By His Wounds We Are Healed

The story of “doubting Thomas”1 is a memorable mythic narrative that images our spiritual lives in a powerful and even surprising way.

According to John the evangelist, late in the day of his resurrection Jesus appears to some disciples who have gathered together. He shows them the wounds in his hands and side, and so they recognize him: “then the disciples were made joyful when they perceived the Lord.”2

Their need for a sign to connect the apparition with the Jesus they’d known reminds me of Luke’s story of disciples who walk and speak with the risen Christ on the Emmaus road but fail to recognize him until he breaks bread as Jesus had done. I’m reminded, too, that, according to John, Christ had earlier appeared to Mary Magdalene, who also talked with him but “perceived not that it is Jesus” until he called her by name.3 The cosmic Christ, while not simply identical with him, is recognized by a manifest continuity with the Jesus of history.4 That’s an important message for us today. But there’s more to come.

Having been recognized as Jesus, Christ gives peace to the disciples, extends to them the commission he had himself received from the Father, and breathes the Spirit of God into them. The obvious parallel is to God’s breathing of life into the newly-created human race in the Genesis creation story:5 by breathing his spiritual life into them, we may understand, Jesus the Christ re-creates the disciples in the image of God, which is himself.6 Receiving the Spirit of holiness, they are reborn in Christ, as innocent now as the newly-created Adam. (As a result, they bear the responsibility of judging the morality of the world.7) Jesus then departs.

One of their number, “Thomas, called Didymus,”8 is absent during that time. When he returns later, the others excitedly tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” Presumably, they tell him that they recognized Christ when shown the wounds. But Thomas cannot believe them. He replies, in effect, that “Unless I can put my finger in the place of the nail in his hand, and unless I can push my own hand into the wound in his side, I can’t believe this story.”

About a week later, when Thomas is with the group, Jesus appears among them again. After again imparting peace, he shows his wounds to Thomas and invites him to touch them.

“Bring here your finger and touch my hands; bring here your hand and thrust it into my side, and be not faithless, but faithful.” And Thomas says to him, “My Lord and my God!”9

As had the others, Thomas recognizes Christ — and his divine character — by the wounds.

The evangelist next has Christ draw the lesson that we should have faith (or be faithful) even when we cannot have direct experience of him. That’s an interesting conclusion, but I don’t want to follow the author there today; I want to ponder the astonishing teaching that the risen Christ bears open wounds.

It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written [Gen. 2:7; see note 5, below], “The first human Adam became a living soul”; the final Adam [i.e., Christ] is life-giving spirit.10

The body which the disciples encounter is, then, a manifestation of the spiritual body of Christ, the “life-giving spirit” of God. It is divine and therefore perfect. And that which is perfect is complete, whole. Yet the perfect body of Christ, the spiritual body into which the disciples — and, according to our tradition, we — are incorporated in the Spirit,11 bears open wounds. Moreover, they are the wounds suffered by the historical Jesus as a result of his proclamation and praxis of the Kingdom of God, of a new world, created and sustained by self-sacrificing love, of mutual support, justice, and peace.

What might this mean for our spiritual lives? I can only begin an answer to that question.

In the story of Thomas we see that the spiritual body of the cosmic Christ is eternally wounded for the sake of the other. And because the body of Christ is the body of the faithful — that is, the body of those of us who trust in love and who live in fidelity to its leadings — those wounds are ours. In the well-known “kenotic hymn” of Philippians 2, Paul says that Jesus Christ was lifted up, exalted above all because, rather than grasp at the divinity that was his, he emptied himself and became a fully human servant to divine love, “even unto death on the cross.” Again, there is an evident parallel to Genesis, in which “the first human, Adam” sinned against love in attempting to seize divinity. When we give up our Adamic pursuit of self-aggrandizement, surrendering instead to the leading of love, we are wounded by the plight and for the sake of the poor and the oppressed. And in being so wounded, we are lifted up into the spiritual body of Christ, the body of those who live in the spirit in which Jesus lived.

This, then, is the paradoxical wholeness, the perfection, offered by our tradition: a sharing in love’s suffering. We may initially come to religion in flight from pain, but the image of Christ in the “doubting Thomas” story warns us that to flee from love’s wounds is to flee from “the way, the truth, and the life.”12 To be godly, to be the presence of Christ in the world, is to be divinely human by living love, and that entails suffering with and for the other. Our healing, our salvation, is not, then, the elimination of suffering and weakness13 but their transfiguration. Accepting the pain of love, we are raised to new life, a life much deeper and richer than we had known. “By his wounds we are healed.”14

Christ in Glory
San Giovanni (St. John), Florence

NOTES for “By His Wounds We Are Healed”

[This post is an amplification of vocal ministry offered at Little Falls Meeting on July 8, 2012.]

[1] The story appears only in the book of John, 20:24-29. For a comparison of the resurrection appearance narratives in the various canonical books, see the Quaker Electronic Archive.

[2] John 20:20b.

[3] John 20:11-17. In John’s account, the appearance to Mary is Jesus’ first, and the appearances we are considering are his second and third.

[4] By “Jesus of history,” I mean the Jesus of the canonical gospel books: in using such phrases, I do not intend to take a position regarding the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

[5] See Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

[6] Colossians 1:15: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature….”

[7] See Matthew 19:28 and 1 Corinthians 6:2.

[8] Thomas, who would later be said to have written a gospel book and to have established Christianity in India, is also notable for his courage in following Jesus: when the other disciples were afraid because people sought to stone Jesus, Thomas said, “Let us also go [with Jesus], that we may die with him.”

[9] John 20:27, 28. Note that on the morning of the resurrection Jesus had said to Mary Magdalene, “Noli me tangere” (in the well-known Vulgate rendering): “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not touch me [or, do not cling to me], for I have not yet ascended to my Father. Go on to my brethren, and say to them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and to your God.'” (John 20:17) The implication is, then, that Jesus had “ascended” to God by the time he invited Thomas to touch him: the open wounds are not temporary. (We see that reflected in Christian iconography such as the Christ in Glory, above, in which the ascended Christ is depicted with wounds.)

[10] 1 Cor. 15:44-45. The word translated as “natural” is psuchikon (psychikon), more literally rendered as “soul-ish.” Again, Paul is referring to Genesis 2:7.

[11] See 1 Corinthians 12.

[12] John 14:6. Interestingly, Jesus’ statement “I am the way, the truth, and the life” was a response to Thomas’ “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” — strikingly similar to Hebrews 11:8, “Abraham … went out, not knowing whither he went.” For discussion of Jesus’ statement and Abraham’s journey in context of Quaker worship, see Understanding Quaker Worship.

[13] See, for example, Mark 8:34 and parallels, and 2 Corinthians 11 and 12.

[14] Isaiah 53:5; NIV.

2 thoughts on “By His Wounds We Are Healed

  1. Thomas … Didymus, the ‘twin’. I have for a long time thought that the simplest way of making sense of his doubting was to accept him as Jesus’ twin brother. Then it would be only natural for him to doubt what other people tell him they have seen and to want to touch his brother’s wounds.
    On the other hand, if he was Jesus’ twin,that raises all sorts of other questions, even if it does offer a simpler understanding of this incident, and of the others’ keenness to tell him that they have seen Jesus.

  2. I am thankful for your moving reflection on this topic and see it as at the heart of the Christianity in which I was reared. To be “Christlike” did not mean to be morally perfect (whatever that might mean), but to be willing to stand with and suffer for the sake of those in need of sustaining and unconditional love. A “good Christian” was not one who believed correctly, but one whose love called him/her to serve.

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