Scarred For Life
NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.
19When 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.” 24But 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.”
26A 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.” 30Now 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.
As the sun sets on Easter Sunday, the disciples have gone underground, laying low, waiting for the ruckus to die down. The disciples are no doubt undone by grief. Wracked with guilt about what they did and should have done differently. Maybe their guilt is fed by their sense of relief that they can finally go back to fishing. You can almost hear them saying to themselves, “Well, we tried, but the establishment won. The rich and the powerful always win. Why did we think it would be any different this time? Boy, were we stupid to imagine that Jesus could take on the Romans and actually win.” Or something like that. In spite of all their earlier bravado, the disciples failed miserably at the end. They were probably ashamed that everything had gone so very wrong, and a little embarrassed.
And never underestimate the power of fear to keep even the most faithful disciple stuck in place, even an incredibly uncomfortable place like a darkened room with the door locked tight.
You don’t have to knock very hard on any door to find someone stuck by fear, by shame, by doubt. Young adults locked in low self-esteem. Couples locked in miserable relationships. Older folks locked in by regret or pride. I am convinced though, that fear is the root of what gets us stuck. Most of us are locked in prisons of fear of one thing or another, at one time or another. Author Katherine Pershey describes what it’s like to be locked into a prison of fear:
“Fear is a physiological response to tomorrow. It is almost always about death. Fear causes us to live in a perpetual state of anxiety. Fear is exhausting and depressing. Generally, the calamities I expect do not come to pass. So I replace them with new ones. Time and energy that could be used constructively – for prayer, dishwashing, learning to quilt – I sacrifice to cultivate apprehension.”
Garrison Keillor once said, “We always have a backstage view of ourselves.” We carefully orchestrate what people know and see about us. Most of those around us, even our closest friends and family, see only the neatly arranged part of our lives. We imagine that if we let someone peek behind the curtain, they’ll see all kinds of things lying around. Old failures, hurts, guilt and shame. All the stuff we try to hide, just as the disciples were hiding that dark Sunday evening. They were hiding in the dark to escape the dark truth about themselves -- that they were not what they wanted to be, or even what they pretended to be. They were not the faithful ones they had hoped to be for Jesus.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus the word made flesh, the light of the world is sent to a hostile world that is locked in fear in dark room. In our passage today, darkness is about to be kicked to the curb. Big time.
New Testament scholar Richard Hays comments on this passage: “Isn’t it curious that God could raise Jesus from the dead but didn’t heal the nail wounds in his hands? Was this an oversight? Surely not. The power of death is conquered, but the [scars] remain.” When Jesus showed the disciples his scars, he was saying, “Here is my signature.” Here is how you will know me. In the mess and muck and scars that signify human life.
Scars remind us that we are human. They remind us of our capacity for healing, as long as we are alive. And each scar has a story behind, doesn’t it? About an accident, a surgery, a baby, a moment when that ball hit us in the head, or we fell on our faces. Sometimes we have a much harder time dealing with our own scars than those belonging to somebody else. It took my friend Kathy forever to look at the scar on her chest after her mastectomy. And there’s a story in that scar for her, although it is still a story being written. We all hope the ending will be something like, “This scar is a reminder of how Kathy kicked the you-know-what out of cancer.
I think that is at least part of the reason that Jesus makes the point of showing the disciples his hands and his side on that Easter evening when he enters the locked room. The scars are a vivid reminder of how far God was willing to go for us. And how far God is willing to go with us. It wasn’t Jesus’ face or hair or clothing or voice that convinces the disciples that they are in the presence of the resurrected Christ. It is those scars that prompt their recognition of their Lord. That is the point of recognition for them, even in their fear and grief and terror.
In the first appearance, Jesus moves into the locked room. His first word to the disciples breaks into the darkness of the evening – Shalom, peace -- echoing the message Jesus spoke earlier to the disciples as part of his farewell promise at the last supper on Maundy Thursday, “Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The perfect word of peace lifts the cloud of fear hanging over the disciples. But Jesus goes on and shows the disciples his scars and invites them move out of their fear and back into relationship with him. As if to say…it’s me. It’s ok.
And then, using the same verb for breathe as is used in Genesis when God breathes life into the first human being, John signifies that the old world as the disciples had known it is passing away. There is a new world, a new reality coming to pass as Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them. The disciples are sent to not only go and preach like Jesus, but also to be Christ in the world.
But, the disciples’ first real effort at telling of the resurrection does not go very well. Thomas returns to the group who are just bursting with excitement about what had happened. They say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” echoing the testimony of Mary Magedeline just a few verses earlier. We have seen the Lord! He is Risen! Hallelujah!
Notice what Thomas says to them. He does not say, “I do not believe.” He says, “I won’t believe…” Thomas needs to see for himself. And who can blame him? How can Thomas reconcile the violence of Christ’s death and the good news of Christ’s resurrection without seeing and touching the truth? Like Peter running to the tomb, Thomas wants to see for himself if the good news is truly good or just too good to be true.
Remember this is the same Thomas that was ready to rush headlong into dangerous territory. He was ready to go and die with Jesus when he was headed back to heal Lazarus in Bethany. This is the same Thomas who wanted to know the way to the place Jesus had prepared and believed Jesus’ answer, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Thomas is not a skeptic nor unfaithful, and his first name is not “doubting.”
Why is Thomas missing at the beginning of the story? Maybe he was out looking for Jesus after hearing the report of the women when they return from the empty tomb. The truth is, we don’t know why Thomas goes or where he was, but he misses the first appearance of Jesus to the rest of the disciples. But what this story from the gospel of John teaches us is that Jesus will always come looking for us, like the good shepherd he is. Even when we are too sad or too busy or too distracted the first time.
Thomas just wants what I think all of us want. We want to see Jesus. Because, really, who does not have questions? Who among us has not spent a long dark night of the soul locked up and tangled in doubt? Who does not have moments when we wonder what exactly it is that we believe, and why it is such a difficult thing it is to live into those beliefs?
Much has been made in biblical criticism about whether or not Thomas actually touches Jesus’ wounds when Jesus comes back to the disciples again a week later. The text does not tell us. But it does tell us that Jesus shares the scars that recall not only Christ’s pain, but also the possibility of healing and new life. And it is the scars that seem to move Thomas into the resurrection life. He could not find resurrection in the jumping joy of the disciples, but in the peace of Christ and in the sharing of remembered pain made flesh in Jesus’ scars.
Every kind of scar is a mark of possibility. If your physical body is sound enough to put itself back together even after the most traumatic event, that means you are still alive. And where life exists, there’s always an opportunity for healing. Yet, the scar remains as a reminder of the event born of accident or necessity, cruelty or abuse. And it tells a story both of pain and possibility. Our scars are the mark of healing and new life.
Early on in our trip to South Sudan, we noticed that a number of the pastors in the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church had six horizontal scars across their foreheads. One of our group finally asked about the scars and one of the pastors told us that they were from the Nuer tribe. In the Nuer tradition, when a boy is 14 or 15 years old, they undergo a ritual cutting performed by the community’s tribal doctor. The pastor described the cutting process to us, including how after the cuts in the skin were made, the tribal doctor rubbed dirt into the cuts to ensure that healing wouldn’t be immediate, but would take a long time, resulting larger, more well-defined scars. After the boy recovers from the cutting, he is no longer considered a boy, but a man, with all the respect and responsibility that comes with it.
After hearing this story, we were all sort of staring at the scars on the pastor’s forehead. One of us asked, “Didn’t that hurt?” To the pastor’s credit, he didn’t point out the obvious stupidity of the question. He just said, “Of course it hurt. It hurt like hell. But these scars tell me who I am and where I came from. My son will not have these scars. I will carry the legacy for him. He can be who God has made him to be.”
Jesus, our Lord and our God in the glory of the resurrection, still bears the wounds of his experience of God with us on earth. The resurrection did not remove his human experience. The risen Lord still bears on his body the scars that speak of his solidarity with human suffering in all of its forms. These scars serve as a reminder that God is with us through all things, especially the appalling, destructive and death-dealing times. Jesus bears the scars for us so we can be who God has created us to be. No longer afraid of death. More importantly, no longer afraid of life.
And that is what Thomas saw in that moment before his confession – “My Lord and my God!” This is the fulfillment of John’s Gospel – that the divine Word has been made flesh. We have seen his glory. We have seen his grace and truth. And in this moment Thomas receives grace upon grace.
Tradition says that Thomas was the only one of the disciples to proclaim the gospel to people and regions beyond the purview of the Roman Empire. After the experience in the locked room with Jesus, he emerged like a shot to take the good news out into the world. In fact, there are ancient documents that attest to Thomas travelling as far as southern India where he is still revered by Christians today.
This text challenges us to do exactly as Jesus did. Let down our guard. Expose our wounds. Reconcile with our enemies. Forgive one another again and again. Have the courage to be vulnerable so that people will know we really do mean it when we say there’s something about this Jesus that has opened up our lives in ways we never expected. That Jesus is present in our suffering and present in our healing and still present in our witness to God’s presence in the world.
Those disciples had every good reason to stay in that room. It was a dangerous time. They had followed a dangerous leader, so dangerous to the authorities that he was put to death. The Holy Spirit breathed upon the disciples by Jesus freed them from their fear to allow them to move out and search for new possibilities of resurrection life.
Thomas is the twin for all of us who need Jesus to reach into our side, to touch our hearts, to soften its hardness and warm its coldness. We need Jesus to touch our hands, so that our fists are unclenched and we are able to embrace and to share. We need Jesus to touch the scars we keep hidden so when we encounter other doubters like us, doubters who are as broken and scarred as we are, they will see and believe what we profess to believe:
Oh, Jesus…it’s you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.