A sermon preached by Br Samuel SSF, Hilfield Friary
‘Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you”. After this he showed them his hands and his side’. To Thomas he said, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side’.
Twice in today’s gospel reading Jesus shows his wounds to his disciples. Of course, this is a way of recognising Jesus. Yes, this really is the one who just three days previously had been put to death on a cross; this is not the appearance of a look-a-like. The marks of the crucified confirm for the disciple Jesus’ identity. But the wounds of the risen Christ are more than just identification marks. They are a reminder to the disciples, a painful one, of their own wounds – the wounds of desertion, the wounds of denial, the wounds of betrayal, the wounds of violence and fear, the wounds of a broken relationship. Edward Shillito, writing at the end of World War 1 when the world was so wounded by loss and devastation, wrote a poem entitled ‘Jesus of the Scars’. The final verse runs:
The other gods were strong but thou wast weak,
They rode but thou didst stumble to a throne,
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds but thou alone.
Jesus’ wounds speak to our wounds. Whatever else the resurrection is about it’s not about forgetting; it’s not about blanking out, burying the memory of the events which have led up to this startling, amazing, totally unexpected presence in the upper room where the disciples are sitting behind locked doors; rather, by displaying his wounds he unlocks their memory: ‘Look at my wounds – and look at yours.’
We humans have a tendency to forget, to pass over, to ignore what has been most painful to us. Prince Harry last week came out publicly with the admission that for twenty years he had left unexamined the traumatic effect of his mother’s sudden violent death back in 1997; it had been just too painful for him to acknowledge so he buried the wound within. But that had led to periods of deep depression. Blaming and shaming others is another way of burying our wounds, diverting the pain away from ourselves. It’s the fault of someone else, the migrant, the Muslim, the Mexican, the Jew. These are the causes of our pain; they are the ones we need to lock our doors against. But this too only buries our wounds, it doesn’t heal them. The risen Jesus, in contrast, lifts up, un-buries his wounds – his and ours – and says ‘Peace be with you’. No blame, no shame, no recrimination, no passing the buck, no forgetting, no denial of what has happened, just ‘Peace be with you.’ And with that, with those four simple words, we are taken to the very heart of the Gospel of the Resurrection; we enter the mystery of who Jesus is, what he is about and what God has been doing through him. ‘Except a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit’. Those who seek to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’. It’s not despite the wounds but through them, because of them, that we find peace and healing.
The wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and side are not shameful to him or to us; they are not to be hidden, forgotten or left buried, for they are tokens of peace, compassion and forgiveness; they are signs of love. Charles Wesley’s great hymn which we sing in Advent, ‘Lo he comes with clouds descending’ expresses this perfectly:
Those dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exaltation
To his ransomed worshippers.
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on his glorious scars.
With God, wounds – his and ours – are honour badges rather than signs of shame; opportunities for peace and healing, for new and transformed life, for glory.
People who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge their own wounds can be very hard to live with. Jean Vanier, the founder and continuing inspiration of L’Arche, a community of people with learning difficulties together with those who assist them, says that being with people who live with the wounds of frustration, loneliness, misunderstanding and marginalization reveals to their assistants their own wounds, and through this their healing and forgiveness. Anyone who has worked with homeless people, or with refugees, or others who are marginalized will have experienced something of this. It’s being brought to the recognition of our vulnerabilities that healing can be found. That’s certainly my experience of living in community. It’s when hidden hurts and tensions come to the surface and are acknowledged rather than buried or passed on in blame and recrimination that new life and new energy for the community can be found. Wounds which are acknowledged can be precious gifts, the means of grace for the whole community.
Today, April 23rd, besides being Shakespeare’s birthday and the London Marathon is the feast of St George, though on account of it this year falling on a Sunday he has been knocked back till tomorrow for celebration. I’m not sure that many people today, apart from scouts, know much about St George except that he was something of a superhero when it came to killing a dragon or that he is a rather less successful sponsor of English football. But the really important thing about George is that he was a martyr; in fact it’s the only sure thing we know about him. He died in Palestine around the beginning of the 4th century AD, probably during the general persecution of Church under the Emperor Diocletian. He is greatly revered among Eastern Christians as ‘the Great Martyr’. Martyrs were hugely important in the early church, not because they were heroes, but because they were recognised as bearing the wounds of Christ by which the risen Christ is revealed and manifested, and through which peace and mercy and forgiveness are poured out for the Church and for the world. The word ‘martyr’ simply means ‘witness’; those who bear the wounds of martyrdom as Christians are witnesses to the power of Christ’s resurrection. The blood of the martyrs, it is said, is the seed of the Church.
In today’s gospel reading, straight after showing the disciples his wounds, Jesus breathes on them the breath of the Holy Spirit and commissions them for forgiveness: ‘If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven…..’ This is to be the mission of the Church – to embody and to proclaim the peace and forgiveness that flow from the glorious wounds of Christ and which can flow from our own acknowledged and accepted wounds. Through our wounds we are called by the risen Jesus to become instruments of peace.
I wonder if you were as moved as I was by the statement made by the family of the Kurt Cochrane, the American tourist, one of five people killed last month in the terrible attack in Westminster. A few days after his murder they shared their grief and their huge sense of loss at Kurt’s death, a loss made even more tragic and painful because he was obviously such a beautiful man. They then went on to say that towards Khalid Masood, his murderer, they held no hard feelings, they bore no ill will, for Kurt himself would not have wanted this. This is the peace of Christ - peace offered with pierced hands.