"Refusing to Stand at a Safe Distance"
Scripture – John 20:19-29
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, April 12, 2015
To set the stage for this morning's passage, we must back up to last Sunday. According to the Gospel of John, at the break of dawn on the Sunday following the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene discovered a gaping hole where the stone had covered the entrance of Jesus' tomb. Panicked, she sprinted away to tell Peter and another disciple what she had found. Upon hearing the news, the two disciples race each other to the tomb to check out Mary's story. The disciples find the tomb empty, and then return to their homes and attempt to make sense of what has transpired.
In the meantime, Mary returns to the tomb and is swallowed by grief because she believes that someone has desecrated the tomb by stealing the body of Jesus. Turning around, she sees Jesus, but does not recognize him. Mistaking him for the gardener, she accuses him of snatching the body. At that moment, Jesus calls out her name and she recognizes him.
Fast forward from Easter morning to Easter evening. This is where today's text begins. The disciples are hiding behind bolted doors. They fear that the Jewish authorities, who handed Jesus over to the Romans to be executed, may have drawn up a list that includes their names.
Suddenly, like Star Trek's Captain Kirk beamed down by Scotty, Jesus stands in their midst. The disciples do not collapse in shock that Jesus has abruptly appeared inside a house with locked doors, however, they are speechless. Did they recognize him immediately, or like Mary Magdalene, did they fail to identify him initially? The text is unclear, but none of the disciples respond until Jesus says, "Peace be with you" and shows them the wounds in his hands and side. Once they see his lacerations, they erupt in celebration.
When the cheering subsides, Jesus speaks again. He says, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Jesus commissions them to carry on the work he has initiated. It is at this point that the gospel writer informs us that Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared to the others. Where was he? Was he hiding in another part of town? Was he drowning his sorrows? Was he meandering through the streets mulling over all that had happened and pondering his next move? We can contemplate various scenarios, but our gospel writer is silent.
The next thing we know is that the disciples encounter Thomas and tell him that they have seen the risen Jesus. The immediate reaction of Thomas? "Prove it! 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."
The passage leaps to a week later. The disciples are gathered again in their chosen hideaway, but this time Thomas is with them. As before, despite locked doors, Jesus appears and says, "Peace be with you."
Then Jesus calls out Thomas. Imagine his shock. Will Jesus reprimand him for being a skeptic and failing to believe his spiritual brothers? Jesus says, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."
When pondering this text, most people hone in on the topic of doubt and belief. Our takeaway? Do not be like Thomas who doubted the witness of others. "Blessed are those who have not seen (Jesus) and yet have come to believe.
Certainly that message is a vital piece of this passage. But, there is a different detail in the story that seized my attention. When Thomas says that he must see Jesus for himself, he does not say, "I want to see Jesus appear out of nowhere behind a locked door." Thomas is very specific in what 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." If Jesus is resurrected and has assumed a new bodily form that is capable of entering a room with locked doors, why does Thomas insist on seeing and touching his bloody cavities?
Because Thomas wants to make sure that the resurrection did not erase Jesus' wounds. He wants to make sure that the resurrection did not blot out his scars. Why would Thomas not want the resurrection to eliminate his injuries? Because he wants to make sure that Jesus remembers what it is to suffer. The resurrection assures us that God will care for us when our earthly journey comes to an end. The crucifixion assures us that God does not avoid the pain of the world.
At the core of Christianity is the belief that Jesus reveals the nature of God. And what we observe in Jesus is not an almighty being who hovers above the injustice and violence and heartache of the world, untouched by it all, but rather a suffering servant who is completely engaged in the joys and the sorrows of this life. Jesus refused to stand at a safe distance from chaos, crime and cruelty. He suffered the emotional agony of betrayal, the physical pain of crucifixion, and the spiritual trauma of rejection. When Jesus was crucified, he did not demonstrate his power by coming down from the cross and destroying the dark powers that were intent on killing him. Instead, he demonstrated his power through his love for the world. His love was so broad and so deep that he refused to stop loving even those who were executing him, crying out to God, "Forgive them; they do not know what they are doing."
The scars in the hands and side of the resurrected Jesus assured Thomas that God's love for us is so intense that God does not avoid suffering. When we experience pain, God feels our pain. When we suffer, God suffers.
There is a thread of Christian tradition that describes God as the unmoved Mover and the wholly Other. It pictures God as the omnipotent and unchanging deity who is unaffected by the pain of the world. Yet love is not genuine love unless it is vulnerable, so God takes the risk of being impacted by the suffering of the world. Isn't one who is with us in our suffering more helpful than one who stands at a distance? In fact, isn't God's presence with us in suffering the source of our healing?
Many times I have seen people receive a terrible blow that could have crushed them, but did not. Some experienced the sudden loss of a loved one, others were dealt a terrible injustice, and still others received a dreaded diagnosis. These tragedies could have driven them into depression and despair, but did not because they received strength from a power beyond themselves. God carried part of their burden when it threatened to overwhelm them and God gave them more determination than they had known before to not only survive, but to once again experience joy and hope. Further, they were touched by the healing power of love as family and friends became conduits of Christ-like compassion.
God did not create us to be isolated individuals. We must receive love in order to thrive. We are wired in such a way that we must establish loving ties with others in order to be healthy. Brené Brown is a Ph.D. social worker whose research focuses on human connections. Brown has interviewed hundreds of people and heard thousands of stories. She has found that the key to successfully connecting with others is something many try to avoid: vulnerability.1
All of us carry around inside of us an underlying fear that we will not connect with others. We worry that people will judge us and find us shallow or immature, self-centered or plastic. They will see through the façade we have created and will reject us because we are not smart enough or attractive enough or young enough or successful enough.
So we can wall ourselves off from others to protect ourselves from disappointment and rejection, but if we do, we will never live a rich life. The path to a fulfilling life requires us to make ourselves vulnerable. We must risk rejection to find welcome. We must risk exclusion to find acceptance. Brown's research reveals what God has shown us in the crucifixion of Jesus. Love makes you vulnerable. Alfred North Whitehead said, "God is the fellow sufferer who understands."
Pastor Rebekah Hutto shares the story of a woman in her congregation named Rachel. Rachel had been suffering verbal and emotional abuse from her husband for years. In the pit of despair and with some encouragement from her teenage son, Rachel finally decided to leave the bully and file for divorce.
Over the next year, she focused on rebuilding her life – finding a new apartment, supporting herself financially, and taking care of their three children. While going through this transition she stopped going to church. She told herself that she didn't have time for church. The weekends were for cleaning the house and shopping and connecting with her children. But on some level she also knew she was kidding herself. The real reason she had not been back to church was that she felt shame and she feared how others would view her.
But one Sunday that changed. While leading the call to worship, the pastor saw Rachel appear in the doorway. She was frozen. She had that look in her eyes that said, "What am I doing here? What was I thinking?" She did not know where to go. Her family had always sat on the left side of the church, three rows back. But her life was so different now and her children were not with her. She was all alone.
While reading the lines of the call to worship, the pastor realized that two women in the congregation had also spotted Rachel. As the congregation was responding to their lines, the two women slipped out of their pews, and stood on either side of Rachel. They led her to their pew, sitting her right in between them. When the first hymn began, all three of them stood beside one another and held hands, and tears rolled down Rachel's face. She had come to church feeling lost and alone, ashamed and undone by the chaos of her life. But those two women saw her fear, took her hand and assured her of their love. Every Sunday after that day, Rachel and her children sat with those women.2
Like the two women who stood beside Rachel, led her to a safe place and embraced her from then on, God walks alongside us when we must walk through the darkest valley, God leads us beside still waters and restores our soul.
Thank you, Thomas, for making sure that the resurrection did not wipe out the scars, because as Bonhoeffer said, "Only a suffering God can save us."
Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton
Living God, in Jesus Christ, who stands among us, we have seen the marks of your saving love over and over again. That love draws us to this place, and that same love draws us out in service to the Risen Lord. Continue to breathe on us with the power of your Spirit and send us out to share the peace of Christ in a weary world.
The violence that permeates our cities, the proliferation of guns throughout our nation, the growing disparities in wealth between the wealthy and everyone else, wounds the spirits and the health and the life of many. The racism that still lurks in our nation, the poverty that accompanies a significant segment of our country, and the lack of tolerance for those who may be different, is a reality that causes hurt and division and hopelessness. O God, breathe your spirit of peace and life upon these places. Help us not to stand back but to step forward to be peacemakers, to step forward to speak the truth to power, to step forward to embrace those the world does not, to step forward toward those who are victims and victimized.
For your church, O God, we pray. Let us be a living sign of your love in this world; let us share the Gospel of reconciliation, the gift of forgiveness, and the power of love.
We pray for our nation, and we pray for all nations. Help us to dwell together in unity, help us to be united in our care for your creation, help us to seek ways of life that bring hope and peace and wholeness across the globe.
For those who grieve a loss...a loss of independence, a loss of someone they hold dear, a loss of health, a loss of a job or a home, O God we pray. Send your spirit of comfort upon the grieving.
For those who are spending this day in physical pain or emotional anguish, we pray. Give them peace, give them a sense of your nearness and your care even in difficult times.
And we pray for ourselves...let us continue to find joy in the resurrection, hope in the empty tomb, and direction from the example set by Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray saying...Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
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