April 8, 2018
A number of years ago I saw the movie The Sixth Sense. It starred Bruce Willis who played a child psychologist and Haley Joel Osment who played a child who, as the famous tagline of the movie put it, saw dead people. And not simply wispy specters but rather terrifyingly substantial ghosts that didn’t know they were dead. The child struggles both with being scared by what he repeatedly sees and by the isolation caused by seeing what no one else could. Throughout the movie the psychologist struggles to assist the child to understand the purpose of his gift, which turns out to be to help the dead actually see themselves. In an iconic example of this realization, a dead character in the movie suddenly realizes what must be true, feels for and finds a gaping wound in his back, and twists around to finally look at it. Until he felt the mark of the wound and twisted around to see it, he was utterly stuck. Unless he did that, he could not believe what the child had quietly come to know.
Now Jesus, as depicted in our passage from the gospel of John this morning, is decidedly not a ghost. Nor is he dead but very much alive. This was just about impossible for his disciples to wrap their heads around, however. Earlier Peter and the person that John refers to as the Beloved Disciple had been at Jesus’ tomb. They had discovered it empty except for the linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body. The Beloved Disciple had “seen and believed” (Jn 20:8). It isn’t clear what Peter understood. Then Mary Magdalene had encountered two angels inside the tomb, followed by Jesus himself who stood next to her in the garden and had to speak her name before she realized who it was (Jn 20:16). She had gone on to tell the other disciples “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18), unlike the Beloved Disciple and Peter who had simply returned to their homes (Jn 20:10). Now, at the end of this head-spinning day, the disciples had locked themselves away in the house where they had been meeting, terrified of being betrayed into the hands of Roman imperial authorities like Jesus had, trying to make sense of all that had happened. How could they dare believe what they had not seen? At that moment Jesus came into their midst although the doors were locked (Jn 20:19). The first thing he did was to bid them peace, as if to quell their alarm. The second thing he did was to show them his hands and his side. This move conveys to them, this truly is me. You who saw me die—at however far a remove – I am not an imposter. It is also to say, I am not a ghost. Jesus will say precisely this as he points to his hands and his feet in a passage from the gospel of Luke that we’ll hear next week (Lk 24:36b-48). The resurrected Jesus is flesh and blood. He has not skipped death but is in fact raised from it. And resurrection has not smoothed him over, either. He is marked by all he has passed through. His very body proclaims that resurrection is not an avoidance of death. It is not a prettification of death. It is in fact not possible without death. Resurrection life has taken up death into itself and swallowed it up for ever. Jesus’ body proclaims this to the disciples in a way that his words alone could not. He was showing them something they needed to see.
But poor Thomas missed it all and was not amused to learn of this. I tend to read his stubbornness as coming more from a place of disappointment and sadness than of habitual doubt. His declared insistence on not only seeing the mark of the nails in his hands but also on actually putting his finger and his hand into the openings in Jesus’ hands and side – as bitingly sarcastic as these statements sound – speak to me of an underlining longing, loss, and pain. They cry out how could you have left me, Jesus?And how dare you, my friends, open up this my own wound, my own loss? How dare you allow me to open my heart even for a minute to the hope that he lives?When Jesus arrives a week later, when – thank God—Thomas is actually present, Jesus immediately shows Thomas his wounds. And though his actions respond exactly to Thomas’ statement from the week before, I don’t think Jesus is interested in showing him up and making him look bad—even if the passage goes on to declare blessed those who come to believe even though they have not seen (Jn 20:29). This moment underlines that seeing and naming the wounds that led to death is integral to recognizing resurrection. This moment is about inviting Thomas, and through him all who behold this scene, who see this beloved body of Jesus, to take the time to observe the wounds and through seeing not only to believe but to begin to be healed. The resurrected wounds of Jesus which he specifically invites us to see in this scene remind me of the odd declaration Jesus had made earlier in John’s gospel (which we heard on the fourth Sunday of Lent) about the bronze serpent on the pole, lifted up in the wilderness so that all could behold an icon of their shared woundedness and be healed (Jn 3:14-21).
This moment in the locked room in which Jesus shows himself to Thomas and all, has been depicted many times in art, from icons and paintings to sculptures. As some of you know, I have a particular fondness for these depictions (and for this story in general). The first icon I ever bought for myself was of this scene. Several years ago as I collected various images of it for a project I was working on, I discovered that art historians had come to call Jesus’ characteristic pose in this scene “ostentatio vulnerum,” literally “display of wounds.” To an English speaker the Latin cannot help but add the shade of an ostentatious vulnerability, a stance that defies the expectations of anyone who might assume the risen Christ to convey unblemished triumphalism. This Jesus, ostentatiously vulnerable, conveys visually what the letter to the Hebrews underlines (in a passage the Book of Common Prayer assigns to Good Friday) that Christ is very much able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).
As it so happens, the resurrected, side-wounded Christ has become an important icon to theologians whose work connects the gospel message to the liberation of marginalized peoples.One of my favorite examples is in the disability theology of Nancy Eiesland who emphasizes in her book The Disabled God that the body of the risen Christ is not “restored” or “perfected” but very much still who and what it was. Christ’s “transfigured form that yet embodies the reality of impaired hands, feet, and side…” “offers hope that our nonconventional, and sometimes difficult, bodies participate fully in the Imago Dei and that God whose nature is love.” Queer and trans theologians as well increasingly turn to this scene to rejoice that the body of the risen Christ bears the marks of its passage, inviting us not to look away but to see all that has happened, to know that we are joined by God in deep solidarity.We stand before the mystery of resurrection-- something the world tells us we dare not dream of, that makes no sense-- and believe it anyway. This scene was the first biblical story that really spoke to me as a young person. If you had asked me as a teen what story really spoke to me, grieving the breakup of my parents’ marriage and the beginnings of my mom’s long struggle with chronic illness, and alienated at times by peers who didn’t understand my unspoken but visible queerness or my Christianity which was counter cultural in my context, it would be this one. This was the story that laid a claim on me. This risen but wounded Christ could hold the complexities of my life, allow them to be, invite me to turn and look and know that all of this would be, was even then, and is now, redeemed, whole.
The risen Christ comes to us as we are locked away in fear. He knows our fears are real. He has felt them himself. It was in fact fear that originally felled him -- fear that suffused and stoked an imperial Roman context that felt it had to extinguish any movement that exposed its brittle power. It was fear that caused it to reinforce the appearance of insurmountable dominance by an execution that served as a public erasure. The risen Christ has walked through all of that. He has lifted up this entire scene even as it became displayed on his very body so that all could see its horrific dynamic. On the other side of this horror, he has been raised, showing us that nothing, not even such horror, can vanquish the power of God, nothing can stop the hope of Christ’s ever-beating heart. We need not lock ourselves away in fear, as treacherous as the world continues to be. We are not powerless, death cannot stop the flow of God’s love and the power of God’s people to be bearer’s of God’s peace and liberation, indeed God’s joy here in this world, even as creation itself groans. This risen Christ stands in our midst and calls us to look, to see the marks of the wounds in his body all around the world. Do not be overcome by fear, he tells us, but see, reach out and touch, do not turn away. Unlock those doors, fling wide the sanctuary, dear friends, nothing can separate us from the love of God and the power of the risen Christ who has vanquished death itself. Turn around and behold your own wounds. See and confront the persistent wounds of gun violence, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Turn again and behold in sorrow the death of Dr. King fifty years ago this week. Stand with those making their way to countries of safety and shelter from violent contexts of origin. Grieve your losses together, support one another even as I stand with you, but do not lock the doors of your hearts. Peace be with you, Christ breathes to us, sending us out, out to stand with one another in the world, to be bearers in our collective body of his risen glory.
See for example, M. Shawn Copeland in Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), especially p. 116.
Nancy Eiseland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory God of Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 107-108.
See, for example, Rachel Mann, Dazzling Darkness: Gender, Sexuality, Illness and God (Wild Goose Publications, 2012), esp pp. 15, 132; Shannon Kearns, Walking Toward Resurrection: a Transgender Passion Narrative, pp. 61-62. I have worked with this image in “Side Wound, Virgin Birth, Transfiguration” in Theology and SexualityVol. 18, no. 2 (2012): 127-132 and in “Holy Week,” in ed. Barb Greve Crossing Paths: Where Transgender and Religion Meet (UUA, 2003), 51-64. Feminist historians of Christianity – e.g. Caroline Walker Bynum, Karma Lochrie, Amy Hollywood—have for some time been unpacking dimensions of gender and sexuality in the mystical interpretations of the side wound in the medieval writings of, for example, Bernard of Clairveaux, Julian of Norwich, or Angela of Foligno. Queer, cisgender theologians have also explored the side wound as a site of eroticism—e.g. Graham Ward, Jay Johnson. Linn Tonstad has recently offered a critical perspective on “the wound-womb” topos in God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude(New York: Routledge, 2017).