Here is a recent sermon I preached at Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church For All People, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville, NC. I hope it blesses all of you as you face your doubts, questions, and uncertainties.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
In the Gospels, we see that in the time following Jesus being betrayed, the disciples go through a period of doubting, questioning, and uncertainty. They had seen in Jesus, proof God was alive and God had a plan in their life. They thought they knew what it was – and that through Jesus God would end the poverty, the oppression, the suffering, and the pain foreign Roman armies were bringing to their home-land. They thought a better world was breaking out. Instead they saw Jesus betrayed. They saw themselves hunted, wanted by the authorities for supporting Jesus. Their faith lay shattered like so much broken glass upon the floor.
Have you ever been through a time like that? A time when you had thought you knew what God wanted for you but that didn’t happen? A time where everything seemed to unravel and things didn’t make sense anymore? Where it was like God was no longer in his good heaven anymore?
If so, would anyone be willing to share this?
What was the turning point for the disciples that allowed them to find faith again?
The turning point for the disciples was very similar to the turning point for a young orphan boy.
A small orphaned boy lived with his grandmother. One night their house caught fire. The grandmother, trying to rescue the little boy asleep upstairs, perished in the smoke and flames. A crowd gathered around the burning house. The boy’s cries for help were heard above the crackling of the blaze. No one seemed to know what to do, for the front of the house was a mass of flames.
Suddenly a stranger rushed from the crowd and circled to the back where he spotted an iron pipe that reached an upstairs window. He disappeared for a minute, then reappeared with the boy in his arms. Amid the cheers of the crowd, he climbed down the hot pipe as the boy hung around his neck.
Weeks later a public hearing was held in the town hall to determine in whose custody the boy would be placed. Each person wanting the boy was allowed to speak briefly. The first man said, “I have a big farm. Everybody needs the out-of-doors.” The second man told of the advantages he could provide. “I’m a teacher. I have a large library. He would get a good education.” Others spoke. Finally the richest man in the community said, “I’m wealthy. I could give the boy everything mentioned tonight: farm, education, and more, including money and travel. I’d like him in my home.”
The chairman asked, “Anyone else like to say a word?” From the backseat rose a stranger who had slipped in unnoticed. As he walked toward the front, deep suffering showed on his face. Reaching the front of the room, he stood directly in front of the little boy. Slowly the stranger removed his hands from his pockets. A gasp went up from the crowd. The little boy, whose eyes had been focused on the floor until now, looked up. The man’s hands were terribly scarred. Suddenly the boy emitted a cry of recognition. Here was the man who had saved his life. His hands were scarred from climbing up and down the hot pipe. With a leap the boy threw himself around the stranger’s neck and held on for life. The farmer rose and left. The teacher, too. Then the rich man. Everyone departed, leaving the boy and his rescuer who had won him without a word. Those marred hands spoke more effectively than any words.
We often in times of doubt think “if only God would give me a sign – show me a miracle – tell me exactly what to do, I can believe again”. But here in the disciples’ case it is not any of those things – not miraculous wonders, nor Jesus proving His power that helps them be able to believe again. It is seeing Jesus’ scars – the scars left from the wounds of the crucifixion. Those scars prove to the disciples that Jesus is real, is alive, and that out of their pain, their heartache, and their sorrow God can birth something new and beautiful.
I want to suggest that in our times of doubt, it is the same place where we need to turn to restore our sense of faith – often not phenomenal displays of power from God, but instead finding God in the wounds and scars in your life.
Often-times we have difficulty seeing God in our experience of woundedness, in our scars. We imagine God as high and lifted up, enthroned above the heartaches and the pains of the universe. Yet the Christian story, which we celebrate on Good Friday and Easter morning, is something different. The one who sits on the throne is in fact the Lamb who was slain. The very one who is risen victorious over Satan, sin, death, and hell is the same one who bears nail-prints in his hands, a wound in his side, and has laid dead and buried, himself experience hell for three days and nights. This is the purpose of open table of communion. We break bread and hear God say “this is my body, broken” and we lift a cup and hear “this is my life, poured out”. Our faith proclaims our God to be a wounded God, wounded by our heartache and suffering. Instead of sitting at a distance, God took on all our heartache, all our pain, all our alienation, so that we could know God can identify with us. So we can know that God is not just present outside our suffering, our fear, our doubt. No in the midst of it God is present in God the Holy Spirit like a mother in labor pains along with us laboring in pain with us until new life is borne through our suffering, just as new life burst forth from Jesus’ tomb Easter morning.
This means God is present in the wounds you bear – in those experiences that have bruised and battered you over the years, in your own times of crisis and pain.
This means, to really renew or restore your sense of faith, you need to confront your wounds and scars, not to run from or ignore them. This is often the exact opposite of how we deal with our wounds. You can see this tendency in how folks celebrate Easter. Everyone is itching to gather on Easter – with the songs of joy at church; with the family gathering and good food at Easter dinner; with the bright eggs and candy as children do their Easter egg hunts. But how many really want to come to Good Friday and hear the nails hammered into Jesus’ hands, see the blood and tears drip down his face? How many want to think about the kiss Judas uses to betray him? And who wants to sit on Easter Saturday at the tomb, where Jesus lies dead and contemplate what it is like to see God dead, God broken, Satan seemingly triumphant, and all our hopes lying dead? We want to put on tennis shoes and sprint to Easter. But to truly see new life in the midst of our pain and tragedy, we need to face the wounds Good Friday and Holy Saturday bring.
The fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, goes through all of this same fear, doubt, and loss we do at our worst – so much so that he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” shows us that God is, in fact, present in our experiences of loss and pain. The fact that Jesus descends into hell shows us that in all of the hells we face with all their heartache, terror, confusion, and pain God is already present waiting for us, enabling us to experience ourselves, God, and others in a new way.
Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann, in writing about the prayers of Scripture (particularly in the Psalms), talks about how they each reflect a different part of the journey of facing our wounds. The first form of prayer are prayers of orientation – reflecting our relationship with God, ourselves, and others when we rest in the calm certainty that God is holding us safe, where everything makes sense and we know no doubt or fear. This is the faith of a child, beautiful yet immature. It is good enough, for what it is, for a child who ought not to be expected to care for others because they need to feel safe and secure. But it is unable to last. What’s more, it is unable to lift you or others up in crisis, for it does not know crisis. It is unable to bring healing because it cannot yet see or know pain. These type of prayers cannot last. They must fade for our faith to become full-grown.
The second set of prayers are the type of prayers we too rarely look at in church – prayers of disorientation. Yet these prayers and this time of our faith being shaken up must be experienced for our faith to grow up and fully blossom. These are prayers like Jesus’ prayer of forsakenness on the cross. Prayers like the ones in the book of Lamentations, prayers like Job prays when he has lost it all, prayers like the Psalm 89 which asks “How long Eternal hide thou away, when will thy wrath not burn like a flame?” and Psalm 13 that say “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?”
This is a time when pat answers don’t add up, when feelings of fear and anger and loss. Too often in these times we hide from our wounds, pushing down our feelings of fear and pain. Yet the Biblical example is to join in such prayers of lamentation, to really own our feelings, sit with them and cry out to God and others, being honest about our fears, our questions. Just like Thomas.
Thomas is honest with his questions, doubts, and fears. Jesus doesn’t condemn him for them but in fact holds out his wounds to Thomas, so Thomas can see into Jesus’ wounds. This leads Thomas to a deeper, more grown up and renewed faith.
Later on, early Christians recall Thomas as actually interpreting Jesus’ words as encouraging questioning, searching, expressing this heartache openly when in the Gospel of Thomas they wrote that Thomas said “”Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all”.
This process of openly expressing our doubts, fears, and seeking out those wounds by laying them before God and others in a way that does disturb us for awhile is a process that we must walk through. Just as I cannot get to Raleigh without walking or driving through the road to get there, so the journey of healing from our pain cannot come without facing our heartache openly. We must seek. We must be disturbed. But at the end of it is to wonder, and in wondering to find the way above all. At its end is the renewed stronger, grown up faith Thomas discovers.
Bruggemann calls the prayers that come from such a faith prayers of reorientation. These express a faith that has come full-grown, a faith has been strengthened through the fires of doubt, terror, heartache, and pain. It not only can hold you up but hold up others under pressure because, like an athlete building muscle, it has been strengthened through its experience. Coming through the experience of pain and loss, it can be a strength not just for you but others because it is a faith that had to find its way. And coming out of great pain, it not only is healing to you but is a fount of healing to others.
A final part of what this story teaches about our times of pain flows from this. When we lift the break that is broken and drink the cup of a life poured out for others, not only do we remember what Jesus did, but we also broken you and I to be now the body of Jesus through which that life is poured out today. This means that to be Jesus’ hands and feet today is also to be his scarred hands and feet, to own our brokenness.
Oftentimes we feel like we cannot be used by Jesus because of our brokenness. I’ve been too damaged by abuse. I’m too different because of my sexuality or gender identity. I’m too hurt by what has happened. My disabilities make me unable…
No, no, no. Jesus is seen through his scars, by his wounds. His wounds are the window through which his true identity can be seen shining out in light and glory.
In reality it is your wounds, your heartaches, your weaknesses, your losses that others can see God’s presence at work in you. Someone who has dealt with addiction can better know God helps those struggling with addiction by hearing the story of a recovering addict. Someone ostracized for their disability or sexuality can better see God can use someone like them, through someone who has felt that same estrangement.
Friends, your wounds are the windows through which, when you do this work of really bearing them to God, others will see the light of God shine through.
In closing I want to do two things. First, I want to give you a handout with a picture of a window on it.
I want to challenge you on the window, on the frame, to write on each side of the frame a different point of brokenness in your life. Then as you do so, meditate on how either you can take that point of brokenness to God in a way you open yourself to God’s presence in it, or how it might be transformed into a point where God’s light shines through you to others.
Then after we’ve done that, I’d like to ask you to join in a responsive reading as our closing prayer before communion.
(Based on Isaiah 45)
Let us pray.
The Lord stands in our midst, arms outstreched,
risen, wounded hands visible
While we pray My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
How long Eternal, hide thou away?
The Lord comforts his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.
But we say, “The Lord has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved your name on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
Lord help us to seek you, to open ourselves to our wounds and present those wounds to you. Thank you that you carved our names on your hands through the wounds you bore on Calvary, and you still carry those names with you. Help us to see you through your wounds, and in ours. Help us to allow our wounds to become windows through which your presence flows in us, and through us to others. Amen.