Sunday, June 10, 2012

Recognized by His Wounds: What good is a suffering God?

In Memory of my Father...
John R. Boling, April 7, 1932 - May 22, 2012

A little over a year ago, a few days after Easter, my dad commented that he had always wondered why the risen Christ was recognized by his wounds, and not by his face.  He was referring to a comment the pastor had made in the church newsletter about the biblical text from John that would be read the following Sunday.  The text below from John's gospel is traditionally read on the Sunday after Easter, the Sunday which is often referred to as "low Sunday" in the church year.  The brass fanfares are only a memory, the lilies have faded, and the crowds have dwindled.  John's story about the visits of the risen Christ to the disciples on Easter night and again the following week is appropriate for the Sunday after Easter because it helps us move away from the euphoria of Easter morning and understand what the Resurrection means for us every day of our lives.  As I pondered my dad's comment over the past year, it occurred to me that if it helps us understand what the Resurrection means for us during the ordinary times of our lives, than how much more helpful it might be in helping us understand what the Resurrection means for us on the lowest days of our lives - the days when our hearts have gaping holes in them and our stomachs are tied in knots with grief.  And so I decided to preach the sermon for my father's funeral based on this passage from John.  I'm posting a slightly altered version here because so many people asked for copies of the sermon, saying it was helpful to them in thinking about the problem of pain and suffering, the oldest and most difficult question that most of us have ever asked.  I don't have the answer, but perhaps John's gospel can give us a clue.

Rembrandt - The Incredulity of Thomas

John 20:19-31

19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.  NRSV

Certainly, we know that the Resurrection means that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and because he has been raised, we know that death has been overcome.  We know that death is not the end.  The promise of the Resurrection is that we, too, shall be raised to eternal life with God.  But in this story, John tells us something more about the Resurrection.  It certainly has to do with our death and our resurrected life with God, but it also has to do with our living now.  It has to do not only with our daily lives after the euphoria of Easter is over, but also with the times of deepest despair... the times when joy and hope seem forever gone and our hearts are breaking.

John tells us that on Easter night and again the following week, Jesus appears to the disciples in a house where the doors were locked.  Both times, he shows them his hands and his side, without being asked.  It is clear that none of the disciples recognize the risen Christ until they see his hands and his side.  The wounds are proof that the one who stands before them is the one who was crucified.  The wounds are his very identity, giving us the truest revelation of God available to us.  If the risen Christ is the crucified one, then what is revealed is that God is a vulnerable, suffering God.

Traditionally, we think of God as infinite, omniscient, without passion, almighty, most absolute....  William Placher says that the God described this way is a God who can do anything to anyone, but no one can cause this God pain.  But John's account of the appearances of the risen Christ show us that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has another side.  The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a wounded God, a suffering God, and therefore, a vulnerable God.  When we think of resurrected bodies, don't we usually imagine a body that's young, beautiful, and healthy?  But the body of the risen Christ has wounds.  Those wounds went to the grave, and they rose from the grave.  Jesus broke the bonds of death, but he kept his wounds.  Even after rising, his wounds remain.  The wounded Christ who shows his followers his pierced hands and his side reveals a vulnerable God who is open to our pain, who enters into our suffering.

Jesus did not come into the world merely to reveal God's power.  Yes, the God depicted in the scriptures is a God of power, but it is a strange power, an upside down power, a power made known in the cross, a power made known in the wounds of the risen Christ.  But what good, you may ask, is a suffering God?  What good is a God who does not exercise power to relieve our suffering?  How does a suffering God help?

What does one say to someone who is suffering?  Nicholas Wolterstorff says, "The heart that speaks is heard more than the words than are spoken..... Not even the best of words can take away pain... What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.  I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.  To comfort me, you must come close.  Come sit beside me on my mourning bench."

God did not stand over there, apart from us.  God came close - really close.  Emmanuel - "God With Us" - came close.  God Incarnate, God of the flesh, came really close, close enough to enter into human pain and death.

Wolterstorff says that "to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness he who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil... Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it."  That's worth saying again.... "Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it."

William Sloane Coffin, in a sermon on the Sunday following his own son's death at the age of 24, tells of a woman who arrived at his door the night following the death with about 18 quiches.  He says, "[She] headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, 'I just don't understand the will of God.'  The grieving father exploded, "Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he had probably had a couple of 'frosties' too many?  Do you think it is God's will that there are no street lights along that stretch of road, and no guard rail separating the road and Boston Harbor?"

Coffin goes on to say, "The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is 'It is the will of God.'  My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first to break."

I certainly don't have the answer to the problem of pain and suffering.  I don't know why God doesn't prevent babies from dying, or why so many must suffer from chronic debilitating illness, or why we have natural disasters or terrorism or any of the other endless causes of suffering.  I don't know why my father had to suffer from cancer and the effects of the treatment for 5 years.  I don't know why he had to suffer the trauma of suddenly losing the love of his life just when he felt he needed her the most, just when he needed her to be with him through his last days on earth.

But because of John's story of the risen Christ being recognized by his wounds, and not by his face, here is what I do know.  God Almighty, manifested as Jesus, suffered and died.  It is this suffering, dying God who appears to the disciples on Easter evening and again the following week.  So I know one thing for sure:  God does not stand off somewhere at a distance, isolated from our pain, insensitive to our suffering, unmoved by our dying.  As the risen Christ entered through the locked doors and showed the skeptical disciples his hands and his side, God breaks through the locked doors of fear and doubt and comes close.  When we hurt, or weep, or cry out, God's heart is the first to break.  Rather than explaining our suffering, God Incarnate, Emmanuel, actually comes close, infinitely close, and shares it.  And the risen Christ, who kept his wounds and still broke the bonds of death, does much more than weep with us.  The risen Christ, coming to us as the Holy Spirit, dries our tears, creates hope out of despair, and lights our way in the darkness.

For further reading, you might like to see these books which I consulted and/or quoted in the preparation of the sermon:


  1. Sitting here deciding what to comment after reading your sermon, I again remember that this weekend is Father's Day; the first one without our dads. It is comforting to know my dad is spending this Father's Day with his earthly father and God the Father in heaven!

    I believe all the suffering God allows us to endure here on earth is to make us stronger and to bring us closer to Him. It keep us on the path toward heaven where, it says in the Bible, there will be no more suffering. I know from experience that because we are strong through our sufferings/hard times, we are a testament/positive influence to others. Many times I have said to friends and have heard "knowing you got through this I know I can get through it, too." "
    We need to fear and love God above all things."

  2. Joni, thanks for taking the time to read it and post your thoughts. :-) There are times when we do become stronger after tragedy, but I have seen too many people and/or families fall apart after tragedy to believe that God allows suffering for the purpose of making us stronger. (I know there are many people who would disagree with me.) There are too many people that don't become stronger - they become bitter, angry, disillusioned, or at worst, commit suicide. I'm not aware of anything Jesus ever says that attempts to explain suffering - I'd be interested to know if anyone else does. I know that Jesus weeps with his friends and heals illness and feeds the hungry, and teaches us to take care of the sick and the poor. On the cross, God Incarnate manifested as the Son actually feels forsaken by God - that's pretty amazing that God would feel forsaken by himself, which is what it amounts to. So even God felt what the psalmist felt when he said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." Even God felt doubt and fear and lonliness. Our hope comes from the Resurrection, knowing that death isn't the last word, but hope doesn't erase doubt - they exist together on earth. Hope for eternal life doesn't make everything ok for those still on earth. It comforts me to know that God knows exactly how I feel, and I hold on to the hope that my parents are together again with their families that have gone on before, and that there are no tears where they are, but I still feel lonely and anything but strong.

  3. Yes, of course, for your personal use. Thank you for asking. :-)