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Stigma

John 20:19-31

· Easter

John 20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

*****

There’s this scene in the Ancient Greek epic The Odyssey, where the hero, Odysseus, has finally come home after 20 years away. Everyone thinks he’s probably dead and there’s a mob of men living in his house, using up all his wealth, hoping to marry his wife. When Odysseus returns, the goddess Athena disguises him as an old beggar so that the suitors won’t try to kill him and so he can find out who in his house is still loyal to him. In Ancient Greece, it was customary that when a stranger came to your house, you fed them and bathed them and gave them a nice place to sleep, so when Odysseus comes to his own house in disguise, his old nurse who’d cared for him as a child, Eurycleia, comes to help wash him. She doesn’t know it’s him, but as she’s washing his feet, she discovers a scar on his leg. When Odysseus had been a child, he’d gone hunting with his grandfather and a wild boar had torn into his thigh. He’d nearly died and he wore the scar the rest of his life. When Eurycleia discovered the scar, all of the sudden she recognized him through his disguise. She wept with happiness because through the scar she knew who he really was, that her Lord had come back to save them all.

She knew him by his scar. He looked so different, but the knotted flesh on his leg revealed who he was. Scars identify. The older we get, the harder it is to separate who we are from our scars, our limps, our wrinkles, our stretch marks, our freckles. We change, we’re hurt, we grow. Some parts go slack, others stiffen. Aching hearts become aching backs. But our scars stay with us, in our bodies, our souls, our minds. We go through passages and trials or even just some time in the sun, and living marks us so that we come out looking very different over the years. The signs of those changes eventually become more constant than our faces or figures. If you really want someone to know who you are, eventually you’ll have to tell them about your scars, the ones you can see and the ones you can’t. And if someone really knows you, like Eurycleia knew Odysseus, they’ll recognize your pain maybe even before you do.

How interesting, then, that Jesus rises with his wounds. His resurrected body is not unblemished and pristine but bears the marks of defeat even in victory. It doesn’t seem like this should be true. One theologian even speculated that after Jesus rises to the Father the wounds go away (that’s how uncomfortable Jesus’ wounds make some people), but there’s no evidence for that in the Bible. Somehow the holes in his hands and his gaping side are included in the resurrection. How is that possible? What does that mean?

In our Scripture this morning, Thomas assumes that this can’t really be. He wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus appears to them and he says that he needs to see Jesus’ wounds before he’ll believe that he is risen. I’ll know it’s Jesus when I can put my fingers in the holes in his hands and put my hand into his side. If it’s really Jesus, and not an imitator or a ghost or some figment of our imaginations, Thomas needs to see the marks of the cross. Those marks would be indelible. They certainly are for Thomas and the rest of the disciples. What happened on Friday will stay with them the rest of their lives. Whoever Jesus was, whoever he seemed to be with all the teachings and the miracles and the confrontations with power, for Thomas there is no proof that it’s him without the marks of the cross. Those holes in his hands and his side show who Jesus really was.

That’s what makes Thomas’ demand such a bitter joke. If the marks of the cross show who Jesus really is, then of course he’s not back. There’s no new life after those wounds. Crosses bring shame, not glory. Thomas knows the very proof he demands would prove a Resurrection hadn’t happened. A hole in his side? He’s not getting up again! If Thomas could put his hand in Jesus’ side, he’d just be demonstrating to himself that Jesus is really dead. There’s no hope there. In the Roman Empire, a marked body was a lowly body. Slaves and prisoners were given tattoos or brands to set them apart. In the world of the Empire, to be marked was a sign of shame, to be opened up was to know that they’re in charge, and Thomas knows it. If Jesus has scars, and if scars identify, then Jesus has been shamed, not glorified.

We are still taught to be ashamed of certain markings. Images all around us teach that it is good to be young and smooth and able, that with the right combination of creams and injections and diet you can and should be forever young. If you have scars, cover them, or get them removed with lasers, and by all means keep your psychic wounds to yourself. They are signs of weakness, of vulnerability. We’re taught that there is no hope, no life, no glory to be found in our wounds, only shame.

Some recent studies have estimated that 19% of the population of the United States has some kind of disability, physical, intellectual, or developmental. That’s 1 in 5 people. And many who are currently able will one day not be, either because of injury, illness, or age. And yet, as our friend Susan McSwain from Reality Ministries often asks, “If such a large portion of our population has a disability, where are all of these people?” Most of them are cloistered in nursing homes or group homes, many of them work in “sheltered workshops” because in so many ways, from the design of our buildings to the speed with which you have to talk to a waiter or a cashier, this world is not made for them. A society built around production (speed and efficiency and communication) is ashamed of people who go a little slower, who make mistakes, who don’t communicate in the usual ways. We don’t just cover over our scars, we cover over the people who remind us of our vulnerability. From body shame to the subjugation of people with disabilities and in so many other ways, we live in a world that cannot accept wounds or scars.

What scars do you carry with you? What memories make you say, “Oh but you don’t want to hear about that?” What worry do you keep to yourself because there’s just nothing you can do about it and you don’t want to sound like you’re complaining? What grief do you feel like you should’ve gotten over by now but it stays with you like a hole in your heart? What are you afraid of? What are your scars, your marks that would identify you as vulnerable, as weak, if you let anyone see them? If we follow a Messiah who rose again with open hands and an open side, maybe living in the light of the resurrection means being honest about our own scars.

A week later, the disciples are all together, Thomas included, and Jesus came to them, and said to Thomas, “Ok. Here are my hands. Here’s my side. Get up in here if you need to.” Jesus didn’t have to display those wounds. In other resurrection appearances he cooks for the disciples and they see him eating, which is a pretty good sign he’s not a ghost. Showing the wounds isn’t necessary to show that he’s alive in the flesh. But it does show the kind of life he’s been raised into. Jesus wants Thomas to see those wounds so Thomas can learn that wounds and glory are not exclusive, so we know the ways that we are marked do not have to be sources of shame.

The story doesn’t actually say that Thomas touched the wounds, but as soon as he saw them he cried out, “My Lord and my God!” When Jesus rises, his wounds become a source of belief rather than despair, and not just belief but belief restored. The marks on his body are no longer marks of death but marks of new life, for Jesus, but for Thomas, too. Just like Eurycleia, when Thomas sees Jesus’ scars, he recognizes that the Lord has returned.

That doesn’t make the wounding or the people who did the wounding good. It’s actually a rebuke of them as well. Their strength is not as strong as they’d like to think. When Jesus rises, the crucifiers become the shamed instead of the crucified. In the resurrection, a world that shames the weak and glorifies the strong is turned upside down so that beauty itself is no longer the smooth and the taut and the clean, but the wrinkled, the marked, the scarred. Jesus rises with those wounds and so those who do the wounding have no power over him any longer.

And this is good news for all of us, for the scarred, the marked, the hurting. Our scars are a part of us (they’re not all of us, but we have them). That’s not to say the wounds that gave us those scars are good, or that the people who gave us those wounds should not face any consequences. But even so, after all you’ve been through, here you are, scarred, marked, dimpled, stretched. You have had to adapt and grow, you have become who you are in overcoming those wounds, by letting those wounds scar and by stretching those scars to move again. You will carry that strength, found in vulnerability, with you in your resurrected body, even as the pain and the tears fall away. You will be known by your scars. Salvation includes our marks. God is not ashamed of the holes the world has punched in our bodies and our souls, and so we don’t have to be either.

When we say that we, the church, are the body of Christ, we’re saying that we belong in a wounded body, which means our wounds belong here, too. Sometimes I’m afraid we think that becoming a part of the church is about getting over our wounds, so that I belong here because I have a testimony of how once I was really messed up but now God made everything alright. But what if instead of presenting ourselves as shiny and pristine, the role of the church was to say, “Here are our wounds.” What if that was our evangelism, instead of saying, “Come here and everything will get better,” what if we said, “Your wounds belong here. You don’t have to hide them.” What if we looked at our wounds instead of the things we’re proud of as the places where God wants to bring new life.

In a world so full of wounds, full of scarred and hurting people, sometimes its hard to see new life emerging. It’s hard to imagine resurrection. But Jesus doesn’t ask us to look away from our wounds, our blemishes, our fears, our anxieties, our debts, our hungers, our griefs. In fact, if we look in those places, in the hurting places of our hearts and our world, that might just be where, all of the sudden, we come to recognize Jesus, disguised but here among us in the places we’ve been too ashamed to look. May we be willing to look in those places, those corners of our city and our hearts, and believe. Amen.

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