Rev. Emily Matheny preached this sermon at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee on May 11, 2014.
Before she ever rang the bell, I could see her on the screen slowly walking up the long ramp leading to the door of the church near my office. She was bent over from fatigue and worry. As I moved toward the door, I took a deep breath and instinctively prayed for the patience and sensitivity to spend time with her. Before long, I learned her name was Agnes. As we talked, Agnes revealed that she had five children and, like many others who came to that door, had fallen on hard times. Even though I concentrated and did my best to listen with intention as she shared, my eyes kept being drawn to the scars on her arms. I found myself wondering what could have caused this woman to have so many cuts and gashes all up and down her arms. I knew there must be stories behind each one of them.
Even though it might seem trivial to the rest of us, to the one bearing the scars there is real significance. It’s been well over fifty years, but I still remember where I was and what I was doing, when I got the scar on my heel. Seeing it reminds me of the day I could have died, but didn’t.
To some degree, all of us live with scars. Scars can be both a reminder of pain and the cause of pain. Some are visible while others, caused by emotional wounding or physical illness, remain invisible to the eye. However, they are just as real.
It has only been a few weeks since we were triumphantly celebrating Easter Sunday, but many of us are already so caught up in our daily routines and own stories that it’s hard for us to remember the Easter message of hope that we proclaimed together…a message that holds the key to new life and transformation. With little thought, we put ourselves behind walls that are intended to keep us safe and protected. We want them to hide our imperfections. Over time, it inevitably becomes easier to stay inside fences, insulated from the troubles of the world, than to venture out and take risks.
Like the disciples who remained behind closed doors, we need something to break into our hearts and to enter our unbelief and our hurt. We Christians believe that God sent Jesus to “touch” us and “make us whole.” But in the midst of all the noise and things competing for our attention, how are we to recognize Jesus? How will we know him? The answer to this question is determined in large measure by whether or not we are expecting to encounter or to be encouraged by Jesus. If we are not on the lookout for Jesus, we may not recognize him. That was certainly true for Jesus’ closest friends who remained locked in, hidden behind closed doors.
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe” (John 19:19-29, CEB).
Did you notice that John makes a point of telling us that after the resurrection the Risen Christ still had scars from the cross? Being raised to new life did not cover up or rub out the marks made by the nails and the spear. These remained clearly visible. And so Thomas, like the other disciples several days earlier, was given the opportunity to see and to touch the scars.
Can it be that the Gospel writer wants us to understand that we cannot see Jesus the Christ clearly unless we see his wounds too. Somehow we must understand and accept that the resurrected Christ will also be the wounded Christ and carry the same scars for all eternity.
Growing up my dad’s brother was a favorite relative because he was gentle and kind and looked enough like my father to have been his twin. Uncle William was born stone deaf, impaired and scarred for life because my grandmother had measles during the pregnancy. He was never able to hear any sound at all. As a child I learned to sign the alphabet. He was deeply touched and responded by teaching me a few more complicated signs. On occasion when Uncle William and Aunt Betty Sue were visiting, I went to the Deaf Church with them. There I saw something amazing.
The deaf have a sign for Jesus Christ. They put their finger into the middle of the palms of each hand moving back and forth…from first one hand and then to the other. The symbolism is very poignant. When the Risen Savior wanted to show his disciples that it was really he, he showed them his hands and his side. Jesus wanted them to understand that he was still their friend and Savior, the one who died on the cross to offer them new life. Each time they make the sign, deaf people hear the name of Jesus in their own body, and they remember the cross. Look at your hands. Touch your palms…and remember Jesus.
We must not be afraid to touch places where there are wounds. For these are precisely the places where Christ is most clearly revealed. If we try to circumvent the wounds, we will see only the glorified Christ who can go through locked doors…the triumphant one. But the wounded Christ shows us something else. Thankfully, the scarred Jesus does not wait until we’re all beautiful and ready for church to meet us. He comes in the midst of pain, illness, and injury.
The Jesus who walked in Galilee and Jerusalem did not see himself as set apart from the world. Rather he willingly entered into the pain by extending his hand to those hurting, by living among us, and then dying as we all must. Jesus was fully human and experienced the pain of living in a fallen world. 1 Peter 2:24 teaches us that Jesus has the power to save because he was wounded and abused:
He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed.
The Bible gives witness and our experience confirms that to be human is to have scars. Sometimes they are visible, but more often than not they are invisible. Has someone you love betrayed you? Have you felt let down or abandoned by close friends? Have you been uncertain that you are living in tune with God’s will for your life? Have you felt all alone? If you have felt any one of these, you are walking alongside Jesus, for he too can answer “yes” to each of these. Touch your palms…and remember.
The passion to heal was central to Jesus’ earthly ministry. As he walked from village to village, he was aware of the beauty and potential of the world, but he also waked each morning in awareness of the pain of the world. Perhaps this is why Jesus voluntarily showed the disciples his wounds. When he extended his hands to them, they were there.
Awareness of pain, as well as joy, can be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Certainly those of us who love and have been touched by the story of our pastor, Shane Stanford, are discovering this to be true. Through Shane’s life and daily struggles coping with chronic illness, we are witnessing the sustaining power of the Spirit giving strength in the midst of physical suffering and pain. We are becoming more acutely aware of the need to live each day as fully as possible trusting and depending on guidance from the Spirit. The situation is offering our church a new perspective on the ways we spend our time and resources and is challenging us to discover new levels of cooperation and support for one another in prayer, mission and ministry.
We are more and more thankful that the Christian faith does not deny the existence of pain, the reality of the wound, or the existence of scars. However, our faith does enable us to go on, in the name of Christ, even with our wounds. But still there are scars. Touch your palms…and remember.
The Risen Christ was recognized by his wounds. And so it is with us too. In risking the sharing of our scars and brokenness, it is possible for us to come truly to know and accept one another. The hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” expresses it this way, “We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens bear and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.”
By showing his scars to us, Jesus proves his love for us. His word to us is “I care.” I care about your pain, your loneliness, your illness, your despair. I care about the families who weep and yearn for peace in the Holy Land, the abducted girls in Nigeria…I care about all of them, and I care about YOU.
Jesus says, “Come touch my wounds. Allow me to touch yours.” In the loving, in the caring, in the touching, there is true healing. Touch your palms…and remember. Amen.