2nd Sunday of Easter (12Apr15)
Our faith is surprising for its ongoing encounter with suffering. Even at Easter it’s life through death, gladness amid sadness, answers still shrouded in mystery. In spite of the resurrection, it is not that pain and sorrow are simply undone or erased.
I had a professor who talked about trying to peer under God’s robes, meaning wanting to peel back the coverings that are hiding God, to get a glimpse of the so-called naked God, to remove the mystery and see what’s really there, an unobstructed revelation. The larger point is that we don’t get that view of God. We can’t sneak a peek under God’s robes.
But as a consolation prize (if you will), I’ll show you mine. When I was dressed as a dove for BBQ and Soul Food, Dolores Gust commented on my chicken legs. So I’m not trying for a bawdy peep show, but to point out a scar. In elementary school on the first nice spring day, I was running out to recess in boots that were too big for me, and I biffed it across the pavement, getting a big scrape. About two weeks later, before they’d cleaned the sand from winter off the streets, I was on my skateboard and got a rock lodged under the wheel and tore off the fresh scab and re-gashed the same wounded knee, and still have a scar as a reminder.
Here on my arm is one where I upended my mom’s hot tea when I was a toddler. I don’t even remember it, but it still grieves her. On my hands you can see where I almost sawed off my finger at Scout camp and where I crashed my motorcycle.
If my hair is buzzed short, you can see a scar from the chicken pocks and also where I collided with a corner of the ceiling when I was in college playing Nerf guns with my friend’s little brother.
This front tooth is chipped from a BB gun. I didn’t shoot my eye out, but was in the ER long enough that I was late for my performance in The Sound of Music that evening. The longest lingering of my residual damage was the least traumatic. Despite orthodontists’ efforts my teeth and mouth are still weird from sucking my thumb until 2nd grade.
So there you go, both the literal and the figurative glimpse under my robes. And you may rightly ask, “What’s the point of all of that?”
Showing those past injuries and the after-effects can have a couple of typical reactions, between two poles. One side would be the observation that we never really recover from old wounds. The opposite would be the standard claim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Neither of these are exactly expressions of our faith. But both can be persistent mantras, because they have some truth. Not just from old skateboarding injuries, but especially for our emotional suffering, we never can fully heal. The opposite of the old “sticks and stones” rhyme, we know that words sometimes hurt the worst. Old injuries always continue to affect us, whether we fall into the same old traps or are so cautious to avoid them. It may be your sense of trust, or your sense of shame, or some part of your inner spirit that’s been damaged and just can’t quite be as joyful, as good, as you’d wish.
We can still try to put a positive spin on that, which is where we come around to the “makes you stronger” perspective. Having been wronged may make you eager to stand up for justice. Maybe you view yourself as more resilient. Maybe we do learn from our mistakes and take them as growing experiences. There can be positive value in trying to take what has hurt us and make sense of it somehow. It can strive to redeem senseless suffering.
The thing is, though, that life is more complicated than we’d like, and God is more mysterious than we’d like. So your wounds and injuries aren’t necessarily because there is some bigger lesson for you, or because God has a plan for you to figure out, or because you need to get stronger. I might learn that playing with Nerf guns and jumping into a low ceiling is going to make my head bleed. My 2nd grade self probably would not be so easily reasoned with, to be convinced that thumb-sucking would be problematic later on in life.
But, much more importantly, there are too many ways we suffer that don’t make any sense, that are for no good reason, that are beyond any sort of measure we should expect. Trying to look for a larger, better “why” when you lose a job, or if you’re suffering abuse, or when a poor diagnosis comes. In financial, relational, or health catastrophes. Much less in the bad news scale of dumb governments, greedy corporations, military genocide, or natural disasters—those don’t come with simple, positive explanations. They just plain are wrong. We are trapped in sin. It doesn’t make sense. So aside from some suffering that may be intentionally constructive, be sought for a reason (like the incision for a surgery or the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement) if it’s forced or coerced or inflicted unwillingly—even if it causes a turning point in society, a beneficial improvement—even if the Holocaust makes us say “never again” or Tony Robinson makes us work on racial relations—still that doesn’t make those deaths okay or the suffering perpetrated on them somehow “worth it.”
And none of this gives us the chance to look under God’s robes and explain it all away. See, our God is not revealed in trying to rationalize some master plan for suffering. Our God isn’t about putting you through troubles and trials just to see how you fare or what you can learn or if you’ll grow from it. God is not seeking to make you stronger or to die trying. In fact, based on our cliché, Jesus was killed and not made stronger.
And it’s a death we can’t really rationalize or explain away. We have to hold in mystery. He died because we humans are too sinful and violent. He died because our institutions are corrupt. He died because he stood up to the religious authorities and resisted the Roman Empire. But we can’t say that his suffering was proportional, that he earned it, that it was justified. And, since this is a question of God, we’re left wondering why God couldn’t try to change Caesar some other way, to make evil powers have a change of heart or make them reform or never let them be born in the first place.
All of this makes Jesus’ death for us pretty well inexplicable, unjustified, unfair, terrible, brutal, wrong.
That, at long last, brings us to today’s Gospel reading, telling us what we may know of God in Jesus. With it, here’s what I find to be a great representation, one of my favorite pieces of art. The artist is Caravaggio and it’s called “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” I love Thomas’ raised eyebrows and the anxious onlooking of the others, indeed that it’s almost unbelievable that death didn’t win, that wrongs were righted, that Jesus is with us, in our midst.
This is a vital and meaningful portrayal of what our resurrection faith means, what our hope is. It marks this Easter season and is the very center of our faith. Again, we don’t get the full view under God’s robes to understand all that is behind the hiddenness and mystery. We don’t know why this is. But we can see that God didn’t stop the suffering and death. Neither does God simply erase it. For Jesus, those marks of being wronged and wounded are still there. There was no divine intervention that spared him from dying on the cross or that lashed out to smite those who were causing him pain. Neither does that all just go away after he rises from the dead. The terrible things are not ignored or forgotten as if they never happened. Jesus still bears those scars, those gaping holes, signs of the very thing that did him in. But those wounds are now only filled with wonder. They can do no more harm. They aren’t there for ouch or ew, but wow.
What does this mean for you? Even if we wish it were otherwise, God—for whatever reason—doesn’t work by yanking you out of harm’s way or sparing you hurts. Some problems you can use your wisdom to avoid. Others befall you without you being able to help it. If you put a positive spin on it, placing it as something small amid the larger flow of your life or of the universe, that may put the injury to good use, but still we can’t say that the bad was actually good. We simply don’t know enough to say that God was causing harm in order eventually to bring about some benefit.
Yet amid suffering, amid all that goes wrong, when life hurts too much and it’s more than you can bear, what you may indeed know, what you may trust, what you may cling to is that suffering and injury and injustice and death will not have the last word. Evil may do its worst, but God has more to say. God will overcome, will conquer death, will put it in its place. It is not ultimate. What has hurt you will not and does not define you. That you are loved by God, that you have life in God, that you are a child of God and member of this family is who you are. As horrible as things may be, as much as you have to face what you shouldn’t, as overwhelming as it gets, our God of healing, peace, forgiveness, life has more to come. Thomas is right; what we proclaim is almost unbelievable: Alleluia. Christ is risen.
Hymn: The Risen Christ (ELW #390)