DOUBTING AN EXECUTED MESSIAH
I am glad we have the story of Thomas in John's Gospel. It lets us know that there is room for doubters in the church. Thomas sets a good example for all of us who experience doubt. Be honest about your doubt. At times of doubt, we can say with Thomas: "Unless I see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25b). That's honest, plain-spoken doubt, and for Thomas, as it has been for many of us, it was the beginning of faith. We can never truly have faith until we come to grips with our doubts.
There's one small problem, though. We might want to first ask exactly what it is that Thomas doubted. We modern folks may doubt scientific feasibility of anyone being raised from the dead, and so we just assume that Thomas doubted that Jesus could be raised from the dead.
But, actually, there is a big problem with this assumption. What is the last story in John's Gospel before we move into the Holy Week events? Do you remember? It's the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11). Do you see the problem? If Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead only days before these events of Easter evening, then why was it so hard for Thomas to believe that God could raise Jesus from the dead? No, Thomas certainly had his doubts, but I don't think they had anything to do with the possibility of resurrection itself. I want to suggest to you that what Thomas doubted involved who was being raised from the dead. They had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ of God, but didn't his getting executed raise serious doubts about that? God certainly has the power to raise Jesus from the dead, but why would God do that? Thomas wanted to see Jesus' hands and feet and side. He wanted to see Jesus' marks of execution. Why? Not because he doubted God's ability to raise someone from the dead. No, Thomas doubted who it was that God would choose to raise. He doubted that God would raise some loser who had been executed in such shame and misery. Yes, they had believed that perhaps this Jesus was Messiah. But not now. God would never let the Messiah simply be executed by their Roman overlords like that. The Messiah was supposed to come to free them from the Romans, not to lose out like that, being executed by them. How could a crucified person be the Messiah? Thomas may have believed the week before, but now he had grave doubts. Why would God vindicate one who had seemingly lost out to the powers of this world by raising him? He would need to see the marks of execution to believe it.
Let's bring Thomas' doubt up-to-date. There was a demonstration outside a prison here in the U.S. in recent years. A man was about to be executed and Christians were outside demonstrating, representing both sides of the issue. One anti-death penalty demonstrator was holding a sign that said, "Jesus was executed." But a church-goer who was demonstrating in favor of the execution took issue with him, saying, 'Jesus' death wasn't really an execution because it was the will of God fore-ordained from before creation for our salvation, etc.'
This second man's answer represents for me a major problem with much of what passes as Christian theology. He has a theology of cosmic salvation that saves everyone from hell. On the surface, the Gospel story may look like it's a story about an execution. But, according to this view, that's just the surface. There's a much bigger, cosmic story behind it. What really happened was Jesus taking everyone's punishment from sin so that everyone who believes in him can be saved from the ultimate punishment of eternal damnation in hell.
For my money, this very common-place Christian theology is missing the whole point of Jesus' execution and resurrection. Thomas didn't yet have such a nifty theology of cosmic salvation which could erase his doubts about Jesus' Messiahship. He was still trapped in his old ideas about the Messiah which wouldn't allow him to believe in an executed Messiah, so he doubted.
But our common-place, modern way out of the dilemma isn't the answer, either. We can't erase those marks of execution in Jesus' hands and feet and side quite so easily. No, I want to suggest to you a very different way of believing in this executed Messiah, one that takes the marks of his execution seriously. Yes, there is a bigger, more cosmic story behind the one of Jesus dying on the cross outside of Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but, no, it's not about Jesus dying to save us from God's violence, from God's eternal punishment of hell. No, a theology which takes the facts of Jesus' execution seriously sees that Jesus died to save us from our violence. That's why he had to die precisely at the hands of our violence. As he told his disciples, he had to give himself over into the hands of violent humanity so that God could raise him on the third day, proving that the power of our violence will never win ultimately out over the power of God's loving gift of life.
When Thomas bows before Jesus, crying out "My Lord and my God," he is having to relinquish all his prior thoughts about God. If the executed Messiah standing before him is truly his Lord, then he must begin to understand the Messiah differently. The Messiah comes not with some sort of superior divine firepower. In other words, he doesn't come with a violence to vanquish our human violence. No, that would be giving in to our ways of violence. Thomas, in bowing before this risen executed One, is on the road to a new understanding of Messiah: that the Messiah comes not to execute a greater divine violence, but instead to suffer our worst violence with faith in God's superior power of life.
Faith, then, means letting Jesus remove all our ideas about God doing violence to instead believe in God doing life. God doesn't kill; we do. God doesn't punish; we do. In the cross and resurrection, our seemingly endless capacity to hurt each other and kill each other is met with God's truly endless capacity to forgive and to give life. Faith is not about believing in Jesus so that God won't punish us or kill us. Faith is about believing in God's power of life and forgiveness. In short, it is having the faith that empowered Jesus to give himself over to our violence. Faith is following our Lord who will suffer violence before he inflicts it. Faith means believing in God's power of life, even in the face of our powers of death. Isn't this, in fact, much harder for us to believe than to believe that the God who created all life could give life to the dead Jesus?
Yes, Thomas' doubts can represent our doubts, after all. Are we ready to give up our doubts in an executed but risen Messiah? Are we ready to believe in a God who is all about life and never about death? Jesus comes to us again right now to show us his body broken for us, his blood poured out for us. Jesus comes into our ordered, locked-down-tight worlds and says, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, April 18, 2004