Hope to Sustain Us

John 20:19-31; 1 John 1:1-4
Presented April 19, 2009, by J.D. Kline
The Second Sunday of Easter/Earth Day Sunday

Flora Slosson Wuellner, ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, begins her book Prayer, Stress, and Our Inner Wounds with the observation, “As a young girl, when I first read the life of Jesus in the Gospels, I thought: If God is really like that, we are in safe hands!” Intriguing, isn’t it, that some can read the very same Gospels as did Wuellner, and see portrayed in them, not a God in whose hands we are safe, but rather an angry God, a threatening and vengeful God ever waiting to trip us up, a God who evokes a sense of fear deep within us. Perhaps because there is so much mystery in life, so much we cannot easily explain, some embrace a threatening God whom they can hold responsible for all of life’s struggles and woes. But my experience leads me to read the Gospels as does Flora Wuellner, finding there the story of a God who stands with us in our times of uncertainty and grief, a compassionate and grace-filled God who loves us with a tenacious love, a God who has formed us as God’s beloved daughters and sons.

There are times, of course, when life seems to fall in upon us, times when we simply do not know which way to turn, and it is precisely at those times when it is both difficult—yet ultimately satisfying—to trust in the goodness of our God. At such times we are invited and challenged to enter into the deepest struggles of life without being defeated by those struggles. Flora Wuellner puts it this way:

God does not send us pain. God is not a wounder or a punisher. This is important to understand as our trust in God grows. But neither does God let our wounds be wasted. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, will not remove the lines of hard-won experience from our faces. A new power of light, the light of the divine passionate compassion, will shine through those lines on our faces.

This morning’s Gospel lesson tells the familiar story of the disciples, late in the day on the first Easter, locked behind closed doors, nearly overwhelmed by their fear that they, too, might suffer the very kind of fate Jesus endured. A choking cloak of despair clutches at the hearts of this small band of confused and heart-broken disciples. But despair does not have the final word, for the disciples find themselves face to face with the inexplicable—with a new light, a new hope, a new sense of God’s grace as the risen Christ appears in their midst, breathing a comforting spirit of peace among them. Into their brokenness and pain streams the transforming light of Christ.

Some would suggest that the power of resurrection is displayed in the ability of Jesus to miraculously pass through closed doors. But as remarkable as that may be, the deeper power lies in this—that the risen Christ is able to breathe new life into that cowering band of frightened disciples. A new hope fills their spirits. A new courage orders their steps. A new compassion softens their hearts. A new light shines through the worry lines etched on their faces.

Once the risen Christ stands before the struggling band of disciples, he offers words of comfort, “Peace be with you,” and then immediately shows them the scars on his hands and his side from the crucifixion. Wuellner questions why those wound marks remained on Jesus’ body after the resurrection. Writes Wuellner,

Why weren’t those earthly marks of suffering swallowed up, forgotten, in glory? Was it so his friends could identify him? Partly. But I think there was a more important reason. I think all his friends through the ages to come were being shown that wounds, especially when healed, can become sources and signs of new radiance of life. No longer the sources of pain and despair, the wounds now healed can become the channel of healing for others.

Marie Fortune is the founder and director of FaithTrust Institute, a multi-faith organization working to end sexual violence and domestic abuse. While many have noted that violence and abuse may well perpetuate themselves, Marie Fortune observes that “brokenness does not predict that someone will do harm to others. There are so many survivors of abuse who not only do not do harm to others but indeed dedicate their lives to ending abuse. These are the people who have found some measure of healing and justice.” Indeed, these are the people whose wounds now healed can become the channel of healing for others.

Henri Nouwen, you may recall, speaks of this as a matter of becoming wounded healers. The first disciples, after being surprised by the risen Christ, found themselves infused with new strength and new courage in ways they little anticipated; what’s more, they found a new identity as wounded healers. In my own journey through grief, in the aftermath of Janice’s accident and death more than three years ago, I recall frequent times along the way when I wondered if I had the strength to move on in life. And yet, over time, I have found myself experiencing my own Easter resurrection. While the grief remains a part of me, and I suspect always will to some degree, yet I have gradually embraced a new identity. The scars remain, and yet, more and more, I have become a wounded healer—more aware of others’ pain, more compassionate of others’ struggles, more sensitive to others’ needs. And with that, I have found the courage to begin anew, the grace to embrace new possibilities.

Ernest Hemingway grasps this reality, writing in his novel A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Is this not the experience of Thomas, who was not present with the other disciples on that first Easter evening, when the risen Christ appeared, and who, when they later told him what they had seen and experienced, simply could not fathom this new possibility. Said Thomas, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in [Jesus'] hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 21:25). Yet one week later Thomas finds the courage and grace to begin anew, as the resurrected Jesus once again appears to the disciples, this time with Thomas included. “Peace be with you,” Jesus again assures them, and then turning to Thomas, Jesus invites him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (v.27).

In that moment, Thomas does indeed believe. But it is not simply a matter of accepting correct dogma or embracing a series of right convictions about Jesus; much more, it is embracing the fullness of relationship with the risen yet scarred Jesus, the One who accepts us as we are and infuses us with new hope, empowering us to become wounded healers. This kind of hope, as Benedictine sister Joan Chittister reminds us, is not a matter of trusting in our own resources, but in God’s. After asserting that confidence and hope are very different things, Chittister continues,

Confidence is the inner conviction that we are equal to whatever task is before us. It is the certainty that we are bright enough, strong enough, powerful enough to meet a challenge. Hope, on the other hand, is what sustains us when we have little or no confidence left…. Hope knows that whatever happens, God lives. Hope expects that however bad it looks, this moment will ultimately yield something good. Hope says begin again.

A hope to sustain us, empowering us to begin again, for now we know that we are in the safe hands of our God, a compassionate and grace-filled God who is not in the business of harming or wounding us, but who, often over time, transforms our hurts, that we might become wounded healers. Indeed, the promise of resurrection is that God is in the business of making all things new. Not just you and me, individuals fashioned anew in the very midst of our times of struggle and loss and hurt and grief, but even more, the promise of all creation being transformed. As biblical scholar Tom Wright reminds us in his commentaryJohn for Everyone, “The resurrection is not only new creation; it is new creation.” ”To grasp this,” asserts Wright, “is vital for the health of the Christian faith. Any sense that Jesus starts a movement which is somehow opposed to, or can leave behind, the world God made in the first place is excluded by this gospel from start to finish.” That is the say, resurrection is the promise that all life is being made new, and our calling is to live in ways that celebrate the goodness of God’s creation, that care for the world around us, that work for justice and peace, and that enable us to live as good stewards of God’s abundant gifts. There is no place in the Christian life for abusing the creation; instead, we are called to live lightly and carefully on the earth.

John begins his first letter by declaring “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—we declare to you what we have seen and heard” (1 John 1:1-3). We too are challenged to share what we have experienced—the promise of resurrection, of all creation being made new, all life being transformed.

Annually I go to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky for a week of silence. The abbey owns hundreds of acres of land—a great place to walk, to reflect, to take in the beauty of God’s creation. There is a pathway that leads to several statues, one of Jesus praying in the Garden on the eve of his betrayal and arrest, kneeling with head uplifted to God, hands covering his face and eyes. Some distance from the statue of the agonized Christ is a second statue of the three disciples who accompany Jesus to the Garden, asleep in spite of his request that they wait with him while he prays. The statues were created and dedicated in honor of Jonathan Daniels, a young white seminarian in the mid-1960s who felt led to heed Martin Luther King’s challenge to the clergy to join him in the south, working for voting rights for African-Americans. While in Alabama, Jonathan Daniels was killed while trying to protect a young African-American woman being threatened by a police officer. In a letter written to a friend back home just a short time before his death, Jonathan Daniels wrote:

Though I have many misgivings, though at the moment I can’t imagine that I have anything to give of any significance, I know with heart, mind and soul that the Holy Spirit has picked me up by the scruff of the neck. When that happened, my life could not remain the same…. Though I cannot guess precisely where I am being driven, I have the haunting feeling again and again that I am flying with the mightiest Wind in the world at my back.

In the midst of Jonathan’s uncertainty, he nevertheless experienced the transforming power of the resurrection—the mightiest Wind in the world at his back, the wind of our God who sustains us with a mighty hope, who loves us with a love that will not let us go, and who forms us into wounded healers.

Thanks be to God; we too can experience that same transforming power. Amen.

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