Date: April 4, 2021
Bible Text: John 20:1-22 | Bart Smith
Easter Sunrise Service - April 4, 2021
My favorite ice-breaker — you know, those sometimes-awkward conversation starters in small groups — begins with a prompt: tell me a story about one of your scars. You can get to know people really quickly that way because you learn something about their histories and personalities. And there’s also an element of vulnerability to it; people build trust through showing others their scars.
There are two stories I usually tell. The first is about one on the inside of my right elbow. It’s from a track meet in high school when I was trying to hand someone a drink over a chain link fence. I jumped, but not high enough — there are reasons why I was a distance runner instead of a long jumper… The other is little hard to see from a distance because it’s under my left eyebrow. When I was four year old, my older brother and I were playing downstairs in our great-grandmother’s basement. He pulled me up by my britches and flung me across the bed and there I went flying straight into the bottom corner of the door. With blood dripping down my face, being an older brother he tried to convince me to not tell our mother. When I rain upstairs to show her, the first words (screams) out of her mouth were, “Don’t get it on the white couch!”
Because I am so absurdly excited to see you all this morning after over a year with us not gathered here, if I had my extrovert’s way, we would all sit around in circles and tell some scar stories for the rest of the morning. But we won’t. The ones I just told you are funny now, but they were then. If we were to sit in circles and tell scar stories long enough, if there was enough trust built up in these groups, I think we would gradually move on to the not-so-funny stories. There are the cute stories of childhood mishaps and the escapades of our youth, but there are those distinctly not-funny stories of scars “earned” from falling in our later years, or from surgeries or sickness.
Some scars tow very painful memories behind them, trauma we’d rather not revisit. There are those much deeper, and sometimes more enduring, emotional wounds that last a lifetime — wounds from grief, betrayal, regret, or abuse. Scars, physical or otherwise, don’t easily disappear, nor are they easily removed.
So it’s striking to me as I hear the empty tomb story this year that the risen Jesus shows his disciples his scars.
There they are, sequestered behind locked doors, despondent and afraid. And understandably so! In shock, probably numb from seeing or even just knowing how their friend and teacher had been gruesomely executed at the hands of the empire and its colluders. Here they behold mysteriously-appearing Jesus whom, in all the gospels, people have trouble recognizing until he speaks their names (“Mary...”) or breaks bread with them. He’s himself, of course but something more than himself. And as his disciples cower in fear and grief and bewilderment, he shows them his hands and his side. Why does he do that, do you think? Is it to assure them that it is indeed him? Is it to demonstrate that somehow he overcame what the authorities and angry mob had done to him just days ago?
And with Thomas, what’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t just show his scars, but invites Thomas to touch his wounds. How intimate is that?! How vulnerable, even?
So what does it say about God that Jesus emerges from the tomb with scars intact? What does it mean for our faith that this transformed body retains the marks of what had been done to it, that the evidence of the wounds isn’t erased?
You see, it’s true that we don’t get resurrection without scars. New life doesn’t wipe out the old.
A week or so ago, a reporter from the Arizona Daily Star emailed some local pastors to ask, “What does it mean to you that the renewal and redemption of spring and Easter are coinciding this year with the easing of the pandemic and, for some, perhaps the first Sunday back to in-person church services in a year?” It was for an article published this morning. I was reluctant to answer, but here’s how I replied:
When I think about the Easter story in light of this moment, I remember two things. First, the risen Jesus emerges from the tomb transformed altogether, not just a resuscitated version of his previous self. Secondly, he retains the scars of unjust, state-sponsored execution at the hands of the Roman empire (crucifixion). One hope I have is that we as a society will "rise" from this pandemic changed, something different than the old "normal," which wasn't working for many people. As my congregation celebrates this holiday, we'll be doing so with the sober realization that the casualties of this pandemic have followed the usual ruts of inequality in our society. We're beginning to come out on the other side of this pandemic (in this country at least), but the scars remain. We should learn from them.
It’s true: no one is left unscathed from the covid-19 pandemic. It’s also true that some of us are OK — we’re here aren’t we? Maybe some of us are even better off than we were in March 2020, but for many folks that’s just not the case. There’s been a lot of loss — lost moments, lost opportunities, lost jobs, lost loved ones, lost lives. We’re missing a lot of very wonderful people this Easter morning. For many of us, we’re coming out on the other side of this tumultuous and trying last year, but even still we can’t go back to what was before. Things are different; The scars remain.
It says something about the character of God and the depth of God’s love that Jesus’ scars remain because he died in a very particular way; as our preacher said on Good Friday, at the hands of “a Rube Goldberg machine that in the end spits out crucifixions” and a whole host of other evils. Jesus died in solidarity with all the crucified peoples of this world. God herself participated in the wounds of everyone in every time and place who is bruised, battered, and broken at the hands of human cruelty. The risen Christ bears these scars and beckons his followers to face them in all their ugliness... and to be affected by them, to not turn their heads away.
The risen Christ retains the scars of the all world’s wounded: of every body bought and sold; of every body of every gender, color, and type; of every beloved child of God who is treated as less than they were created to be; of every body unjustly bullied, exploited, neglected, arrested, killed, or discarded. Their scars remain on the body of God incarnate. Their scars, and the suffering they mark; are taken into God’s own heart.
In the mystery of resurrection, it is true that the scars of memory and history aren’t erased. They aren’t erased and they aren’t forgotten, but — here’s the good news, beloved! — they can be transformed! They can be redeemed!
I firmly believe that one reason Jesus shows his scars to his disciples is that they are not only a reminder of what has been done to him, but they are also as a visible sign that he has overcome. The same can be true for us: our scars can be signs of hope because they are evidence that healing on some level has begun. They can be signs of survival and resilience, testaments to the power of the Living God, whose Spirit is always at work bringing life out of death!
As Jesus breathed the Spirit of peace into his disciples, we too participate in that power. We share it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “[Christ] died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, [they are] a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Friends, I invite you to grab a white-knuckled hold of this good news this morning: the Source of Life can bring something new out of life’s old brutality, out of Sin, Death, and their minions. Even out of this pandemic, with the toll it has taken on so many people in this country and throughout the world. New ways of being are emerging from this catastrophe. God can bring new life even out of centuries of oppression, even out of years of racialized violence. We can repent and change course. God can bring new life even out of our personal pasts, with wounds too many to name. We can indeed overcome!
Scars remind us of where we’ve been, but they by no means determine where we are going.
Beloved, in Christ God knows our scars. In the crucified One, God takes on our scars. And in the risen One, God heals them. And even now God can redeem them.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!... Christ is risen indeed!