April 23, 2017 John 20: 19-31
Prayer: Dear Lord, now that the first Sunday of Easter, with all its bustle, is past, let us rest in the security of the resurrection. Let us live as Easter people. In Jesus’ holy name we pray, Amen.
Our son, Taylor, has landed in Warsaw, Poland, for awhile. And when we’ve Skyped, he has talked about how there is a national feeling of angst or anguish or sorrow shared by the Polish people.
It’s because of their place in history.
Part of the country was occupied early on by Nazi Germany during World War II. But part of the country was also occupied by the Soviet Union from the middle of the war to the mid-1950s.
And the Polish people suffered horribly under both regimes. Twenty percent of the population died during the war, including three million Polish Jews.
Somehow in all my reading about the Holocaust, I had missed the fact that six concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Treblinka, were located in Poland.
Six concentration camps, sites of all those Nazi gassings, all those deaths by forced labor, all those skeletal survivors when the Allied soldiers rolled through in 1945.
What scars those camps must have left upon Poland’s national landscape!
I suppose almost everyone in this sanctuary has some kind of scar. If you’ve had heart surgery or a knee replacement or a Caesarean section, you’ve got the scars to prove it. Some of you Lutheran students may have soccer or football or softball scars. Even removals of little cysts leave scars.
Scars tell us about something that has happened in the past – whether national or personal.
Then there are our psychic scars. I think Taylor would tell you that Poland has both.
Our staff member Beth Messick works to get women out of the sex trade and into safe houses and safe lives. She says that almost without exception, her women have suffered sexual trauma by age 7 or 9.
Often, they do not connect what happened to them as a child with the life of prostitution they are now living. But I think most of us would recognize their psychic scarring is a pretty vivid connector.
I had been in this pulpit for seven years before I had an experience that awakened me to our shared scars. It was on a Passion Sunday, and the praise team from our partner First Presbyterian of Greer had just finished singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” It is, of course, a song filled with human sorrow.
That morning, as I looked out over your beloved faces, I was struck by the sorrows that individuals in this congregation were carrying. It happened to be a communion Sunday, so you knelt at the altar rail.
The rail was filled with people who had lost a spouse. Who had lost a child. Who had lost a parent. Who had lost a job. Who had lost housing. Who had a child in addiction.
The rail was filled with people who were battling disease. Who were battling depression. Who were battling fear. Who were battling voices. Who were battling loneliness. Who were going through divorce.
And I was struck by what a privilege it is to be entrusted, in some small way, with the care of a congregation.
To be allowed, in some small way, to run my finger over your scars.
Today’s Scripture passage is so pivotal to our identity as followers of Jesus that it is included in the lectionary every single year – just like Luke’s Christmas story about the shepherds, and Matthew’s story of the wise men. There is something in John’s story of Jesus’s scars that the church wants us to remember every single year.
It directly follows last week’s reading about Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene in the burial garden. It is now later that same day. Please turn in your Bibles to 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.
There is a lot going on in this short passage. We can head down some fruitful trails and down some rabbit trails. I know that I, for one, can get sidetracked defending Thomas. He is my favorite disciple, and I love that he might have hailed from Missouri, the Show-Me state.
But I’m going to try not to let him pull me away from those scars this morning.
Because I want us to look at those scars.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
The world breaks everyone. Afterward many are strong at the broken places.
That was certainly Jesus’s experience. Broken, nailed, hung and pierced by the Roman Empire, his scars on this night were evidence of the tortures he had endured.
And those scars are evidence of why he understands so intimately our sorrows today.
When we pastors sit with families who have lost someone, we don’t have magic words. We don’t even have adequate words. We cannot promise a savior who takes away pain.
What we can promise is a savior who bore pain. A savior who understands betrayal and abandonment and sorrow. A savior who has the scars to prove it.
Presumably after hearing from Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, the disciples hid behind locked doors. They feared that the people who killed Jesus would come for them next.
Instead, Jesus himself came to them. And he showed them his scars as proof that he had died and been resurrected.
Or was that the reason? Did he show them those nail-scarred hands and that raggedly split torso for another reason? Could he have been inviting them to share their brokenness? Could he have been offering some sort of solace in the communal sharing of their wounds, our scars?
Maybe in showing “them his hands and his side,” he was letting them know there was no need for pretense. Maybe he was letting them know that the resurrection was precisely intended for those scarred by the first-century world, for those of us broken by Hemingway’s 20th century one.
A couple of years back, I talked about Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture Homeless Jesus that was placed outside an Episcopal church in Davidson, North Carolina. The life-size bronze sculpture depicts a man lying under a ragged blanket. It is so realistic that at first people called police, seeking help for the man.
The sculptor actually unveiled the first Homeless Jesus in Toronto. Copies have been purchased and placed in at least 50 cities around the world. I received an email recently asking if we’d like to order one for $40,000.
I didn’t think we really needed it.
One of the sculptures is outside the Catholic Charities office in Washington, DC, where it became the 10th Station of the Cross during that city’s Lenten season.
The 10th station recalls the moment that Jesus’s garments were stripped off and gambled away by Roman soldiers. Homeless Jesus is a pretty literal comment on how we strip away someone’s clothes, home, dignity. On how people sleeping on benches have become so ubiquitous we scarcely notice.
Yet, as this piece of art insists, our savior stands with those marginalized people. If I’ve quoted Jesus’s teaching on this once from the gospel of Matthew, I’ve quoted it a thousand times.
“…(J) ust as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25: 40)
We are to see a homeless Jesus in every homeless person we meet.
But how do we know it’s Jesus under that blanket, rather than a contemporary homeless person? Because his feet are sticking out from that blanket. And on those feet are the scars where nails were driven through.
We know him by his scars.
His scars tell us where he’s been, what he’s gone through, what he’s endured.
If you have worshiped with us for awhile, you know that I talk about Jesus’s life and his teachings more than anything else. That’s why we look at the gospel stories so much, as opposed, say, to Paul’s letters or the Old Testament or John’s Revelation.
But even I have to admit that we probably wouldn’t have a record of Jesus’s life and teachings without these scars. Without his resurrection and the proof of those scars, he might simply be a long-forgotten teacher and rabbi.
The resurrection – seen through the lens of his crucifixion scars – tell us he was raised from the dead. That’s why the story has endured.
When John wrote this story of Jesus showing his wounds to his disciples, I don’t think he knew that he was setting Thomas up to be maligned throughout history. I think his invitation to Thomas to touch Jesus’s hands and thrust his hand into Jesus’s side was meant for us.
I think that because of the dialogue in this passage.
“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus invited. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
And when Thomas responded with recognition, “Jesus said to him, “ ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ ”
Those who have not seen … are us.
John was writing to all of us who were never going to see those scars, who were only going to read about them through this gospel story he was writing. We’re going to have to believe those scars exist without seeing them.
I imagine many of you watch the TV show Modern Family. Several times in each episode, the narrative breaks and the characters speak directly to the camera. Well, John employs a similar technique.
He’ll be telling a narrative, then suddenly stop with an aside addressed to the reader. There’s one these asides at the end of this passage. Suddenly, he’s not in the room with Jesus and the disciples anymore.
He’s speaking directly to us: “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.”
We don’t have to guess about John’s purpose or his motive. He’s transparent. He wrote about Jesus’s post-resurrection scars so that all those people reading from the first century forward would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
So for us, what does it mean to serve a scarred savior? What does it mean to serve a God who underwent such horrors?
For Christianity, alone among the major religions, depicts a God who underwent such painful scarring.
Many years ago I had a friend who lost a baby. She had three more children. But for years she still attended the support group Compassionate Friends to help other parents who were grieving the loss of a child.
That’s the premise behind support groups from AA to NA to Al-Anon to Compassionate Friends – that someone who has been through the very same thing is the very person to help us through it.
That’s the premise behind a scarred savior. A savior who went through what Jesus went through during his last week of life – being misunderstood, lied about, betrayed, abandoned, tortured, crucified – that savior understands where the world has broken us.
That savior understands where the world has broken us.
That savior understands our hurt, our loneliness, our heartbrokenness.
That savior can stroke our scars because he’s got scars of his own.