Why does the risen Lord still bear the marks of the wounds? And why do they comfort us? Here is a sermon that attempts to answer those questions.
A Sermon on Luke 24:36-48 and John 20:19-31
Wouldn’t a resurrection body by definition be better than new? If I were the one raising Jesus from the dead, I’d give him a body that was better than new. I’d fill in all the tissue that was chewed up by nail and thorn, and I’d knit the great gash in his side back together. I’d wash away all the dried blood and smooth away every mark of the whip. I’d cover all the wounds with skin like a newborn baby’s. Then I’d ease away all the soreness and stiffness. I would put all Jesus’ wounds into the past. I would give Jesus a body that was perfectly whole in every way. A body that can go through walls should by definition be perfectly whole.
But the God who did raise Jesus from the dead had other ideas. When the risen Lord appeared among his followers on Easter evening, he greeted them with a reassuring word of peace. But then Jesus pushed back his clothes, and there all those wounds were, still deep, and still red. He insisted that his followers see and touch.
Yep, that certainly did confirm that Jesus was the same one who had died on Friday. Yep, the wounds were in the right place. This wasn’t an imposter. But why couldn’t Jesus experience complete relief in the resurrection? To know it was him and to know he wasn’t a ghost, wouldn’t it have been enough for his followers just to see his face and touch whole, unwounded flesh? Wouldn’t it be enough just to see him eat the fish they offered? Why wasn’t the pain and the woundedness finished when Jesus drew his last breath on Friday? It would have been such a blessing to get the pain over with then.
But many do not receive that blessing. Their pain is not over with in a matter of hours or days. Which is what I remember thinking about at a healing service that I attended at my grandmother’s church. I was a teenager, and it was a summer revival. The preacher was known for being a faith healer. The preacher seemed to me to be making it all too simple: if you believe, if you truly believe, you will be healed. I remember thinking, “But what about people who have permanent deformities or permanent disabilities?”
What about someone like Nancy Eiesland, whom I encountered much later by way of her writings? (Read Nancy’s story and her reflections on Jesus’ wounds here.) In the 1960s, Nancy was a poster child for the March of Dimes campaign against birth defects. By the time she was thirteen, she had undergone eleven operations for a congenital bone defect in her hips. In order to be mobile, Nancy needed to use crutches or a wheelchair, and that was the case her whole life. She later had to undergo surgery for scoliosis, curvature, of the spine.
Nancy’s parents took her to faith healers. Before she got past the single digits in age, she had already heard many, many times, all the explanations people make in an attempt to explain why God allowed the disability in the first place, and why God didn’t take it away. Nancy had heard it all: people speculated that she had hidden sins, for example. That must be why God didn’t take the disability away. They told her that God had given her this disability to develop her character. “But,” Nancy writes, “at age six or seven, I was convinced that I had enough character to last for a lifetime.”
The truth was, no matter how many operations Nancy had, her body would never be “normal” in the conventional sense of the word. No matter how good the surgeons were, her body would never be as it would have been if her hips had formed normally in the first place. For Nancy, the pain and struggle didn’t last just a few hours on a Friday, and then it was over. It was a lifetime struggle. What can you do but just go on? Nancy just went on living an everyday life with all its ups and downs with an un-everyday body.
Here is the truth: this is how it is for humanity. There are some things we never get over, problems that we never completely overcome, situations in which things will never be the same. No, if your child gets abducted and murdered, which is what happens the The Shack, a book that several in our church have read, if that happens to your child, no, you will not get over it. No, you will not forget it. No matter how much healing you might experience as time goes on, that wound will never just disappear. It will never be erased.
It’s human reality: some wounds and some scars, last a long, long time, and many are permanent. And I think that’s why Jesus still had the wounds when he rose from the dead. Imagine if all trace of what Jesus had been through had been erased. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “Whew! I sure am glad all that’s behind me! I’m home free!”?
No! God did not erase the wounds from the resurrected Christ. No! God did not erase the wounds from deep in God’s heart, because human experience, including all its pain, is not all behind the Lord. If pain and struggle are not all in the past for us, they are not all in the past for God. If weakness and disability are not all in the past for us, they are not all in the past for God. Jesus overcame death, but he did not leave his humanity behind. He didn’t leave us behind. He didn’t take himself out of our struggle.
There is healing in knowing that. As an adult Nancy Eiesland was asked to lead a Bible study with residents at a local rehabilitation hospital for people who had spinal cord injuries or traumatic brain injuries. She writes, “One afternoon, after a long and frustrating day, I shared with the group my own doubts about God’s care for me. I asked them then if they could tell me how they would know if God was with them and understood their experience.”
Good question. How do we know God is really, really with us and understands our experience?
“There was a long silence,” Nancy continues. “Then…a young man said, ‘If God was in a sip and puff, maybe he would understand.’ A sip and puff mechanism enables people to control an electric wheelchair with their breath. This kind of apparatus is used by a lot of people who have quadriplegia, meaning they have limited or no use of their arms or their legs. The young man said, “If God was in a sip and puff, maybe he would understand.”
Not long after that Bible study session, Nancy was reading the lesson we read this morning from Luke, and it hit her: maybe the Lord wasn’t in a sip and puff, but here he was among his people in a wounded body, still carrying the marks of his humanity in his body. The living Christ was making good on his promise not to abandon us. He made good on his promise not to leave us orphaned, not any of us: not those who are pretty much “normal.” Not those who cope with difficult bodies. Not those who have been wounded to the core with terrible hurt. Christ knows our situation, and he carries it even in his resurrection body!
That’s what the story that Bettie Kirkpatrick told us at the Lenten Luncheon in March was all about. The story was entitled, “Ragman.” (Story by Walter Wangerin.) Early on a Friday morning, the narrator sees and starts to follow a ragman, who symbolizes Christ. The ragman pulled a wagon loaded with beautiful new clothes, and he called out, “New rags for old!” The narrator watched as the ragman stopped to tend to a brokenhearted woman who was crying her eyes out into a handkerchief. The ragman took her handkerchief, gave her a brand new one, and touched her handkerchief to his own face. Then the ragman started to cry. Further along the ragman came upon an injured child whose head was wrapped in a bandage that was oozing blood. He took the child’s bandage and put it on his own head, and gave her a new bonnet. The narrator says, “And I gasped at what I saw, for with the bandage went the wound!” Then ragman himself began to bleed.
The ragman went on to give his own arm to a man who was missing an arm, and still later, he found a drunken man asleep under a blanket. He took the blanket, wrapped it around himself and left new clothes for the man. And now the ragman was carrying all these wounds. He climbed a hill that Friday, lay down, and died. What a joy that Sunday—and Easter—comes in that story, too.
The risen Christ insists that his followers see and touch the wounds. He wants us to see that he still carries all our sorrow, all our shame, all the vulnerability that we know as humans. In so doing, Christ our God declares, “No, it’s not all over, and I have not left you behind. I have not left you alone with your wounds.
“I am Emmanuel.” Emmanuel is that word we use so much at Christmas time, at Jesus’ birth, that wonderful name meaning “God is with us.” The living Lord wants us to see that he is still Emmanuel through his death and in his resurrection. “I am your Emmanuel,” he declares. “Yes, I am your Emmanuel, yes, you, whose bodies will never be conventional. I am your Emmanuel, yes, all you who struggle, all who have been through the kinds of things that you won’t get over and you won’t forget.
The risen Christ insists that we see and touch his wounds because they are signs of love. They allow us to see deep into God’s heart. Instead of coming to us in a perfect, wound-free, scar-free body, the risen Christ comes bearing the wounds that are a sign of his perfect love. His love is what is perfect. He comes not in a perfect body, but with a perfect love and a perfect presence.
The risen Lord Jesus Christ truly is Emmanuel, God with us. He is Emmanuel for all of us, yes, all of us. He is Emmanuel forever!
Thanks be to God!