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Nail-Scarred Hands

A Homily from John 20:19-31

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

St. John's Lutheran Church, Atlanta, Georgia

April 23, 2006 (Second Sunday of Easter)

In the section of the gospel of John right before today’s gospel lesson, Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus and comes to the disciples and proclaims, “I have seen the Lord!” There couldn’t be a more amazing announcement. Jesus, their teacher and friend, has conquered death. Not only are they going to see him again, but all of the promises that he made before his execution look like they are going to come true!

The disciples respond by locking themselves away and hiding in fear.

We probably shouldn’t be too critical. How often do we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday and then stuff him back into the tomb so that we can trot him back out again in a year? How often do we proclaim the resurrection on that one Sunday, only to return to our own doubts and fears of our own mortality on the following Monday and every day thereafter? We close our Easter vigil with an exuberant celebration of God’s victory over death, and then we quickly return to our everyday lives.

For Jesus’ closest friends, the disciples who would one day establish the Church, just hearing about the resurrection was not enough to change their lives. Fortunately, God can be relentless. While they sit huddled, unbelieving, and afraid, Jesus seeks them out. Their unlisted address and locked door are not enough to keep him out.

Jesus stands among his friends and says, “Peace be with you.” In their final meal together, Jesus had promised peace in the midst of tribulation [John 16:33]. Now that the disciples are getting the first taste of the problems they will face for following him, Jesus makes good on that promise. Jesus steps into the midst of their fears, and he offers them peace.

They remain speechless. Perhaps, as the gospel of Luke tells us, they thought they were seeing a ghost. Perhaps they had trouble believing that peace was possible in a world where people could get killed for preaching a gospel of peace. Perhaps the idea of a resurrected savior was so hard to believe that they wanted more proof than simply seeing what looked like their dead friend coming back to life.

Fortunately, Jesus does not give up on them. He shows them the scars in his hands and he shows the healed wound in his side. Jesus shows them that he is not an angel or an apparition, he is the flesh-and-blood God who walked beside them, who suffered and died for them; and he still has the ugly marks on his body to prove it.

Finally, the disciples are convinced, and they rejoice. Hearing the good news hadn’t done it. Seeing Jesus hadn’t done it. It was only when they saw the scarred body of God that they believed.

We are the heirs to those disciples. The gospel we are commanded to preach is the story of their direct experience with God in the person of Jesus. We proclaim “The Lord is risen!” because we trust the witness of these disciples.

So are we better than them? After all, they weren’t willing to believe when Mary Magdalene told them that she had seen Jesus. They weren’t even willing to believe when they saw Jesus. They only believed when they saw the wounds he had suffered for them. Yet thousands of years later, we believe because…because why? If you asked some people, they would say, “Well, just because. It’s faith, not something you can explain.”

There’s more to it though. Something brings us back week after week. It’s not just the good company, or the excellent music, or the chance to do meaningful community service. We could find those things all over the city, and still sleep in on Sunday mornings. But we don’t go elsewhere, we come here. The only reasonable explanation is that we come because somewhere along the way we have encountered a scarred and risen savior in the life of the Church.

We may have glimpsed the risen Christ in a Sunday School teacher who always took the time to listen to our stories. Perhaps Jesus came to us in a sponsor for a 12-step program, or a pastor who sat with us as we grieved. A single person might not have been involved at all. It may be at this altar, where we are offered forgiveness, redemption, and hope, that we have encountered the scarred hands of our savior.

Remembering these encounters is part of the purpose of this season. In Lent, we journeyed with Jesus and his disciples into Jerusalem. In Easter, we prepare alongside them to leave Jerusalem for the rest of the world. Part of that preparation is remembering those moments where we encountered the risen Christ. In Lent, we reflected on our sin and our brokenness. In Easter, we reflect on how Jesus steps into that brokenness and draws us into new life.

Recognizing those places where we have encountered Jesus in our lives is about more than just honoring our own experience. When the disciples are finally convinced that they have met the real and physical Jesus, he repeats himself. “Peace be with you,” he says again. Then, repeating the act of God in the Garden with the first humans, Jesus breathes on his disciples. In that moment, they become more than just the people who follow his teachings – they become the Church, united by the Holy Spirit.

Encountering the risen Jesus isn’t just about being a Christian or developing our own faith, it’s about becoming the Church – the Body of Christ.

Being the Body of Christ carries with it considerable responsibility. Jesus goes on to say “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” You may remember that in Luke’s gospel, the people who didn’t believe in Jesus criticized him for offering forgiveness to people for their sins [Luke 5:17-26]. Jesus responds to them by demonstrating that he has the authority from God to heal bodies and souls, and he continues a ministry of healing and redemption.

John, on the other hand, only talks about forgiving sins here. Writing much later than the other gospels, John is speaking to people who never met Jesus and might have never met anyone who met Jesus. He knows that they are looking for hope, for mercy, and for healing. John explains to them and to us that Jesus passed that work on to the Church, on to the people who have encountered the scarred hands of the risen Christ.

That is another question of the Easter season. Not only do we ask how we ourselves have encountered Jesus, we ask how we as a church (little “c”) and as a Church (big “C”) are stepping into the role Jesus assigned to us. How are we offering healing and redemption to a broken world consumed by sin and guilt. If we are to be the Body of Christ, how are people encountering the scarred hands of Jesus in us?

Let me repeat that question. If we are the Body of Christ, if we are Jesus’ physical presence, and if even Jesus’ closest friends did not believe until they saw the scars of his hands, then how will anyone ever come to Jesus if they do not see in us the wounded body of the risen Savior?
The next person to enter the story reminds us just how important that question is. Thomas shows up late to the party and doesn’t get to see Jesus. As many of you know, I’m working on a Ph.D. right now in another city. I skipped a class to come to our Maundy Thursday service, and I showed up last week to find out that the professor had used the class I had skipped to give out key information on a major assignment. I won’t repeat the language that I used when I found that out, but it certainly didn’t reflect the pious experiences I had here during Holy Week.

Thomas I’m sure had a similar feeling. “It figures. I’ve been at all the other official disciple club meetings. I had a perfect attendance pin for all the healings last year. I never missed one feeding of the thousands. The one time I take a sick day, Jesus comes back from the dead! At least, so you claim.”

The disciples say to Thomas the exact same words that Mary Magdalene had said to them “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas doesn’t believe them. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands…not even that…unless I touch the mark of the nails in his hand and unless I can touch the scar on his side…I’m not going to believe that Jesus has come back from the dead.”

You can’t blame him, even though history has labeled him “Doubting Thomas.” Remember that when Mary Magdalene carried the good news to the other disciples, they didn’t believe her either. Thomas is no different from the other disciples and no different from us. He wants to experience part of the miracle. He wants to touch the scarred hands of Jesus.

And another Easter miracle happens: Jesus comes back. A week later, everyone is gathered again, and Jesus reappears and for a third time offers them peace. Then he turns to Thomas and says, “Here are my hands, put your fingers in them and feel the scars from the nails. Here is my side, feel the mark where the spear pierced me.”

Jesus came back. He came back for one disciple out of many. Like a shepherd who will not sleep until the entire flock is gathered in, Jesus comes back for the one person who needs to see him. One person, one struggling, questioning believer – or wanna-be believer – is important enough for the Almighty Creator of the universe to come back and touch him and be touched by him.

As with the other disciples, it is the scars that convince Thomas. It is the tangible signs that God not only wanted to be present with him but that God also suffers with him and that God, in the end, is triumphant.
One person, even one person, is important enough for Christ to come back. And now he has entrusted that responsibility to us. The breath of the Holy Spirit fills our lungs, the body and blood of Christ nourishes us at this table, and we are sent out into the world to be the scarred hands of Christ.

Who are the Thomas’ among us. Who are the ones in our pews or in our homes or in our offices or on the streets of our city who are waiting to touch the scarred hands of Jesus? How many of them have written off the Church because it seems like an empty ghost or a meaningless flight of fancy? How many of them say, and rightly so, that they see no evidence of Jesus in the so-called Christians they meet?

Like all of the disciples, including Thomas and including us, they will not believe until they touch the scarred hands of the Savior. Those scars were there because Jesus took on the brokenness of the world with his body and with, ultimately, his very life.

The resurrection question for this Sunday, is where are the scars in our hands, where is the scar in our side? If we are the Body of Christ, how are people encountering the risen Jesus in us? What in our lives would cause people to say in joy and amazement, “The Lord is risen!”?

As we ask, we should also remember that Jesus did not name any one of us singly as the Body of Christ. Jesus did not entrust just one disciple with the Holy Spirit. It is not the task of any one of us alone to take on the emptiness and hurt of the cosmos. It is the task of all of us together, and the question rightly becomes “Where are the scars in us? How do we offer them to the world? Where too is the resurrection in our lives?”

These are not hypothetical questions. Every person outside these doors is important enough for the risen Jesus to come back and be present in their lives. Every person inside these walls is important enough as well, and for those of us who have lost sight of the risen Jesus, or who are here because we want to meet him for the first time…the message of today’s text is that we are to offer the touch and presence of Jesus to each other as well.

It is an odd Easter proclamation to say, “I will not believe, unless…” but it is exactly what the disciples said on that first day. They were right. It is only if we can touch the wounded side of Jesus, and only if we can become the scarred hands of Jesus, that we can honestly proclaim, “The Lord is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” Amen!