Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday April 19, 2009 2nd Sunday of Easter
Text: John 20: 19-31
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
It is Easter evening, and the disciples are hiding in fear. They are afraid of those who killed their beloved teacher and what they might do to his followers. They are afraid of the future for it is so changed after the horrors of the past days. They are afraid of each other, for no one is sure what these strange reports from Mary and John and Peter mean. They are afraid to hope. And they are, I believe, afraid of themselves, each agonizing over their abandonment of a beloved friend in his hour of trial.
Into this fear and uncertainty, comes the Risen One. It is beyond wonderful that the first words of the Risen One are, “Peace be with you.” These are the words the disciples most need to hear. They are a balm for wounded hearts, guilty consciences, addled minds.
We are not told how the disciples respond. Perhaps they are stunned into silence, shaking in their sandals and wondering if they are indeed suffering some sort of group hallucination. Strangely Jesus wants them to look at his hands and his side. He offers his wounds as proof of his presence. What an odd way to identify himself. He could have told them a story that only he would know, or cracked an inside joke, or simply said listen to my voice. But he shows them the wounds in his hands and side.
Hands are interesting parts of us. We don’t always notice them right away but to the careful observer they can divulge quite a lot about us. Our hands carry our history of work and play, of accidents and activities, of relationships and stresses. Hands can be telling. If you look at the hands in my family one can see the traces of several trips to the emergency room: glass broken while washing dishes, fingers slammed in doors. You can see the telltale signs of spring garden work, of nervous habits, and of fingers that touch the violin.
There are hands that all of us remember. I can recall my grandmother Etta’s hands strong, thin, able and worn from so many years in the poultry and sewing factories. I remember the huge, calloused, powerful hands of my first framing boss who could wield a 28oz hammer with amazing skill. I can remember the fantastic dark African hands of a fellow seminarian warm, beautiful, and full of healing. I think of those wonderful small hands that hold on tight to mine as we cross the parking lot to school.
In fact, I can probably identify some of you by your hands. I have had the deep privilege of placing blessed bread in them over the past three years. I know some of your hands by heart and am comforted when I see them reaching out once again receive the body of Christ broken for us.
And that is what the disciples saw, the wounded body of Christ. When the disciples saw Jesus’ hands they were put in mind of all that those hands had done. They remembered how his hands had summoned them away from their nets. How his hands had touched the untouchables. How he talked with his hands as he told parables on the shore of the lake, gesticulating wildly his face alive with laughter. How his touch had awakened so many back into life: the woman with the hemorrhage, the man whose friends tore off the roof, the blind man whose eyes Jesus healed with holy mud-pies. These were hands that told many stories, hands that took bread and blessed it and broke it to abundance, hands that had turned over the tables in the temple and drove out the profit seekers with a whip. Hands that had loved them, loved them to the end, washing their feet at a dinner not so long-ago.
His hands were wounded now. They had been used awfully with holes in them and bruises that made them painful to look at. They were doubly painful for the disciples as they reminded the that when the calumny came to Jesus, when he was being nailed to that Roman crosspiece, they had run, run far away so that they did not have to witness the agony, so they did not hear the pounding, so they did not see the blood. And now those very hands were in their midst.
In many cultures and in a great deal of literature the appearance of a ghost is often associated with revenge, so it is no surprise that the disciples might have been more than a little terrified when they first encountered the Risen One in their midst. Gradually they began to calm down. His words were peaceful. The offering of his wounded hands and side confirmed that he was no ghost, but their beloved friend. He was not there to punish them, to scold them, or to point out their failings. No, Jesus had come speaking peace to them and more than that.
“When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Their relationship with Jesus was not over, it continued. After seeing the hands of Jesus and being reminded of all that those hands have done in the name of the Kingdom, those fearful disciples are commissioned for action. And what is more they are given the gift of the Spirit which almost gives me the chills and not just because I grew up Pentecostal.
This is the disciples first Pentecost, the breath of the Risen One flowing into them. This is the Spirit that brooded over creation at the beginning of time. This is the breath of life that in the garden brought the first citizens of earth to life. This is the breath that Ezekiel prophesied to. This is the Spirit of the living God falling fresh on disciples huddled away in fear.
There is no revenge, there is no rebuke. They have been spared any retribution. Though they have spoken no words of confession, and are sure of their guilt, they are so clearly forgiven by the Risen One. They receive a remarkable gift, the gift of the Spirit. And this gift is confirmation that what they most need to hear is that they are forgiven, that they are loved and accepted and still part of the wild mission of God on this earth. Not only are they forgiven, Jesus tells them that forgiveness will be their stock and trade. The world will know them by their acts of forgiveness. They do not need to touch Jesus as later Thomas will insist upon. No, rather they have been touched by him and are sent out into the world to continue the work that he had begun.
While the gospel accounts are at pains to impress upon us that the Resurrected Christ did in fact have a body with the disciples touching his hands and feet, feeling his side, handing him a piece of broiled fish, and having breakfast on the beach, that does not seem to be the real point of the story. The point of the story seems to be how Jesus touched them. How in their encounters with the Risen One their hearts and minds were opened up to a new way of being, one that was not full of guilt or punishment or retribution for having fled or failed or betrayed their beloved friend and teacher.
The point of the story is the incredible experience of abundant forgiveness – of a divine amnesty – of which they were the dumbfounded recipients. This is how Jesus touched the fearful disciples back into life. This was their first Pentecost, the Easter gospel they were sent out to give witness to. This is the gospel we inherit from our ancestors in the faith. The proof of our faith in the Risen One is not in our touching his hands or peering into the spear wound in his side anymore than it was for those first disciples. The proof of our faith is in feeling the touch of Jesus in our lives when we know in the deepest parts of our being the truth of God’s abundant mercy, of forgiveness without measure.
This is the good news of that Easter evening. Truth be told it is not a whole lot easier for us to accept this kind of holy amnesty than it was for them. We are all offered this amazing gift but find ways to doubt it, to stand back unconvinced, to assure ourselves that it is too good to be true. But the Risen One is persistent. Christ reaches out to us again and again, touching us back into life with the truth of his forgiveness. Over and over again we encounter the gift until it becomes ours and we are sent out to share it with others, once we have experienced it for ourselves.
The truth of the resurrection is seen in the communities that are formed by it. The church’s lifeblood is forgiveness, the holy amnesty that Jesus offered the fearful disciples. The good news is that we too are offered this gift and invited to share it with those as fearful and reluctant as the disciples that first Easter evening.
The Church grows in the soil of forgiveness. Churches that grow are marked by forgiveness for that is what each one of us so desperately needs. The mark of the church is not found in the hands and side of Jesus unless we understand those marks as the tangible signs that we are forgiven people, touched by the Risen One that we might carry and demonstrate that good news to others.
Forgiveness, peace with God, was the gift of that Easter evening long ago and it is the gift that we still have to offer in this Risen season. Jesus told the disciples to begin in Jerusalem. Begin in Albuquerque. Begin at home. Begin anywhere you like at work or at school, with those closest to you, or those long estranged. Just begin. For you are the hands of Jesus here and now. Forgiveness is in your hands.
I wish to acknowledge my debt to both the writing of Sam Portaro on a similar passage in Luke and for his focus on holy amnesty and to Barbara Brown Taylor for the idea of focusing on the hands of Jesus and our hands.