John 20:19-31; 1 John 1:1- 2:5
There is an ancient legend in which the Devil tries to get into heaven by pretending to be the risen Christ. Disguised and decked out in light and splendor, he arrives at heaven's gate with a band of demons dressed as angels of light. He shouts out the words of the Psalm 24: "Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in." The angels in heaven are delighted and respond in the psalm's refrain: "Who is the King of glory?" Satan boldly opens his arms and says, "I am." But in so doing he showed no marks on his hands. The angels in heaven saw he was an impostor and slammed shut the gates of heaven against him.
In our gospel lesson, we learn how Thomas, who missed the first appearance of Jesus to the disciples, adamantly declares he will not believe that Jesus has Risen until he puts his finger in the mark of the nail on Jesus’ hand. Thomas will forever be known as the “Doubter.” This is frankly too bad. Thomas is really being hard as a nail. Pointed. This is especially true when we look at the two other times that Thomas is mentioned in John’s Gospel. The first is when Jesus decides to head to Bethany to call Lazarus out of his tomb. The other disciples try to discourage Jesus from going. They argue that Bethany is too close to Jerusalem where Jesus risks being put to death. Thomas alone says, “Let’s go, we’ll die with him (11:17).” Pointed. Sharp. Determined, isn’t he? Thomas seems the only disciple who seems to understand Jesus’ mission and is prepared to follow him. Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus talks about his impending death and remarks, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas interrupts, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way (14:5)?” Again, Thomas is prepared to follow Jesus but asks for specifics. Pointed and sharp – not afraid to interrupt. These are not expressions of doubt. Thomas, is, matter of fact, a “show me” kind of guy. Thomas is clear, keeping Jesus’ mission foremost in his mind. Sharp as a tack. Hard as a nail.
The expression, “to have nailed it” is provocative and striking and speaks to Thomas’ response to Jesus: “My Lord and God!” he said. He nailed it. To nail something is to pin it down, get it right, secure it. It’s related to other sayings, such as “to hit the nail on the head.” To be “hard as nails” is to be determined, tough, unmovable. And of course, to “hit a nail in someone’s coffin” is to signal inevitable defeat, bring about the end of something. Nails convey permanency, pointedness and precision. No wonder nails are an instrument in Jesus’ death. No wonder Jesus keeps the mark of the nail on his risen body – because Jesus’ message to us is permanent, pointed, and precise. What does he tell his disciples? Have peace. Receive the Holy Spirit. Forgive. Sharp as a tack. Hard as a nail.
Nails were a key element in Jesus’ death. Although there is no evidence that Thomas witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, like the women and the beloved disciple, he knew that nails played a role in killing Jesus. Thomas somehow had enough faith to know that the nail prints would now mark the real, risen Jesus. They have “branded” Jesus. The Risen Jesus, Thomas has determined, can only truly identified by the wounds he carries in his hands feet and side. And he is correct. He won’t settle for less. The pain of Jesus’ death won’t let us settle for less.
So, the next time Jesus appears, he goes to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here in my hands….Do not doubt, but believe.” Jesus not only knew Thomas’ concern, his guarded doubt, but tells us something vitally important: something Thomas implicitly knew: his resurrected body is not without blemish. It carries the scars he suffered in his crucifixion. The nails mark him.
As a carpenter’s son, Jesus no doubt learned the value of the nail. Nails hold things together. Nails enable the creation of furniture, buildings – and stabilize structures. A nail on the wall holds up a picture, a hat or a coat. A nail fastened the 95 thesis of Martin Luther to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, protesting the abuses of the church – and ignites the Reformation. Nails in the form of spikes developed the railroad system across the U.S., and other countries around the world, allowing commerce and travel to flourish. Some of us know the pain of stepping on a rusty nail. Two of the most gruesome uses of nails are found in the bible: An Israelite woman named Jael killed the enemy General by hammering a tent peg in his head while sleeping (Judges 4:17-24). And of course, in the story we know so well: our Lord Jesus was crucified, with nails hammered into his hands and feet.
It is not surprising that Jesus would take on the mark of the nail as his insignia. Raised a carpenter, he knew the value, power and symbol of the nail. Its ability to transform an environment and create structures, furniture fences necessary for living. The nails Jesus used to support life would be used to kill him. God, faithful, raised him from the grave – wounded by nails – to become – we might say, a Living Nail of God.
Jesus is known by the mark of the nail on his hands. Jesus, a Holy Living Nail, fastens us to God. Jesus through his wounds points us to the way of new, transformational life. Divine breath, hammers home that through the act of forgiving we are affixed now to a life of service and grace. Through Jesus we are attached to the love and mercy of God. Jesus – our living nail -- joins the Holy Spirit to our spirit – so we can know peace and be hope that glues the beloved community together. In this process of we too become living nails – building up the kingdom of God and making this world livable, viable, blessed, holy.
Thomas is a living nail, fashioned by Jesus. Encountering the Risen Lord, touching those nail marks, he followed Jesus. He found the way. And his way, according to legend, was one of the farthest traveled by any of the disciples. It is not surprising that the stories tell us is that Thomas the Apostle was a skilled carpenter and builder and brought the gospel to India with significant success. It is not surprising that the sacred symbol for Thomas is the carpenter’s square, an instrument that lays out a square or right angel.
Our lesson today reminds us that being a Christian doesn’t mean our wounds disappear and fear go away. We too are marked -- and through them God pours out his life into us to turn us into wounded healers – into Living Christ-nails. Like Thomas, we look at the print of the nail in each other and there we see Jesus present. When our trials and faith are attached together, God forges in us a steely grace that can be the hook, to hold and help shape a lifeline that creates the Way forward others can follow. Sharp as a tack, hard as a nail.
How do we nail it? Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that when it comes to the hurts we’ve received in life, we either transform them or we transmit them. The only way we transform our hurts is do what Thomas did – he placed his figure in the mark of the nail in Jesus’ hand. He let himself be fastened to Jesus—in his wounded place. That is our calling. To become living, breathing, sacred nails – each of us a part in building God’s kingdom. The writer Ernest Hemingway puts it this way: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
So today – let’s hit the nail on the head. Come to Jesus, wounds and all. Let God breathe and transform you into a living sacred nail – because through Christ we are fastened to God by love. In love, we fasten ourselves to the care for this world. So, through our broken places may the Risen Lord breathe his peace and forgiveness, banishing fear, unlocking hearts, spreading the gospel of love to all we greet. Amen.