a sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter [Year A]
It is the Sunday after the resurrection of our Lord and, like every year on this Sunday, Jesus is showing his scars.
And now that I’m preaching and talking on camera so much, I’m ever aware of some of my scars because they’re probably more visible to you in this format. The main scar I’m thinking about is the one right on the top of my head. I wish I had some cool story to go along with it, something I could share that would leave you amazed and fascinated with my past, but unfortunately for me I got this scar when I went to take a drink from a water fountain during a basketball game when I was in seminary about twenty years ago. I ran and jumped up to touch an Exit sign and didn’t calculate my ups very well and my head hit a metal door frame at full speed. The impact didn’t knock me out, but it did send me to the emergency room pretty quickly. The whole team of nurses and doctors gathered around me because they’d never seen such a deep cut on anything but a cadaver. They put stitches and staples in it to help it heal.
A couple of weeks later when I went to have the staples removed, the physician let out a gasp. A terrible scar had formed because of the way they’d stapled me up, and he recommended I go into surgery for a scar revision. He had looked at my chart and seen that I was going to be a pastor and he figured the scar would be too ugly and distracting for a person who would be talking in front of people all the time.
I can’t see the top of my head, no matter how hard I try, but I can run my fingers over it and tell it’s there. The doctor actually had a technical, medic term for how bad the scar was. I just remember that he said it would “catch the light.” Does it? Can you tell?
In the end, I never got the surgery to revise my scar, and almost no one ever makes a comment about it, but it’s funny how we so often think of scars as distracting and ugly. Jesus does not find his scars as distracting. They are the opposite of distracting. His scars are fundamental to his identity. The story about how his scars got there is essential to understanding who he is. He does not cover them up, does not go for a scar revision. He rolls his sleeves right up and says, “Look guys, look Thomas.” And if that’s not enough he says “Go ahead and run your hand over these things. It’s me. I suffered. But now I’m back.”
This is a week after Jesus’ resurrection, and what has just happened is still not clear to everyone. The night right after Jesus rose from the dead the disciples are huddled together in one place and they are primarily afraid. That is somewhat understandable given all the tension and the violence that has led up to this point. The religious authorities who came after Jesus would very likely be on the hunt for Jesus’ followers.
But another week goes by and still his closest companions, the men and women he travelled and worked with and worked hard to form close bonds between, the guys whose feet he actually washed are not quite fully aware of what has happened. Thomas gets all the attention for doubting because he wasn’t there that first night Jesus appeared, but my guess is they all struggled to believe.
The first thing Jesus does when he appears to them behind locked doors, after he says, “Peace be with you,” is to show them those scars on his hands and side. What do you struggle to believe? What do you think people struggle to believe these days about God or life in this world? Do you believe my story about how I got my scar? Why do you believe it? Do you trust my testimony? You weren’t there. Unless you’re Travis or Jason. if they are watching today, they saw it. they were there. And they tried not to laugh at me.
This initial reaction from Jesus’ closest followers right on the heels of his resurrection presents to us a basic element of having faith and building trust. Doubt. Doubt is just part of the equation. Like an uninvited guest behind the locked doors of that room, like a permanent stain on new white robe, like a sniffly, itchy nose on an otherwise bright spring day in Richmond, doubt never completely goes away.
All of the gospel writers, but especially John, mention doubt among the disciples almost as soon as the resurrection happens, and we should be thankful for that. We should be thankful for that honesty because doubt is a perfectly natural reaction. It’s not the reaction that Jesus is looking for, but it is still natural, and it’s helpful to explore it.
Many of us probably doubt the resurrection of Jesus here and there. And many of us probably have doubts about a lot of other things related to God. It’s helpful to me that the gospel writers include this, that they tell us the disciples are huddled in a locked room, that at least one of them demands to see proof. Doubt and faith kind of go hand in hand, and that is clear right from the beginning of the Christian message. Belief vacillates to some degree in most of us, like a river that rages at some points but at other times is dry.
We tend to trust science so much for that reason. Science, with its methods and proofs, with its different checks and balances, seems to be a more dependable as a source of truth and knowledge. And that is a good thing. But at some point we realize that not all questions in life worth answering can be answered with science or its methods. Science is only good for a certain kind of knowledge. At some point we realize that life is built on other kinds of knowledge. Life is more than just scientific facts and material evidence.
And that’s how John ends his gospel. That understanding is built right into the ministry of Jesus. Blessed are those who have not seen, he says, and yet believe— blessed are those who have not had the opportunity to test everything with their eyes and their hands and their test tubes and their graphs and their degrees and yet have come to develop a relationship of trust in God. Blessed are those who lean on this belief in such a way they begin to understand the good life God gives them. Blessed are those who trust without the cold hard evidence but only the testimony of those who were there.
Doubt will still be there…the key is how Jesus addresses it. He is kind about it. He is loving with it. He seems to make space for it even before we do, as he walks into that locked room and shows them his side and hands before the disciples even say one word. We have a God who has raised his Son from the dead, and we also have a God who helps us receive that news on our terms. Doubting is not ridiculed. Doubters are not expelled. They are welcomed and included.
What actually might be harder swallow in all of this is not the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead, or that God exists and has been glorified in the cross, but that this God sends us just as the Father sent Jesus.
Jesus wastes no time in getting that point across. There are no high-fives, no atta-boys, no kickback and relax moments after the resurrection. Jesus didn’t die so we could, you know, take it easy. The disciples do take a deep breath that afternoon, but it’s a breath that gives them a mission, pushes them out into the world. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says, Forgive others.” So if God sends Jesus to love and Jesus winds up with scars, then guess what we should expect when we go into the world as one of his followers?
We are presented with another fact of this good news of Jesus’ risen life: the resurrection of Jesus Christ rescues us, but it does not preserve us. Bearing God’s Holy Spirit into the world and entering the lives of others as Jesus did means, well, I think it means we’re liable to get wounded too. And the scars will not primarily be on the surface. They’ll be internal. They’ll be in our heart, on our mind, with our emotions. But the stories by which we accrue these wounds will be stories of redemption and hope and salvation. The stories through which these scars develop will, thanks to God’s presence and grace, be stories of love in action. I bet if you look at the life of anyone who has truly loved you you will see that you have hurt them in some way. And I bet if you look at the times you’ve grown the most there are deep wounds that have done some healing. Miraculously.
This is where God is active in the world—in the nitty-gritty details of building and repairing trust among human beings. It’s going to take a power stronger than sin and death, a force stronger than science alone to do it. We will be hurt in much the same way as Jesus was, but God’s love will rescue us and be victorious.
I wonder about the scars we will bear from our culture’s current situation. Scars of fear, scars of grief, literal scars from surgeries and injury due to illness. Scars of from homeschooling. Scars from countless Zoom sessions. surely there are other ones. One recent article I read suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the economy and different industries for years but that Generation Z, people born after 9/11 and coming of age and missing school right now, may have their worldview impacted for the rest of their lives in the ways that kids who grew up during the Great Depression habitually saved bits of aluminum foil for the rest of their lives.
Time will tell. Time will tell how this affects them and us. But nevertheless, Jesus sends his followers as the Father sent him. Doubting or believing or a mixture of the two, we are sent. Beyond those doors we’ve locked.
And it may be a big no-no to breathe on each other right at this moment, but we can share the breath of the Holy Spirit with one another. Will we teach this young generation ways of living that embody peace and forgiveness Will we inspire with our comments and actions hope in our present circumstances, or despair? Will people of faith model for them and for all of us how to receive with grace those who don’t trust the God of Jesus yet or don’t know him? Will we let our heroes be the people who heal and love sacrificially, who show the effectiveness of humility?
I think they will be. I think in many ways they already are—whether those examples of faith are widely known or not. God is already providing us people who are willing to show their vulnerability and give of themselves. God is already raising up servant leaders who are exhibiting peace and calm when the rest of us are reaching for panic. One physician in our congregation who serves on staff and faculty at MCV has arranged special webinars through Zoom whereby kids can submit questions directly to medical professionals to get real answers about the COVID crisis, and she has enlisted youth to moderate these panels. I got to witness one of her panels this week and it was encouraging to see that kind of resourcefulness in action. Children able to speak directly to doctors. imagine what kinds of seeds that may plant.
We can’t see Jesus like those first disciples did, but may we still know him walking and talking among us today. And may we know we are blessed just to trust the testimony of those who did seen him. And may it inspire us to breathe again. and tell the story. and to share our scars.. and know, by the grace of God, lo and behold, they do catch the Light. the light of the Risen One.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr