I could never imagine myself as a prison chaplain or a military chaplain. I don’t think I could endure the struggles that would confront me personally, or those to whom I had responsibility. For this reason I have great admiration for Denis and those like him. I do know, however, that whatever line of ministry we are involved in, it involves struggle. I would even go on to say that life itself includes a willingness to enter into struggle and, perhaps, it is because we have created a myth that says we should not have to struggle, we find depression and mental illness one of the significant problems of our society.
There are a variety of kinds of struggle that we are confronted with in life. As the writer of Ecclesiasticus, the Deuterocanonical book, makes us aware,
There are those who work and struggle and hurry, but are so much the more in want. (Ecclesiasticus 11:11)
There is the struggle we undertake for those things that don’t get anywhere, don’t achieve anything, or are at the expense of something of greater value. We would be very aware of those in some high paying positions who struggle to work all hours of the day, in the name of providing for their family, only to neglect the family in the end. Life is too short for this kind of struggle.
And then there is the normal struggle of our labour, as the writer of Ecclesiasticus again identifies, and I take this one as a personal word,
So it is with the smith, sitting by the anvil, intent on his ironwork; the breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he struggles with the heat of the furnace; the sound of the hammer deafens his ears,and his eyes are on the pattern of the object. He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he is careful to complete its decoration. (Ecclesiasticus 38:28)
Or, according the writer of Genesis, the struggle of the pregnant woman, who would understand this more than I would,
Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” (Genesis 25:21-22)
Paul identifies another struggle that we find ourselves contending with,
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (Ephesians 6.12)
Here we are not struggling with the battles between enemies we are struggling with forces that work through rulers and authorities and independently of them. We can struggle with the spiritual forces of evil that can be at work in ourselves and those around us.
And, as you I have spoken about my reflections on Jacob’s wrestling with God, (Genesis 32) perhaps because we are struggling, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, ‘against sin’ (Hebrews 12.4) or, perhaps, we are struggling as we come to terms with a new revelation that God has made of himself to us as an individual or to a church that we are a part of. But the end result of Jacob’s struggle with God was his hip joint being put out and he limps away. He has been changed. He has been marked. The struggle has transformed him.
So we read in the gospel today of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples. Following his words of peace to them, John tells us, Jesus showed them his hands and his side. Thomas was not with them on that occasion, so when the disciples told him what had happened he said, “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.” (v 25) As it turns out, the resurrected Jesus appears amongst them again, this time with Thomas present, and says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” (v 27) but he does not need to do it.
Now we can talk for ages about what this means for Thomas and therefore for us, but what I want to point out is that the resurrected Jesus is still carrying the marks of the crucifixion. I found this quite shocking when I realised it. Through Jesus’ death, he is not healed of the marks of his struggle.
So why is John at such pains to tell us about these marks of nails and spear that remain on Jesus flesh?
Firstly, they tell us that Jesus was fully human. He wasn’t as the Docetist heretics reckoned, he was some kind of spiritual being that only appeared to be human, nor was he some sort of spiritual entity that possessed the human person of Jesus. Jesus was fully human and the scars of his crucifixion endure in his resurrection. This also means that Jesus, resurrected, is the same as he was before he died. Therefore, this testifies to a full body resurrection. The resurrected Jesus has not returned to be some spiritual entity as the Word, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Ascended, Jesus is now, our fully human presence in heaven, scarred by his experience. Jesus is, as Bishop Tom Wright puts it, ‘our man in heaven.’ Now if that doesn’t drive you into a theological struggle there is something wrong with you. It certainly does me.
If these marks of his crucifixion tell us that he is fully human, then the next thing they tell us is that it is normal for a person who is fully human to struggle. To deny struggle, to run away from struggle, is to deny and run away from our humanity. To struggle with things is a part of being human. That we find ourselves struggling does not mean that there is something wrong with us, it means that something is wrong and it is causing us to struggle. We are programmed, especially by the Holy Spirit, to want to grow in our relationship with God and enable God’s kingdom to come. When we discover that things in our own life and in the world in which we live are out of kilter with that, then we will struggle until we become aware and bring about resolution.
The third thing I want to point out about these marks that continue on Jesus after the resurrection, is that in the new thing that comes as a result of entering into the struggle, are permanent and they are transforming. This word ‘mark’ as John uses of Thomas, seems to be a rare word in scripture. It has the meaning of a statue, a visual representation and reminder of things. It is sometimes used in association with tattooing, being marked. It also has the idea of a stamp, being imprinted – as we would say, having something imprinted on our memory. All these things in addition to the idea of a scar. The remaining sign of things that have taken place.
The resurrection, coming to the new life, does not wipe out all the things that have gone before. These things remain, marked in and upon us; they are the signs that indicate the transforming that has taken place, the resurrection of our lives in this life. Some of those marks are indicators of a struggle that may have been negative. There is need for healing, but even these, when healed, will not leave us, but be signs of the resurrection that has taken place within us.
The marks of Jesus crucifixion on his resurrected body tell us that he was fully human and fully alive and the work that was done through his death and resurrection is for all time and permanent.