by the Reverend Nancy Emmel Gunn
Deacon Nancy delivered this sermon on April 18, 2021.
Our Gospel today is set in the days right after Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ appears out of nowhere to his disciples and speaks: “Peace be with you.” The immediate response of the disciples is not joy or even astonishment. The Gospel writer says they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus responds, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. “ For the disciples and for us, when God reveals himself to us, it may not be what we are looking for.
The disciples cannot grasp that this is the Jesus that they know. These men who traveled with Jesus, who saw him expel demons, heal lepers, bring his friend Lazarus back to life, still could not believe. They could not wrap their heads around the idea that this was not a ghost. They could not believe that their dear friend and leader had come back to them in his human body.
But what did they expect? That he would return with swords in hand to come after Pontius Pilate? That he would appear in a blaze of glory, with sounding trumpets, led by a group of charioteers? Instead, He shows up for breakfast and offers them a greeting of peace.
Even to these men who knew first hand Jesus’ healing power, Jesus had to make himself tangible. And he does so simply by eating a fish and inviting them to touch him. Last week, we heard about Thomas, refusing to believe until he too had evidence. Thomas, like the other disciples, needed to encounter Christ to finally believe that he had defeated death.
That the disciples needed to experience Christ to fully believe the resurrection is a great comfort to us. That is, as Augustine says, because God cannot be described, but can only be encountered. We may search for God, but God chooses the when and how to reveal Himself to us and it is up to us to be open to his invitation.
About eighteen years ago, years before I went to Seminary, I had a personal crisis. This was actually a spiritual crisis, although I didn’t know it at the time. I feared for the breakdown of my family and was deeply troubled. I found no solace in my book of prayers or my then route worship.
I had a wise woman friend who helped me through this time. She asked me, “Who is God to you?” I had to stop and think; I wrote in my journal and looked hard at myself. I was ashamed to admit it. I was a grown woman. I went to church every Sunday, took my children to Sunday School and confirmation class, sang in the church choir. But deep down my faith had not changed since I was a child. My triune God was not the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I saw God as my mother- authoritarian and mercurial, my father- loving but weak and Santa Claus -who gave me things if I was good. My friend pointed out that it was no wonder my faith was failing me. She said, “Your God is too small. “ She did not suggest that I read theology texts or the next self help book. She told me to pray every day that God reveal himself/ herself to me. I was so desperate that I would have stood on my head two hours a day if she had suggested it, so this small daily prayer did not seem too much to ask.
I began praying “God, please reveal yourself to me.” At first this short prayer was stilted and awkward, then it became more comfortable and eventually, I honestly sought God’s own revelation.
Then one afternoon, about two weeks into saying my new prayer, I was driving to meet my friend to attend a retreat together in central Illinois. I was playing a K.D. Lang CD. K.D. was singing the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. I would later learn in seminary that Hallelujah in Hebrew means “Praise ye Yahweh” or “Praise the Lord.” Just as K.D. got to that haunting refrain, where she plaintively sings "Hallelujah," I turned off the highway onto a state road. A sign announced I was in Dwight, Illinois. My deceased father’s name was Dwight. And in that moment, hearing the word "Hallelujah," and seeing my father’s name, whatever was in my way disappeared and I understood something. I knew the love of my earthly father. But God’s love was infinitely larger. I could now see that my God was loving and powerful. I felt that love, that I was beloved.
I’m not sure what I expected when I prayed that God be revealed. Perhaps this little encounter at Dwight, Illinois, was a bit underwhelming. And bear with me, as I make another other rock music reference, but the Rolling Stones tell us “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need.” In that moment on the state road, I didn’t get what I expected but I got what I needed. Praise the Lord, indeed.
Is it any wonder, that with God all around us, in our humanness, we fail to find Him. Like the disciples, we fail to see his power. Is it any wonder that the disciples needed proof and that Jesus in knowing this, offered the proof of his identity and divinity- his resurrected body, his wounded hands and feet.
Jesus holds out his hands and feet because it is his hands and feet that tell us who Jesus is. Jesus’ feet remind us that this is the God of servant-hood who bent to wash the feet of his friends at their last dinner together. Jesus’ wounds tell us this is a God who knows pain and defeat and criticism and sacrifice and humiliation and betrayal. And his scars, his places of hurt, announce that pain to the world. Jesus, our brother, our example, our wounded healer.
There is a bit of the wounded healer in each of us. We suffer because that is what it is to be human. We lose a dear friend. Our spouse becomes addicted. Our children make unhappy choices.
In our wounds, we offer to others the strength we have gained following this leader who has defeated death. Consider the occasions you have shared with another your own personal failure and in doing so, lifted for that person their burden? How many times did you admit you were wrong to someone, and in doing so, bridge the gap between you and another that seemed insurmountable? We take the defeated Jesus with us in these moments. In our own failures, we help another to see the possibility of victory over loss. We help to lead another to a place of healing and connection.
And those moments of connection with God keep coming when we look, when we are open. On Easter Sunday, our church community finally celebrated Easter together outside in our church courtyard after being apart for nearly thirteen months.
To be clear, this wasn’t the service we were all wanting. I expect that you, like me, wanted to be done with this Covid nightmare and return to our regular worship. We wanted to embrace at the Peace instead of offering elbow bumps and socially distanced greetings. We wanted to kneel at the altar and drink wine from the chalice instead of consuming the wafer handed to us in a plastic container at our folding chairs. We would have preferred the congregation joyfully joining in singing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”
But after we shared our simple Eucharist, there was a single tear that wetted the top part of my paper mask. In that moment, I sensed that God was present with us. Certainly, this service was somewhat underwhelming compared with the usual robust, song-filled observance. But the most important thing happened: we encountered Christ with one another in this single sacrament and our simple celebration. There it was, His unmistakable presence in the humble courtyard of our church. We got what we needed.
It sometimes takes a real encounter with Christ for us to believe, for the disciples and for us. We need to see evidence. Sometimes evidence is a series of peculiar coincidences coming together to bring us to an experience of our creator. Sometimes it is a wafer eaten with friends. Christ comes to us, broken and wounded and welcomes our imperfection. He reveals himself and we come to know him. He offers his peace, and we get what we need. Amen
The Reverend Nancy Emmel Gunn is a transitional deacon in the Diocese of Missouri, currently serving at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at email@example.com
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