John 20: 24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I read the following story in Sojourner’s Magazine long ago, back in the time when apartheid was yet the law of the land in South Africa. It comes from South Africa, and concerns a dream that a man had.
Now I am careful about not putting too much stock in dreams. If I took all of my dreams seriously, I would believe that I could fly, or that pizza grows on trees, and that I never showed up for my high school algebra class, the final exam is today, so if I fail it, that would put my college and seminary degrees in doubt, too.
Some dreams are not worth believing in.
But this dream struck me and stayed with me, even though it wasn’t mine. In this South African person’s dream, he died and went to heaven where he saw Jesus. He knew it was Jesus because of the scars on his hands, his feet and his side. So he asked Jesus, “If this is heaven, and we’re all supposed to have glorious, eternal resurrection bodies like yours, why does your body still bear the scars of your crucifixion?”
After all, Jesus’ body was still bearing the scars when he encountered the Apostle Thomas one week after his resurrection. Its a valid question because if our prayers for long, worthwhile lives are answered as we hope, then I don’t know how we’ll get through this life, in this world, without some sort of marks and scars. Both the external, physical scars, plus some internal, emotional scars. So, will we still be wearing our scars in the fullness of God’s kingdom?
Before I give you the answer that Jesus gave this man in his dream, I’ll mention some of the other answers that people have given over the centuries to that question, Why does the Resurrected Jesus still bear his scars? One saint from the Middle Ages said that it was so that, on the Day of Judgment, his scars would be Exhibit A of the evil in the world, and would thereby condemn his enemies. They may indeed have that effect, but I don’t think that saint was feeling particularly cheery or charitable on the day he wrote that.
Other saints said that it was to silence the false teachers who taught that God was not really incarnate in Jesus in such a way as to actually engage in the dirtiness, dangers and difficulties of this life, who said that Jesus was only a sort of ghostly projection from heaven acting out the Passion story as a sort of parable of an other-worldly spirituality. And only those who are wise enough and truly initiated would get the meaning of this charade, but not if we took the cross and crucified flesh literally. God forbid that, through Christ, he would so submit himself to the fullness of the human condition that he even experienced real physical and emotional suffering! That would be beneath God, they say.
Well, as for that idea, Jesus bearing his scars would have a dampening effect. But I don’t think Jesus still bears his scars for the sake of a theological argument that I don’t think is going on in heaven as I speak.
In Thomas’ case, Jesus was wearing his scars so that he would know that before him stood the very Jesus who had been crucified, and who died, and who was now alive and well and in the flesh.
That’s a sign similar to the white tab in the front of their black collars some pastors and clergy wear, or to the wedding or engagement ring that people wear. Each of those signs speak of a history that went into the wearing of that ring or that collar. They also speak of an ongoing, enduring commitment. So the wounds of the Risen, Eternal Jesus speak of a history of an involvement and a solidarity with us that was also costly and painful. Costly, like the missing finger I noticed on a commercial fisherman when I was 12 years old. Like most young kids, I couldn’t restrain myself from asking, “Oooh, Mister–What happened to your finger?” My dad nudged me with his elbow but the old fisherman didn’t seem to mind. He smiled, held up his hand and said, “I picked up a pike by the head to clean it, when I thought he were dead, but he weren’t.” Pike have very sharp teeth.
To the old man along Lake Erie, that missing finger seemed to be a badge of honor. I’ve noticed the same thing over the years with some farmers, millwrights, welders, mechanics, carpenters, fire fighters, lumberjacks, soldiers, construction workers and other skilled workers, artists and crafts persons who work with dangerous tools, in dangerous conditions. While none of them would have wanted the burns, scars and missing fingers, toes or even limbs they have sustained over the years, they sometimes treat those scars as badges of honor and signs of solidarity with their trade, and with other people in their trade. And they sometimes like scaring little kids like me with them.
With that I think we’re coming closer to the reason why the Risen, Eternal Jesus still bears his scars, or at least why he did for Thomas. Because we all bear scars of one kind or another.
There are of course physical scars like what my father has on his weather predictor knee. You can still see the straight line across it, from where he fell and broke it in his youth. Sixty years later, it tells him whenever the barometric pressure is dropping and a storm front is coming. You can tell its going to be really bad if he needs his cane. Among any group of people you can find scars from surgeries, injuries, assaults, accidents and sometimes just plain foolishness, like the ones people get on their arms from trying to pull catfish out from holes in the river bank. Or those we might see on people in America’s Funniest Home Videos.
More like America’s Most Painful Home Videos.
Fortunately, very, very few people today have the same scars that Jesus bears. But there are plenty of other kinds of scars. Because Becky’s parents regularly hosted international military officers at Fort Leavenworth, I once saw the round bullet scars on the arms and hands of two soldiers, at the same dinner table one day with us. They discovered that they had gotten their scars at the same battle. And they were from the opposing armies. Their response, when they discovered that they had been shooting at each other, was joy and relief that they were both alive to tell the tale. And they both agreed that the war they had fought in was pointless.
I’ve met other soldiers who bear scars we cannot see, except, perhaps, in the high rates of homelessness, drug and alcohol problems and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that they often suffer. And I’ve heard some of their regrets and guilt over what they had to do to survive. For that I blame most the people who put them in that position. Then there are the people who witnessed these things and who are still dealing, years later, with the trauma, fear, loss, anger. And guilt for having survived when others did not. Like a family member for whom the events of September 11, 2001 brought back long dormant memories and emotions from bombing raids on his German home 60 years before.
Not only might we bear scars from things that people have done to us, there can be self-inflicted scars from things we have done to ourselves and others. If anyone is taking suggestions for the next winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, I would recommend the inventor of the eraser or the Delete key. A lot of people have been spared a world of hurt from things that were almost said or sent, but, Thank God, they were not.
But my one gripe with this inventor is that he or she did not make an eraser nor a Delete key for time and events. Unfortunately, we can’t erase nor delete all the things we do or say. Every choice is like driving a nail into a board. We can go back with a claw hammer and pull each one out. In the same way, we can repent and confess our sins and obtain forgiveness. But just as the hole remains after we pull a nail out of a board, so do some scars remain, even after forgiveness, even if only in the form of memories. All things can be forgiven, but not all things can be forgotten. And like the Holocaust, some things must never be forgotten. We need the memories to serve as warnings against our powers of self-deception.
And there are some scars people have gotten for love. Like the burns on the hand of a man I knew who rescued his sister, whose clothes had caught fire. Or the surgical scar of a woman who contributed a kidney to her sister. Or the numbers tatooed on the arm of a Dutch woman who spent time in a German concentration camp for hiding Jews from the Nazis. Those examples are getting close to the reason for Jesus’s scars, and the reason that he seems to keep them.
Among my most treasured possessions is this tiny little round button from Poland, about 30 years old, with a red flag on it and the word, in Polish, “Solidarnosch,” or “Solidarity,” the Polish labor union that brought down Communism, peacefully. There was a time when wearing that button could get one imprisoned, tortured, or worse. A labor activist here in the U.S. gave it to me, and I think it had been smuggled out.
More than that button can ever be, Jesus’ wounds are his badges of solidarity with us. Jesus’ scars are proof of his love, of his 100 per cent commitment to us and to our human condition. Just as wearing this word, “Solidarnosch” cost many Poles dearly, so those badges of solidarity cost Jesus dearly. But they bought him something, too. Something priceless, treasured and cherished more than the ease and comfort that he gave up in exchange:
Through love, then, the scars he suffered from people’s hatred and brutality have been transformed into something beautiful, noble, and strong. The gaping red evidence of his chosen weakness and vulnerability has now been transformed into signs and symbols of an invincible and victorious power, so that he is not just the Lamb of God but also the Lion of Judah, no longer the Passover Victim but the Resurrection Victor.
That, then is the journey and the possibility before all of us. Its too late for any of us to get through this life without wounds or scars, physical, emotional or spiritual, self-inflicted or otherwise. But I know someone who has proven that he can transform all wounds and scars from signs of shame and weakness into badges of love, honor, strength and triumphant faith. Thanks to Him, we don’t have to remain victims, nor villains. We are “more than conquerers– victors– through him who loved us” enough to share our scarred and broken condition. By forgiving and being forgiven, by trusting and loving, by repenting and returning, we too can overcome our past and make of our wounds signs of solidarity with all other sufferers and strugglers in this world. In that way, maybe we will bear our scars forever, like Jesus does. But they will be testimonies, and trophies, not of things that overcame us, but of things we overcame.
And that leads me to the answer that Jesus gave the man who asked him, upon meeting him in a dream, “Why are you still bearing your scars?”
Jesus did not give him a direct answer. Instead, he asked the man in return, “And where are your scars? Was there nothing, and no one, worth fighting for?”
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