“The Mark of the Nails”

When 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.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So 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.”

A 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.”  Then 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.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But 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.

One week ago today, our church choir sang the anthem, “Glorious, Risen Christ!” under Charlotte’s wonderful leadership.  

Glorious, Risen Christ!

Alive and robed in majesty!

Yet the scars of the cross show the infinite cost,

The miraculous touch of Christ’s love for us.

In today’s gospel, the risen Christ slips through the closed doors and appears before his mourning disciples.  But they don’t know him.  He speaks to them, as he has spoken so often before, saying “Peace.”  But they still don’t know him.  Then, as the Gospel of John tells us, “He showed them his hands and his side.”  He showed them his scars.  And then, only then, they saw, and 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.”  A week later, the risen Christ again surprises the disciples.  Thomas is there and Jesus fulfills his request.  “Put your finger here,” says the risen Christ, “Do not doubt, but believe.”  And Thomas reaches to touch the mark of the nails, what remains of the wounds, the scars, from death on a cross.

Somehow here, some connection is being made between belief in the risen Christ and the scars of Christ.  The risen Christ displays the mark of the nails.  Being raised from the dead didn’t erase his scars.  The Christ of Easter bears the scars of Good Friday.  Jesus’ disciples, like Thomas, recognized him as risen only by touching those wounds.

Easter, the triumph of God, the great victory over death and defeat, doesn’t erase the scars.

Have you ever encountered people who are very quick to declare that because they are truly Christians, they always feel joy and peace in their hearts?  People who seem overly eager to assure you of their perpetual bliss because of their belief in Christ?  And as much as we may want to affirm another’s belief, I’m personally struck much more by stories like that of one woman who shared with me the great sadness she often feels in her life despite the fact that she considers herself Christian.  She worried that something was wrong with her.  Was her faith not strong enough?  Then she told me about the pain of her childhood, the neglect, the abuse.  Her Christian faith had brought her much joy, but still she bore the scars.  So did the risen Christ.

The risen Christ had just moved from death to life, had risen from the tomb triumphant.  In that risen form, the disciples didn’t recognize him.  It was only when he showed them his scars that they knew him.  Doubting Thomas has borne the brunt of so much criticism over the centuries — “doubting Thomas” is a household phrase, even among those who don’t know the Easter story!  But let’s consider what Thomas really means by his words.  When he says, “I will not believe unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he isn’t being simply stubborn or skeptical.  Thomas may be saying, “I won’t believe that it’s Jesus unless I touch his scars, because Jesus has wounds.”  The disciples knew him, I think, because the Jesus whom they loved didn’t hover above the heartache of the world;  he embraced the pain, touched the care and the sorrow, lived where we live, died as we must die.

Early on in Christian history, there was a heresy which was called Docetism.  Docetism said that Christ, the Son of God, didn’t really suffer on the cross, didn’t really live as we must live on this earth.  The word Docetism comes from the Greek dokein, meaning “to appear, to seem.”  Docetists believed that Jesus only appeared to suffer and only appeared to be human.

But to this belief, the Christian church replied:  “No!”  Christ was God, but he was fully human.  The divinely risen Christ bore human scars.  Because only a wounded God can save. 

To be human is to have scar tissue inside and out.  You have scars, human as you are.  I have scars.  When I was three years old, a playmate took one of those three-pronged gardening tools and whacked me on the head.  One of my earliest memories is of being in a hospital with my head laid back in a plastic bucket (I still remember it was a yellow bucket!).  The bleeding stopped and my wound was sewn together and healed.  And eventually I got over my fear of hospitals (and of gardening tools).  But, although you can’t see it, I still bear the scar.

And the risen Christ, the Christ after Easter, still has scars.  

Professor Kate Bowler has written that, “We bear all the ruins of the lives we’ve lived and the loves we’ve endured.  What a gift to have a Savior who does the same.”   And the author Philip Yancey has said, “[Jesus] could have had a perfect body, or no body, when he returned to splendor in heaven.  Instead he kept a remembrance of his visit to earth, and for a keepsake of his time here, he chose scars. The pain of humanity became the pain of God.”

The risen Christ bore the mark of the nails in his hands.  That’s how the disciples knew that the mysterious one who stood before them was none other than Jesus.  Thomas touched his scars.  The Christian faith doesn’t deny the pain, the reality of the wound, the existence of the scars.  Our faith enables us to go on even with our wounds, but still there are scars.  

The risen Christ was known by his wounds.  I suspect that Rev. Jen has experienced what many ministers encounter when they come to a new church:  that there are always people who want to share some past wound they’ve suffered — not to wallow in self-pity for some wrong with which they have been afflicted, but so that she 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.  

At one of the first churches I served, a parishioner once shared with me her experience of being raped on her college campus.  Through a good counselor and a loving family, she made her way back from the horrifying experience.  One day she called me, telling me that her counselor, as part of her therapy, wanted her to tell someone other than a family member or a minister what had happened to her, wanted for her to articulate for someone else, her tragedy.

Whom did she want to tell?  “I want to tell the story to George Smith,” she said.

George Smith?  He was a recovering alcoholic, on his second marriage, struggling to find employment.

I asked her why she wanted to tell George Smith, and not, say, another woman.

“Because,” she said, “George knows what it’s like to go to hell and live to tell about it.”

We’re fortunate that sometimes there are wounds that heal.  And we’re blessed when somebody whom the world regards as a failure bears the wounds that may lead to another’s wholeness.  Maybe the only way any of us are 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.  The risen but scarred body of Christ is really the ultimate signifier of divine empathy.

You’ve got your scars, some visible, some invisible.  The One who has called you here this day, 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.”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.