April 30, 1995
Third Sunday of Easter
"Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you,'...he showed them his hands and his side."
In The Odyssey (Book XIX), there is that episode, near the end of the tale, when Odysseus finally returns home after years of wandering. But he is disguised as an old man; nobody recognizes him at home, even his own wife and son. That night, just before bed, the aged nurse of Odysseus, Eurycleia, bathes him. She thinks she is merely bathing an old stranger who visits for the night. But while bathing him, Eurycleia recognizes a scar on Odysseus' leg, the same scar she remembers from his infancy. She did not recognize him until she saw his scar.
Well, we're two Sundays after Easter, two Sundays after that great day of the triumph of God, Easter, that vast setting right of all that death made wrong. Death? Evil? Injustice? Easter says that God's good purposes would not be defeated, that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God triumphed.
In today's gospel, the Risen Christ slips through the closed doors and appears before his despondent disciples. But they don't know him. He spoke to them, as he had spoken so often before, saying "Peace." But they still don't know him. Then, John says, "He showed them his hands and his side" (John 20:20). He showed them his scars and then, only then, they saw, they rejoiced.
Thomas shows up a little later. He wasn't with the other disciples for the Easter appearance. The other disciples tell him of the Risen Christ, but Thomas says, "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" (John 20:25). A week later, the Risen Christ again surprises the disciples. Thomas is there and Jesus obliges, "Put your finger here," says the Risen Christ, "Do not doubt but believe."
Somehow here, some connection is being made between belief in the Risen Christ and the scars of Christ. The Risen Christ has scars. Being raised from the dead did not erase his scars. The Christ of Easter bears the scars made on Good Friday. Jesus' disciples like Thomas recognized him as risen only by touching his scars.
Easter, the stunning triumph of God, the great victory over death and defeat, does not erase the scars.
I know someone who has become a Christian. She was told, "If you are a Christian, a real Christian, you will always feel joy and peace in your heart." But she feels great sadness, even after becoming a Christian. Is something wrong with her? Is her faith not yet firm? She was abused as a child. Her Christian faith has brought her much joy, yes, but still she bears the scars. So did the Risen Christ.
The Risen Christ had just moved from death to life, had sallied forth from the tomb triumphant. In his exalted form, the disciples did not recognize him. It was only when he showed them his scars that they knew him. Don't be too hard on Thomas. When he says, "I won't believe that it's Jesus unless I can poke my fingers into the nailprints in his hands," Thomas isn't being simply abstinent. Thomas may be saying, "I won't believe that it's Jesus, unless I touch his scars because Jesus has wounds." They knew him, I think, because the Jesus whom they loved did not hover above the heartache of the world; he embraced the pain, touched the care and the sorrow, lived where we lived, died as we must die. Early on, there was a heresy named Docetism. Docetism said that Christ, the Son of God, did not really suffer on the cross, did not really live as we must live on this earth. He only appeared (Greek: doceo - appear, seem) to suffer, only appeared to be human.
No! the church said. He was God, but he was fully human. The divinely Risen Christ bore human scars. Only a wounded God can save. I Peter goes so far as to say (I Pet. 2:24), "by his wounds you have been healed."
To be human is to have scar tissue inside and out. You have scars, human as you are. I have a scar which I earned at age five when, playing tag with my cousins, I banged into our porch and gashed my forehead. My wound was sewn together and healed. The bleeding quickly stopped. Eventually I got over my fear of hospitals. But I still (as my hairline recedes you will see it) bear the scar, there as a tangible reminder of the night I could have died, but didn't. Maybe, as we grow older, our scars show!
And the Risen Christ, the Christ after Easter, still has scars.
I have a friend who spent much of his life in an orphanage. His mother took him there as a little boy, let him out of the car under a big cedar tree, told him she would return that afternoon, but didn't.
My friend is now middle aged. One day I was to meet him for lunch and I was late. When I arrived, only about fifteen minutes late, I found him in a state of high agitation, pacing about, perspiring heavily, visibly upset. It seemed an overreaction to my fifteen minutes of tardiness.
Later, he said to me. "I just can't help it. I know why I get so bent out of shape when a friend is late. My mother kept me waiting under that tree at the orphanage all afternoon. And she never, ever returned. I just can't stand for someone I love to be late."
He was now all grown up, on his own, functioning quite well, yes. But he still had scars.
There are people who think that Easter has overcome all of that. They think that, just because Jesus was raised from the dead on Easter, the cross is set right, overcome, fixed, forgot. No. The Risen Christ bore nailprints in his hands. That's how they knew that the mysterious one who stood before them was none other than Jesus. Thomas touched his scars. The Christian faith does not deny the pain, the reality of the wound, the existence of the scars. Our faith enables us to go on, in the name of Christ, even with our wounds, but still there are scars.
The Risen Christ was known by his wounds. As a new pastor at a church, I have found that there's always a string of people who come to me to tell me about some past wound they have suffered. Why do they tell me? Just to wallow again in self-pity for some wrong with which they have been afflicted? No. I think they tell me so that I will know them. "You will know me now," they seem to say, even as Thomas knew the Risen Christ as the obedient Jesus, "by my scars." We are known by our scars.
In my last church I had a woman who was assaulted, in her own backyard, at ten in the morning. It was a terrible thing. Through a good counselor and a loving husband and family, she made her way back. One day she called me, telling me that her counselor, as part of her therapy, wanted her to tell someone, someone other than a family member or a pastor, what had happened to her, wanted for her to articulate for someone else, her tragedy.
To whom should she tell her story? Who should she ask for help?
"I want to tell the story to Joe Smith," she said.
Joe Smith? He was a sometimes recovering, often not, alcoholic. In the four years I had been at that church, Joe had held and lost as many jobs.
"I would have thought that you might have wanted to tell another woman," I said. "Why do you want to tell Joe Smith?" I asked.
"Because," she said, "Joe knows what it's like to go to hell and live to tell about it."
Curious, sometimes there are wounds which heal. Strange, somebody whom the world regards as a failure bears wounds which may lead to another's wholeness. Maybe the only way any of us get healed is through wounded healers. It's hard to be helped by someone who hasn't been there, some Docetist deity who has no scars.
We've got this kid, Freshman, in the Chapel Choir. I had mentioned something in a sermon about how I believe that we are "marked" by God for life for some good thing. The Freshman's mother happened to be in the congregation that morning. After service she came up to me, pushing her sheepish freshman son before her toward me. "This one's marked," she said. Marked? He grinned.
"Nearly lost him during the first six weeks of his life. They had him in Duke Hospital putting the oxygen to him as the little thing hung between life and death. I prayed to God the whole time. Told God that, if he lived, I would dedicate him to God. He's got a scar to this day on his heel where they fed him those six weeks in the hospital. Right on his heel. I look upon that scar as God's mark. When he was a little boy, I'd point to that scar on his heel and say, 'See that? It's a sign that God's got plans for you. You've been saved, set apart by God.' He's got the scar to prove it. He's a gift."
You've got your scars, some visible, some invisible, some more visible with age. The One who has called you hear this day, your Savior, the Risen One also has scars, to prove his love for you. If you don't know him, like Thomas, if you aren't sure that you believe, he'll graciously show you his scars "that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (Jn. 20:31).
He showed them his scars. Amen.