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Sunday, April 8, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort,
and letting it be there until some light returns.
Years ago, when I was a pastor in Texas, I had a jarring experience when I was asked to teach the children’s Sunday School classes about Easter. The teachers wanted me to use a popular prop (at least popular in the early 2000s) called resurrection eggs. They were plastic Easter eggs not filled with candy but with tiny symbols of Holy Week. My instructions were to simply open up each egg and use the symbol to explain what happened, to tell the story of Jesus’ last week. Frankly, I thought that sounded pretty easy, so I did not prepare. I did not open the eggs beforehand. I just assumed that I knew the story well enough that I could easily take the kids on a Holy Week journey via those eggs. No problem.
Things started off fine. The children were enthusiastic and asked good questions. I began to relax and enjoy being with them. But then we got to the eggs that held the symbols of the crucifixion. I opened one egg and found a leather strap that was supposed to symbolize Jesus’ beatings. The next egg held the spear that pierced Jesus’ side. Then came the egg with the nails that held him to the cross. It was horrible! I was mentally berating myself for not opening those eggs beforehand.
I realized I was becoming less and less articulate with each Good Friday egg. I verbally stumbled around, trying to say something that was truthful but also masked a bit of the cruelty. How could I look into those sweet faces and explain the brutality of Jesus’ wounds? The story itself is about a state execution, but I wanted our children to only hear about the empty tomb and the alleluias. I did not want to tell them about whips, spears, or nails. Frankly, I did not want them to hear at such an early age about Jesus’ wounds. But if we are being faithful to scripture, then we really cannot forget about the wounds, speaking only of empty tombs and alleluias, can we? Yet even those of us who are adults might have trouble comprehending why those wounds are important to our Easter faith.
According to the Gospel of John, those wounds were important to the first disciples, especially to Thomas. We will get back to him. But on that first night, all of them but Thomas had gathered in that secret room, full of terror and choked by grief. They locked the door, afraid to even breathe loudly. The air outside felt thick with persecution. They had heard what had happened to Jesus, their Lord. They could not begin to imagine what might happen to them as his disciples. I imagine they quietly sat around, probably unable to pray, staring off into nothingness.
Granted, a few verses beforehand in this chapter we learn that earlier in the day Mary had come to the room and proclaimed to them that she had encountered Jesus again—that he had been raised just as he said he would be, that he was alive. She told them the risen Jesus had called her by name and she had eventually recognized him. But as much as they wanted to believe her, it was so difficult to trust that she was telling them the truth. It was probably just another woman’s idle tale, they decided. They could not take it at her word.
Then, out of nowhere, the risen Jesus shows up. “Peace be with you,” he exclaims. It’s really an amazing thing for him to say. He did not ask “Why did you abandon me?” He did not say “I am ashamed of your lack of faith.” He did not condemn them for being locked up in fear. He did not even chastise them for not believing their sister Mary. Rather, Jesus stands among them and simply says “Peace.” And then, even though they do not ask, Jesus holds out his nail-scarred hands and shows them his pierced side. The Friday wounds are still there. Even after death has been conquered, the stone has been rolled away, and he has been raised from the dead—even after all of that the risen Christ still bears the mark of his wounds. But why? Why does the risen Lord still bear them?
Frankly, God could have fixed Jesus up a bit, made him look better. Wouldn’t those first post-resurrection appearances have been much more powerful if Jesus had looked more victorious? It would have been much more triumphant if in the middle of the room Jesus had appeared glowing with that special God glow, wearing long white robes, with a golden crown on his head. The disciples would have definitely known it was Jesus then, and he would have finally looked like the Messiah they had always thought they wanted—the powerful, victorious Messiah.
Not only might the first disciples have preferred that, we might have too. This was brought home to me when I heard that some years ago an American televangelist was being interviewed on the BBC about what he thought of Jesus: “Jesus was the most successful religious figure of all time.” The interviewer came back with, “But I thought he ended up on a cross.” “Oh no,” the televangelist replied. “He overcame the cross and put all that behind him.” Not according to the Gospel of John. Not according to Thomas.
For Thomas, the wounds were critical to recognizing the risen Christ. Thomas insisted on seeing them. He had been gone when Jesus appeared that first time, and despite everyone’s enthusiasm, Thomas could not believe the other disciples until he saw those wounds for himself. Did you notice Thomas did not say “I won’t believe you until I see Jesus for myself.”
No, instead, Thomas stated, “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.” Thomas did not just have to see Jesus. He had to see and feel those wounds before he would let himself believe and worship. What made those wounds so important to Thomas and, despite the televangelist’s objections, perhaps also important to us?
Why does it matter that the resurrected Christ is forever the wounded Christ? Living, but never fixed up. Not bound by death, yet scarred for eternity. I believe it matters because it reminds us that when the Word became flesh, our flesh was forever made part of the Word. Those who are hearing-impaired have a profoundly theological sign for Jesus that takes this into account.
To say “Jesus” in sign language, you take the middle finger of your dominant hand and touch the inside of the palm on the opposite hand and then do it again with the middle finger of the nondominant hand touching the inside of the other palm. This means that in American Sign Language, every time you say “Jesus,” you tangibly remember his wounds. Every time you say “Jesus,” you remember in your own flesh that the resurrected Christ is forever the wounded Christ and that, through the gift of the incarnation, when the Word became flesh, our flesh was forever made part of the Word.
By still bearing the marks of his wounds, our risen Christ reminds us that the God to whom we pray has taken our woundedness into God’s very self. God authentically understands what it means to be acreature, to be us. So when we walk into hospital rooms, we go in knowing that because of the wounded Jesus, God understands what it means to be cut in surgery or physically injured or in pain. When we find our heart breaking with grief over a loss, we know that because of the wounded Jesus, God’s own heart has been broken over the death of a beloved one. When we rejoice at the birth of a baby or celebrate the moment of baptism with little ones like we did today, we know that because of the wounded Jesus, God knows what it is like to be born, helpless and vulnerable. Touch the palms of your hands. When the Word became flesh, our flesh was forever made part of the Word.
But it is not only about our personal wounds being forever a part of God because of Jesus. The wounds of this world, of creation, are also forever a part of God because of Jesus. By bearing the marks of his wounds, our risen Christ proclaims to us that the violence and brutality of this world will not have the last word. I have been thinking a lot about this particular truth in light of the fiftieth anniversary this past week of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. I’ve wondered if Dr. King was also moved by the fact that our resurrected Christ is forever the wounded Christ. Did the truth that the risen Christ still bears his wounds serve in any way to give Dr. King the courage to never waver in his support of nonviolence not just as a tactic but as a philosophy, as a deep commitment that guided his life? I would imagine it must have.
As Cornel West and Robert George wrote in the Wall Street Journal just two days ago, “King chose nonviolence not simply because he thought it was an effective strategy. This commitment reflected his belief in the sanctity of the human person, the principle that all men and women, as children of God, were brothers and sisters. King saw himself as the leader of a love-inspired movement, not a tribe or identity-group, and that is because his radical love ethic refused to divide people into tribes and identity groups.”
Did the truth that our resurrected Christ is forever our wounded Christ help to infuse Dr. King with the moral courage to love the way he did—all people, even those with deep hatred in their heart? Harry Belafonte stated that Dr. King always held out hope that even those folks might be changed by receiving the gift of that love. That is a radical love. A love that reflects the kind of love the wounded Jesus offered to those first disciples: “Peace be with you.” A love that reflects the kind of love the wounded Jesus offers to us today. Touch the palms of your hands. When the Word became flesh, our flesh was forever made part of the Word. An incarnation of radical love.
Furthermore, the truth that our resurrected Christ is also and forever our wounded Christ continues to hold an ethical challenge to all of us, here and now. By bearing the marks of his wounds, our risen Christ challenges us as the church to keep actively working for an end of suffering for all God’s innocent ones.
If those wounds were not present, if God had indeed fixed Jesus up and, as the televangelist claimed, just moved on, putting all that cross-stuff behind him, we might have been able to get away with not caring about unarmed black men being shot or the discrepancy of economic opportunities between neighborhoods on the North Side and the South Side or older adults having to choose between medicine or food. If the risen Christ did not still bear his wounds, then we might have been able to claim that unless it affects us directly, we are not affected.
But that is not what happened. The Catholic theologian Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, nonviolent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an ‘established’ religion (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history and still believe that Jesus is one’s ‘personal Lord and Savior.’ . . . [And yet,] the world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on earth is too great.”
I would argue we have never had the time for such silliness, as Rohr put it, because we believe that the resurrected Christ is forever the wounded Christ. That means we cannot opt out of God’s family and still claim to be following Jesus’ Way with faithfulness and integrity. As Otis Moss has preached, nothing is going to change in the city of Chicago until the time comes that when a child is hurt on the South Side, those of us on the North Side decide to stand up and say, “That is our child and that child matters.” And friends—that time better hurry up and arrive, because we follow the resurrected Christ who is forever the wounded Christ.
When we are tempted to forget that, or to try and ignore anything and anyone who does not directly affect us, all we need to do is touch the palms of our hands, to remember those wounds. When the Word became flesh, our flesh was forever made part of the Word. That truth is meant to change our lives. Christianity is a lifestyle, not just a belief system.
Our risen Christ still bears the marks of his wounds. Touch the palms of your hands. When the Word became flesh, our flesh was forever made part of the Word. May that Easter truth infuse our lives with courage, our church with courage, our world with courage. For the Lord is risen—and risen with those wounds still there. Our woundedness, the woundedness of creation, still matters to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.