Monday, April 28

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

“Put your finger here.” Could you do it? Could you put your finger in anyone’s wounds, much less in the wounds of your miraculously risen spiritual leader? 

I imagine this is an extreme example of “Be careful what you ask for.” Did Thomas regret saying "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?" - Less for his lack of faith than for following through?

Thomas was courageous though; he was the apostle who said, “Let us also go to die with [Jesus].” Now a strict reading of this passage only tells us that Jesus told him to put his fingers in the wound, it does not explicitly state that Thomas did. The less squeamish among us may want to imagine that Thomas fell to his knees and confessed his faith in response to what Jesus said without actually touching the wounds. 

Why would this reading be preferable? For the same reasons we don’t want to think of Jesus Christ burping or farting or defecating. We want God to be exempt from all the things we hide ourselves away to do. The beauty of the incarnation is that we are saying God is gross, when we are grossed out by the realities of being an animal.

So I prefer to read the passage as messy. Not zombie messy, Peter reminds us “nor did his flesh experience corruption.” Jesus didn’t smell like Lazarus. Neither was Jesus’ resurrected body as stubbornly solid as our flesh, he entered locked rooms we are told. 

None the less, for fingers to be put in them, the wounds still had to be open. They weren’t closed up. They might have still been bleeding even, like some of those with the stigmata. I’m sure you all have heard of St. Francis, but are you aware he had the stigmata? Stigmata is the phenomenon found in pious individuals, mostly women, of manifesting the wounds of Christ on their bodies. 

As strange as it is to say this, I personally find this appealing. And for those who know me, I should say not in the way I find Horror movies appealing. Not Mel Gibson’s passion took this to horror movie extremes, which did not work in my opinion, and that isn’t what I’m talking about.

I need a broken bloody body on my cross. Much of my personal piety is rooted in the crucifixion. Because I need a God who knows what suffering is; who is in solidarity with our suffering. Who isn’t stoically enduring suffering because I’ve been a bad girl, but is telling me that he will bear my suffering with me.  

It’s that stoic Jesus that I often hear in the Aesop’s Fable style lesson that concludes this story. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Yes this was written for the followers of Jesus who never saw him in the flesh; perhaps even unintended for those who had seen him in a vision. 

It’s almost saying the visionaries are the obstinate ones. Those addressed in Peter’s letter manage to love Jesus without ever having seen him. When God sends visions, is he saying, “Do I have to hit you over the head with this?” Or more precisely, do I have to put your finger in my wounds? 

And yet, Thomas is the first to confess Jesus as his personal God. What does it even mean when one’s personal God has open wounds?

The second person of the Trinity, which pre-existed Jesus, now carries Jesus’ wounds eternally. God has taken on our pain and suffering, knows it intimately. Christ died for our pain and suffering. For isn’t sin the result of pain and suffering? - Or attempts to control or deny pain and suffering? 

I’d suggest that the whole purity system that Jesus turned the tables on is rooted in attempts to distance ourselves from pain and suffering. Things we want to avoid more than even the gross animal stuff. A system now known as “othering” and “exclusion” and devaluing of people, but still results in the idea that only the pure may approach God. In the wounds of Christ, God is no longer pure by these standards, yet remains holy. God redeems suffering. 

God carries our wounds for us. Can we connect with that? Do we want to deny that in the same way we would not want to touch his wounds?

When our pain and suffering gets too much, we have an alternative to sin. When our pain and suffering are more than we can handle, we can lift it up to God. Christ will carry our burdens for us if we let him. I can attest to this and I have seen it work for so many others. But paradoxically it’s not easy.

I’ve seen people hang on to their suffering obstinately. Why would this be so? Why would we not want God to carry our suffering? We want to believe we’re in control. We want to believe in some plan that has existed and always will exist. We come up with theories that God wants us to suffer because we deserve it. We would rather think of God as angry and malicious, than as a God who suffers for us. If Jesus suffered on the cross because we’re inherently evil, we still have this illusion of control. We think our willful actions can somehow ease or prevent suffering.

The old testament is full of stories of people to whom given courage in battle. “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” Jesus calls us to a different kind of courage; the courage of getting messy with the wounded; which is also the courage to hold the frightening truth that we are not in control.

There are levels of love for the suffering. I see a progression of messiness in them. Sympathy is “Oh those poor people.” There is still a safe distance there, but messy in that we feel an unpleasant sadness. Empathy is “Ouch that must hurt.” This is messier in that we find ourselves feeling the hurt, the pain. Compassion is “something must be done.” This is the messiest because we feel compelled to get our hands dirty.

Compassion is a spiritual discipline. It’s found in many religions. It’s stated most clearly in Jesus’ description of the last judgment. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

And if that doesn’t take enough courage, there’s an even messier task given to us. Love our enemies. Love for those who are fighting against us or those we hold dear. Love for those we want to fail. Love for those who are nailing us to our crosses.

Forgiving them for what they are doing does not mean we want them to win, or that we stop fighting the good fight. It means finding compassion for their pain and suffering; finding solidarity in the knowledge that we all suffer. That what drives them to harm others is what drives us to provide for those they intend to harm. The difference is we’re willing to get messy as God in Jesus Christ got messy. 

In a short time we are going to do something really gross. We are going to practice ritual cannibalism. We are going to eat flesh and drink blood. We are doing this to remember; to remember that God came into the world to take our wounds into God’s very essence.