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 do not put too much stock in dreams. If I did, I would believe that I could fly, or that I never showed up for any of my high school algebra classes. The final exam is today, and if I fail it, as I likely shall, that will put my college and seminary degrees in doubt, too, along with my ordination and my employment and ….
But there is one dream that has caught my attention and held it over the years. And it wasn’t even mine! Someone else had it. I read about this dream in Sojourner’s Magazine long ago. A South African man, back in the time when apartheid was yet the law of the land there, dreamed that he died and went to heaven where he saw Jesus. He knew it was Jesus the same way Thomas did: because of the scars on his hands, his feet and his side. So he asked Jesus, “Why do you still bear the scars of your crucifixion?”
Now, that’s an interesting question! And one that had not occurred to me before I read about that dream. Basic Christian doctrine says that the resurrection is as much for the body as for the soul. When the Bible says, “God so loved the world,” that includes the physical, material world. Just as Jesus came back from the tomb in a very physical, tangible body, so we are told to expect a similar resurrection for ourselves as well, a resurrection of body, soul and spirit.
I don’t claim to understand everything about this physical and spiritual resurrection. In today’s gospel passage, the Risen Jesus, who can eat and drink, and whom his witnesses could see, hear and touch, also suddenly, surprisingly, shows up inside a room whose doors were locked. Go figure! But if the Resurrected Jesus is the first fruits of all who rise from the dead, and if he still bears the scars of his crucifixion, does that mean that for all eternity we too shall have to bear the scars, the wounds, the injuries and illnesses we can’t help but collect in this life?
Let’s consider a few of the answers to the question in that dream that have been given over the centuries. One saint from the Middle Ages said that Jesus still bears his scars so that, on the Day of Judgment, those scars would be supreme evidence of the evil in the world, and so condemn his enemies. They may indeed have that effect, but I wouldn’t say that Jesus still bears his scars just to score points against anyone.
Others have said that Jesus still bears his scars so as 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. The scars testify against those 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 worthy and wise enough and can pay for the secret lessons would get the real meaning of this charade. But we must not take the cross and crucified flesh of Jesus literally and physically, so they say. 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 and death! That would be so beneath God, so they say.
Well, Jesus bearing his scars would put the kibosh on that heresy, too. But I don’t think Jesus still bears his scars just for the sake of winning a theological argument, either.
In Thomas’ case, the scars would prove that the Risen Jesus in the room with the disciples is the very same Jesus whom he knew and loved before he had been crucified, that this same Jesus really had died, and yet was now very much alive and well and in the flesh.
I can see Jesus bearing his scars out of love for Thomas, to help him move from doubt to faith. But I don’t think that the scars were there just for Thomas’ sake, either. I think Jesus bears his scars for everyone’s sake. To get at what I mean by that, we need first to consider the different kinds of scars there are in this world.
There are physical scars, of course, like the missing finger I noticed on an old commercial fisherman on Lake Erie when I was young. Like most kids, I couldn’t restrain myself from asking, “Oooh, Mister–What happened to your finger?” My dad jabbed me with his elbow, but the old fisherman didn’t seem to mind. He smiled, held up his injured 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, construction workers and other skilled workers, artists and crafts persons who work at dangerous tasks with dangerous tools, in dangerous conditions. A lot of them have missing parts. While none of them wanted those injuries, I’ve known some of them to treat those scars as badges of honor and signs of solidarity with their trade, and with other people in their trade.
And there are some scars which people have gotten for love. Like the burns on the hand of a man I knew who rescued his sister, whose clothes had caught on fire. Or the surgical scar on a woman who contributed a kidney to her sister. Or the numbers tatooed on the arm of the Dutch woman, Corrie Ten Boom, who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews. Those examples are getting close to the reason for Jesus’s scars, and the reason that he seems to keep them.
Jesus also bears his scars out of love, a love which takes the form of solidarity and identification with us in our scarred and wounded humanity. Because we all bear scars of one kind or another. No one is getting out of this life and this world unscathed in some way, shape, or form.
There are, of course, the physical scars like those I just mentioned. But just as important, painful and debilitating can be those interior scars, which the eye cannot see. Like military veterans whose inner, emotional scars from war may result in homelessness, drug and alcohol problems and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve heard some of their regrets and guilt over what they had to do to survive, or were commanded to do. For those things I blame most the people who put them in those positions.
Then there are the people who witnessed and survived these things and who are still dealing, years later, with the trauma, fear, loss, anger. And with guilt for having survived when others did not. When a family member of mine heard a recording on the radio of one of the planes flying into the World Trade Center Tower on September 11, 2001, he was suddenly seven years old again, trembling and weeping. It sounded just like bombers flying over his home, and the bombs exploding in his German neighborhood 60 years before. Those sounds reopened a wound he had been carrying all those years.
The Me-too movement and the Black Lives Matter movements are confronting us with the internal, emotional and spiritual scars that can come with the oppression, abuse and prejudice directed at someone’s race and sex. Recent developments in counseling and therapy are coming to terms with the inner scaring that can come from abuse, infidelity, and drug and alcohol addictions among other members of one’s family. I believe that the Risen Jesus still bears his scars out of love, in solidarity and identification with all who bear those more invisible and interior kinds of scars, as well.
Those are scars from things others might have done to us. But there are also self-inflicted scars, from things we do to ourselves and others. Promiscuity and pornography will cauterize and kill our capacity for true love for real people. Unbridled greed and ambition will cauterize and kill off our capacity for peace and contentment. The more we lie and fudge the truth, the harder it becomes for us to distinguish truth from falsehood and wishful thinking. Any violence we perpetrate, real or in video games, diminishes and cauterizes our own capacity for compassion and empathy. These scars can be healed, and new life can arise, whenever we repent, and seek forgiveness and restoration. But even then, some scars can remain in the form of lost trust, or broken relationships. All things can be forgiven, but not all things can be forgotten.
How do the wounds of the sinless Lamb of God relate to our self-inflicted wounds of sin, when those were not his kinds of scars? To me, the wounds on the risen, victorious Jesus tell me that, however bad our wounds and scars may be, and however we may have received them, whether from others or from ourselves, there is still life beyond them, and after them, in the form of forgiveness and healing. Even, a glorious and victorious life afterward, like that of the Risen, yet scarred, Jesus. These scars, whatever their cause, internal or external, can be transformed from signs of injury into testimonies of victory. They can be changed from signs of suffering, loss and defeat, into proofs of redemption and resurrection. That Jesus bears them is another sign of God’s willingness to identify with our sin-wounded humanity, to share his dignity with all of life’s walking wounded, whatever the cause, the source or the nature of our wounds.
Through love, then, the scars that Jesus received 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 just the Passover Victim but the Resurrection Victor. We too can be victors over these things, rather than perpetual victims, through the One who loved us.
That, then is the journey and the possibility before all of us. It’s too late for any of us to get through this life without wounds or scars, physical, emotional or spiritual, self-inflicted or otherwise. But we don’t have to remain victims, nor villains. We can be “more than 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 to God, 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 too will bear something of our scars forever, like Jesus does. But they will have been transformed into testimonies, and trophies, not of things that overcame us, but of things we overcame.
I saw an example of this when Becky’s parents used to host international military officers from Fort Leavenworth at their home in Kansas City. They would invite them over for meals, like at Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving. Once, at such a dinner, I sat next to an officer from the West African country of Mali. On the other side of me was an officer from Burkina Faso, which borders Mali to the south and east. This was several years after we had lived in that same country. I noticed on the hand and wrist of the Malian officer the round scars of bullet entry wounds. I wondered if they had anything to do with the brief border war between these two countries in 1986.
In the course of table talk, these two officers discovered that they had indeed been in the same war, even the very same battle in 1986, but on opposite sides, of course. Maybe the Burkinabe officer had even fired the gun that had wounded the Malian officer. Just as that previous encounter became clear, and I was wondering if I should dive under the dinner table, they both broke into warm smiles, with looks that spoke of gratitude for having come out of that previous encounter alive. Then they congratulated each other for having lived to tell the tale, and to be able to share this holiday dinner together. And wasn’t that a stupid, pointless, unnecessary little war? they both agreed. In spite of having been enemies once, they identified with each other as survivors, and as officers who had both been put in a place and a position neither would have chosen for themselves, nor for the men in their commands.
I mention that story because it is similar to: 1) how Jesus got his wounds from a knock-down, drag-out fight with sin, Satan and death, on our behalf; and 2) how he does not hold those scars against anyone, not even those responsible for them; but 3) instead, bears them as signs of love and of solidarity with us, even with his enemies. For as Martin Luther said, “we all carry the nails of Christ’s cross in our pockets.”
And that leads me back to the South African man who asked Jesus in his dream, “Why are you still bearing your scars?”
Jesus only asked the man in return, “And where are your scars? Was there nothing, and no one, worth fighting for?”