This sermon was given on May 1, 2011 at the evening service at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC. During the service we celebrated the graduation of two Education for Ministry (EFM) students with whom I studied. The graduates asked that I preach, and I was honored to oblige.
Gospel Reading: John 20:19-31
When I was in grade school, we had an annual tradition of making Christmas plates in class, which we would cover in homemade wrapping paper, and then place under the tree at home for our parents to open on Christmas morning. It was kind of a big deal. I drew my very first Christmas plate at the age of five, and I knew exactly what I wanted to draw on it—Baby Jesus. After several minutes of painstaking work, it occurred to me that I had failed to draw Jesus, and instead had drawn myself.
Two years later, I took up the task of drawing Jesus again. This Jesus was much closer to the mark. He had a halo, a beard, and a Stoll—just like an Episcopal Priest. At the top of the plate I wrote, “I love you Mom and Dad—JESUS.”
At that same period of childhood, I, like lots of kids, would sometimes see my parents argue. And when they did, I didn’t hide or pretend like I didn’t notice what was going on. Instead I would run to the cupboard, grab my Jesus plate, and thrust it up in the air like a shield, shouting, “Jesus loves you! Jesus loves you!!!!”
When I shared this story with my EFM friends a couple of weeks ago, two of whom are graduating tonight, we all laughed at how perhaps this was the first inkling of my desire to be a priest one day.
You may be asking yourself: What in the world does this have to do with today’s scripture??
Our Gospel reading tells us the story of the infamous “doubting Thomas.” When I told my dad that I’d be preaching on Thomas this weekend, he looked at me and said, “Don’t be too hard on him.” Another of my friends prefers the nick name “curious Thomas.” Why is it this passage makes us a little nervous? Why is it we don’t want to be too hard on Thomas? Because we are Thomas. We too have doubts. And yet I think there’s an even deeper story we can miss if we just focus on Thomas and his doubts.
When the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus and that Jesus lives, Thomas doesn’t just say he has to see Jesus to believe He is risen. He 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.”
Why did Thomas need to see Jesus’ wounds? One of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen, says that ministry and healing words seem in-authentic, “unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks.”
Thomas was wounded on Good Friday when he saw his friend and teacher hung up on a cross. So he didn’t just need proof of Jesus, he needed healing. And he needed healing from someone who understood what it is to be wounded.
I think maybe it’s pretty significant that Jesus didn’t return to his disciples whole and unscathed. It wasn’t: “Yeah, I conquered death, no big deal.” But: “Man! That HURT! See these holes in my hands and feet? And check out my side!! You can put your hand in the wound, it’s so big! That was a painful mess.”
So Jesus returns to His disciples again, wounds and all. And this time, Thomas is there. And Thomas doesn’t just see that, yes, here is Jesus, alive and well. He sees Jesus as real and really alive. Real because He hurts like I do, has wounds like I do—and really alive because He’s here speaking to me, saying “Peace be with you.” And His presence is peace.
Here’s another story—an old legend taken from the Talmud:
Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet… He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah replied,
“Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and then binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”
In both stories we see Jesus, the Messiah, illustrated as “the wounded healer.” Wounds are often something we want to cover up, hide, and ignore. We want to be rid of them as quickly as possible, and we certainly don’t want them to slow us down. And yet here is Jesus, wounded. And He doesn’t hide His wounds, but says, “Look at me. Put your finger here and touch my hands.” There’s something to this woundedness. Something Jesus doesn’t want us to miss. A wise friend of mine says, “Grace enters the soul through wounds.”
Nouwen says, “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.” And, “Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. It does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.”
Jesus comes to His disciples with his wounds, saying “Peace be with you” with his wounds, ministering to them with his wounds, so that we who are also wounded might have the courage to do the same. Our hope is not just in the Risen Lord, but in the Lord who is risen with wounds. Thus we who are wounded need not hide from this broken world, but bring peace into it, holding our banner high, proclaiming “Jesus loves you.”