Monday, April 28, 2014

An Irrefutable Witness

One of the great differences between middle school and adulthood is that in middle school it is cool to be hurt.  Back in my day, no one ever tore or cut anything, being injured meant having a broken bone.  Girls who normally wouldn’t even look at you vied for the opportunity to sign your cast.  Teachers excused you from class five minutes early under the premise that you needed more time to navigate the halls.  Best of all, because you were deemed unable to carry your own books, you got to choose someone to leave early with you.  You could pick a friend or perhaps someone who was going to the same class, but most guys, if they knew anything about anything, designated the cutest girl in the class to assist them.  During these precious moments you felt as free as Andy Dufresne sipping suds with his buddies after tarring the prison roof. 

But now, as an adult, injuries, aches, pains, and wounds carry very little, if any, benefit.  They are the marks we bear for having the timidity to live this thing we call life.  No one – and I mean NO ONE – gets through life unscathed. 

On the Sunday after Easter the Lectionary always has us explore the Risen Christ’s early appearance to the disciples when Thomas is not present.  When Thomas does show up they tell him what he missed.  He famously replies, “Unless I see the wounds and touch them for myself, I will not believe” – a response that gets him dubbed with the nickname “Doubting Thomas”. 

We might want to ask why the wounds were so important to him.  I mean, he could have required anything as proof – walking on water, calming a raging storm, or restoring sight to the blind.  A straight-forward answer could be that the wounds would authenticate it was in fact Jesus and that he had in fact been put to death.  But something is going on here that is much deeper and more significant than the hunt for basic evidence.  What might that be?  (Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, old Corny a Lapide can shed no light on this question, presumably because he took off the Sunday after Easter).

Consider this: Did you know that Christianity is the only religion that worships a wounded god?  All other religions worship a being who is above pain and suffering.  Our God became incarnate and suffered as we suffer, yet rose victorious and promises that we will rise with too – not only in the next life, but also in this one.  Over the centuries, millions and millions of believers have come to understand that the wounds Jesus endured are symbolizes of the wounds we experience in life.

The wounds on Jesus’ back (inflicted by the whip) have come to stand for broken promises.  It is difficult to get through life without breaking a promise and darn near impossible to get through life without enduring a promise made to you being broken.  I have been on both sides and neither feels good.

The wounds to Jesus’ head (caused by the crown of thorns) have come to stand for broken thoughts – those ways we tear ourselves down or allow the words of others to ruminate in us to our detriment.  It may be the voice of an overly critical parent reminding that you will never amount to anything.  It may be the voice of society saying you should be thinner.  Or it may even be your own voice articulating expectations about life that are completely unrealistic.

The nail wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet have come to represent the brokenness of our bodies.  Some of us experience this as the aches and pains of getting older, while others live with chronic and debilitating conditions.  That nearly 25% of our income is spent of healthcare suggests there is much about our physical bodies that is broken.

The spear wound to Jesus’ side now stands for broken relationships.  Leonardo da Vinci included a fascinating detail in his famous painting of the Last Supper.  Under Judas’ elbow there is a spilled salt cellar because in that day salt was a symbol of friendship of hospitality.  There is not a person here this morning who has not suffered at least one very painful broken relationship in life. 

Jesus’ fifth wound, the piercing wound to his heart, has come to represent broken faith.  Wounds and wrongs have a way of sticking like burrs to the soul.   C.S. Lewis once said that praise is inner health made audible, but for many it is an act that simply is not possible.

That Jesus had been wounded Thomas believed.  That he could be raised given those wounds Thomas questioned.  If you consider the wounds of your life you will certainly understand his position.  Broken things stay broken for a long, long time.

I personally have visited very few of the great cathedrals in Europe, but those who have say that one of the most beautiful stained glass windows is found at the Cathedral in Winchester, England.  It tells no Biblical story nor does it refract the mystery of light, but rather it radiates a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. 

The Winchester window was not always as it is now.  One day in the 17th century soldier’s of Cromwell’s army used sticks and bars to destroy the ancient windows of Winchester Cathedral along with all the medieval statuary.  Outside the cathedral on that dark day, the lawn was strewn with tiny fragments of glass, irrevocably shattered.  When the soldiers left, the people came out to look at the ruins.  One man stepped forward and began to collect the smashed debris.  Soon the whole community joined him until many bushels were gathered. 

It was evident that a reconstruction of the original work would be impossible.  Still, a cathedral glass worker asked to have the fragments and promised to do the best he could with what had been recovered.  Step by step, inch by inch, high on a scaffold above the cathedral nave, the artisan arranged the little pieces into an intricate abstraction.  Nothing like it had ever been seen before and some shook their heads and grumbled at the novelty of it all. 

When the great window was finally completed, all the assorted little pieces were fit together in an array of jewels.  Those who visit that cathedral today stand in a light radiating through that broken glass which proclaims the essence of the Christian faith more powerfully than any sermon ever could: God can take all the shattered, broken fragments of our lives and create inexpressible beauty.

When Thomas says “I will not believe he is risen until I touch his wounds myself” he is saying he is desperate to know that religion is not a facade masking unhealable pain, that God knows how broken our lives have become and how much we suffer, and that those wounds can be transformed into something strong and beautiful so that their witness is irrefutable. 

The choice of every human being is twofold.  Either we can fall through the cracks of our lives, or we can allow God to shine through them.  Jesus Christ accepts us as we are (broken, limited, sinful and struggling), long before we accept him.  Where we would put ourselves down, Christ bends to lift us up.  Where we would heap judgment and blame upon ourselves, Christ tenderly forgives and accepts us.  Where we are filled with despair or overwhelming sorrow, Christ loves us with a love that recreates us.  You must always remember this: the broken conditions of our humanity elicit Christ’s redemptive touch.

At every service of public worship, in every moment of private prayer, and at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, in one way or another, the question is asked, “Is your heart breaking?  Then let it break here.  Is your body broken?  Then bring its broken parts here.  Does your mind sometimes break down in a deep anguish you never knew was possible?  Then bring its broken fragments here.”  Then and only then can we say with Julian of Norwich, “All our wounds are seen before God not as wounds but as worships.”

Back in middle school, walking those halls with casts and crutches, it must have been said a hundred times, “The doctor told me that the strongest part of any human bone is the place where a fracture has healed.”  Today we look on our wounded Lord who has been transformed into glory and we look upon the marks of His suffering.  From the witness of the wounds we know that he is like us.  We know that he understands us.  And we know that if we share in his resurrection we can be made whole like he is.  We know all of this because of the witness of the wounds.