“The Scarred Savior & Kintsugi Christians”
April 11, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We come this morning to John 20:19-23.
Jesus has been crucified. Jesus has died, and been buried. And then on Sunday morning the tomb was found empty, and Jesus, risen from the dead, appeared to Mary Magdalene.
Our text this morning continues on that same day, and brings us from Easter morning to Easter evening.
And so, please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
20:19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, your testimonies are wonderful;
therefore our souls cling to them.
The unfolding of your word gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.
Therefore we long for your word
and your commandments.
Turn to us now and be gracious to us,
as is your way with those who love your name.
Keep our steps steady according to your promise,
and let no iniquity have dominion over us.
Redeem us from the oppression of the world,
that we may keep your precepts.
Make your face to shine upon us, your servants,
and teach us your statutes.
Grant all of this, we ask, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:129-135]
Our text this morning, is dense. It contains a number of things. But one of the more surprising things we find here in John’s second account of the resurrected Lord is that attention is drawn to his scars. And that startling fact, I would argue, is relevant to everything else that happens here.
It should shape how we view Jesus and therefore how we view God. It should shape how we are called to relate to one another. And it should shape how we are called to relate to the world.
That is what we will consider this morning.
The Scars of Jesus & His Ministry to Us
And so the first thing that Jesus’s scars should do is shape how we view Jesus, and how we view his ministry to us.
And to see that, we need to begin with the fact of Jesus’s scars.
We see this in the first few verses of our text. There we read:
Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”
Now, at this point, Jesus’s body has been gloriously transformed by the resurrection. It is a real, physical body. Jesus is no ghost here – he is not a visible spirit, but his actual body has been raised from the dead. He walks, he eats, he can be touched. It is his body that was raised.
But at the same time, his body has also been gloriously transformed. We see that in the fact that he has just appeared in a locked room!
So Jesus’s body is raised, it is healed, and it is gloriously transformed. But the scars from his torturous crucifixion remain! That is why he shows them his hands and his side in verse twenty. John is even more specific a few verses after this passage. Later on Thomas (who was not present for the events in our text this morning) insists on seeing and placing his fingers in “the marks of the nails” in Jesus’s hands, as well as placing his hand in the opening in Jesus’s side. And when Jesus appears to Thomas, that is exactly what Jesus invites Thomas to do. In the same way here, Jesus is drawing attention to the wounds – to the scars – that he still bears.
And lest we think that even this was temporary, we learn in the Book of Revelation that it is not. There we get a glimpse into heaven, and Jesus is described as “a Lamb” that looked “as though it had been slain.” [Revelation 5:6] In other words, even after his ascension – even today – Jesus bears the marks of his crucifixion – he bears the scars of the wounds he received then.
And though he bore those scars in his body, and so in his human nature, it was still in the human nature that he had taken to himself as God. And so it is in some sense appropriate for us to speak about the wounds – about the scars – of God that are on display here. In Jesus we have a wounded – a scarred – God.
And as we acknowledge that fact, we should also admit a few things about it.
One is that this is not exactly what we want. We don’t tend to want a wounded God. If we were to stand back and to describe the kind of God we’d like to follow, “wounded” would not be a descriptor that quickly came to mind.
It certainly did not come to mind in the ancient world, where the idea of serving a wounded God – a scarred God – was laughable.
We don’t want a wounded God. But we need a wounded God. And that is key. For that is the heart of the gospel.
And that fact, that it’s what we need but not what we want, shows that we don’t really understand what Jesus’s wounds mean.
We tend to assume that a wounded God will lead to sorrow, shame, and selfishness from God. But the truth is that a wounded God is actually the source of hope, honor, and healing.
So, let’s start by considering sorrow and hope. We tend to assume that a wounded God will lead to sorrow, when in the gospel it is actually the source of our hope.
And that fact is imbedded in Jesus’s greeting. Jesus’s greeting here is a standard one, but the repetition and emphasis on it tells us that John wants us to see something deeper there. [Carson, 646-647] “Peace be with you” Jesus says in verse nineteen. And then, after showing them those scars, he repeats it again: “Peace be with you” he says in verse twenty-one. The scars of Jesus – their existence and his display of them – are not meant to bring sorrow to the disciples, but hope, and peace.
Because the scars of Jesus are proof and secure assurance of our salvation. The scars of Jesus are an eternal witness to the source and the sureness of our peace with God.
At the heart of the gospel is the declaration that we – that all people – have fallen short of God. We have sinned against him. We have rebelled against him. And our sin must be dealt with. Someone must bear the consequences. Those consequences – the weight of our guilt and our shame – would crush us. But then Jesus steps in, and he takes our sin and all its consequences upon himself. And now the sins of all who put their trust in Jesus – of all who follow him – have been paid for in full. They are done away with. Jesus has paid our spiritual debt.
At the heart of the gospel is the conviction that either God will bear the wounds for our sins, or we will bear them. And if we bear them, we will be crushed. But Jesus has been wounded for the transgressions of all who place their trust in him. And so, far from being the source of sorrow for us, the scars of Jesus are actually the source of our hope.
Second, we tend to assume that the wounds of Jesus are a source of shame to him. But in the gospel, they are actually the source of his honor and his glory.
It is easy to assume that a truly powerful God would never allow himself to be touched by suffering. And so, any suffering that God endures is actually a sign of his weakness, and therefore a reason for shame. This is certainly how many in the ancient world responded to the claims of early Christians.
But the gospel tells a different story. The Bible tells a story of a God who cares more about his people than about his own comfort. The Bible tells a story about a God who was willing to leave the comfort and security of heaven to come down, and to suffer, and to be wounded, and even to be killed for our sake. And that willingness – that incredible love – does not bring shame on our God, but it brings honor upon him. His scars display just how great his love is. His love is so immense, that though he could have avoided the wounds of the cross, and he could have kept himself safe and secure in heaven, for our sake and out of love for us he chose instead to receive the wounds of the cross. Therefore his scars point not to his shame, but to his honor. For that is how great his love is in the gospel.
Third, we tend to assume that God being wounded – being scarred – will lead to a form of selfishness in God. Now, that might sound odd, but let me explain. A weak god needs others to take care of him. He needs things from us. And so when we assume that God’s wounds are a sign of weakness, we can worry that we have a God who cannot take care of us, but who selfishly needs us to take care of him.
But that, of course, is a misunderstanding of Jesus’s wounds. In the gospel, the wounds of Jesus don’t indicate self-centered needs, but instead they are the source of his healing for us. For the Bible tells us that Christ is our wounded healer. And so the Prophet Isaiah said of Jesus that by “his wounds we are healed.” [53:5] The author of Hebrews said that because of what he suffered, Jesus can sympathize with our weakness, can relate to our temptations, and can be counted on to show us mercy. [4:14-16] The wounds of Jesus identify Jesus as our healer. He is not a God who avoided the wounds of the sin and brokenness of this world, but one who entered into such wounds, and came out victorious. And now he offers his healing victory to us. And it is by his wounds – not in spite of them – that we are healed.
In the gospel, the scars of Jesus are the source of our hope, our healing, and his honor.
And in these ways and more, Jesus’s scars enhance rather than detract from his glory after the resurrection.
We might believe that … but it might still be difficult for us to wrap our heads around.
Mako Fujimura is an artist whose work has been featured around the world. He has also served as an elder at a PCA church that Rachel and I were members of for a few years. And to explain the glory of Jesus’s wounds, Fujimura points people to the Japanese art of Kintsugi.
Kintsugi, he explains, “is the art of repairing broken pottery pieces” by using lacquer that has been “dusted with gold.” “Kin” means “gold”, “tsugi” means “mending” – hence the name “Kintsugi,” which essentially means “gold mending.”
This kind of art begins with a piece of pottery that was once beautiful, but which has somehow become broken. But then, rather than trying to mend it in a way that seeks to hide the brokenness, a Kintsugi master would mend it with this lacquer and gold. The result is beautiful pottery that now has lines or webs of gold going through it, along the lines of where it had broken.
I encourage you to look this up online after the service – and don’t look at the amateur examples, but look at the works done by actual Japanese Kintsugi masters. They are beautiful.
Fujimura explains that such artists will sometimes intentionally accentuate “the fractures and the fissures” and make “the broken parts” themselves “even more visually sophisticated” The result of accentuating the fractures in this way, is that the final product actually becomes more glorious, and more valuable, than the original was.
“This,” Fujimura then explains, “is the theology of new creation.” This is what we see in the scars of Jesus. The fissures in Jesus’s broken body have been accentuated in such a way that increase his glory and his worth, rather than decrease it. [Fujimura quotes from Wehner article and The Trinity Forum video]
And as odd as that might sound, it should not be new to most of us. We have sung about it here many times:
Crown him the Lord of love;
behold his hands and side,
rich wounds, yet visible above,
in beauty glorified:
no angel in the sky
can fully bear that sight,
but downward bends his burning eye
at mysteries so bright.
And so the scars of Jesus must shape the way we view him and his glory, as well as the ways in which he ministers to us in the gospel.
That is the first thing for us to see.
Our Scars & Ministering to One Another
But second, the scars of Jesus also have something to say about our scars, and how we relate to one another.
And we get an indication of this in verses twenty-two and twenty-three. There we read:
22 And when [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Now, we’re not going to get into the technicalities of these verses, but we need to say a few things here. First of all, what we don’t have here is that we don’t have Jesus giving the apostles or their successors control over who God forgives. In the Greek, the construction is not a mechanical or causal one. It does indicate a correspondence. But probably what we should take from that correspondence is the fact that Jesus is here calling on his followers, in reliance on the Holy Spirit, to continue his ministry, so that their ministry is an extension of his ministry. [Carson, 655-656; Michaels, 1014-1015]
They do this by proclaiming Biblical truth, in word and deed, in a way that brings forgiveness to those who embrace the gospel, and that testifies against those who reject it.
This would, of course, be important to their work of evangelism, but it would not be limited to the work of evangelism. Here, I think, and certainly in the rest of Scripture, the people of God are called on also to proclaim the gospel to one another, rebuking one another when needed, and assuring each other of God’s grace. And that work too is to be an extension of and an expression of Jesus’s ministry to his people.
And if that is the case – if our ministry to one another is supposed to be an expression and extension of his ministry to us – then we must consider that Jesus’s scars are not only relevant for how he ministers to us in the gospel, but also for how we minister to one another.
Now, our scars can be different from Jesus’s. Unlike Jesus, some of our scars – whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, or something else – some of our scars are the result of our own sin. Other times, though, like Jesus, our scars are the result of other’s sins against us. And still other times our scars are the results of the sorrows and the general brokenness of this world, and the kind of suffering that results from that.
So the sources of our scars can be different. And yet, the same dynamic holds for how God will use our scars to minister to others through the gospel. Jesus would use our scars to bring hope and healing to others, and to bring honor to him and even to us. But, in our resistance to the gospel, we often hide our scars, convinced that they will only lead to sorrow, shame, and selfishness.
And so, when it comes to the scars that we bear as a result of our own sins, we usually want to hide them. We fear that they will cause shame for us, sorrow for others, or will selfishly make the conversation or the relationship about us, and our needs.
But in the gospel, the opposite is true. In the gospel, honestly sharing the scars of our own sin should lead others to hope, not sorrow. Because despite our wounding sin, and despite the damage it has done, in Christ we are still spiritually alive. The wound did not lead to eternal death for us. And so there is hope. Our spiritual life, despite our scarring sin is a testimony that salvation does not just come to those who have, through their own strength, avoided the damages of sin, but it comes to all who have brought the wounds of their sins to Jesus. And that should give any sinner we minister to hope for forgiveness of their past sin. It should provide a healing path for their current battles with sin. And it should give honor to Jesus because it acknowledges that he is the one due the glory for our salvation, and not ourselves.
In a similar way, we can be tempted to hide the wounds we bear from the sins of others and the brokenness of this world. We can think that sharing such wounds is self-indulgent, sorrowful, and even shameful. But brothers and sisters, how can that be if Jesus so boldly displayed his own wounds?
We do not love others well by projecting an image in which the pains of this life have not really affected us. If anything, when we do that, we bring despair on those who do feel affected by the sorrows of this life – for they look at us and wonder what is wrong with them.
But when instead we share our scars and our wounds, then we offer real hope: hope not in our own sturdiness, but in the fact that God will be with us through it all. Then we offer real healing: because we cannot testify that Jesus has healed us if we deny we were ever wounded. And then we receive real honor: for our honor in the gospel is found not in our own strength, but in the way we have clung to Jesus and the ways he has brought us through the sorrows of this life.
We know that this is true … and yet we all hide our scars. We all tell ourselves that that is the best way to love others. Which means we must think we have found a better way to do ministry than Jesus had.
Now, some will point out that there are self-centered and self-serving ways to share your scars. And of course that is true. And maybe some of you struggle with that. But, brothers and sisters, that is not our problem overall as a church. I am not worried about that for us. That is a temptation miles away. But the temptation to hide our scars instead is right here with us. It is a temptation we often give into.
And so, when we want to minister to others, we don’t show our scars as Jesus does – we don’t display what Jesus has done in and through them – we don’t draw attention to them as we might in a work of Kintsugi artwork. Instead we try to cover up the wounds and make them invisible.
And we can sometimes encourage this tendency in one another, by over-valuing the appearance of competence, and undervaluing it when others try to minister to us out of their scars and wounds.
And I struggle with this too. I am not so sure you want a Kintsugi pastor. I’m not so sure you want a wounded healer leading you, whose wounds and weaknesses are not only visible, but highlighted. But that said, even if you do want that, I’m not so sure I want to be that. I want to look good, and competent and whole.
And so I try really hard to project confidence, even when I feel really insecure. I try to project competence even when I feel like I’m in over my head. I try to project wholeness even when I feel broken. And in general I tend to only really speak about wounds that are far enough in my past that no one will ever really worry that they might still affect me in any real ways now.
But I’m not the only one in this room who does that … am I?
We do that for a number of reasons, but when we do, it is a denial of who Jesus has called us to be.
It denies the hope of the gospel because it locates our peace in ourselves. It denies the healing we could give to others, because we deny that we have been wounded, and so we fail to point out to others how we have been healed. And it denies the honor which Christ wants to bring to himself and bestow on us before one another.
Christ wants to make us into Kintsugi Christians. He wants to use his gold to heal us and glorify our scars, and then he wants to display the work he has done and the work he is now doing for others to see. But we want to hide it. We want to cover up his work. We want to push him aside, and use cheap but invisible crazy glue to put ourselves back together, instead of receiving and displaying the glorious golden lacquer that he himself offers us in the gospel.
Jesus calls us to minister to one another through our scars. Jesus calls us to bring his healing to one another through our wounds.
That is the second thing we see in our passage.
Our Scars & Ministering to the World
Third and finally, we see that Jesus’s scars have something to say about how we are to minister to the world around us.
And to see that, we need to begin with the fact that we are sent into the world to minister there.
We see that in verses twenty-one and twenty-two. There we read:
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
I have begun reading Herman Bavinck lately. Bavinck was a late 19th century and early 20th century Dutch theologian who worked closely with Abraham Kuyper and shaped the neo-Calvinist Dutch-Reformed movement. And Bavinck, living at the transition into the late-modern period of Europe dealt with the beginning of many of the same spiritual challenges that we deal with today.
In his setting, especially growing up, secularism was on the rise and the culture promoted a more secular, non-supernatural version of the Christian faith, often pushing orthodox Biblical Christianity to the margins of society.
The response of many believing Christians to this situation was to withdraw from the call to go out to the world. But Bavinck stood firmly against this response.
“We [meaning the believing Christian church – we] may not be a sect. We may not want to be one, and we cannot be one, except by denial of the absolute character of the truth. Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is not of this world. But it does demand that everything in this world serve it. […] Naturally, it would be much easier to leave this age to its own ways, and to seek our strength in a quiet withdrawal. No such rest, however, is permitted to us here. Because every creature is good, and […] since all things are sanctified by the Word of God and prayer, therefore the rejection of any creature [would be] ingratitude to God […]. Our warfare may be conducted against sin alone. No matter how complicated the relationship may be, therefore, in which the confessors of Christ are placed in this time, no matter how serious, difficult, and virtually insurmountable the social [and] political […] problems may be, it [would be] faithlessness and weakness in us proudly to withdraw from the struggle, perhaps even under the guise of Christian motivation, and to reject the culture of the age as demonic.” [From The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, quoted in the preface to The Wonderful Works of God, p.xxix]
What is Bavinck saying? He is acknowledging that when the world becomes hostile to the gospel and to those who follow it, the temptation is to withdraw. But Bavinck reminds us, that is not an option for the people of God. For God has called us to fight sin, yes, but not to reject his creation – including those in the world who are made in his image, but at this point deny him. For God the Father so loved the world that he sent his only Son into it, in order to save his rebellious creatures. And now, here, in verse twenty-one of our text Jesus looks at us – he looks at his Church – he looks at you and at me – and he says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Therefore, we cannot leave the kingdom of this world to itself, for Jesus has sent us into it to proclaim his truth. As Bavinck explains “it would be much easier to leave this age to its own ways, and to seek our strength in a quiet withdrawal” but that would be a sign of “faithlessness and weakness in us” – of us “proudly [withdrawing] from the struggle” that Christ has called us to.
Our passage reminds us that we are sent into the world. But it also does more than that. It also reminds us how we are sent.
Because here again, like Jesus, we are called to minister in and through our scars and wounds … but once again we are tempted to revert to ministering out of our strengths.
Now, I want to be clear – there is a proper place to using the gifting and blessings and strength God has given us to minister to others. Jesus himself did that, and God calls us to it as well.
But that should not be the only way we are willing to interact with the unbelieving world. Because Jesus’s greatest work of ministry came not from his strength, but from his voluntary weakness, and the wounds of the cross. And we should imitate Jesus in that as well.
If we only minister out of our strength, then that is a hint that our ministry might be more about us avoiding vulnerability than about us wanting to bless others. For like Jesus, we are called to go out into the world in ways that make us vulnerable.
First of all, Jesus sends us out just as he was sent out. Which means that he sends us out to the entire world – not only to those we can minister to by relying on our own competence, but also to those who we would need to minister to in ways that make us feel vulnerable, and insecure, and weak.
Maybe their lives look so much more together than ours do that it will be very obvious that we have nothing to offer them from ourselves, but can only share with them what Jesus has done for us.
Or maybe they struggle with the same things we still do, and so what we have to share is not a story of our victory but a story of how Christ has been with us in the midst of the struggle, and he can be with them too.
And so one thing this clarifies is that our ministry to unbelievers cannot only be to those who make us feel good about ourselves, but must also be to those whom we have nothing to offer but Jesus himself.
But then, along with that, ministering out of our weakness, and in imitation of Jesus, also says something about the kind of risks we should be willing to take as we reach out to an unbelieving world.
Jesus showed his scars to his followers, and then he said to them: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Brothers and sisters, when it comes to the kind of consequences our faith may have for our life in the world, what do you think that means there?
Jesus Christ was sent by the Father to bear the cross. He was sent to be wounded by the unbelieving world. He was sent to be scarred by the unbelieving world. And he was sent to do it and to do it in a way where he continued to love the unbelieving world, even as they attacked him.
That is how the Father sent Jesus into the unbelieving world. And Jesus looks at us and he says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” We are called to love the world in the same sacrificial and longsuffering way.
And we can be so bad at this. For so many of us, the moment that we face even the most petty infraction on our rights we respond either with hatred and venom for the unbelieving world that has done this to us, or we consider whether we should retreat from the mission.
In other words, we are discouraged and enraged by such opposition. We treat it as a source of shame, but Jesus took it as a mark of honor before his Father. And we are called to follow his ways. We are called to go out in mission, even though we know we may be sinned against when we do, because we know that in God’s eyes, the wounds we receive will be a source of honor, not of shame.
And when the world responds to us with accusations about the sins of the Church in the past or the present – the wounds we have sinfully given to others or to one another – we do not need to frantically deny them if they are right. We do not need to minimize them. We should lament them. But we should own them before a judgmental world and say “Yes, Christians have done those things. Christians still do things like that today. And it is awful. And we must do better. But don’t you see? As sinful and as selfish as we are, Christ still offers us forgiveness. And so if there is hope for us in the gospel, imagine how much hope there is for you!” And so, even the scars of our own sin should be displayed as a source of hope for the unbelieving world.
And finally, when we face the difficulties of this life, we Christians need not put on a display before the world as if we are unaffected by such trials – as if it is selfish for us to own our sorrows. But instead, we can admit that we too struggle with the brokenness of this world. But our hope is not in the tight grip we have on our emotions, our hope is in the healing power of Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, what makes the Church truly unique from the unbelieving world is not that we are better, or smarter, or more put together. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, it is true. But we have all been broken – and in many ways we have broken ourselves. What truly sets us apart is not us, but the golden lacquer that has so skillfully and so lovingly been used to bind up our wounds. What truly sets us apart are our Kintsugi scars. For in his work, Jesus has done so much more than heal us. He has glorified us, and glorified himself in his work.
Fujimura writes: “Kintsugi bowls are treasured as objects that surpass their original ‘useful’ purpose and move into a realm of beauty brought on by the Kintsugi master. Thus, our brokenness, in light of the wounds of Christ still visible after the resurrection, can also mean that through making, by honoring the brokenness, the broken shapes can somehow be a necessary component of the New World to come.’” [Quoted in Wehner]
Through his wounds, Christ has saved us.
And now, as he ministered to us, so he calls us to minister to one another, and to go out and minister to the unbelieving world.
That is not easy.
But Jesus helps us.
First, he gives us himself. Jesus and his wounds are a constant reminder that we rely on him for all we do.
Second, he gives us the Holy Spirit. Let’s not miss that. We see it in verse twenty-two. Jesus knows that we need the help of the Holy Spirit. As we rely on him, he will empower us to do the work we are called to.
Because, after all, there is nothing inherently magical about wounds and scars in themselves. That is not the point. The point is God’s work in and through the wounds and scars. That is where true spiritual power lies. That is where we find the power by which Christ saved us. That is where we see the power in which Christ called us to minister to one another. And that is where we locate the power in which Christ has sent us to conquer the world.
And so let us not despair. But let us have peace. For no matter how ugly the brokenness is in us, no matter how perplexing the brokenness is that we face in other Christians, and no matter how overwhelming the brokenness is that we see in the world around us, Christ is able to heal it with the gold of the gospel, and to transform it not just into its original state, but into something even more beautiful and even more glorious.
This sermon draws on material from:
Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 41-124. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. The Works of Saint Augustine. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2020.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Michaels, Ramsey J. The Gospel of John. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.
Trinity Forum. “Mako Fujimura on Kintsugi and the New Creation.” October 13, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/trinityforum/videos/665580331031783/
Wehner, Peter. “Why is Jesus Still Wounded After His Resurrection?” The New York Times. April 3, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/03/opinion/christ-resurrection-easter.html
Wright, N. T. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.c
my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
The Stories We Tell
Why is Easter such an important day for Christians? Why is this day, and why is this story, so important to followers of Jesus?
Well, there are a number of reasons. But one important reason among them is that the account of Jesus’s resurrection confronts and disrupts all worldly paradigms.
We each approach the world and our own lives with a paradigm – with a set of assumptions, and a lens through which we view all things. And that set of assumptions usually takes the form of a story – a story we tell about our lives and about the world we live in.
But sometimes things happen that disrupt our paradigm – that contradict the story we tell about our lives and our world. These are paradigm disruptors.
Sometimes those paradigm disruptors turn out to be false alarms. Sometimes, we choose simply to ignore them. But other times they can change the way we view the world – or some part of the world – overturning what we used to believe and replacing it with something new.
Easter is such a paradigm-disruptor. It is a paradigm-disruptor on the level of our individual lives. It is a paradigm-disruptor on the level of how we view the world. It is a paradigm-disruptor on the level of how we view cosmic realities. Which is why Christians give so much attention to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But to see why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is such a paradigm-disruptor, we need to start by considering the paradigms we often begin with – the assumptions we tend to take for granted … the kind of stories we usually assume we are living in.
When you zoom out and look at things from 10,000 feet, a few common story lines emerge in our particular cultural setting.
One is the story of modernism. Modernism says that we are in a story of progress in which humanity is conquering and controlling the world for the greater good. [Leithart, 33]
Modernism tells a story that goes from wilderness to civilization. We once were weak and at the mercy of the natural world, but now we are learning to master the natural world. We once were small-minded and self-centered, but now we are becoming both intellectually and morally enlightened. Modernism is a story of progress through human achievement.
Of course, not everyone embraces that story line. And so other stories present themselves as rivals.
One such rival is romanticism.
Romanticism rejects the story of modernism and tells a counter-story. For romanticism, society is not the solution, but the problem. The story of the world is one in which nature has been corrupted by society, and the solution is a rejection of society and a return to nature. [Leithart, 33]
Romanticism therefore tells a story that begins in a pristine natural setting, is corrupted by the evils of human society, and finally calls us back to some form of our original natural place. Romanticism is a story of faith in the inherent good in the world and in human beings, when they are found in their truly natural state.
Modernism and romanticism tend to be more antithetical, but most people today view the world not from either extreme, but from a postmodern blend of the two – embracing some aspects of modernism while rejecting others. [Leithart, 35, 39]
And, in fact, many conflicts in our culture are really over what that blend should look like. At both ends of the political spectrum, though, and in many places in between, we often find people across the board who are hoping for a modernist means to pursue a romantic ends – they are hoping that some aspect of human ingenuity, achievement, or progress, will return human life to the rhythms of an earlier time – a time more consistent with our inherently good nature.
But what few of us do before engaging in the debates that follow is to ask whether the assumptions of either element are warranted. Should we really have such faith in human achievement or human nature? Do either of these perspectives really describe the world and the kind of story we actually live in?
Think about the modernist assumptions many of us have about human achievement. We tend to believe that whatever our goal may be, human ingenuity can get us there – we can control the forces of this world and the human story can be one of progress from chaos to control. And we don’t believe this just on a grand scale – we also tend to believe it in our own lives. If we use just the right tools, and just the right techniques, then we can have control of our hearts, of our lives, and of the immediate world around us.
But is that really true?
The past year is an interesting case study.
In the speed with which vaccines have been developed and rolled out, we have seen the impressive power of human ingenuity, and the gifts God has given humanity to understand and respond to the challenges of this world.
And yet … is the takeaway from this past year really a confirmed confidence in humanity’s ability to control life and the world through our own achievements?
Back in February a mathematical biologist in the UK was asked by the BBC to calculate the total volume of all the coronavirus in the world at a given moment.
He began with the number of people who tested positive for COVID globally every day, which at the time was half a million a day. He followed a statistical model that projected that that half a million actually indicated closer to three million people who were really being infected each day.
Then he calculated the viral load for those infected, distributed over each day of infection. Next, he took an estimate of the size of an actual coronavirus virus. And finally, he calculated how much empty space would occur between each virus if you packed them all together.
With all that done, he had a reasonable estimate for if you took every single coronavirus in the world at a given moment, and piled them all together, how big that pile would be.
The size of the pile, he calculated, would be 160 ml. About 2/3 of a cup. [Yates]
That’s it. For the entire world.
That is what has shut down the most technologically advanced societies that have ever existed on earth. That is what has fractured our cultures in disputes and disagreements. That is what has killed half a million Americans. That is what, according to Johns Hopkins University, has killed 2.8 million people globally.
Do we really have that much control in this world?
The technology in our world so far surpasses any other time in human history. And the powerful nations of our world boast in their power and their control over themselves and over creation. We each individually tell ourselves that we are in control over our lives.
And then, 2/3 of a cup of extremely tiny particles, were thinly spread around the world, and the most powerful countries in the world, the most technologically advanced societies in history, were brought to a halt. And soon almost three million people were dead. [Comp. with Augustine, Homily on John 1.15]
We, individually and collectively, have far less control over our lives than we like to imagine. For all our amazing advances – and so many of them truly are amazing – but for all the amazing advances, the story of modernism (of our control of this world through human achievement) doesn’t seem to fit with reality as much as we’d like to think.
Well … if that is the case, then maybe the romantics are right. Maybe our hope is not in our achievements, but in our inherent nature – in the human spirit found in its natural state.
And there are stories that seem to confirm this. In the early days of the pandemic, stories of the great heroism and sacrifice of frontline responders were heard and told.
And yet … is the natural good of the human spirit the main lesson we should take away from this past year?
The past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the effects of this past year. And I’ve started to realize that the past year has probably taken a bigger toll on me than I had previously realized. And I suspect I’m not alone in that.
And I was trying to identify the different ways in which this past year has affected me and others. And as I reflected on those things, I thought of an episode of The Twilight Zone.
It’s actually an episode I’ve talked about here before … over a year ago … on the very first Sunday morning we were livestream only in response to the pandemic.
And it’s worth coming back to it this morning. It’s titled “The Shelter.”
It takes place during the Cold War. A few families who live on the same street together are gathered for a party for Dr. Bill Stockton. One friend makes a speech on his appreciation and affection for Bill, while also throwing in a few jokes about Bill’s eccentricity in building a bomb shelter under his home.
As the party continues, a news report on the radio interrupts things, with an alert that unidentified objects have triggered the United States’ ballistic missile radar, and that everyone is encouraged to seek shelter in their basement or their bomb shelter if they have one. The party quickly disperses as everyone goes homes. Bill and his wife and son grab water, supplies, and then make their way down to the bomb shelter he had built.
And then, their neighbors start to show up. And they begin to beg Bill to let them in. But he says no. He explains that their supplies are limited, and that the air filter can only filter enough air for three people.
And soon all the neighbors are gathered there, outside the door of Bill’s bomb shelter, while Bill and his family are locked inside. And the neighbors start talking. And soon some of them begin to say that they should tear the door to the shelter open, so that they can get in. One man points out that there’s certainly not enough room in there for all of them, which then leads to arguments between the neighbors about why their family should be let in rather than another.
But then, as they hear noises in the sky, they set aside their arguments with one another and focus on getting into the bomb shelter itself. One man runs and gets a large pipe for a battering ram. The people grab hold of it, and they all begin to batter the door to the shelter over and over.
At that point, the camera goes to Bill and his family in the shelter, as they listen to the people outside. “Who are those people?” Bill’s wife asks. “Our neighbors,” Bill answers, “our friends.”
Finally, the door begins to break, and the neighbors begin to push their way into the shelter and just then … at that moment … the radio in the shelter comes to life again. And the announcer lets everyone know that the unidentified objects were actually just satellites. And there is no danger.
And everyone stops. And they start to look at each other … embarrassed, shocked, and ashamed at how they have acted. Neighbors who had argued with each other begin to apologize. And then they turn to Bill and his family. One neighbor quickly says that they will of course pay for the damages – and he suggests that they have a block party to celebrate their safety – “anything to get back to normal” he says – whatever it takes to pay for the damages.
And Bill looks at him. “Damages?” he asks, “I wonder. I wonder if anyone of us has any idea what those damages really are. Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re normal; the kind of people we are just underneath the skin. I mean all of us: a bunch of naked wild animals, who put such a price on staying alive that they’d claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder if we weren’t destroyed even without it.”
The episode is, of course, dramatic. But it struck me recently as a decent picture of the past year … and the difficult reality we will all need to process going forward about what people are really like when things get difficult.
Many of us have relationships that have been affected this past year – people we may never look at the same again after this year … people whom we may have known for years, and everything was great, but then, under the stress of the past year, things turned … whether it was out of fear of the virus, fear of the government, fear of the cultural right, fear of the cultural left, fear of a physical threat or fear of a human threat, this year repeatedly tore back the thin layer we usually put forward for others to see, and exposed a bit more what we are each like.
And so often it exposed that we are far more interested in our own welfare than in the welfare of others.
And that hasn’t just been the case for other people. It’s been true for us as well. No matter how right we may think we were about one thing or another, time and time again, when the pressure grew and the heat was turned up, we revealed – either in public or in private – the evil and selfishness that was dwelling in our own hearts.
And such self-exposure is not limited to the past year. Many of us have had similar revelations in other moments of life. Ian has spoken of the effects of war on his own heart. What has it been for you?
And if you have seen other people in such settings … and if you have ever honestly examined yourself in such settings … then how can you still place your trust in human nature? How can you go on with your faith in your or our inherent goodness? How can you believe such a story and accept such a paradigm?
If we are willing to see the world as it is, then neither our modernist impulses, nor our romantic impulses, nor our postmodern mixes of the two really fit with the world we actually live in – with the facts before our faces.
What then, are we to do?
Well, the Bible … and Easter … urge us to hear a different story. A story that does fit with the world we find ourselves in.
Because, the truth is, that as different as the stories of modernism, and romanticism, and their various combinations are, they share a fundamental assumption: They all assume that our ultimate hope is to be found in some aspect of humanity.
Whether the focus is on human ingenuity or on some kind of untarnished human nature, each story urges us, in one way or another, to put our hope in humanity.
But Easter tells us to place our hope somewhere else.
Easter tells us a different story.
The Story the Bible Tells
Instead of telling a story from wilderness to civilization, or from corrupt society back to nature – Easter points us to a story of four gardens.
The first garden comes at the beginning of creation. The Bible tells us that in the beginning God made all things. And when he was done, he planted a garden. And in that garden, he placed our first parents. And he made them upright and good – perfectly holy and loving. And he gave them free will, and called on them to obey him as their good and loving King. And everything was perfect. And there was no death or disease, there was no evil or sin in the world.
But then our first parents chose to resist God’s kingship. They chose to rebel against his rule, though he had only sought to bless them.
And with their rebellion – with their sin – they brought death, and disorder, evil and destruction not only into this world, but into every human heart. And thus, human nature was corrupted, and this word we live in was cursed with futility.
The first garden tells us why the world is as it is – a confusing combination of what is good, and right, and beautiful, along with what is twisted, and evil, and ugly. God made the world and human nature perfect. Humanity corrupted both.
But the story does not end there. For God did not abandon his world or his creatures to themselves. But instead, he decided to save them.
Which brings us to the second garden: The Garden of Gethsemane. There we find Jesus Christ preparing to complete his mission. And Jesus, we learn earlier in the Gospels, is no mere man, but he is God himself come in the flesh, to bear in himself the consequences of our sin and rebellion. And though he could have sought his own way, instead, he chose to love us. And he went to the cross. And there he bled and died for our sin – dying the death that we deserved to die.
Which brings us to the third garden. And that is the garden we find in verse forty-one of our text: the garden that held Jesus’s tomb. The garden where Jesus was resurrected.
In that garden the curse that came in the first garden was reversed: where human rebellion had brought about the invasion of sin and death into this world in the first garden, now, in this new garden, the love and obedience of Jesus brought about the invasion of life and righteousness into this world.
There Jesus rose from the dead. And it’s important to clarify what we mean by that. Jesus, as he is described in the Gospels after his resurrection, was not a mere ghost. He could be seen. He could be touched. He could break bread, and cook fish – he could eat real food with his disciples. Jesus was not just a spirit, but he had a true, solid, resurrected body.
But that body was also something special – something different. Because Jesus wasn’t merely resuscitated. His body wasn’t just healed, but it was transformed. He would never die again. His body was raised to everlasting life, no longer subject to sickness, pain, or death.
That is the fact of the resurrection.
But as we consider that we must also contemplate the meaning of the resurrection.
For one thing, the resurrection of Jesus meant that God the Father had vindicated Jesus Christ his Son. By raising him from the dead, God the Father testified that Jesus really was who he said he was – he was the eternal Son of God, he was the spotless lamb of God who had come to rescue the world from sin and death.
But then second, along with that, the resurrection of Jesus also meant that Jesus had successfully conquered death and hell – because neither one could hold him. Jesus bore the consequences of hell on the cross, and with that, he entered into death. And on the third day we walked free, leaving both of them conquered in his wake.
The third thing that the resurrection meant was that all who were united to Jesus would share in his relationship to God the Father and his victory over sin, death, and hell. And we see that point in verse seventeen of our text.
There Jesus describes God to his disciple as “my Father and your Father, […] my God and your God.” Though our first parents, and we ourselves, had earned God’s rejection, here Jesus says that in him we could have a right relationship with God – not because we merited it by our nature or our achievements, but because Christ had earned it for us, and would freely share it with all who placed their trust and allegiance in him. [Calvin, 262; Wright, 145]
Finally, the resurrection meant a paradigm shift for all who were confronted by it. Because the resurrection of Jesus was not an isolated event in history, but rather the hinge of all human history. As one author has put it: “The resurrection is not a stupendous magic trick but an invasion.” [Keller, xxi]
And no one expected it at the time. One scholar explains it like this – he writes: “Everybody in the ancient world knew that resurrection didn’t happen. More: they knew it couldn’t happen. They spoke of it, in the classical world of Greece and Rome, as something one might imagine but which never actually occurred, and never could or would.” Some Jews had come to believe in bodily resurrection, but for them it was a one-time event that would happen at the very end of history, and would then happen to all of God’s people at once. In their minds it was not something that would happen in the middle of history, and certainly not to just a single individual. To both the pagans and the Jews of the first century, the idea that Jesus would be resurrected was “an odd, outlandish event, unimagined, [and] unheard-of.” [Wright, 142]
It did not fit with anyone’s paradigm. And so it forced everyone who grappled with it to reassess how they viewed the world, and the story they believed they were living in.
We see that even this morning, in our text.
Consider Mary. Mary saw the empty tomb, and she assumed human causes, because that was the story she believed she was living in – a story where human evil had once again defeated the good. She saw that in the opposition of others to Jesus’s teaching. She saw it when the people united and killed Jesus. And now she was sure she was seeing it again, as someone had, for one malicious reason or another, stolen the body of Jesus.
But Mary was wrong. That was not the story she was in. For in truth, it was Jesus who had conquered evil … and not the other way around.
And Mary is gradually confronted by this fact. First there are the angels. Mary’s lack of a response at this point may indicate that in this moment the angels came to her in the appearance of human beings. They ask Mary why she is crying … and they ask not because they lack information, but because they know that her tears flow from a wrong view of what has happened – a false view of the world as it really is. [Carson 636, 640; Calvin 255; Augustine 121.1]
Next, Jesus himself, raised from the dead, appears to her. His questions once again nudge her to consider her assumptions – why she is crying and what kind of king she believes Jesus really is. [Carson, 641]
But then Jesus calls her by name, and she sees him – she recognizes him. And in that moment, her old paradigm – her old story of the world – falls away, and she embraces Jesus, and as she embraces him, she embraces a new way of viewing the world.
And with that new view of the world comes a new task. Jesus assures her that there is no need to cling to him, since he is not yet ascending to the Father. In other words, he will not disappear for good if she lets go of him. And then Jesus gives her a task to fulfill in light of his resurrection. Which she faithfully does. [Carson, 644]
She goes out in joy. Because now she knows she is not in a story where human evil has the final word, but one in which God has acted in time and space to save and to rescue. And she is among those he has redeemed.
John also has a paradigm shift – though a more subtle one. First, we see the discarding of his old paradigm.
John had come after being told that Jesus’s body had been stolen. But soon he saw that that didn’t fit with reality. No one who wanted to steal the body would first unwrap it, and no one who wanted to rob the grave would leave behind the valuable linens and spices. And yet such linens and spices were exactly what they found. [Carson, 637; Wright, 141-142; Calvin, 251]
Next, John believed that Jesus had risen. John gives us no details of what that meant in the moment. He simply tells us that he believed. [Carson, 632]
Third, John allowed that fact to overturn how he viewed the world, and to replace it with something new. John indicates this by telling us in verse nine that though it hadn’t happened yet, this new information would eventually transform his understanding of the Scriptures, and with it, his understanding of the world.
In these ways, Jesus confronted both Mary and John with the reality of his resurrection. And he continues to confront people today.
As one writer has put it: “Perhaps the most ordinary, daily benefit of the resurrection is this. To follow not a dead, revered teacher but rather a risen Lord is to have him actually with us.” [Keller, xxiii]
Jesus is not still on earth. He has ascended, body and soul, up to heaven, where he now reigns and sits at the right hand of God the Father. But he is alive. And by the Holy Spirit he continues to be active in the world. And he continues to confront us with what he has done to save us – to overturn our false paradigms with the reality of his resurrection.
He does this through the Scriptures, as we have heard this morning. He does this through the facts of history, as scholars continue to fail to provide a historically plausible explanation of the events following the death of Jesus and the birth of the Christian Church without the resurrection. And he continues to confront us personally, in the details of our own lives, as Ian has shared with us this morning, and as many other here could testify to as well.
And he may confront us with many things. But at the heart of it all, he confronts us with the story of four gardens.
He points us to the first garden, and to the good way that God had made us, but our rejection of him to seek our own way.
He points us to the second garden, of his suffering – where he agreed to go to the cross to bear the consequences of our selfish sin.
He points us to the third garden – the garden of the tomb, where he victoriously conquered sin and death, and offered to share with us the victory he had achieved and the peace he has with God the Father.
And then, he points us to the fourth garden. The garden that lies at the end of history.
For, as the Bible tells us, on that day, Jesus will return – body and soul – to reign on earth as king forever. And when he comes, he will make all things new. He will rid the world forever of sin and death. He will raise up all who have died – giving them new and eternal bodies. He will cast out of his kingdom all who have rejected him as king. And then, for all who have trusted in him – all who have declared him as their king – he will give them an eternal home, with him, in a new garden city. And God will dwell with them there. And we will be freed from sin, and death and destruction will be no more, and we will dwell with God, in his garden city, in love and joy for all eternity.
That is the final hope that Christ offers to all who trust in him.
It is a solid and sure hope, because Jesus’s resurrection was a solid and sure event in history. The Bible never presents Jesus’s resurrection as just a nice spiritual picture, but eyewitnesses like John describe it as a solid, concrete reality.
And so our hope in Christ can be solid and concrete as well.
John Updike captured this reality in his poem “Seven Stanzas as Easter.” he writes:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
it was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
the same valved heart
that—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
This sermon draws on material from:
Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 1-40. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. The Works of Saint Augustine. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2009.
Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 41-124. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. The Works of Saint Augustine. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2020.
Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel According to John. Vol. 2. Translated by William Pringle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1847 (2005 Reprint).
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Keller, Timothy. Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter. Viking, 2021.
Leithart, Peter J. Solomon Among the Postmoderns. Grand Rapids MI: Brazos Press, 2008.
Serling Rod. “The Shelter.” The Twilight Zone. Originally aired September 29, 1961.
Updike, John. “Seven Stanzas as Easter” 1960.
Wright, N. T. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
Yates, Christian. “All the Coronavirus in the World Could Fit Inside a Coke Can, With Plenty of Room to Spare.” February 10, 2021. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/all-the-coronavirus-in-the-world-could-fit-inside-a-coke-can-with-plenty-of-room-to-spare-154226
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