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.