“Marks of Mission”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Some religious places should have warnings: may contain scenes of graphic violence. They pop up when you least expect them. I was visiting a retreat house on which had a separate dining room for the nuns of the convent. Since I was the only guest there, I was invited to join them at table. In the corner, staring me in the face, was a large plaster statue representing Jesus of the bleeding heart. Somehow the image of Christ ripping open his robes to reveal an anatomically correct and technicolour organ put me off my dinner.
Visitors to churches may be unsettled by the crucifixes, the martyrs’ tombs, the Bible stories immortalized in glass and tapestry. They often depict suffering and death. From the Easter side of the resurrection story most Christians can put them in the context of life everlasting, but they can still evoke a squeamish response. Modern people prefer beauty without flaw, life without decay, reward without mention of suffering. An empty cross is easier on the eyes than a man hanging in pain. But when Jesus rose, he did not escape from the tomb unmarked. His resurrected body bore the marks of the hurts that were inflicted in the crucifixion. Hands and side bear witness to his passion and testify to God’s victory. These are the currency of physical death and physical resurrection which Jesus has paid for all of us.
So when Jesus appears after that first Easter morning, those scars are an important detail. They are a means of the disciples recognizing their Lord. They are also a proclamation that he is actually who he said he was: the Messiah, the Son of God. The marks are mentioned three times in the gospel story this morning from John chapter 20. The first time is verse 20, when Jesus appears amongst the fearful followers, who are hiding from the authorities. As proof that he is alive and that Mary has spoken truly, he shows them his hands and his side. The disciples’ response is to rejoice, for now they see him as their Lord.
One disciple, Thomas, was not present amongst the gathering. He tells the others “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” (verse 25). In demanding this, he is not doubting any more than his friends did before they got to touch and affirm the risen Lord. He wants the same proof so that he too can rejoice and believe.
Then in verse 27, Jesus comes again to the gathering and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”. And it is in this act of intimacy that Thomas literally puts his finger on it. “My Lord and my God”, he cries. The purpose of this written record is so that those who come after this first generation of witnesses may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that though believing him we may have life in his name. But we have not seen; we have not touched. How are we or others around us to come to believe?
Those marks on the risen Jesus put him in solidarity with all of humanity. We are all wounded in some way. Sometimes what we have gone through even leaves physical marks on our bodies. Pregnancy stretch marks, surgery scars, broken and set bones, stitches, cut marks, burns, needle scabs, tattoos and piercings. Some we inflict on ourselves, other we endure for another. All bear witness to our struggles. Yet more marks are hidden and secret: loneliness, abandonment, sickness, despair. They too are carried, not just within the wounds that Jesus received as a human, but those he continues to show as the risen Christ. When we see an image of the man with holes in his hands, it is not just a representation of the pain that Jesus once suffered. It is also a lifting up of our own present pain.
But it is not the Church’s task to carry another’s woundedness. We would sink under the load. Only God is the healer. Instead the Church, as the body of Christ, are to collectively remember those marks, and find new ways to proclaim them for the world to see. They are the symbols that new life is possible in spite of what has happened. Love is stronger than death. Scars are more powerful reminders of healing than unscarred flesh. Those that we bear show that we are willing to get our hands dirty and hurt in order to serve. What then marks us as followers of the risen Christ?
The Anglican Communion worldwide has identified a framework to describe and encourage ministry through the following five marks of mission:
to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- to teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
- to respond to human need by loving service
- to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
- to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
It is up to each local congregation to take concrete actions to make these marks visible to the wider community.
Our starting point is this parish. If you think about it, the place where we gather says a lot to outsiders about what we believe and what we think is important. What do you think people see when they come to our building? How does it reflect the marks of mission? We don’t have a plaster Jesus of the bleeding heart here (at least, I haven’t found one yet). But we are surrounded by things that tell the observer about what matters and what doesn’t. Are there clues that reveal our willingness to love and labour in the brokenness of human life, to be wounded healers through the power of the resurrection? As Christians, we must be able to point to some signs of our belief, so that others can come to touch God. This is our mission, as it was that of the first apostles, for “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The questions we ask are important. What speaks of our willingness to proclaim the good news? How do we teach and nurture? How does the world see loving service here? When do we speak out about unjust structures, challenge wrongs, and pursue peace and reconciliation? And in what ways do we demonstrate our commitment to safeguard and sustain the creation? As we are willing to bring them to God, the Holy Spirit will breathe among us, and make us a people forgiven and forgiving. Amen.