Just a few years ago, as I was serving as Rector for a church in New Jersey, I was admitted to the hospital with an infection on Good Friday. To say the least, this was very bad timing.
I’ve been fighting a rare neurological illness for a handful of years now, and so I had – and still do have – a central line to my heart from an implanted port. My port is enormously helpful because medications can be infused straight into my blood stream, and then absorbed by my system almost immediately. But the flip side to that is that having a central line is also quite risky, because whenever I get an infection, bacteria can multiply in my blood stream, and in virtually no time at all, turn into a life-threatening case of sepsis. This was the fear that Good Friday morning as I was admitted to the hospital. So just as the disciples were turning their backs on Jesus, I felt like my own body was guilty of betraying me. And for hour after hour, while churches around the world were contemplating Jesus’ suffering on the cross, I was in a hospital bed contemplating my own wounds and worries. I felt helpless and vulnerable. Afraid. And very much alone. Especially on that Friday night.
But then, my night nurse, Ted walked into the room. If you’ve ever spent any time at all in a hospital, you know that the night nurses really are a special breed. An angelic presence. They go about their work with a hushed and hurried pace, keep tabs on medications, answer to the sounds of bells and beeping machines, and offer comfort with as few interruptions as possible for their patients. It was in the middle of that night that Ted needed to draw more of my blood to be sent out for cultures. So, he went about his work, searching for a cooperative vein, when he noticed I wore a ring with a cross on it. I could see the wheels turning in his brain, and 3 . . . 2. . . 1. . . he asked what I did for a living. I cringed for a second – I will admit that as a priest, I am much better at caring for others than I am being on the receiving end of that care – but I ‘fessed up, told him about my profession as an Episcopal priest, and I shared how distressing it was for me to be in the hospital on this most holy of weekends in the church calendar. Ted shared with me that while he was a nurse now, soon he would be leaving his position to attend seminary. He wanted to be a hospital chaplain. So we talked for a while about our beliefs, he reviewed my symptoms and vitals, and then he said to me, “You know, being sick is a real spiritual discipline.” I had never thought of it that way, and I must admit that at first, I completely rejected the notion that my debilitating illness had anything to do with my spirituality! I honestly had reserved one lane for my spiritual life. And another lane for my illness, separating them like peas and carrots on a finicky two-year old’s dinner plate.
Thankfully, the cultures came back negative, and I was discharged in time for Easter worship. But as my illness has progressed over the years, I have come back time and again to Ted’s comment about how being sick can serve as a spiritual discipline. And this morning’s Gospel lesson gives us a window into how that’s possible.
Now, I will admit that the focal point of today’s Gospel reading is most often on the role Thomas plays within the post-resurrection community, on Thomas needing to see the crucifixion’s marks in Jesus’ hands, feet and side. But for me, more important than Thomas’ role in this story is the fact that Jesus returned – was resurrected – with those marks at all. I mean why wouldn’t God just spike the ball – resurrect Jesus from the dead – and declare “Victory” by erasing the humiliation of his execution on the cross? Or, at the very least, scab over Jesus’ wounds? I suppose Jesus could have returned as some Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque figure, with flowing hair, bulging muscles, and glistening skin. Or, he could have single-handedly lifted the stone that sealed his tomb, then in a show of might and overpowering strength, paraded it in front of the disciples. Or he could have glowed like that Transfiguration figure Peter, James, and John saw on the mountaintop. But he did none of that. Instead, Jesus appeared to his disciples with the visible wounds of his crucifixion. Think about it: God’s glory was revealed in the resurrected Jesus, not through feats of strength but instead through the evidence of his vulnerability. And this, to me – and perhaps for you too – completely changes the story.
By bearing his wounds to the disciples, God through Christ clearly and willingly connects with us in our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. By bearing his wounds to the disciples, God through Christ empathizes and draws near to us in our pain and suffering as human begins. By bearing his wounds to the disciples, God through Christ transforms tragedy, chaos, and loss into new life, and new possibilities.
Now, I have to interject here, because I don’t want you to mis-hear me – and this is very important – I am not saying that God is the cause of our suffering. No. But God’s love is such that when we suffer, God suffers.
I find this a whole lot easier to conceptualize thanks to my role as a mother. Because over the years, I’ve realized that when my kids are hurt, I hurt. And I’m not talking about just a metaphorical or emotional hurt – although there’s that, too. But there is something inside of me that aches, that makes my skin sting, that hurts my head every single time they are sick or hurt. I feel their pain in my bones.
I think God is like that too. Which is why, I believe, Jesus revealed his post-resurrection wounds to the disciples. So that God could be in solidarity with us – with all of humanity – since none of us is immune from pain or woundedness.
Take a moment now and think about this in your own life. Certainly, we have universally suffered due to the last two years of pandemic. But there are infinite other ways suffering comes into our lives. Loneliness. The loss of someone we love. Addiction. Illness. Aging. What pain is it that you are carrying with you today? It could be physical pain. It could be emotional or psychological pain. Now imagine a God – this God we meet today in the resurrected Jesus – who doesn’t run from your pain, but instead grieves with you and holds you in your suffering.
We come to Jesus today bearing our wounds. And Jesus connects to us through his wounds. There is no separation. No distance at all. So go ahead, like Thomas, reach out your hand to touch the resurrected Jesus. He, in turn, is reaching for you. Like my angelic night nurse said, sharing our vulnerabilities with God IS a spiritual discipline. Yes, one that takes us from “doubt to belief, from fear to trust. To peace.” (Diana Butler Bass, 4/24/2022)