Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland, Oregon, 23 April, 2017
When I was in college, my Christian friends and I spent a lot of time examining our family or relationship issues. We were trying to fix them on the assumption that somehow divorce or abuse or loneliness broke you. We spent a lot of time examining real pain and loss, examining our issues as if they were scars on our psyche that we needed to heal, which often meant making them go away. I remember after a particular conversation with a friend about some of the problematic practices in our college campus fellowship that it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps my particular mix of struggles made me more aware, more able to see, more sensitive to when communities go awry. It occurred to me that I was who I was because of those scars, not in spite of them.
I had this conversation over twenty years ago, but it came to mind as I thought about Thomas and his insistence that he would not believe the ridiculous claim of the women at the tomb that Jesus was not dead, or the that he had just missed a visit between Jesus and his friends. Thomas needs to see to believe, to touch a living body to believe that it is not dead.
What stands out to me though, is not Thomas’s doubt, but Jesus’ body. Not that Jesus has a resurrected body, though that is certainly one of the more incredible claims Christianity makes. Or even what a resurrected body is like, though Jesus simply walking through closed doors introduces the possibility that resurrected bodies may behave a little differently than ours behave. Ask my sister what happened the day she thoroughly cleaned a sliding glass door which I then I attempted to run through thinking it was open. Children, please, don’t run in the house.
What stands out to me in this story is that Jesus’ body has scars.
You see, on the one hand there is a strand of Christian interpretation that sees in the Resurrection a promise of future perfection where tears are wiped away, where suffering is no more, and all we need to do now is wait and endure. Our hope is in the promise of an end where all things are brought to a final, perhaps cataclysmic, conclusion by the divine Christ, who is the beginning and the end. In this vision, there are no scars left.
On the other hand there is the narrative which sees in this pie-in-the-sky vision an encouragement of passivity. It rightly rejects the idea of passive endurance and focuses on the life and compassion of the human Jesus. In this story, there may be no resurrected body.
But Thomas’s reaction to the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” challenges both of these narratives, because of the scars. The disciples are literally cowering behind closed doors because of those scars, terrified after a week of triumph that ended in horrible violence. Only the women, who have so little to lose, venture out to care for Jesus’ body, and they return with a story so outrageous they are dismissed. The disciples have reason to be afraid, because they saw how those scars were given to Jesus. And they have reason to be ashamed, because as they saw the scars being given, they said nothing, did nothing. They allowed their friend to die, melting away in fear and silence.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to suddenly have Jesus standing next to you? To not believe it is him until you see the scars? It is by the scars that the disciples recognize that this person is indeed their friend.
Jesus didn’t get those scars because he waited around for the coming of the reign of God. He got them because he embodied the reign of God when he brought good news to the poor, gave sight to the blind, freedom to the captives, and challenged economic, political and religious oppression and servitude.
Thomas reaches out and touches the physical consequence of injustice, of state-sponsored violence, of the silence and desertion of friends. By those scars, Thomas comes to believe that this person really is the friend that he travelled with, the Jesus who loved and laughed (I hope), who wept with his friends, drank at weddings, who taught crowds and argued with lawyers. And Thomas’s response is to see in this human person the God who is always and forever for us, with us, even to the point of being scarred by us.
The scars are both our grief and our hope.
They are our grief because what we want is to not have scars, to not inflict scars. We don’t want to have to learn from our ‘issues,’ we want suffering and loss to go away. We spend an enormous amount of time in our culture protecting ourselves from suffering and loss. We spend perhaps even more time refusing to believe that our lives as they currently exist require the suffering of people of color, of people without wealth, of our planet.
The Christian message is not one of health and wealth, that is a lie which only serves the privileged and powerful. The Jesus movement was born from an eternal vision of just love that was met with rejection and violence. We cannot avoid suffering. We have scars. We will inflict scars.
But in the Resurrection, scars do not have the last word. They can become our hope. We are who we are because of what we have been through, what we have done, good or bad, considerate or neglectful.
In the Risen Christ we see that even death does not have the last word. And so, instead of cowering in fear, we can, like Jesus, speak peace to one another and to our world. Each one of us will do so in different ways and different places, but our best moment of speaking peace will most likely arise from those places where we have been scarred the most, where we have suffered or caused to suffer. We are our bodies, we are our relationships, and every body and every relationship is where and how we love one another, how we join with Jesus Christ, who trampled down death by death so that we could become to one another what God is to us: the embodiment of justice, mercy, peace, hope and joy. AMEN.