Scars: A Reflection on John 20.19-31

There can be no doubt that Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus is, to put it plainly, weird. Rising from the dead is simply something that people don’t do. But more than that, the way the Gospels talk about Jesus after the resurrection is also weird: He can appear out of nowhere and walk through walls, yet still can walk and talk and eat. He is ‘spiritual’ but also remains physical. Skeptics can be forgiven for thinking we Christians want to have our cake and eat it to. But there’s something very profound about Jesus’ post-resurrection embodiment and I’d like to look how it plays out in today’s Gospel reading, the so-called ‘little Pentecost’ from John 20.19-31.

The story beings like this:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

So, we have the disciples hiding behind locked doors on Easter night, frightened and confused about all that’s happened. (Here we have yet another example of how quiet and hesitant the Easter stories in the Gospels are: The disciples are still not in celebration-mode; they still have no idea what is happening or what it all means.) Suddenly, Jesus appears to them. To show that he is no ghostly specter, he shows them the marks from his crucifixion. And then the disciples rejoice. It is not his presence alone that convinces them. It is not his voice, or a teaching, or his face. It is his scars that identify Jesus as Jesus, risen from the grave.

This is, I think, a pretty profound statement about what it means to be human. Back in the aftermath of the collapse of my faith and life, I was wrestling a lot with questions of identity; and that process made me realize just how much our identities are wrapped up in our stories, the experiences that are etched on our souls — and bodies. At that time, I was struggling with the fact that I didn’t have a story anymore; but, as my massage therapist memorably reminded me, my body still carried a story — a truer story that I could not deny. Despite the discontinuity in my life, the before-and-after of it all, my body told a story of continuity. The same is true for all of us. Our experiences mark us and change us. A woman’s body is not the same after she has a baby; someone who has had surgery will always have the scars to show for it. No matter who we become in the ‘after’, we will always be shaped by our life experiences.

Jesus’ resurrection body was certainly changed somehow — he could appear behind locked doors, after all — but it was still his body. He did not return to the disciples as the miracle worker, sage, or teacher they had known and followed before. He didn’t appear as a flaming, frightening apocalyptic vision ready to judge the world. He appeared to them as the Crucified One. Whatever else we can say about the resurrection, it not ‘undo’ the crucifixion. Time cannot be erased or undone; we can never return to ‘before’. Our scars, psychological, spiritual, or physical, help to identify us — they tell our story — but they do not define us — they are not the end of the story.

And so, I think, Christians can be forgiven for wanting our cake and eating it too when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection. His body is the same but different. He bears the scars of all that had happened to him, but those scars are not the end of the story.

So what’s the message about all this for us today? First and foremost, simply to remember once again the human cost of what happened on the cross; our Easter joy should not cause us to forget the horror of that torture, and we should do whatever is in our power to prevent injustice and violence in our world. (It’s not good enough to shake our heads and say ‘Never again’; we need to live ‘Never again’ lives.) But secondarily, I think the message offers us hope. We can bear our own scars with grace; they are nothing to hide or be ashamed of. They are part of us, and they have helped to make us the people we are today, but they don’t define us.

And for that, I for one, am grateful.

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