A sermon preached on March 30, 2008 based upon John 20:19 – 29, entitled, “The Wounded, Risen Jesus.”
One of the great privileges of being a pastor is that I get to hear peoples’ stories — more so, at least than most people do. One of the things I have learned is that everybody suffers in this life. Some more than others for sure, but everybody has burdens to bear, and that for everybody, sometimes these burdens can be exceedingly heavy. In every life there are good times, but there are also bad times, and the bad times leave wounds.
People often tell me that it must be very difficult being a pastor in this regard — that is, hearing the stories of peoples’ suffering. And it is, but it is also, as I said, a holy privilege. Once I’ve heard something of the suffering people bear in their lives that goes largely unseen, I can’t help but feel a great tenderness towards them. In the course of living in community, we will inevitably irritate one another, and when this happens there is a temptation to write people off forever. Once, however, you’ve been given a glimpse into the wounds they carry with them, it becomes impossible to write them off.
In this world, however, we feel compelled to hide our wounds. We may regularly gripe, moan, and complain, but honest-to-God sharing about the things that really hurt us deeply, that leave us feeling terrified, helpless, or hopeless — this kind of sharing is taboo. We human beings tend to be so very competitive, living by the ’survival of the fittest’, and showing our wounds means exposing our weaknesses, the vulnerabilities of which our adversaries can quickly take advantage.
And so it is striking to me that in the Gospel of John, the very first thing Jesus does both times he appears to his disciples following his crucifixion is to show them his wounds — the holes pierced through his hands, the gash in his side. His resurrection body, at least according to John, was not perfect the way we tend to think of perfection, that is, blemish free.
Jesus still has his wounds, and he’s not ashamed to show them. This might sound a bit gruesome, but strangely, the wounds have become something beautiful for his disciples, a cause for joy. They are the sign that this is the very same Jesus whom they knew before. What he suffered in the past remains a part of who he is in the present — who he is now for all eternity. He is someone willing to suffer on behalf of love, someone willing to be weak, to be wounded for the sake of love. He did so in the past, and in some mysterious sense, he continues to suffer on behalf of that same love.
Oftentimes the greatest barrier we experience to coming to faith is caused by the presence of horrific suffering. This is the case in our Gospel story for the disciple Thomas. He is not merely stubborn, although this is often how Thomas is portrayed. He really loved Jesus, and has seen him suffer a most unjust death, and what he has witnessed is so ghastly that he simply cannot see anything good or redemptive in it.
And then, amazingly, Jesus does appear, and shows him his wounds, and that which for Thomas previously had absolutely no good in it whatsoever, is seen as cause for extreme rejoicing.
All of us — and some a good deal more than others for sure — suffer things in this life which, at the time, and for a good long time afterwards, appear to us to be nothing but bad. (I don’t need to spell this out; you know the sorts of things I’m talking about.)
The thing to try and remember is that what has no meaning whatsoever in the narrow picture of the present, may indeed have a meaning we cannot yet perceive in the big picture of life.
There are moments when, by the grace of God, we are allowed to catch a glimpse of what that bigger picture looks like.
One of my all time favorite stories is a simple one told by the doctor and writer Rachel Naomi Remen:
When Sara became ill many years ago, bulimia was not yet a household word. Filled with guilt at her uncontrollable behavior, she was taken to specialist after specialist until someone able to identify the problem as something more than a teenage rebellion hospitalized her for a year. This had saved her life. Slowly she fought her way back from the edge, surrounded by concerned adults who could not understand why she was bringing this on herself. She did not understand it either.
As she described it to me: “Rachel, I was just so alone, I could not stop myself, and at the worst of it I was not sure that it was possible to survive this. I was very afraid. I remember thinking somewhere there must be someone else who has this problem, someone who has been able to heal from it. If they could live, maybe I could live too. Sara did not meet another person with bulimia, but after many years of difficulty she had somehow found her own way through and was able to recover. She cannot really say why. A few years ago, she was reading her evening newspaper and came across an announcement for a meeting of a bulimia support group. Sara is a middle-aged woman and has not suffered from this problem for many years, but the idea of a support group intrigued her, and she decided to attend a meeting to see what it was like. It had been a powerful experience. The desperately ill young people there had touched her heart, and, while she felt unable to help them, she cared about them and so she continued going back. Other than saying that she had bulimia as a girl she had not revealed a great deal more about herself but had simply sat and listened to the stories of others.
As she was about to leave one of these meetings, she was stopped by a painfully thin young girl who thanked her for coming and told her how much it had meant to know her. Her eyes had been filled with unshed tears. Sara had responded with her usual graciousness, but she had been puzzled. She could not recall ever speaking to this girl and did not even know her name. As she drove home, she wondered how she could have forgotten something so important to someone else. She was almost home before she understood. Her husband, who met her at their front door, was surprised to see that she had been crying. “Sara, what is wrong?” he asked in concern. “I have become the person I needed to meet, Harry,” she told him and walked into his arms.
The wounds of Sara’s earlier life are still a part of who she is today, though they no longer hurt her the way they once did. These same wounds, however, have become a instrument of healing and hope for others.
I have known some suffering in my life. Others have suffered far worse than I, but there have been extended portions of my life that I experienced as quite painful and barren. My family of origin was deeply wounded, leading to my parents divorce when I was 11. I carried this woundedness hidden with me into my young adult years, leading me into much isolation and loneliness, and a very painful, short-lived marriage followed by the hardships inherent in being a single parent. It sucked.
I stand here today, however, able to say to you with conviction that the recent years of my life have been the happiest years of my life. This isn’t to say that my life is perfect — that I don’t have my troubles and things that make me afraid. I do, but overall, what I can say clearly is that my overall level of contentedness far surpasses what I generally knew during my teen years and my twenties and thirties. Nor is this to say that I have any assurance that I won’t know great suffering in the future. Chances are I will, since living and loving in this world leaves us so vulnerable.
But two things seem pretty clear to me in regard to my present happiness:
1) I don’t know if I would be able to appreciate what I have in life now if I hadn’t gone through the hard times of the past. How do you know what you have if you have never experienced being without it? 2) I don’t know how I would be able to experience compassion if I hadn’t been through suffering myself. How can you feel compassion for someone who has descended into the abyss if you haven’t spent any time there yourself?
Francois Fenelon, an 18th century writer on the spiritual life, had these challenging words to say about the suffering we endure: “We suffer, yet do not allow the mission of suffering to be accomplished in us. I pray the Lord that we may none of us fall into that torpid state in which our crosses do us no good.”
The Gospel lesson tells us a few important things about what it means to be the church. First, without Jesus, the disciples were huddled with fear behind locked doors. They were a mirror reflection of the world. Wounded, but terrified to let their wounds be seen, allowing their world to be terribly constricted.
It is not uncommon for people to feel as though church is the last place they would want to expose their wounds. I know someone who, in the midst of a time in her life when she had descended into the abyss, went to a certain church for the first time. In the midst of the service, she began to cry. No one came to her; no one acknowledged her tears. Not surprisingly, she never went back to that church. The risen but wounded Christ wasn’t there, as far as she could tell. It wasn’t a place where people had experienced the truth that Fenelon spoke of, that crosses could in fact accomplish a transforming mission in their lives if only they would embrace them.
Second, when Jesus appeared to his disciples, he breathed the holy spirit upon them, and commissioned them to a ministry of forgiveness — setting people free from their bondage to guilt and shame.
Oftentimes our response to our personal wounds is profound shame. We should be stronger, invulnerable, or so we think. This shame is the first thing that needs to be overcome on the journey towards wholeness. AA often knows this better than churches. There crucial first two steps are founded on the paradox that we only find power and healing at the point where we own up to our powerlessness and woundedness. Without an atmosphere of forgiveness, it is impossible to come to this discovery.
Third, simply showing up is important. Thomas didn’t show up at to church on the first Easter evening. He didn‘t feel like it, and because of his absence, he missed experiencing Jesus. Fortunately, he came back the next week.
Fourth, there really is room in the circle for everybody in the church. When Thomas refused to believe what the other disciples told them about Jesus’ resurrection, they didn’t throw him out of the church. They carried him. It wasn’t necessary for Thomas to prematurely conform his beliefs to theirs in order to be accepted in their midst. They loved him where he was.
And finally, the Church is the community where we are given opportunity, over time, to catch a glimpse of the big picture, and in doing so, experience the peace that Jesus gives. To see that by and by all wounds will become beautiful. That there is a resurrection beyond every crucifixion. That our wounds can indeed become a part of what we have to offer in the healing and reconciling ministry of the risen Jesus.