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Sunday, 19 April 2015

Beautiful scars

This is the first sermon that I have preached in the 10.00am service at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Jesus said, “Look at my hands and feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see …” (Luke 24. 36 - 49)

I have a friend called Mandy whose arms are a web of scars from having self-harmed for fourteen years from the age of fourteen. At one point she needed 300 internal and external stitches. Her scars, as you can imagine, are so extensive that there is no way she can completely hide or cover them up. Now that she no longer self-harms, she is encouraged and helped by the realisation that Jesus also bears scars on his resurrected body.

When Jesus says to his disciples, “Look at my hands and feet … Touch me and see”, it is the scars (from the nails that were driven into his hands and feet while on the cross and the spear that was thrust into his side) that he is asking his disciples to look at and touch. These scars are part of Christ’s resurrected body.

Why was this important to Mandy? For her this was about identification. She and Jesus are similar because both bear scars. She need not feel different or unusual or excluded because the marks that mark her out as being different from many other people are also borne by Jesus. She feels at one with him, included and accepted by him, because he bears similar marks on his body to those she also bears.

She has expressed it like this: “Having Jesus in my life now has made me look at things in a very different light. You see, to be an anybody, anywhere is to look into the eyes of someone who matters to you and know that they don't care what or who you are, where you have been or what you have achieved. To be an anybody, anywhere is to look into those eyes and know that if you see love there, then you have earned it. Not for being a walking achievement or an interesting case or a social inspiration or a charity case, but just for being you. That is the gift of the Lord Jesus Christ; a loving and understanding heart. Not someone that is looking at what you did, instead he looks at what you will become. I have now found the best friendship and a sense of belonging and the love that I have always longed for. The mask that I had hidden behind for so long has now gone and I am no longer a label but a child of God.”

Roy McCloughry writes that Jesus “has taken up the marks of disability into himself” and that “his body, in showing how he suffered, offers solidarity with all who remain disabled.” Similarly, Nancy Eiesland says, “Resurrection is not about the negation or erasure of our disabled bodies in hopes of perfect images, untouched by physical disability; rather Christ’s resurrection offers hope that our nonconventional, and sometimes difficult, bodies participate fully in the imago Dei …”

In some ways this is a surprising realisation because we tend to think of resurrection as being our entry into whatever we imagine perfection to be; including, perhaps, the thought that supposed imperfections, like our scars, are healed and removed. The kind of state, perhaps, which was described in our reading from Acts where Peter stated that the man who had been healed had been given perfect health (Acts 3. 13 - 21).

That, however, would be to overlook the fact that this man, though healed at that moment, remained, as is each one of us, on a continuum between illness and wellness which will eventually end in his death. His healing did not remove him from the continuum of illness and wellness but simply placed him at a different point on it. That is reality for all of us, we are all on this same continuum whether or not we have some form of diagnosis through the medical profession, or not. The perfect health that Peter spoke about was an experience for that moment; it did not mean that this man would not later become unwell or grow old or at, some stage, die.

This realisation is, I think, of help to us in thinking about the resurrection as it calls into question of our ideas of the resurrection life and of what our resurrected bodies may be like. Reflecting on some of the reasons why Jesus’ risen body shows the scars of his crucifixion may help us to revise our ideas about resurrection.

Scars are about healing. The formation of a scar is a part of the healing process and where they remain on our bodies they are signs that significant healing has taken place. Christ’s resurrection is only achieved by way of the wounds he gained from the crucifixion. He is for us the risen Christ because he was firstly for us the crucified Christ. In a similar way our wounds inevitably form and shape us. We would not be who we are as we now are without having gone through or having endured those wounding experiences.

Jungian therapy suggests that it is only by being willing to face, consciously experience and go through our wounds that we will receive a blessing from them: ‘To go through our wound is to embrace, assent, and say “yes” to the mysteriously painful new place in ourselves where the wound is leading us. Going through our wound, we can allow ourselves to be re-created by the wound. Our wound is not a static entity, but rather a continually unfolding dynamic process that manifests, reveals and incarnates itself through us, which is to say that our wound is teaching us something about ourselves. Going through our wound means realizing we will never again be the same when we get to the other side of this initiatory process. Going through our wound is a genuine death experience, as our old self “dies” in the process, while a new, more expansive and empowered part of ourselves is potentially born’.

Scars are also about wounds. In Isaiah 53 we read: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering … and by his wounds we are healed.” Jesus saves us through his wounds. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples at the last supper. Henri Nouwen, who is perhaps best known for applying Jungian thinking on the wounded healer to pastoral ministry, “interprets these acts as symbolising the way in which Jesus was taken by his father, blessed at his baptism, broken on the cross and then given to the world and that the same can be said of people (God’s beloved children according to Nouwen). This means that God reveals to people their chosenness and the blessing of being His beloved children; they are broken by life’s sorrows and the result of their brokenness is to be given to the world as a gift” (Philip Nolte).

This was Mandy’s experience as she shared her story with others and set up support groups which aimed to cut out the pain for those taking part. Mandy’s experience of acceptance in Christ in time led her to a place where she can talk openly about her experiences, particularly if by doing so she can help others cope with their traumas or move beyond the urge to self-harm. Those who are wounded often become wounded healers, with their experience of living with their wounds shaping their ministry to others facing similar experiences and circumstances.

Mandy’s wounds at one time were signs of harm but now are signs of care for others. That change seems to me to be a profoundly resurrection experience. What was once harmful and destructive in Mandy’s life has become life-giving for her and others. If that is so, how could our resurrection lives and bodies not include what is both formative and loving in us, of us and about us?

Steven Curtis Chapman and Madonna both have songs entitled ‘Beautiful Scars’ which between them sum up something of what I have been trying to say. Curtis Chapman sings of Jesus:

“Beautiful scars, Your beautiful scars
Reminders of the wounded love
That had carried us this far
Beautiful scars
Turning the marks of our pain
Into beautiful scars …

Our wounded Healer
Suffered to set us free”

Madonna asks:

“Take me with all of my beautiful scars …
I come to you with all my flaws
With all my beautiful scars …

Accept me, although I'm incomplete
My imperfections make me unique”

We are all wounded and scarred, that is reality for all of us, but the marks of our pain can be turned into beautiful scars if we view the wounds we bear as being embraced by Christ, as formative in our lives and as opportunities which create potential in us to minister in future to others. On Easter Day our Eucharistic Prayer included these words, ‘make our scars beautiful like your scars’. May it be so for each one of us. Amen.


Steven Curtis Chapman - Beautiful Scars.

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