William P. Brown
April 8, 2018
St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
Easter isn’t over, but it has taken a strange turn. Mary Magdalene had earlier announced having seen the Lord, but this was evidently received not with joy by the disciples, but with perplexity and fear. We find them huddled together in a locked room, speaking in hushed tones out of fear of being found out as followers of an executed criminal, and then suddenly a figure appears unannounced, declaring, “Peace be with you,” and all heaven breaks loose! Their fear is replaced by amazement and wonder once they recognize who stands before them. But for one who isn’t there to see, skepticism is the first response. Thomas, the doubter. Make no mistake, Thomas is not presented as a dope or negative cynic. His skepticism is a healthy one, and it leads to joyful confirmation. I like to think of Thomas as the Bible’s pre-scientific empiricist who demands tangible proof to corroborate what he has only heard about. And there is nothing wrong with that. Who among us wouldn’t demand the same? Who would take such a word at face value? Who would not suspect “fake news”? And this was highly politicized news. Remember, the soldiers who were supposed to be guarding the tomb were told to say the body was stolen. Thomas demands proof, and he gets it. Case closed.
But the story isn’t so simple. John’s account that evening is riddled with gaps and paradoxes that arrest our attention. I’m particularly captivated by an easily overlooked detail in John’s Gospel, and it is this pregnant pause of perplexity that followed the disciples’ initial encounter with the resurrected Christ. Earlier, Mary Magdalene had mistakenly identified Jesus as the gardener until Jesus called her by name. In his more public appearance, Jesus is not recognized by the disciples until he shows them his “hands and his side.” And therein lies a great paradox: the risen Christ is recognized not by his words, not by his appearance through locked doors. Rather, the disciples recognize Jesus by his wounds, the wounds of his crucifixion. The crucifixion has left its indelible marks upon Christ’s resurrected body, such that the risen Jesus is recognizable only through them. The marks of mortality, specifically the brutal marks of execution, turn out to be the definitive signs of Jesus’ resurrected identity! On the one hand, resurrection has not erased his wounds. On the other hand, Jesus’ wounds no longer define him as a dead criminal in the eyes of the state. Jesus doesn’t wince at Thomas’s touch. His wounds, instead, are robbed of their deadly, hurtful power. Yes, Jesus’ body is made whole and new. Yet his wounds are still there, and it is because of them that he is finally recognizable to his disciples. Why, then, do Jesus’ wounds endure? I’m glad you asked that question!
Although Jesus passes through locked doors, he is no ghost. Jesus invites Thomas to place his finger in Jesus’ hands and his hand in Jesus’ side (v. 27), fulfilling the doubting disciple’s criteria for belief. I wonder how that might have felt for our brave, skeptical Thomas, how it felt to touch resurrected skin, and specifically to touch Jesus’ wounds. Was there an electrifying spark when he touched Jesus’ wounds, like a surge of static electricity, or was there a gentle warmth to the touch? As the first to touch the risen Christ, what did Thomas feel? What must he have been thinking? If only the text would say. In addition to whatever Thomas felt physically, I suspect Thomas and his fellow disciples felt a twinge of guilt and grief, knowing full well that they had abandoned Jesus in his greatest moment of need, when his hands and side were pierced to the bone. Through Jesus’ wounds, each was reminded of his complicity in Jesus’ death and abandonment. To see and touch the resurrected Jesus, particularly his wounds, must have pierced their hearts. Even as death is overcome, the past cannot simply be erased. The wounds remain for all to see and touch.
While the account of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples is more concerned with sight than with touch, there is a touch of the tactile, much like in Genesis 2 when God is said to have “formed Adam from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” This isn’t Michelangelo’s depiction in the Sistine Chapel of a white Adam and a patriarchal, bearded God “connected” only by slightly separated fingers. The God of Genesis is the God who gets down and dirty working the soil to fashion a body and who performs CPR (or better CPS) to give it life. A similar scene happens in John: when Jesus “breathed on” the disciples to impart the Holy Spirit (v. 22), something happens comparable to God breathing into Adam, filling his lungs and giving him life, and along with life, responsibility. For Adam, his breath-filled life leads to becoming the garden’s caretaker. For the disciples, it leads to becoming caretakers of the church. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ breathing on the disciples marks the church’s birthday, which means that Christ’s wounds are the church’s birthmark.
And so there is more to Jesus’ wounds than simply the matter of visual identification. His wounds bear permanent, tangible testimony to his crucifixion; they serve as an enduring, visceral witness to the power of the Roman empire to humiliate, terrorize, and destroy lives, an enduring witness today to our capacity to commit violence against others even as we are called to love one another. Christ’s body has taken on the ravages of human violence for all to see, touch, and ponder, not to avoid or turn away from. And so the wounds remain. Christ’s wounds remind me of the mutilated body of Emmet Louis Till whose mother insisted that his coffin remain open for all the world to see in 1955, as a stark reminder of the sheer brutality of racism in America. Similarly, we remember the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, even as we strive to live the dream of racial and economic equality that he so forcefully articulated from the mountain top.
Christ’s wounds remind us that an innocent man was crucified under state-sanctioned violence to maintain the religious and political status quo. Christ’s wounds did not go away in the Resurrection; they remained visible for his disciples to see. In the same way that in our so-called “post-racial” society, the legacies of slavery and racism remain abundantly clear: from the scarcity of economic and educational opportunities for communities of color to the murder of unarmed black and brown men by those entrusted to maintain law and order. The wounds persist, and in that vein the cross persists, even as it serves as the central symbol of the Christian faith, that ancient means of imperial torture, humiliation, and death, meant to induce terror among a subjugated people. Just like . . . , well, imagine coming into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and instead of this cross you see a hanging noose. Such was the significance of the cross in Jesus’ time. And yet in the reality of resurrection the cross has become a symbol of God’s sacrificial love for all people. What wondrous love is this? To take the worst that humanity could ever do and transform it, not erase it or displace it, but transform it. And so, the wounds remain, as the cross remains. To touch the resurrection is also to touch the wounds that preceded it. The wounds of Christ’s resurrected body beckon you and me to touch the wounds that exist among us and all around us today, wounds that remind us of our complicity, and to respond differently in light of Christ’s resurrection. The wounds of Christ present a call to action. Because who can look upon the wounded resurrected Christ and simply return to business as usual? The disciples certainly didn’t; they did not remain behind locked. We know from the account in Acts that from them a new community was birthed, one in which material resources were shared so that no one would suffer the wounds of crushing poverty and inequity.
So, what do we do with this wounded resurrection? First, like Thomas, we are invited to touch the wounds. And in so doing we allow them to pierce our own hearts. To touch Christ’s wounds is to feel the wounds of the world. If God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son to redeem it, to heal and to reconcile the world, then Christ’s wounds point to the wounds of the world. Look around, and see the world’s wounds, the earth’s wounds, continuing to deepen. In addition to increasing economic and social inequity, there are also the environmental wounds: more species extinctions, rising sea levels, acidified oceans, polluted streams and lakes, and, of course, rising global temperatures. The human toll is mounting: famine and drought bringing about starvation and death with increasing frequency across the globe, more and more refugees fleeing their drought-stricken lands or sinking coasts, the rise in mental health issues for those who have suffered repeated flooding and storms. And the death toll is still mounting in Puerto Rico! These wounds are real. We cannot look away. We must see them, touch them, and act! Patriarch Bartholomew, the ecclesial leader of over 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, observes, “there is a long journey from the head to the heart, and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands.”
As Thomas reached out his hand to touch the wounded hands and side of Jesus, so Christ beckons our hands to reach out and act on behalf of a wounded world for the sake of God’s love for the world. As people of faith, we recognize that the deep root causes of environmental catastrophe are not CO2 emissions from our SUVs, or methane emissions from Concentrated Animal Farming Operations (CAFOs), or mountain tops blasted to bits for the coal they contain. No. The root causes of environmental catastrophe are human greed, hatred of the other, and fear of change, all insisted upon in the name of individual freedom and free market capitalism.
Does Jesus’ appearance to his disciples speak to the fight for justice for all life, for justice that cannot be segregated? Who among us can gaze at the wounds of Christ, can walk through Easter, and not be transformed to live differently? Do you think Thomas could touch the pierced side of the one who saves us, and simply go back into hiding? Christ’s wounds mark the birth of our new life, and it is a life of action, a life of response in gratitude and obedience to the one who endured for our sake and for the sake of the world.
To touch Christ’s wounds is to recognize the wounds we inflict upon the world. The planet we pass on to our children will not resemble the planet we inherited. Our common home will be far more difficult to live on for generations to come. We cannot deny this anymore than we can gloss over Christ’s wounds. Rather, they must be seen and felt . . . and believed! Perhaps what can bridge our political and ideological differences is having visceral contact with the deepening wounds of the earth, personal contact with the victims of polluted water and rising sea levels. Direct contact with lives disrupted by drought, flooding, and storm. Grieving over the loss of white rhinos and the near certain extinction of the North Atlantic right whales. Touching the wounds of the world, from the scarred mountain tops of Appalachia to the broken bodies of black men to the carcasses of starved polar bears. Christ’s wounds cry out for our attention.
In Christ we bear witness to a vision of life in which the beloved community, the church, exists on behalf of the biotic community, the community of life: we are the Body of Christ for the body of the world. It is a vision birthed in resurrection hope, in which wholeness and renewal are the works of God, the gifts of God, gifts that are also worth striving for, as much as hoping for. It is knowing that we cannot build the kingdom of God brick by brick, that is ultimately God’s work, but we can yearn for it, hope for it, pray for it, and, yes, work for it without the illusion that we are alone in doing so. We join the living Christ in what Christ is doing this world. The wound-bearing Christ tells Thomas, blessed are those who haven’t seen and touched my wounds, but who believe in me enough to follow, enough to leave locked rooms and venture out to proclaim Christ’s power and love for a wounded world, because Christ isn’t finished yet.
And what is our hope in such a time as this, when everything seems to be going backwards? It is knowing that God intends for something better in and for this world with which we have been entrusted. It is seeing churches growing community gardens with the conviction that they are the victory gardens of the future. It is seeing churches care for the homeless and immigrant populations with the conviction that every person is created in God’s image, a child of God. It is seeing St. Mark’s work for the full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals into the worship life and leadership of the Presbyterian church. It is ultimately holding fast to the vision of God coming home to creation.
David Orr defines hope as a “verb with its sleeves rolled up.” For Martin Luther King, Jr., hope is “the final refusal to give up.” The secret about hope is this: hope has to be practiced in order for hope is to be sustained. Hope is about the church accepting its call to be a sign of the new creation. Hope captures the enduring dream of God at work among us, a dream that comes clear at the end, for we hear the final words in the book of Revelation.
See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
God doesn’t say, “I am making all new things,” as if from scratch or from the ashes of complete destruction. No, God says, “I am making all things new.” The last time I checked, “all” means all, and that, my friends, includes our wounds.
My friends, the world remains wounded, and it is the wounded Christ who leads us forward through the locked doors of fear, through the bolted gates of hatred, through the border walls of exclusion, through the hardened hearts of the politically powerful. Christ leads us forward, and as you go forth, each as you are called, may the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion and fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all the days of your wounded and precious life.
Featured image: “Jesus Mafa,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.