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His Hands and his side

His hands and his side

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Second Sunday of East­er, 3rd April 2016
Read­ing: John 20.19–31

In John’s account of the resur­rec­tion, the only per­son to actu­ally see the ris­en Jesus on East­er morn­ing is Mary Mag­dalene. She goes to the male dis­ciples to give them this good news but John doesn’t reveal what their reac­tion is – Luke is more forth­com­ing and tells us that their reac­tion was to treat it as an ‘idle tale’. So in today’s read­ing from John we find the dis­ciples gathered togeth­er on that first East­er even­ing in a house with the doors locked. Lock­ing doors was evid­ence of their fear. They were fear­ful because they were unsettled-all their nor­mal frames of ref­er­ence had been turned upside down. They had spent Fri­day night and all day Sat­urday, griev­ing for the death of their lead­er, Jesus. Then on Sunday morn­ing they had been dis­turbed by the news from the women dis­ciples of the tomb being found empty. They dis­missed the report that Jesus was alive as female hys­teria but they were afraid lest the author­it­ies accuse them of grave rob­bing; hence the locked doors.

Into that situ­ation of uncer­tainty, doubt and fear, sud­denly Jesus comes bring­ing a mes­sage of peace. His greet­ing is lit­er­ally, ‘Peace to you.’ A state­ment of fact rather than a wish. Although ‘Sha­lom’, ‘Peace be with you’ was a com­mon greet­ing in that soci­ety, on this occa­sion it had a spe­cial sig­ni­fic­ance because of what Jesus had prom­ised to his dis­ciples on the night of his betray­al. In Chapter 14 of John, Jesus had said: “peace is my farewell to you; my peace is my gift to you; and I do not give it to you as the world gives it.” Those words were enig­mat­ic and puzz­ling when first uttered but now they bring com­fort. Con­fron­ted by the man they had all for­saken in the moment of per­il, they won­der what he will say to them. Will he rebuke them for their cow­ardice; will he berate them for their unbe­lief and for treat­ing the women’s words with such scorn? He does none of those things, instead he speaks peace.

Then Jesus does some­thing unusu­al- he shows them his hands and his side. They see the scars. The scars were proof of his iden­tity. The Jesus who stood before them was the same Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee with them, who touched the eyes of the blind and restored sight, who ate with tax col­lect­ors and sin­ners, and who had hung on a cross under the inscrip­tion ‘Jesus of Naz­areth, the King of the Jews.’ But the scars Jesus car­ries are more than a proof of iden­tity. Wil­li­am Temple described them as “his cre­den­tials to the suf­fer­ing race of human­ity.”

Shortly after the First World War, when its pain­ful memor­ies were still fresh in people’s minds a volume of poetry was pub­lished by Edward Shil­lito, with the title ‘Jesus of the Scars.’ The poem from which the title was taken includes these words,
If, when the doors are shut, Thou draw­est near
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear
Show us Thy scars we know the counter sign

The oth­er gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Jesus was raised from the dead as the cru­ci­fied Son of God and he car­ries his human­ity, includ­ing his scars into heav­en. Chris­tian­ity offers no simple explan­a­tion for the prob­lem of human suf­fer­ing and pain but it offers a God who has known pain and grief and who has car­ried it into etern­ity.

Hear­ing the words of peace and see­ing the scars, the response of the dis­ciples is joy. Jesus then reaf­firms his greet­ing of peace and adds to it a com­mis­sion. John tells us that he breathes on them: an unusu­al descrip­tion but a highly sig­ni­fic­ant one in the Scrip­tures. In both Greek and Hebrew the same word means ‘breath’, ‘wind’ or ‘spir­it’. In the second verse of the Book of Gen­es­is we are intro­duced to God breath­ing life into the form­less void of the earth. In John chapter 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus the Phar­isee that no one can enter the king­dom of God unless they are born of water and the spir­it. He goes on to say that the wind or spir­it blows where it chooses- it can­not be con­tained or con­trolled. When Jesus breathes on his dis­ciples it is as though he is breath­ing new spir­itu­al life into them. He says to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spir­it.’ For John the resur­rec­tion, and the ascen­sion of Christ and the giv­ing of the Spir­it are all part of one indi­vis­ible move­ment. Hav­ing had the Holy Spir­it breathed into them the dis­ciples are giv­en a new min­istry to exer­cise-they have the power to for­give or retain sin. What does this actu­ally mean?

If we ask the ques­tion, what was the most sig­ni­fic­ant thing the dis­ciples learnt from their exper­i­ence of meet­ing Jesus in that room on the first East­er even­ing? The most obvi­ous answer is that they under­stood that Jesus was really alive and had conquered death. How­ever there was some­thing almost as import­ant that added to their joy on that occa­sion. They under­stood that they were for­giv­en. If Jesus had appeared before them and said, ‘You have failed, you are no longer my dis­ciples and have no share in my king­dom’; their joy at see­ing him would have turned into shame and des­pair. But when they real­ized they were for­giv­en, the rela­tion­ship restored, the resur­rec­tion took on a whole new mean­ing. To us, God entrusts this power­ful mes­sage of for­give­ness. We don’t have the power to for­give sins but we are giv­en the priv­ilege of declar­ing in God’s name that sins are for­giv­en. We like the dis­ciples fail often, in sins of com­mis­sion and omis­sion; that is why we include in every ser­vice the oppor­tun­ity for con­fes­sion –we con­fess togeth­er our fail­ures and sins and we hear the words of for­give­ness or abso­lu­tion pro­claimed over us. We walk away reas­sured once again that des­pite our weak­ness and fail­ures we are loved, for­giv­en and accep­ted. Hav­ing been for­giv­en by God, we are then able to for­give oth­ers. For­give­ness is at the heart of the faith. And unfor­give­ness, the refus­al to for­give, has ser­i­ous spir­itu­al con­sequences.

Finally, a word about Thomas. I sus­pect there will be many ser­mons this morn­ing which focus on ‘doubt­ing Thomas’ as he is often called. We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the oth­er dis­ciples on that East­er even­ing. We all deal with grief in dif­fer­ent ways and per­haps Thomas just wanted to be alone. So when he meets the oth­er dis­ciples who are bub­bling over with the good news that they have seen the ris­en Jesus he can­not share their joy. He says he will not believe unless he sees for him­self the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and the wound in his side. His prob­lem is not so much doubt as unbe­lief. He chooses not to believe. Belief is often accom­pan­ied by a degree of doubt- like the man who says to Jesus, “Lord I believe … help my unbe­lief” Most of us can identi­fy with that.

Thomas’ unbe­lief would have been dif­fi­cult for the oth­er dis­ciples- he was ques­tion­ing their integ­rity or even their san­ity but they had learnt an import­ant les­son in for­give­ness. When he turned up the fol­low­ing Sunday night, no-one com­plained or turned him away. When Jesus appears for a second time it was like a repeat per­form­ance of the pre­vi­ous week — the same open­ing greet­ing, “peace to you,” but then he turns to Thomas and invites him to do what he had asked for- to touch the wounds in his hands and his side. In response Thomas makes that great con­fes­sion of faith: “My Lord and my God.” It is the highest eval­u­ation of Jesus uttered in any Gos­pel. John begins his Gos­pel with the fam­ous words, “In the begin­ning was the Word and the Word was God.” Thomas almost at the end of the Gos­pel gives expres­sion to that same truth. We can be thank­ful to Thomas because his words to Jesus bring a word of bless­ing, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus looks for­ward down the cen­tur­ies to gath­er­ings like ours this morn­ing when Chris­ti­ans who have nev­er seen the ris­en Christ but have met him in many oth­er ways and not least in the bread and wine, declare with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Amen.

Philip Brad­ford