Don’t Be Scared of Scars

Jonathan L. Walton

Prof. Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister, The Memorial Church of Harvard University. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/ Memorial Church Communications.

“And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.” Luke 24:40

According to a recent article, the global cosmetic surgery market is on the rise. Australians spent nearly $890 million (USD) on minimal, noninvasive procedures. In 2016, doctors performed over 18,000 liposuctions in China. And experts regard plastic surgery apps and games on smartphones where kids can manipulate selfies as little more than gateways to manufacture desire among adolescents. This phenomenal growth explains why market forecasters believe that cosmetic surgery will hit nearly 22 billion in the next five years.   

One might argue that this is an unfortunate but understandable feature of our hyper-visual society. It's not just in Hollywood where physical appearance is privileged, and aging is an anathema. Surgically chiseled chins and wrinkle-free foreheads bring rewards in many different sectors of our society. Social scientists have gathered data. “Attractive” and “youthful” appearances translate into higher incomes, faster professional advancement and even other financial benefits such as lower mortgage rates.


Third Sunday of Easter
Prof. Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister, The Memorial Church of Harvard University.
Sermon: Don’t Be Scared of Scars (mp3)
Full service (mp3) | Bulletin (pdf)


What I want to juxtapose this morning is this interest in cosmetic surgery with today's lectionary text. In many ways, elective procedures reflect the ways we seek to control life. Today's passage is about the stress and strain of uncertainty. Cosmetic surgeries often capture how we attempt to conceal perceived human flaws. This lesson, on the other hand, reveals Jesus modeling the marks of human frailty.

Look at the text. Luke’s account of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance is consistent with a parallel narrative in John’s gospel, chapter twenty. In both Luke and John, Jesus encourages the disciples to look upon and touch his wounds. “Don’t be afraid. I told you I would return. It is I.” And rather than recall specific memories concerning their past or even elaborate on the meaning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Behold the scars on my hands and my feet.”

This is a curious request. This is an ironic ask. We have a resurrected savior who purports to signify the power and glory of God. We have a man whose followers crowned him king of kings and Lord of lords. So why would a man who has the power to overcome the grave elect to model the marks of torture and misery?

I want to suggest that by revealing his scars, this story makes an important point about God revealed in Christ Jesus. God demonstrates God's love and power through Jesus's willingness to identify with humanity at the most basic level. Jesus identifies with our fragility and our vulnerability. 

For instance, what does it mean for Jesus to authenticate his presence in this manner? Of all the ways Jesus could have certified his identity and verified his authority, he chose to share his scars. When the disciples froze in fear and fascination, Jesus could have conjured up a cherubic choir to serenade him with psalms of exaltation and praise. But, no, he reveals the holes where rusty nails penetrated his wrists. 

When the disciples doubted his presence, Jesus could have made a palm print in the sand that would have read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and it came down and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” But, no, Jesus pulled up his tunic to reveal the disfigured ankles of death row. 

The disciples stand before Jesus in fear and trembling. They have not resigned to what Kierkegaard refers to as a tremendous and even absurd leap of faith. They need to wrap their minds around some empirical evidence. And it is in this context that Jesus uses the injustice of false imprisonment and the injuries of crucifixion. Jesus doesn’t mask the remaining marks of this horrific event. Nor is he ashamed of what his wounds culturally signify. Look at my hands.

As is often the case in the gospel narratives, Jesus is one step ahead of his disciples. They are searching for a sign of recognition. “Prove to us you are the one.” Jesus, however, was offering signs of identification. “Look at my scars and know that I am the one with you.” The story, then, is not just about recognition, it's about identification. The disciples identify Jesus as their Lord since Jesus identifies with them, namely through their suffering. For is there any other common denominator of the human condition that cuts across all sectors of society than the prevalence of pain? Hurt? Disappointment? Anxiety and insecurity?

We all bear our scars that are laden with the pains of the past. Some scars, like Jesus’s, were a result of injustice. The nails of sexism, homophobia, classism or racism have left deep wounds. What is more, like Pilate, we too, have lived at the mercy of our own prejudices and the behest of our own bigotry. As a result, the crosses of xenophobia burden too many in our society. Look at our hands. 

There are others scarred by the nails of violence and abuse — physical, sexual, emotional and institutional. Many of us here look good, smell good, and appear to have it all together. But under our designer clothes, and lofty positions remain the scars of tragic moments we have endured, the insecurities that are exacerbated, not alleviated, by success, and the anxieties that someday our friends, families, and colleagues will declare, “The emperor has no clothes!” We do not want our concealed scars revealed to the world. The more we disguise, the more anxious we become, and the more prominent our scars become. Look at our feet.

And if we are honest with ourselves, some of us have to admit that certain scars we carry were self-inflicted. How many of you have prayed the universal plea of repentance that I like to call the “liars prayer”? It goes something like this: “Lord, if you get me out of this one, I promise I will never do it again.” And even though we have survived to pray this prayer another day, our mistakes and missteps of the past can nevertheless leave wounds and psychological scars that remain with us in the present. 

But the good news is that you and I do not need to look past one another’s wounds nor deny our imperfections. God does not require of us a cosmetic fix. Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t be scared of scars.” Look at them. Acknowledge them. For scars are testaments and memorials to the obstacles we have overcome and trials we have transcended. 

I understand that we live in a forward-thinking culture that is consumed with all things tomorrow. For many the past is irrelevant. And those who reference the past other than as a way to mythologize and justify the current status quo are viewed commonly as cynical malcontents. If Jesus were in our context, I could even imagine someone accusing him of “playing the victim” for revealing his wounds. “Dude. You’ve resurrected. That crucifixion thing happened in the past. Let it go.” 

This is a dangerous approach to the past. It is the ignorance of history that invites despair in the present. Yet, acknowledging the scars of our past allows us to mark the trials we have overcome. Acknowledging the wounds of our past also helps us to recognize past hurt so that we might begin the process of real healing.  

When I think about concealing scars, the story of journalist Elizabeth Williams comes to mind. Williams had a 5-centimeter bald spot on the back of her head from successful cancer surgery. She was not ashamed of her scar at all. In her words, the things that make us stand out to others can remind us of the most dramatic, heroic moments of our lives.” Her eight-year-old daughter, however, would often ask her to cover it up, particularly when in public. 

This is why Williams was surprised and relieved when her daughter came home and told her about an encounter with a friend on the playground. Her friend, a new second grader at the local elementary school, was born without a left hand. One day, holding up a left wrist, the little girl asked her new friend, “Do I freak you out?” And the same little girl, who was often embarrassed by her mother's scar, calmly replied, “Why would I be freaked? I love you.”

This is the message God has for us today. Despite the things that make us different or scars that set us apart, we should not be ashamed of our flaws, or freaked out by our scars. God is saying to us, “Why would I be freaked? I love you.” And to prove this fact, you need not look any further than the scarred hands of Jesus. For it is these scarred hands that reach out to us, just as we are.