Marked for Life
Sermon preached April 3, 2016
Texts: John 20:19-31
When you were a child at meal time, and you did not want to eat something on your plate, did you ever hear “There are children starving in parts of the world”? If you were witty you may have thought to yourself, “Well, you can send him these canned peas.” At my house growing up, we had a clean plate policy, but my dad sometimes took it to an extreme. I remember once having to finish ketchup I had not used with my meat.
Anyway, somewhere along the way, I learned that it is not helpful to compare pain, at least not when people are expressing it or going through it. It makes little psychological difference to a person suffering from a cut, to tell them at least they did not break a bone. Telling someone that things could always be worse is not very helpful.
One year after we moved to Duluth, our seventeen year-old miniature cocker spaniel, Annie was clearly not doing well. On a day when all three of our children were home, we took Annie to the vet where she was put down. I will never forget being in that room, saying goodbye, and holding her as the drugs worked quickly and she slipped away. Not long after we got our dog Abby, a pom-a-poo, and a year later another pom-a-poo who we named Grace. When Grace was five she suddenly became very ill, and we planned to take her to the vet on a Wednesday morning. Very early that morning, she died lying next to me. I will never forget that moment either. Both times I cried.
I know dogs are not people. Over time, I can gain some perspective on grief and hurt and loss. It is true in other situations. Sometimes we realize later that a loss a hurt, a pain, was not as deep as we thought it was at the time, but at the time, we simply need to let it be.
I want to share a story about someone’s loss. It is one of the toughest losses anyone can know, the loss of a child. Nicholas Wolterstorff is a theologian, whose primary area of writing has been in philosophical theology. He has authored books such as John Locke and the Ethics of Belief and Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology. This is not light bedtime reading. In 1983, on a Sunday afternoon in June, Nicholas Wolterstorff received a telephone call. His twenty-five year old son, Eric, had died in a mountain-climbing accident. From pondering that experience as a Christian and as a theologian, Wolterstorff wrote his moving book, Lament for a Son.
“Put your hand into my wounds,” said the risen Jesus to Thomas, “and you will know who I am.” The wounds of Christ are his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them. They went down into the grave with him and they came up with him – visible, tangible, palpable. Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds. (92)
Wolterstorff goes on to reflect a bit on what it might mean to rise with Christ, and then wraps up his reflection. So I shall struggle to live the reality of Christ’s rising and death’s dying. In my living my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in. (92-93)
Just because our losses may not be as tragic does not mean we do not feel them as a wounding, a scar, as being marked. The risen Jesus is the marked Jesus, his wounds, his scars still are part of his identity, a vital part of his identity. It is fascinating to see in John that those wounds are mentioned twice in just a few verses. First Jesus invites disciples gathered in a locked house to see his wounds. He is mysteriously present, pronounces peace, then invites them to see that it is him because of his wounds. It is then, and only then, as they recognize this risen and marked Jesus that he sends them out and blows on them with the breath of the Spirit.
Thomas was not there, and he is not willing to take their second-hand experience for his own. What he does ask for is a vision of the wounds, which are then given to him in a another mysterious appearance of the risen Jesus.
The risen Jesus is the marked Jesus. The risen life in Jesus is also the marked life in Jesus. Just as Jesus’ wounds were an important part of his identity, so our wounds are part of who we are. The resurrection life is not a life where all our wounds disappear, all our scars become invisible, the resurrection life is a life where we acknowledge our wounds, our scars, our marks, but by the grace of God allow them to become places where grace also touches us. The risen life is one in which we are marked for life, where our wounds become openings for the breath of the Spirit, the breath of the risen Jesus.
Here I want to make an important point. In saying that the risen life, the resurrection life, is a life where we acknowledge our wounds, our scars, our marks, but by the grace of God we allow them to become places where we are touched by grace is not saying that God wounds us so we can be touched by grace. It is not saying that God never gives us anything more than we can handle. I don’t care for that theology. It is often well-intended but can be psychologically and spiritually tone-deaf as it misses hearing the real pain someone might be experiencing, and how shattering it is. Instead what I am saying is that no matter the depth of our wounds, they can be places where grace finds an opening. Our wounds and hurts come with living. Some of our wounds are self-inflicted – we are insensitive or over-sensitive, we mess up. Some of our hurts and wounds come in our dearest and closest relationships. The people we love most are also those who can be hurt most by our insensitivities. The world wounds us in not being the place of justice and peace it might be. In Minneapolis this week the Hennepin County prosecutor decided not to press charges against the police officers involved in the fatal Jamar Clark shooting. Because of the history of wounds in the African-American community, this will not simply be considered a legal decision based on evidence alone, regardless of the merits. There is repair work to be done in our communities.
Hurts and wounds come with living, but they need not bury us. A life so marked can still be a risen life, a resurrection life. Sister Melanie Svoboda, in her book Traits of a Healthy Spirituality writes “One sign of a healthy spirituality in our ability to live with adversity, knowing that it is often through our difficulties and pain that we hear God most clearly” (30). She later quotes Henri Nouwen: It is a difficult discipline to constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way in which God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future (102).
All we have experienced has contributed to make us who we are, has marked us. With grace, we can allow our wounds and scars be points of contact with God, with love. Friday I attended the funeral for Barbara Forrest, Elizabeth Macaulay’s mom. During the service, a poem was read which contained these lines:
When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.
The mark of grief as a place for the flowing of hope – the risen life as the marked life.
Nicholas Wolterstorff writes movingly about the risen life as the marked life after the death of his son. To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love. If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, the death has won. (Lament for a Son, 92)
The risen Jesus is the marked Jesus. The risen life is the marked life where our wounds and scars are places where we are also marked by grace, marked by love, marked for life, marked by the Spirit of the risen Jesus. Our wounds are not God-caused, but they can be God-graced, and when they are our wounded hearts become larger, our anguished minds more insightful, our scarred souls more capacious in caring.
I want to end this morning with a body prayer, and action that reminds us that the risen life is the marked life. Simply take your hands, look at them, and rub them together as if you were putting on lotion, or soothing them in warm water. We pray and live as people who are kindly cared for by God, even when we are wounded. The risen life is the marked life. We pray to live with kindness in a wounded and hurting world. Amen.