This sermon was preached by Drew Seminarian Leif McLellan.
My dad is a doctor and my mom is a former nurse and, let me tell you, growing up with two medical professionals in the family was both a blessing and a curse. I was thankful that, whenever my body wasn’t cooperating, I could get my parents’ expert opinion. We could generally avoid a trip to the doctor’s office. However, my parent’s medical expertise sometimes worked against my wishes. See, I was a weird child because I hated missing school. I remember one morning before school I woke up feeling miserable. Feverish, weak, the whole nine yards. But I sat at the kitchen counter trying to muscle my way through a bowl of cereal. I was determined to get on that school bus. But my mom, the ever watchful nurse, noticed I was ill and she insisted I stay home. Good thing, too. Staying home allowed me to heal and prevented anyone else from getting sick. Because my parents knew when I was sick and because they cared for me so well, I was able to be honest about my own illnesses and I was able to heal.
Isn’t that how healing often happens? When we try to hide our wounds they can get worse. But when we reveal our wounds, they can heal. This happens with physical ailments, of course. If we go to the doctor for a broken bone, the doctor can give us a cast and medication. If we ignore the broken bone, the bone either doesn’t repair properly and we live with that pain. Our emotional and relational wounds seem to follow the same pattern. Who here has not felt the sting of loss or abuse or a broken relationship? When we receive these wounds, it can be tempting to deal with them alone. We like to think that we are self-sufficient, that we can heal ourselves. But like a broken bone, these internal wounds can get worse if they stay bottled up.
In our gospel reading for today the resurrected Jesus reveals his own wounds to his disciples. This passage begins with the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem on the third day following Jesus’s crucifixion. News was spreading that Jesus had risen from the dead. Those who had gone to visit Jesus’s tomb found it empty. Two of Jesus’s disciples had met him on the road from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. This news then reached Jerusalem and the disciples began discussing this strange yet wonderful information.
Then Jesus appears in their midst, saying “Peace be with you.” Even though Jesus brings this message of peace, the disciples are “startled and terrified,” …startled and terrified, like they had seen a ghost. I wonder how Jesus would have felt about this reaction. Not three days ago Jesus was publically stripped naked, mocked, and nailed on a cross for all to see. How humiliating. How shameful. This once powerful rabbi had been publically executed. Moreover, as Jesus predicted, his disciples had abandoned him. Jesus received not only the physical wounds from the cross, but also the wounds of shame, social isolation, and public humiliation. Yet, despite his shame, Jesus was able to go to his disciples. He bravely risked even more humiliation. However, his disciples were startled and terrified. I can hear the frustration and sadness in Jesus’s voice, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look! It really is me, the one you have followed and loved!
But then something miraculous happens. Jesus tells his disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.” Jesus shows them where he received the wounds from the nails on the cross. The revelation of these wounds changes something in the disciples. Although it took time for the disciples to grasp what they were seeing, they were immediately filled with joy. As Luke writes, “While in their joy, they were disbelieving and wondering.”
In this joy, while they were doubting, Jesus asks his disciples for a piece of fish to eat and they give him one. Even after all the shame he experienced, Jesus still seeks fellowship with his disciples. Even after his death he invites his followers around the table again. Jesus shows up in his body, hurt and hungry. He shows his wounds to his dear friends. God uses these wounds, this hurt and hungry body, to restore a community that was once living in fear.
A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege of traveling to South Korea for one of my classes. Much of the class focused on the tragedy of the so called Korean comfort women. The term “comfort women” was used by the Japanese military in World War II to name the estimated 300,000 girls and young women that they used as sex slaves for the Japanese soldiers. These girls and women endured unimaginable horrors at the hands of Japanese soldiers. But the nightmares did not end with the war. Those women who were able to return to a peacetime society could not speak about their experiences. Because of cultural stigmas around sexuality, they feared deeper shame, humiliation, and social isolation. Since they could not share their experiences, their deep psychological and physical wounds grew even worse.
But in the early 90s things began to change. In 1991, Haksoon Kim was the first survivor to share her story publically. With the help of a Christian justice organization,[i]other comfort women began to courageously tell their traumatic stories and revealed their wounds. They have testified before the Korean, Japanese, and American governments as well as other international communities. Although the Japanese government still refuses to make amends, the comfort women have found healing in their testimonies and a supportive community. They have also formed the core of a movement that now supports victims of war and sexual violence across the globe.
When we were in Korea, we were blessed to meet Il Chul Kang, one of the few remaining survivors. She came out of her nursing home to meet us, walking slowly with an attendant supporting her. The first thing she did was shake each one of her hands. Then with a shaking yet confident voice she said, “Thank you all for coming. I am grateful for the United States and all who were fighting for the cause of the comfort women.” And she told us, “When I close my eyes I still see what happened to me.” As she spoke her face glowed with a deep calm. Even though she still had memories from the war, she clearly had also experienced profound healing. It was as if she had said to us, “Peace be with you. Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.”
Not only had God healed Il Chul and others like her, but God gave them the vulnerability to heal others. Vulnerability: the ability to risk the wounds of shame, failure, and defeat.[ii]These women were not captive to their wounds. God had transformed their pain and their shame into a new life for themselves and for others.[iii]
That’s the power of the resurrection.
In a world that that values appearances and demands we have everything together, we all have our wounds. What are yours? Do you feel like you have failed as a parent? Have you been hurt by a family member, a classmate, or a coworker? Are you struggling with that secret that’s weighed you down for years? Into our hurting places the living Christ comes and says, “Peace be with you. Look at my scars. I know your pain.” Christ knows our pain and still loves us beyond all our shame. And yes, despite all our shame God can use our wounds in ways we might not be able to imagine.
We are no longer captive to our shame. We no longer have to carry our burdens to the grave. We trust that God will transform our wounds into a new life of healing for us and for others. I pray that God will work in your life to transform your wounds into healing for a wounded world. Amen.
“Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.” John 20:23 (translation by Gospel of John scholar, Professor Sandra Schneiders)
Every week, 14-year-old Jamarion Styles set himself up for disappointment.[i] Every week, he came to a community center in Boca Raton, Florida, hoping to play basketball with the other kids, and every week, he was rejected.
[Jamarion explained]: “They would start picking teams and I would be the only one left out. Then they would tell me just go home.” [Jamarion added]: “You can break someone’s heart like that.”
It’s easy to judge the kids who kept rejecting Jamarion. But to be fair, Jamarion is missing his hands and most of both arms because of a bacterial infection he had as a baby. He doesn’t look like a winning pick for a basketball team.
Jamarion eventually tried out for the basketball team at Eagles Landing Middle School, where he persuaded Coach Darian Williams to give him a spot. The coach admitted his reservations about having a kid without arms on the team, but Jamarion said to him, “Mr. Williams, I’ve never been on a team before. Even if I don’t play, I just want to be on the team.” How could a coach say no to that?
That’s what most of us want – to be on a team. The team might look like an actual team – softball, basketball, soccer, baseball. Or it might look like a group of close friends who support each other. It might be a close-knit family. Or a cohesive workplace. A book club or a bridge club or a chess club. It could be almost anything, but we want to feel like we belong somewhere, that there is a place where people accept us and care about us.
I think that’s what Thomas wants. Even though he’s not there the first time Jesus shows up, he still wants to belong to the group of disciples who have seen the risen Lord. We don’t know where Thomas had gone that first night. Maybe he got tired of being trapped in a room with all that fear. Maybe he needed some fresh air. Whatever happened, Thomas wasn’t there to see Jesus the first time. Thomas wasn’t there to hear Jesus say “Peace be with you.” Thomas wasn’t there to feel the breath of Jesus on his face, to receive the Holy Spirit as only Jesus could offer it.
Thomas had to hear about all of those things second-hand. That group of people who had experienced the risen Jesus? Thomas had been left out. So I get why he might have dug in his heels a bit, insisted that he wasn’t going to join their little club based on word of mouth. He wanted to see for himself. Maybe he gets a little melodramatic: “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.” But who can blame him? Thomas just wants to be part of the team.
I was reminded this week of a different way to understand something that the risen Jesus says to the disciples the first time he shows up in that room.[ii] Jesus says, according to the translation we just heard: “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.” The word that means “retain” also means “to hold fast to” or “to embrace.” This statement by Jesus has traditionally been interpreted to mean that he was giving the disciples the power to forgive sins, but in doing so, he was also giving them the power not to forgive in some situations. So if the disciples didn’t offer someone forgiveness, that person’s sins would be retained, held on to.
Except that based on a somewhat ambiguous sentence structure in the original Greek, the retaining – the “holding on to” – doesn’t necessarily refer to the sins. It could also refer to the people. So Jesus might have been saying: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, the sins are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [whomever you embrace], they are held fast.” In other words, Jesus is telling the disciples to hang on to people, to embrace them, to hold them close.
I hope that’s one of the reasons we find Thomas there with everyone else a week later. Thomas may not want to believe their stories, but the disciples haven’t thrown him off the team. There’s room for someone who has questions. There’s room for someone who needs more time, more evidence, more whatever. The disciples are embracing Thomas. They are holding him fast, even as he challenges everything they’ve tried to tell him.
And of course Jesus doesn’t leave Thomas out. Jesus comes back. He offers Thomas the chance to touch his hands and his side. We’re not told if Thomas takes him up on that offer. We only hear Thomas’ declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God!” Maybe Thomas will look back and wish he had believed sooner. But maybe not. He held out for something more, and he got it – eventually. And I’m willing to bet that Thomas’ refusal to believe too easily what others told him probably made him a powerful teller of this story to others who won’t have the chance to meet the risen Jesus in person.
Today we celebrate First Communion for Zoey, Ellie, Peyton, Alex, and Gabriela. In our preparation together for this day, we have talked about how Holy Communion is a place where each of us is welcomed and embraced. A place where we are always part of the team. In this sacrament we are held in God’s unfailing love. Whether or not we believe exactly what we think we “should” believe. Whether or not we’ve screwed up a hundred times since the last time we were here. Whether we are filled with joy or struggling to keep it together, we are embraced. God holds us fast and does not let us go.
I recently joked in Confirmation class, “Can you imagine if Holy Communion were just for perfect people?” One kid laughed and said, “Well, church would a lot shorter.”
Remember Jamarion Styles, that basketball player with no hands and only partial arms? He sat on the bench for most of the season. One day the coach put him in with about six minutes left in the game. Jamarion scored not one, but two three-pointers. The kid that no one would pick? He is now a superstar.
Unlike Jamarion, we don’t have to justify our spot on the team by doing something superhuman. But like Jamarion, we are often made to feel that we don’t belong, that what we bring to the world is not enough. Jesus is here to tell Jamarion…and Thomas…and each one of us: You are enough. You are always enough. There is a place for you here. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii]I was glad to be reminded of Professor Sandra Schneiders’ alternate translation of this sentence, which I rediscovered in Pastor Mary Hinkle Shore’s commentary on the Working Preacher website: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3619