Sermon by the Rev. Westley Conn, Ministry Fellow, Sunday, April 19, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
The disciples weren’t expecting a resurrection, a triumphal comeback of their Messiah to deliver them from oppression and establish a victorious reign of God’s kingdom on earth. At the crucifixion the disciples were a completely hopeless group; there was no sense of Christ’s return, a coming again. Jesus’ followers, after he’d been captured and killed, fled for their own safety, for fear that the same fait awaited them. The disciples and Jesus’ closest companions hid themselves; they huddled away in a house, locked the doors, and shuttered up hope itself.
I’m not sure, given our own circumstances, that many of us were expecting a resurrection last Sunday either. Out of instinct, I woke up early in the morning as if I were actually going to an Easter sunrise service. I was committed to witnessing the victorious resurrection the way I always have, but instead I rose early only to move from my bedroom to the living room. Like the disciples in today’s Gospel reading from John, we’re still tucked away, hidden from the world and each other. This story tells us that they remained in hiding the week after Mary found Jesus in the garden; they were still stowed away in their house a week after the Resurrection.
I imagine the disciples to be overtaken with grief. They’d lost so much. Witnessing the violence of the crucifixion concretized Jesus’ death. As he was put on the cross they watched their future disappear. Things would never be the same. So much of what these disciples were feeling is like what we are experiencing behind our locked doors. How bad is this going to get we wonder? Orders to stay at home are extended. Anger surfaces inside of us each time we realize a routine is gone, a social connection severed, and senses of security jeopardized. Too many of us have found ourselves anxious about life and death issues. And at the very least, we are swept up in the sympathetic loss for others, including those on the frontlines, those who have lost their jobs, and those who have already lost friends and family to the virus.
It is here, among sorrow and grief, that Jesus appears. Jesus came through walls and a locked door and stood among the disciples. In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples are startled and terrified when Jesus entered the house; Luke wrote they feared that they had seen a ghost. Jesus’ body is present yet positioned somewhere else; his body lived life, endured death, and is now on another plane intersecting with the present. Surely, they’re wondering if this is like when their friend Lazarus came back from the tomb; he was brought back to life as it was. However, Jesus’ return is different; it is a resurrection, and as Professor Paulsell said last Sunday, “Resurrection isn’t a return to normal.” For the disciples this is a period of disorientation; they witnessed the violence of Jesus’ death and now, days later, Jesus stands among them. “Is this appearance for good? Or is this a haunting?”, the disciples wonder.
In her book, Resurrecting Wounds, theologian Shelly Rambo talks about the Resurrection as a period of disorientation and reorientation, filled with moments of misrecognition that convey the challenges of witnessing life in the aftermath of death. For the disciples, the Resurrection is not a return to normal; it is not a triumphant moment and it is not a quick, ripping off of the band-aid to avoid a prolonged pain. It’s not appropriate for winning to be exclaimed and nor is it right to proclaim total recovery.
To be clear, Easter is secured and Christ’s resurrection is sure. Our Alleluias are not, and the Alleluias of time were not, in vain. To help the disciples come to terms with what and who they’re seeing, Jesus displays his wounds. He shows them first to all the disciples but Thomas, who was not there. Jesus returned again to the house, entering through the same walls and locked door to show Thomas. Jesus stood before the disciples and opened up the palms of his hands; he lifted his foot from beneath his tunic; he pulled his mantle above his waist, and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Resurrection certainly hasn’t returned things to normal. Jesus is there with the disciples, breathing on them, and yet his body remained marked with crucifixion.
The wounds are what the disciples know; these are the reference points for their pain and sorrow. For the disciples, the Resurrection is recognizable only by first acknowledging the pain, not glossing over the hard stuff, but looking at the wounds to know that the past is real, that Jesus’ presence among them is real, and that “life emerges amid the ruins.” Jesus came to his disciples; he met them where they were at. So too it is for us. Jesus has and will again pass through our shut doors, stand among us in our grief, and offer us his wounds. “Put your finger here, reach out your hand and put in my side,” he will say to you and to me.
Christ reaches us where we are now, in our weakness. His wounds convey the reality and power of the Resurrection for us; that resurrection isn’t an erasure of our experiences of sadness and uncertainty. In her writing about the Resurrection, Shelly Rambo goes on to say that Christ’s wounds make room for the complexities of our lives, joy amidst sorrow, life amidst death.
Through his mysterious resurrection, Christ’s wounds travel with him. They are not scars or bloodied lacerations; these are something else, wounds that are open to hurt. Christ’s wounds are a way to be with Christ and to touch the Resurrection itself. His wounds show us that life will be reassembled; Christ’s wounds point to new articulations of life. They let past and present meet to create a future. Like the disciples, we cannot replace what has been lost but we can let suffering and joy comingle to help us feel our way forward.
As I sat in my living room, determined to go to an Easter sunrise service, I instead found myself watching the Papal Easter Mass broadcast from the Vatican. It was enchanting to hear the sung “Alleluias” echo through the nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica, watching the camera zoomed in and out on the cavernous church. I was astonished to hear the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ Resurrection chanted in both Latin and Greek. The deacon reverenced the Gospel book with his stole before letting his voice sing the Resurrection story in Greek, its original language. My body quivered as he elongated the Greek word meaning “to rise from the dead,” emphasizing it as his voice moved through a mysterious array different notes. Dispersed throughout my viewing of this service were various notifications on my phone, informing me of the latest number of deaths from the virus. Badges appeared on my screen to let me know that New York was burying unclaimed bodies in makeshift graves.
Here, life and death were brought together in real time: Jesus standing before me with wounds bare, pain and grief intertwined with comfort and joy. If these wounds of Christ before me were real, then so too are our wounds. And, this intermingling of life and death, of wounds, means that Christ’s Resurrection is as real for us as it was for the disciples, whether we are shut behind our doors, whether we expect it or not. This wasn’t the glorious resurrection I was accustomed to on Easter morning, and for good reason. It was, however, an honest-to-God resurrection.