Thomas, Jesus, and Sexual Assault
Bible: John 20:19-31
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
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What do we make of the story of Thomas? If we look carefully at the reading set for today, then after the appearance of Jesus, it is Thomas who is the important person for the church, not the other disciples. Thomas teaches us something. He is the one at the centre of things with Jesus. He is traditionally called Doubting Thomas, which I think is unfair. Where the New Revised Standard Version says, "do not doubt... the Greek phrase is more like do not become faithless or do not become unbelieving; become believing.
I understand the story of Thomas to say this: I will not trust a Christ without wounds. That's what I think Thomas is saying, and I think John's Gospel is saying, "Be like Thomas. Don't trust the people who paint a life, and a Jesus, without wounds. Trust the risen wounded Jesus. Follow him."
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. If we go back a bit, we will find three things in the reading.
Firstly, Jesus appears twice, on the first day of the week. This is a symbol of worship. Jesus appears to us in worship, just as, in Luke, Jesus is seen in the breaking of bread, the Eucharist. To be blunt, in John, Thomas is not at worship, so Thomas does not see Jesus. He does not see the risen Lord until he too is at worship. It's not saying we can only see Jesus in church, but it is saying that it is in worship that we will most especially see him and know him.
Secondly, in John's resurrection story, Jesus says three times: "Peace be with you." This is not to say, "Have a nice day," or, "Good evening." Peace be with you means something like, "May all the fullness of the Kingdom of God be upon you, and be yours." It is a fundamental act of forgiveness for our failings. It is a promise of love for us despite all that we may have been.
And then we come to the central drama of Thomas. Three times... Jesus is depicted as wounded. He bears the scars of the cross. And there is a strong hint that these scars are... unhealed. They are open wounds.
I have a twelve centimetre scar down the inside of my arm. Talking about Thomas, I asked someone to put their hand in my scar; she couldn't. "What does it mean, then," I asked, "for Thomas to put his hand in Jesus' side?"
"It means the wounds are still open!"
So Thomas said, "I will not believe, I will not trust, unless I can place my hand in the open wounds!"
And in the famous painting by Caravaggio, Thomas places his finger — he points to — he places his hand inside the wound. And yet— look at the copy— he cannot bring himself to look! This is something so terrible that Jesus has to guide his hand! Caravaggio understood that Jesus will guide us into the places that we cannot bear even to look.
(By Caravaggio - http://www.christusrex.org/www2/art/images/carav10.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6804893)
We don’t want a wounded Messiah. Even the great theologian Calvin imagined the "wounds [were only] temporary, until the Apostles were fully convinced that he was risen from the dead" and that they were then removed.
But it is in the wounds that there is the greatest hope for us. For as the scholar James Alison says, Jesus lives with his wounds, but unbound from their power. He says "the resurrection life has emptied death of its power, by showing the form of death (the marks of crucifixion) without its content." (James Alison The Joy of Being Wrong pp76 Paul Nuechterlein has a lengthy quotation from this book here.) The resurrection life is what he gives us; it is what we are doing. It is beginning to live in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. It is not just Jesus in the Kingdom of God— he is there— but us... you and me, beginning to enter, tasting the first fruits.
I have seen this in church... where sometimes... the folk who seem to be the most grievously wounded among us, have been the folk who bring the greatest witness of the Christ in their sensitivity and love. In resurrection life, even for us, the wounds which never go away, are nonetheless beginning to lose their power.
Do you understand me? We are all wounded. Sometimes it takes years for us to even realise how horribly damaged we are, and how much that damage has driven us and shaped us. The pain is so great that, in the grace of God, our minds prevent us from seeing or remembering more fully until a time when we are strong enough.
Too many of us know how easily we can be brought undone by a memory, by a relapse of some long distant abuse or trauma, which suddenly bursts into our presence almost as fresh as the day it was done to us— still bleeding, as it were, still an open wound.
Jesus' resurrection is a promise that we are loved, that the fullness of the kingdom of God is blessed upon us by one who knows all about wounds and who still bears them. One who is not only forever wounded, but forever slain. But by one who is also bearing the wounds without their power. His appearance to us in this place is a promise of our healing. A promise that our wounds will be drained of the power of death, healed of their humiliation and pain, and that they will stand as witness to us of his being in our lives, and as a promise to others (and us) of his healing for all people.
And this brings us to the last thing.
The thing about Crucifixion is that we always lie about it a little... it is just too horrible. Crucifixion was developed into a brutal science by the Roman Empire; it was designed to cause the maximum amount of pain. The whole process was a prolonged humiliation and death by torture. It was meant to deter those who saw it from opposing the empire. It was an instrument of terror.
It was also sexual assault.
Women... and men and were crucified. They were scourged, which meant they were whipped naked with leather thongs which had bits of bone or metal embedded in them in order to shred the flesh. They were made to carry their cross to the place of execution as a further humiliation. And they were hung naked on the cross. That enforced public nakedness was a sexual assault, and still is.
Rev Dr Wil Gafney says "The Church that has a hard time talking about sexual violence perpetrated against mere mortals has an understandably hard time thinking about the sexualized connotations of the crucifixion of the Son of God." She is right. We have hidden them and hidden from them. Professor David Tombs says the
Gospels clearly indicate that sexual humiliation was a prominent trait in the treatment of Jesus and that sexual humiliation was an important aspect of crucifixion. Victims were crucified naked in what amounted to a ritualised form of public sexual humiliation. In a patriarchal society in which men competed against each other to display virility in terms of sexual power over others, the public display of the naked victim by the "victors" in front of onlookers and passers-by carried the message of sexual domination. ("Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse" Union Seminary Quarterly Review Vol 53:1-2, pp101 )
We know this. We know what nakedness and death means. When a body is found naked, we know that whatever the details, this involved sexual assault. We have rarely been able to resist placing a little loin cloth on depictions of Jesus on the cross; a part of us knows that the cross is about sexual humiliation.
Here is the gospel: Jesus knows what it is to be us... including suffering sexual assault. Jesus is raised and returns with the wounds that make that assault clear; everyone knows what happened to him. His humiliation is on clear display. How can he bear to be seen?
The risen Lord who still comes among us is not some tidy, unscarred, undamaged person. He is the slain, wounded, assaulted Lord. He is able to walk without shame among us even though he knows we have seen his naked shame, even though we people shamed him. The promise in this is that we too may learn to walk without shame.
... ... ... Where do we go with all this?
I have not preached this sermon easily: I am male; we men are most commonly the perpetrators of sexual assault. I have not lived through a sexual assault. Why would someone who has lived through this want to talk to a man... who knows nothing? There are women here who can listen, who know better than me. (There will be some people named.)
But there is something I do know. I know about trauma and abuse. I know what it is like to be driven, to be undermined, to be despairing, and to have life seem sabotaged, by the wounds inflicted by other people. And I know what has been central to my healing:
as much as I have admitted my wounds, even to myself, instead of hiding them...
and when I have trusted— even when all I could do is hope, that even though I am wounded and full of shame, Jesus has a place for me...
and when I have sought to be compassionate despite all my failings and uselessness and shame...
then slowly the wounds have lost their power. There are still days when I am completely undone, and yet life comes back together, and I can stand back up here despite knowing how imperfect, and how damaged, I am. It's when I deny my wounding, when I pretend it is not there, when I imagine a Jesus who is neat and clean and unwounded, that I can go way off track.
Follow the wounded Christ. He is the one who heals us. He drains the poison from the wounds.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
A word for perpetrators of sexual violence.
I believe we are violent in an attempt to rid ourselves of the pain and fear within us. All this does is spread the pain. We do nothing to heal ourselves if we abuse and assault. It will not stop the pain. The open wounds of Christ speak to those of us who are or have been violent. We can be healed of this wound which has been inflicted upon us and which we have passed on to others. I add here parts comment by "Wayfaring Michael" which you can find under an internet post made by Richard Beck:
I am a sex offender who spent two years in prison... I know I am not the only one who makes it day by day because of two things. The first is my faith. I have held a Bible in my hands at least three times a day for almost a dozen years, along with books by Richard Beck, Walter Brueggemann, and Richard Rorty among many others. But I also spent time in one-on-one and group therapy with psychologists, and read up on related subjects. And I will be doing all this for the rest of my life...
I will confine myself to one more comment, for the offenders like Louis CK and others, the ones who did not have the experience of the arrest, the leg and wrist restraints, prison, "extended supervision," etc. It takes time. Lots of time. No sixty-day rehab in Palm Springs and then right back into the swing of things. Walk the walk of atonement with humility and service within the small sphere that is left to you, with all the grace you can...
In other words, it is not only our victims who have a long healing. It is us. It is ongoing. If not, if we think we are easily un-wounded, it begs the question if we have really faced the wounds within us.
I see before me crosses not all alike, but differently made by different peoples: some hang a man head downwards, some force a stick upwards through his groin, some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet. I see cords, scourges, and instruments of torture for each limb and each joint... https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Of_Consolation:_To_Marcia Seneca, To Marcia on Consolation, 20.3
"the victim was usually stripped naked for the procession and execution as well..." Craig Keener The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament p305 (try here)
Wikipedia: While a crucifixion was an execution, it was also a humiliation, by making the condemned as vulnerable as possible. Although artists have traditionally depicted the figure on a cross with a loin cloth or a covering of the genitals, the person being crucified was usually stripped naked. Writings by Seneca the Younger state some victims suffered a stick forced upwards through their groin. Despite its frequent use by the Romans, the horrors of crucifixion did not escape criticism by some eminent Roman orators. Cicero, for example, described crucifixion as "a most cruel and disgusting punishment", and suggested that "the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen's body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears". Elsewhere he says, "It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it."