Sunday Night Worship – 3/30/08

“Inviting Doubt”

John 20: 19-31

Seeing as how you are college students, you probably know this already, but it is hard to make a college student squirm uncomfortably. Y’all are used to graphic images and harsh language. You’re at home on the internet. The world you’ve grown up in and are maturing in is saturated with images, words, and social situations many people of my generation didn’t face until we were well into our 20s and 30s.

So I have to say I took a small amount of pride when I succeeded in making some of you squirm last year during our forum on doubt. If you were here you may remember that I had found several paintings on the internet depicting the so-called Doubting Thomas story and I printed them out to pass around during part of our forum discussion. Well, I could tell without looking where the Caravaggio was as it went around the room. All I had to do was listen for the “oooughs” and the “Oh! Disgustings!”

Caravaggio is the Italian painter from around 1600 who was known for his striking use of light and dark. His painting, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” is his most copied painting and it’s this one that made some of us squirm.

In the painting, the risen Jesus has pulled aside his gown to reveal the gash in his side. Thomas is bent over at the waist with his finger inserted into Jesus’ side up to the first knuckle. Thomas’ forehead is wrinkled up, a look of curiosity and concentration on his face, and his eyes about 6 inches from Jesus’ wound. Two other disciples are standing behind him, leaning in over Thomas’ bent frame, trying to get a better look.

It’s a startling picture. Detailed and almost gruesome. We hear in the scripture that Thomas wanted to put his fingers in Jesus’ wounds, but somehow most people don’t picture it this way. He’s got his hand shoved into Jesus’ body and he’s poking and pulling the skin aside!

The way Caravaggio paints it, there is no place to hide. All the light in the picture rests on Jesus’ white torso, so that your eyes are pulled to that hole and that finger, against your will, like gravity. You want to get a better look at those other disciples – Who is that there? Is it Peter in the back?—but you are helpless in the face of this masterpiece. The finger, the wound, and that moment draw your eye to them over and over.

To be honest, Caravaggio gets it wrong. At least so far as that very real finger-in-the-side part. In John’s gospel Thomas never actually touches Jesus. We forget that.

When Jesus comes back to the house a week after Easter, a week after appearing to the other disciples gathered there on Easter night, he comes right in, stands in their midst, and says, “Peace be with you.” And even though he wasn’t there when Thomas was talking with the others that week…even though Jesus wasn’t there when Thomas laid out his demands for belief in the risen Christ…Jesus turns immediately to Thomas and says Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. And, just like Mary Magdalene at the tomb last week when someone she thought was the gardener suddenly speaks her name, Thomas hears Jesus’ invitation and –without touching him — Thomas knows and believes who Jesus is. He proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

Just like that. Is that the way you remember it?

I didn’t. I have to confess that I was surprised when I re-read this story recently. I was surprised to read that Thomas never touches Jesus after all. I was surprised to see that Jesus simply meets unbelief and mistrust and skepticism with peace and a holy invitation – an offering of himself, of his body. But why should this be surprising? Isn’t this what Jesus always does?

So Caravaggio gets the touch wrong. As gripping as the scene is on canvas, it’s not exactly what transpired. In the gospel, as soon as he hears Jesus’ invitation, Thomas erupts in his brief and potent confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” What he thought he needed in order to believe is not what it took, after all.

But here’s where Caravaggio gets it right. I haven’t really described to you what Jesus looks like in the painting.  Bathed in light, he stands at the edge of the scene, right hand pulling his clothes aside to expose his wounded side. His head is cocked a little to the side and his gaze is downcast and gentle. You know the look a proud and affectionate parent has when watching a beloved child try something new? You know how such a parent looks pleased and protective and awed all at once? Caravaggio’s Jesus looks a little like this. His head is bent down above Thomas’ and he’s watching over Thomas lovingly. And here’s the best part: Jesus’ left hand is lightly gripping Thomas’ wrist, as if he’s encouraging and guiding Thomas in his exploration of the wound. As if Jesus has said Come on and touch all that you need to in order to see and believe, and then on top of it, takes Thomas’ hand and guides him to the sweet spot.

This, Caravaggio gets right. Brilliantly right. Jesus is not a begrudging participant in his interactions with Thomas. There is no exasperated sighing or rolling of the eyes. Jesus never calls him a Doubting Thomas. Jesus does not imply that if Thomas were a better apostle he would not need “hands on” proof. Jesus doesn’t come back a week after Easter, offering greetings of peace to everyone except Thomas. And he doesn’t put any conditions on what Thomas has said he needs in order to believe. Jesus does not even wait for Thomas to ask. Jesus simply offers Thomas what he is looking for, what he needs.

Even though the touch never happens in John’s gospel, we can believe Caravaggio’s moment because he shows us what John shows us: what kind of God this is – One who graciously offers himself up to our feeble misunderstanding and reckless fumbling. A God who doesn’t just stand in our midst while we struggle, but who takes our hands and guides us.

“Doubting Thomas” gets a bad rap for wanting exactly what the other disciples already received: an encounter with the risen Christ. Thomas unfairly gets the bad rap, but this we can say for him: he knows enough about Jesus to accept nothing less. What are you willing to accept? Knock and it will be answered; ask and you will receive.

Why in the world wouldn’t you ask for what you want from the Risen One on whose lips even the sounds of our very names sound like invitations?

The Risen Christ comes into the locked and shut off places, granting peace, breathing into us the breath of new life, attentive to what we need, and – if Caravaggio is to be believed – graciously guiding our trembling and searching hands. We believe; help our unbelief! Can you hear the invitation? Can you feel his hand on yours? There is no doubt about it.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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