Sermon, Sunday 7 April 2013
THE WOUNDS THAT HEAL
Today’s gospel story of “doubting Thomas” must surely count as one of the best-known in the whole of the bible. The term “doubting Thomas” has, after all, entered the language to express a mild form of disapproval of one who demands unreasonable levels of proof. While he’s far from perfect, I think you can make a good case for saying that Thomas was, in many respects, a model Christian. Earlier in the story of Jesus’ last days, when he tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to die, it’s Thomas who says he’s willing to go with him to share his fate. He was clearly a man of courage. And as for his doubt – well, what is so wrong with that? As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:
“There lives more faith in honest doubt
Believe me, than in half the creeds”
And I think we can safely say that, were he to live now, Thomas would not be one to recite the creed unthinkingly. And yet, once convinced, there is no stopping him – “My Lord and my God!” he cries when he puts his hands into Jesus’ wounds. Thomas’ doubt was a striving for clarity and certainty and was, as such, the fuel of his faith.
While Jesus’ wounds are the means by which Thomas finds the certainty he is looking for they are surely significant in another key respect. Their very existence begs the question of why the body of the risen Jesus bore the marks of any wounds at all. To be clear: his was NOT a resuscitated body. If the gospel narratives are clear about anything it’s that we are not talking of Jesus’ earthly body being re-animated after his death. In today’s reading we are told that Jesus “appeared” to his disciples, despite their being in a house with locked doors. In other gospels it’s clear that Jesus, while recognisably the same, had also changed in some significant way such that, in Luke’s gospel for instance, the travellers on the Emmaus Road do not recognise him until, at the end of their journey, he breaks bread with them.
The question of whether these appearances were something that you could have captured with a video camera or whether they were a deep, entirely personal and subjective experience on the part of the disciples and others remains open to question. We know, for instance, from the Book of Acts, that Jesus appeared to Paul precisely in this subjective way such that others were not aware of his presence. But then that begs the question as to why, if it’s clear that it was a purely personal experience in Paul’s case, the gospels are at pains to stress the bodily nature of Jesus’ appearances, even if they are so very strange that they do not fit in any with our own experience of the world and the way it works. It is, indeed, all very strange and baffling. I think it perfectly reasonable therefore to be agnostic about precisely what happened while in no way doubting that something extraordinary and profound did happen and that had a transformative effect on the disciples and, in turn, the whole world.
So, to return to my question, why are the gospels so emphatic about the risen Jesus bearing the wounds of his torture? Classical Christian doctrine is at one with mainstream Judaism in believing that history is moving towards the end-point of a new creation, which will see a re-made earth and humanity that are not subject to decay and death. In Christian teaching the risen Christ is the sign, the hope of things to come or, as St. Paul puts it, he is “the first fruits” of the new creation.
So, to repeat, the risen Christ is BOTH the same as he was before his death on the cross AND markedly different. If that sounds strange it is worth remembering that we see something of this pattern of sameness and difference co-existing in the natural world. For instance, there is the caterpillar that is transformed into a butterfly by way of a chrysalis and yet which, despite its new appearance, still bears the same DNA. We see some of this “difference and sameness” in ourselves, for every cell of our bodies is replaced every few years such that we are, literally, completely new in a physical sense and yet recognisably the same people.
The fact that the risen Jesus bears the scars of his torture is of huge significance for our lives and our approach to suffering. In his new and risen life Jesus’ suffering on the cross is in no way denied or forgotten as if his earthly life had been some kind of bad dream. Rather, his wounds tell us that his suffering had become an integral part of who he was and that he had overcome and transcended that suffering.
The question of suffering is one of the great mysteries of existence. A very good friend of mine whom I have known for over 30 years now suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and has done so for all the time I have known her. She is now in the fairly advanced stages of the disease and is wheelchair bound and dependent on an army of carers. I was sitting with her having a cup of tea the other day when she asked me, out of the blue, whether I thought suffering was good for you.
As you can imagine, this really put me on the spot and I found myself mumbling an answer to the effect that not suffering is not good for you. I couldn’t bring myself to glibly agree with the proposition that suffering is good for you so chose, I guess, a response that would have been worthy of a politician. On reflection, what I think I was trying to get at was this. Suffering is a central fact of life such that there is no avoiding it. Whoever we are, we all of us suffer in some measure, some obviously much more than others. The question therefore seems to me to be one of our attitude towards it. If it overwhelms us we can easily become angry and bitter. But if can somehow come to terms with it can make us both stronger and more compassionate, giving us the empathy and strength to reach out to others who are suffering. Ghastly as suffering is, it is one of the means whereby our hearts of stone can become hearts of flesh.
It is a completely natural human tendency to avoid suffering if we possibly can and who, in their right minds, wouldn’t do so? And it is marvellous to see the advances that have been made to reduce suffering – think for instance of the great strides made in palliative care over the last few decades such that there is little reason for terminal cancer patients to die in terrible pain nowadays. But there is a problem when we start to fool ourselves that we are rich enough and clever enough to avoid suffering altogether and that there is something wrong if we don’t. Such thinking leads to a denial of the reality of suffering that will always be a feature of our earthly existence.
Confronting and coping with this awful fact is one of the central purposes of religious faith. So far from being the opium of the people, religious practice helps us to confront our frail mortality and this is never more true than on Good Friday. The climax of the service of three hours’ devotions here at St. Mary’s is the veneration of the cross. As one of us holds a large wooden crucifix, members of the congregation come to kneel before it, one by one, in prayer and contemplation. Some simply touch it, some kiss it, many cry. It is an extraordinarily raw moment when the nakedness of Jesus on his cross mirrors the nakedness of us all in our collective vulnerability. At that moment there is simply no escaping that we are poor, suffering humanity. And within the totality of the Christian story we find a means – or at least a hope – of coming to terms with suffering. This is a coming to terms that in no sense denies suffering but rather gives the hope and the promise of our transcending it.
Good Friday is a day of stunning honesty. When you leave the service of three hour devotions it is hard to believe that Easter Day will come so complete has been our exposure to the horror of the cross and the evil that inflicted it. What a contrast this honesty is with the facile, surface nature of so much of contemporary society. I was listening to the radio the other day and heard an interview with a novelist called Mohsin Hamid who wrote a novel called “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”. It’s a gripping story seen through the eyes of a young muslim that really gets inside the head of someone for whom terrorism seems like the right answer to the ills of western society. Hamid was on the radio to publicise his latest book and, as a friendly critic of western capitalism, he argued that one of the big problems of a society that is driven by ever greater levels of consumption is that it has, as he put it, “no narrative of loss”. In other words, contemporary western society operates as if all that matters is personal gain and as if personal loss is too indecent, too much of a failure, to be mentioned or accommodated.
The cross and the wounds it inflicted on Jesus tell us otherwise. They speak of a central truth of human existence that we must not deny but face, full-on. And it is the fact that the risen Jesus bears the wounds of his suffering and yet transcends them that enables us to cope with our own suffering and loss with hope – even, perhaps, with a measure of creativity – and so reach out to the suffering of others with the compassion that is the true mark of our humanity.