitate true forgiveness.
Thomas says, “Nope. I need love with skin on it. If I can’t put my hands into the scars, I won’t believe. A ghost, an abstraction, a philosophical concept can’t save us. Only embodied love can save us.”
That’s mind-blowing enough, but guess what? There’s yet another layer here, a layer we don’t talk about enough in Church, a layer of true incarnation that makes Thomas more than a hero – that makes him a prophet. And that’s the layer that theologian Nancy Eiesland shares with us.
Nancy Eiesland was a professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Born with a congenital bone defect, she was angry with the way her Church demeaned her experiences by patronizing her, assuming she had hidden sins which led to her disability, or saying suffering made her virtuous in the eyes of God, or that she would be whole in heaven. And yet in the disability activism spaces where she also moved, the people around her rejected the Church for these wholly understandable reasons. In a sense, they continued to impose a solitude on her as a Christian, replicating the forced individualism society continues to place on disabled people. Nancy wanted a God who understood her, and after a lot of work talking with other disabled folks, she found that God. In her beautiful book The Disabled God, she writes,
“The foundation of Christian theology is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment. The resurrected Christ of Christian tradition is a disabled God. This disabled God…called for justice not from the distant reaches of principle but by virtue of God’s incarnation and ultimate knowledge of human contingency. …If Christ resurrected still participated fully in the experience of human life – including mysteriously the experience of impairment, we must be scandalized by our theological tendencies to perpetuate the myth of bodily perfection in our defense of heavenly (or, indeed, earthly) perfection. The disabled God nails the lie in our belief in a paradise in which we are “released” from the truth of worldly and bodily existence. That which God has called good, and in which God has participated through the incarnation, cannot be simply viewed as a temporary “evil” which we repudiate in order to participate in the promised fullness of life.”
Talk about love with skin on it.
Despite how others try to domesticate this story and use “Doubting Thomas” as a slur, Thomas, in a profound and prophetic act of questioning, shows not just how far forgiveness goes, but how far the incarnation goes. He asks Jesus, “Is everything, every morsel and facet of the human experience, really redeemed and made holy in the resurrection?”
And what is Jesus’s answer?
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Don’t doubt forgiveness. Don’t doubt my incarnation. Don’t doubt that I am here, all of me, and because I am, you are here too, caught up in my net of new life.
All of you. Every possible way you could be in the world, I put on like a royal garment. I am love with skin on it.
Of course Thomas responds with “My Lord and my God!” We don’t even know if he does put his hands into the marks, because he doesn’t need to.
And even now it’s not the end of things, for then we hear: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Blessed are we who have not seen the marks with our own eyes, and yet have come to believe that no part of our identity is rejected.
Blessed indeed am I when I look out at you and see the Body of Christ. Disabled and able-bodied. Black, brown, and white. Queer and hetero. Trans and cisgender. Child and adult. Poor and wealthy. Mortal and eternal.