Sermon: April 23 2017

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter.

Audio link here.

Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

He showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples—instead of calling an ambulance or passing out at the sight of this gory specimen—were glad when they saw the Lord. This is a weird response. Even more weird is Thomas’s desire to stick his fingers into the wounds, where the nails once tore through tendon and ligament, where the spear entered the body envelope of his Lord and God.

Weird, and yet, totally understandable. If I was in that room when Jesus came back from the dead, holes in his hands and feet and side, I would want to probe them too. I wouldn’t be able to look away. It’s like a train wreck, a friend’s new piercing in an unfortunate location, a comically extravagant engagement ring.

We have always found this image compelling, and made much of the fact that Jesus bore the marks of his passion, even in his resurrection:
They recognised him not at first, but then they noticed his scars and knew and were glad. And if Christ is recognized by the damage he sustained in this world, perhaps we too are formed by the slings and arrows we have survived in this vale of soul-making. Maybe our traumas make us who we are, for better or worse.
Christ is risen, scarred still; perhaps he also ascends thus wounded, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, in the bosom of God, in the life of the Trinity, disfigured. There are wounds in God. And if so, disfigurement and disability are given dignity. Our superficial cosmetic preferences are thus challenged, as is our fetishisation of functionality, of utility.

And yet these interpretations seem too heavy-handed, over-extrapolated.
It seems condescending to be told that suffering builds character. It fails to do justice to the actual horrors of the world. Suffering breaks people as least as often as it builds us up. It should not be glibly romanticised.
And, of course, the wounded Christ is not in any sense disabled, though he is disfigured. I suppose they amount to the same thing in our world, with its obsessions. All the same, on his pierced feet he walked; with his torn hands, he took fish and bread, and fed his disciples.

We are understandably eager to make something of this icon, but it resists neat theologising.

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Perhaps we are going about this the wrong way, then. I have been asking what the wounds of the risen Christ mean for the psychology of trauma and the politics of disability. But maybe these are too specific, or maybe not specific enough. What do these wounds mean today? By which I don’t mean the year 2017, but the second Sunday of Easter.

These scars tell us that Christ’s risen body is that same body, hung on a tree just days ago, beaten and naked; it has not been replaced, but transfigured. We too, on this side of the empty tomb, are the same crooks and cowards who hung him there, who denied him, who fled in the darkness, but, by the grace of God, transformed. Whatever the world to come is like, it is the same world as this one, which crucified its Lord, but renewed. There is, in other words, no escapism in Christianity, only redemption.

These wounds also reveal our woundedness, because Christ’s risen body is also our bodies: after all, his humanity is our humanity, and humanity is irreducibly embodied. Let’s return to the idea, briefly entertained earlier, that the disciples saw—really saw—their Lord only when he showed them his hands and side. His wounds were the particularities of his body that enabled recognition: that is, it is not a male body or a Jewish body that they saw, but a wounded one. This is important because it provides us a point of identification beyond his creatureliness and humanity.

In Christ’s woundedness, we not only recognise ourselves, but are confronted with a truer image of ourselves. The risen Christ shows us who we are, relieves us of our delusions of grandeur and myths of self-sufficiency that tempt us to divide the world between our self-made, able-bodied selves and the poor souls who need our help, whether they deserve it or not. We are—the wounded Christ shows us—all of us, wounded.

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There is much about the biblical narratives of the resurrection that beggar belief, particularly in our modern times. Chief among them is that description in the second chapter of the book of Acts, describing what sounds like the formation of a socialist utopia in the light of the resurrection: they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. This is, as we know in our day and age, impossible; we know better, in a world where austerity applies asymmetrically to the poor, where the rich, in our growing richer, have all but guaranteed that the poor will be with us always.

On the other hand, this is a perfectly sensible way to arrange a society that has been touched by Christ’s wounds. The recognition that we are all, in diverse ways, disfigured—whether by our privilege or our poverty—is precisely the equalising basis for such an economy of sharing, of gift. It is not that the resurrection entails socialism; that too would be wishful over-extrapolation, at least on my part. But it does entail an interrogation of our starting points.

If we are all wounded, our concern for others whose wounds may differ from ours comes first from this solidarity, and not from a pedestal of our own wishful devising. We are not to begin with assumptions about inequality that lead us into habits of dividing people into strong and weak, deserving and unworthy, givers and takers. We are, all of us, takers; everything is gift.

Perhaps this description of the world rings false: no more credible that the testimony of grieving women, hysterically claiming that their teacher had returned from the dead. I would not be surprised, so ingrained is the orthodoxy of our current political economy. But of course we do take; we who are able-bodied and skilled and diligent and, let’s face it, wealthy.

We take from our genetic lottery, and the accidents of ancestral history and regional microclimate. We take whenever we exploit these randomly allocated advantages, to drive ever widening wedges between ourselves and others. Make no mistake: the gifts we can afford to give are so much blood money. This is a consequence, not of our individual moral characters, but of the systems in which we live and breathe and have our beings. We are as much unwitting victims as we are perpetrators of the tragedy of social injustice.

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And yet: redemption, renewal, transformation; in a word, resurrection. The risen Christ redeems all that he has assumed, wounds and all.

These resurrection wounds are not for hiding, for denying. They are for showing and touching, for bringing peace. And so it is that our wounds—even the wounds of our privilege—are our crosses to bear, redeemed to be our gifts, our imperishable and unfading inheritance, not to hoard, but to share.

Wounded, he says peace be with you; not payback, not please leave me alone, but peace. Wounded, he comes and breathes upon us his most holy spirit, and we who do not see—cannot see, for the sheer glory of the thing—nevertheless find our soul’s salvation in his wounds that are, by the grace of God, our wounds too. He comes back to us, with the damage we have inflicted upon him, not only to forgive us, but to invite us and empower us and send us to forgive others. Not just to love us with this unutterable love, but to call us and exalt us, in our woundedness, to love others. Even to break bread together, and to share all with all.

 

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Sermon: April 3 2016

Readings

Acts 5:12-16

Revelation 1:9-13, 17-19

John 20:19-31

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Christ is risen, and now everything has changed; but, of course, nothing has changed.

Christ has risen, and Rome has fallen, but in her place have risen empire after empire, each one repeating that age old trick of dressing up thuggery in the respectability of marble busts and fine bone china.

Christ is risen, but the poor are still with us, as indeed he himself said they would be; this time, however, we have not wasted the choice nard to anoint his feet, but have instead stored up riches for ourselves under the eschatological vision that wealth trickles down. Meanwhile, since Good Friday last week, approximately 180,000 people around the world have died of hunger or hunger-related causes.

Christ is risen; meanwhile, we are witnesses to another kind of resurrection, of the old time demagoguery that appeals to our basest prejudices and insecurities. The most effective tool in the arsenal of the craven warmonger is the fear of the other, and boy do we fear the other. Thus, for every side of every bout of armed conflict, young men and women give up their lives, and all we have to show for it is an ever bloodier mess. First, it was the Jews we feared, and since then we have found others, and the cycles of preemptive and retaliatory violence have gone on unimpeded as the Neros of the world play on.

Christ is risen, and now everything has changed; but, of course, nothing has changed. Or, at least, we haven’t; not enough, not nearly enough.

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And yet, this—this sordid state of affairs in which we find ourselves, and which is of our own making—is precisely why we need to continue celebrating Easter, why we need the Paschal light that pierces the darkness, and brings warmth into a cold world.

Truth be told, Christianity has much more in common with nihilism than it does with any whiggish view of history, in which the world is getting inexorably better toward some beatific vision of a just and peaceful society. To be sure, we hope for such a world, but it is not offered to us on a silver platter. After all, surely we know better than most, that it is the severed heads of the politically inconvenient that tend to be thus offered.

There are, in the Christian life, no pat certainties, no guarantees of projected outcomes: ours is a risky enterprise, a sojourn in the wilderness, destination unknown, but for the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, the rising star. Christ is our help and hope, without whom we are lost for sure, trapped in our world of credit default swaps and sweatshops and factory farming and military-industrial complexes.

Hope is the operative word. Easter—the Resurrection—is our sacrament of hope: it is our rejection of the world that has been sold to us on the cheap, in which violence is the cost of peace, and poverty the price of economic growth; in which our conveniences and comforts are bought with the blood, sweat, and tears of anonymous others, kept far, far away for fear that if they too are allowed to prosper, then we would suffer as a consequence; a pale facsimile of the world that God loves into being. Christ—the subjugated Jew; the son of man who has no place to lay his head; the prophet, marginalised and ignored—(Christ) is risen. Christ is risen, and we are raised with him: raised into peace and out of fear, and out of our locked rooms into the world, led by the Spirit whom we have received, to forgive the sinners and wash the unclean and heal the sick, we who are ourselves the beneficiaries of healing, washing, and forgiveness.

This is the difference then, between Christianity and nihilism; and it is a difference that means that there is, for Christians, no room at all for the apathy of resignation or complacent cynicism. Popular opinion to the contrary, we are not about pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die, but about bread today, the kingdom of God come, the will of God done, on earth as it is in heaven.   

This is, after all, the faith of Martin of Tours; of Genevieve of Paris; of Thomas Becket; of Francis and Clare of Assisi; of Catherine of Siena; of Bartolomé de las Casas; of William Wilberforce; of Elizabeth of Russia; of Maximilian Kolbe; of Edith Stein; of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; of Martin Luther King Jr.; of Albert Schweitzer; of Óscar Romero; of Dorothy Day. We stand with these, and so many more, men and women—all doubtless fallible and flawed—but nevertheless beacons of the light of the Risen Christ. We have a great cloud of witnesses who have leaned against the windmills of conquering warlords and power-hungry kings and slave-traders and bigots and robber barons.

They—we—are Easter people, the people of the resurrection, the people who are called to have our candles held up high, to bring the hope that we have been given into the world that knows it not yet, not enough, not nearly enough. Therefore, in the light of the resurrection, let us gather in Solomon’s Porch, together with all the saints. And let the sick and unclean be carried to us—let us carry them, all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit—and let not just our shadows fall on them but the Paschal light himself, who refuses to be extinguished, but lives forever and ever. Amen.