The Language of the Wounds, April 8, 2018
Pastor Donna R. Buell
Imagine for a moment the scene that John has painted for us in today’s gospel reading. The disciples are gathered in Jerusalem behind locked doors. There are heavy fabrics draped over the windows so that those passing by on the street cannot see into the room. The followers of Jesus are speaking to one another in hushed tones, for fear of being overheard. But if we listen carefully, we can hear what they are saying. They are talking about everything that has happened during the last few days: their arrival in Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna, the things that Jesus said and did, the last meal they shared with him, how Judas betrayed him, how they all failed him, how he was arrested, tortured, and crucified on a cross. They are talking about how Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus asked for Jesus’ body and buried him in a tomb just before the Sabbath began. They are listening, as Mary and John and Simon Peter tell them again the things that took place when they went to the tomb early this morning. And they really don’t know what to make of all of that. You can feel the uncertainty and fear in the room. They are afraid that Judas has identified all of them and that it is only a matter of time until they too will be arrested. And they are worried about where Thomas is, and whether he is safe, and about the pair who set out early that morning for Emmaus.
Those gathered in that room are in shock. They are each experiencing their own sorrow and grief at Jesus’ death, their own guilt and shame for the ways they failed him, their own anger and rage at those who sent him to his death, their own feelings of loneliness and abandonment because he is no longer with them. A few of them may even be questioning the trust they had placed in him. They had hoped he was the Messiah! But now he is dead. What does it mean? What will they do now? Who will lead them? And what are they to make of this empty tomb and Mary’s claim to have actually seen the Lord?
It was into the midst of this grief and fear, this anger and rage, this loneliness and uncertainty that Jesus appeared to those who were gathered in that locked room. John makes it very clear that the one standing in the midst of that room was the same Jesus who died on the cross. After speaking a word of “peace” Jesus showed them his hands and his side. “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Again, Jesus spoke peace to them and commissioned the disciples saying, “As the father sent me, so I send you.” They had been devastated and paralyzed by his death. But Jesus gave them direction. He told them to continue the work he had begun when he was among them. But he didn’t only tell them what to do, he also gave them the power to do it. Just as God breathed life into the first human being, John tells us that Jesus breathed upon his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Shortly before his death Jesus had promised them that he would send the Spirit, the Comforter, who would be with them, to guide them, to remind them of all he had taught them, and to empower them to carry on the work he had begun among them.
And we know from reading the scriptures that the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples had a powerful transformational effect upon them. These fearful, grieving disciples, through their encounters with the risen Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, were able to carry out their mission, and to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ even in the face of tremendous opposition. And the story of their transformation speaks powerfully to us.//
I am sure that each of us can relate in some way to the disciples’ experiences of grief and loss, guilt and shame, loneliness and abandonment, confusion and doubt, as they gathered in that locked room on Easter night. And it is at times like that, when we are feeling most vulnerable, that we need to encounter the risen Christ, to hear that call, and to experience that transforming power and presence.
The Church’s proclamation of the risen Christ often comes in the language of triumph and victory. With alleluias and trumpet fanfare, we proclaim Christ crowned in gold and unblemished in his glory. And yet, when we turn to the gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, there are no alleluias, there are no trumpets, there are no golden crowns. What we find are moments when Jesus appeared in the midst of his grieving and fearful disciples: in the burial garden, in the locked room, on the lakeshore at sunrise, on the road to Emmaus, at the table in the breaking of bread. In the midst of human activity, in the midst of sorrow and grief, fear and confusion, Jesus appeared with words of comfort and peace, with a commission to carry on his ministry, and with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And when John shows us the risen Jesus, he does not show us an unblemished, glorified Jesus, he shows us a Jesus with wounds on his hands and in his side.
As important as it is for us to proclaim the triumphal message of the risen Christ, as the choir will next Sunday in our cantata, it seems to me that there are times when the language of that triumphal message can hold people at a distance from God. When people are wounded in life, the good news that Christ is risen is sometimes very hard to hear. And when that good news is expressed only in the language of triumph and victory, it can feel like a distant, hollow promise that does not speak to the pain of human life. And yet, those who are wounded are the very ones who most need to hear that good news. And they are the ones who have been in my heart this Easter season.
I have been thinking about people who have lost a loved one to death. I have been thinking about people who are suffering from illness or injury or disability. I have been thinking about families that have been torn apart by broken relationships. I have been thinking about people who are struggling moment by moment to overcome addiction. I have been thinking about an entire generation of children and youth who have grown up practicing active shooter drills in school. I have been thinking about people who live in conditions of poverty, hunger and homelessness, in our own country and around the world. I have been thinking about people who fear for their safety day in and day out. And I have been thinking that if our proclamation of the Resurrection does not speak to wounds of these people in a language that takes seriously the pain and the grief in their lives, then that proclamation may not be heard by them as good news – at least not yet.
But the gospel really is good news.
As I have worked with today’s gospel reading, one aspect of John’s account latched on to me and would not let go. John tells us that when the risen Jesus appeared to his grieving, fearful disciples, he showed them the wounds in his hands and side. He spoke to them in the language of his wounds. He reminded them that he too had been wounded, that he had known the sorrows and the grief of life, that he had experienced the pain of betrayal and abandonment and rejection, that he had died on that cross. And when the disciples saw those wounds their grief and fear transformed into joy. When Thomas saw Jesus’ wounds a week later, his doubt transformed into a profound confession of faith “My Lord, and my God.” It was the wounds on the risen Christ that spoke to the disciples. For when they saw the wounds, they were able to identify with Jesus as he had identified with them.
And those wounds on the hands and side of the risen Jesus remind us that the story of Easter is not a message that keeps those who are wounded in life at a distance from God. Rather, it is a story that places God at the very center of that woundedness. John tells us that in Jesus the eternal Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us; that this Jesus, who knew the joys and sorrows of human life, was with God in the beginning, before the creation of the world; that this Jesus was God; and that in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit God is present within us and among us even now.
Most of us know what it is to be wounded in life. Sometimes those wounds are battle scars and medals of honor for us. Sometimes they are signs of sacrificial love. Sometimes they are evidence that we have survived a great tragedy. Sometimes they are witnesses to us and to others of the struggles we have faced. Some of our wounds are visible and obvious to everyone around us, and others we bear silently within. But in all cases our wounds help to shape who we are, and how we live, and how we experience the gospel message, and what others experience when they are around us.
And I think that the wounds on the hands and side of the risen Jesus remind us that we need to dig down deep within to the wounded places in our own lives if we are to communicate the great, good news of the resurrection to those who are hurting. For if the good news really is good news – and I believe it is – then it must speak to the woundedness of life – not to glorify those wounds, not to minimize those wounds, or erase those wounds – but to acknowledge those wounds that they might be transformed. It is the language of the wounds that will speak to the wounded of our day, and draw them nearer to the risen Jesus.
James M. Barrie, best known as the creator of Peter Pan, was shocked at the age of six by the death of his brother and the impact this death had on his mother. He later said that that was where his mother got her soft eyes and why other mothers ran to her when they had lost a child. They knew she understood. And when life becomes difficult for us, when pain and heartache become our lot, we need to look at the master’s scars and remember again that he has been through the worst and therefore understands.
An Idle Tale Becomes Good News by Hershel H. Sheets, pg. 116
Minnesota author, Traci DePree, illustrates this beautifully in her novel a can of peas. In the story, a young woman named Mae was devastated by the stillbirth of her first child, a baby girl whom they named Laura. She spent the first days in shock, just going through the motions as people brought food to the house, neighbors helped out with the milking and the harvest, and plans were made for the burial. She seemed unreachable through the simple graveyard service. That evening as she sat alone in her bedroom her husband’s grandmother, Virginia, came in to see her. “Do you want to talk?” Virginia asked. Mae made room for Virginia on the bed beside her. The two women had become close in the months since Mae and her husband Peter had taken over his grandparents’ farm following the death of Virginia’s husband, his grandfather. Mae was a city girl and had struggled to adjust to life on the farm. She had come to admire the older woman’s wisdom and experience, and the depth of her faith as she mourned her husband’s death. After sitting silently for a time, Virginia began to speak.
“It’s going to be hard for a long time. You’ll always wonder what it would’ve been like if she’d lived, who she would’ve looked like, what her interests and abilities would’ve been.” Mae studied Virginia’s wrinkled face as she spoke. “You’ll be glad that you didn’t know her so well, that somehow that will make you mourn her less. Then you’ll feel guilty for feeling that way.” Virginia’s eyes glimmered with tears, and her gaze seemed focused on nothing in particular as she lifted her head. “Wondering about who she would’ve been is almost harder than being grateful for the fifty-seven years you had with your husband…” Her words faded away, and Virginia’s gaze met Mae’s.
“When did you lose your baby?” Mae asked. It was the first time she’d ever heard of this.
“Three years after Sarah was born,” Virginia said, “I wasn’t as far along as you were, but it never goes away, the pain. Not really. But healing comes in the small things. Like when Peter was born, when you joined our family. It’s all part of the give and take of life. But God is faithful. He never turns his back on us.”
In this story, Virginia spoke to Mae of the hope that is ours through the risen Christ. But she never spoke about the resurrection, did she? She spoke in the language of the wounds. She reached down deep to her own place of pain and sorrow, and revealing her own marks and scars, she offered this young woman a glimpse of what it means to live in the hope of Christ even in the midst of grief and loss. She showed her that although the pain of grief will remain, always, healing does come in the small things, life can go on, faith is possible, because God comes to us in our woundedness, and because God never turns his back on us. And there are countless stories like this one of people who have come alongside of others in their woundedness, and have spoken in the language of their own wounds, and in doing this, have offered a glimpse of the risen Christ.
The language of the wounds offers no promises of a quick fix, or of an easy, carefree existence – it does not promise to erase the wounds, it does not pretend they will go away, or gloss over them with pious language. But it does offer the promise of Christ’s risen and compassionate presence in the midst of our woundedness. And that promise, the promise in the wounds, does indeed have the power to transform us, moment by moment, into people who have eyes to believe where we have not seen. The language of the wounds is the language that can truly and authentically speak about finding hope in the midst of despair, peace in the midst of fear, joy in the midst of sorrow, faith in the midst of doubt, direction in the midst of confusion, determination in the midst of rage, empowerment in the midst of paralysis, companionship in the midst of isolation.
John’s story of the resurrection is told in the language of the wounds, in order that those who have been wounded in life might believe that this risen and wounded Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. And that believing in him, they might have life in his name. Thanks be to God. Amen.