I remember when my niece Maria was about eight years old, and we were walking outside at my parent’s house one spring day, observing the beauty of the natural world around us: the grass beneath our feet, the first of the flowers blooming for the season, the warm sun upon our faces. At one point we were looking at the bark of a maple tree, at the ripples on the surface, and even how the bark had healed around places where branches had come off, or other marks had been made. My niece, looking first at the bark thoughtfully, and then at my hands, grabbed my hand in excitement and said “look, your hands are like the bark, they have lines and even scars where cuts and marks have been made!” “But oh,” my niece’s face fell, “you have a cut here on your hand that still hasn’t healed yet.” I assured her that it would heal in good time, and she need not worry about me.
I was amazed at my niece’s observation as an eight-year-old and also touched by her compassion then and still am now. The practices of observation and compassion can be powerful tools indeed.
When Jesus appears to the disciples in this, the first of the post-resurrection appearances, as recorded in the gospel of John, he does two remarkable things: First, Jesus declares peace, “shalom,” to the disciples. Not once does Jesus declare peace, not twice, but three times, with Thomas who had been absent the first two times, being present for the third. Jesus pronouncing peace three times, not just for Thomas’s sake, but as though he understands intimately how the disciples are caught up in their fear after their Teacher’s death. And, of course, Jesus does understand their fear, and our fears, intimately – for Jesus is not just their teacher and our teacher, but their Savior and our Savior, our Redeemer. And just as Jesus chose not to stay distant from our brokenness and the brokenness of this world, but instead decided to enter intimately into our human experience so as to change its very substance, so, too, Jesus meets the fear of the disciples and our fears, too. With a word of peace. Shalom. Peace!
Peace! As we hear in 1 Peter, we have been given “new birth into living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.” (1 Peter 1:3b) We have been given “new birth into new hope!” What have we to fear, we who have been given new birth into new hope?
Yet we do fear, don’t we? We have all, I suspect, known fear, whether it is fear of the dark, fear of losing ones we love, fear of not having enough money, fear of war, fear of the people who hate others who look and act and think as we see ourselves looking and acting and thinking. Oh Jesus, how can words be enough in the face of our fears?
And Jesus, who gives more than words because Jesus IS the Word that was, as we hear at the beginning of the gospel of John; Jesus IS the Words that was before all time and the Word that gave birth to time and this world and us; Jesus who is the Word comes not just with a spoken word of “peace.” No, Jesus comes holding out his hands, pointing to his side. Look here. Look here you first disciples. Look here, all of you who are listening in the year 2023 or when it is 2050 or 2300 or even the year 2500! Look at my hands, where they were pierced with nails as I was hung on the cross like a criminal. Me, Jesus. Jesus, who was blameless but chose as God to take upon my shoulders the blame and brokenness – the hate of those who fall into hate because of fear (for where does hatred find its roots but in fear?). Look at me, says Jesus to those first disciples and to us. I am not dead. The hate and brokenness of this world did not conquer me, and it cannot conquer you for I am alive! Jesus stands before you with wounds healed, body raised, and peace and healing and restoration declared as your inheritance and as the inheritance for the world.
Seminarian Annelisa Burns writes of her time spent teaching college classes in prison. She goes every Friday to teach inmates how to “read scholarly articles, write strong academic essays, and manage their time now that they are in college.” (Christian Century, April 2023) I found myself thinking, as I read about Ms. Burns ministry with inmates, that while our current system for incarceration is deeply broken and all too often only acts to punish people whose lives have gone astray, such higher education efforts – such as that which Ms. Burns is undertaking – are a beacon of light amidst this broken system. Ms. Burns points out that while two-thirds of all inmates will end up re-arrested within three years of their release, once they have an Associates degree this number drops to on 14%, and with a Bachelor’s degree to only 6%, and with a Master’s degree the number of those re-arrested drops to zero!
Yes, the higher education efforts of Ms. Burns and others in our criminal justice system represent a sorely needed beacon and example of how to shift our broken system of incarceration away from being purely punitive (once you do something wrong you must suffer as long as we as humans deem you should suffer – perhaps until the day you die) to a system of restoration (when you do something wrong you need to be held safely in the arms of a community/world that encourages and facilitates every opportunity for you to be remade into the human being you were intended to be, and then brought forth into the community and world for the enriching of the community, world, and of yourself).
This shift from a purely punitive to restorative approach to our criminal justice system matches our Christian theology – what we proclaim at all times but most especially during this Easter season - that none of us are beyond God’s redeeming grace and mercy in Christ. That God notices each one of us, just as my niece and I were observing those flowers and trees and even my own hands with their past and present wounds, and that God seeks in love to redeem each one of us – not leaving us judged for our struggles and wounds, but healing and restoring us to life within ourselves, and life within the community and world around us. Jesus who was blameless chose to be hung on the cross as a criminal for the sake of the restoration of all creation. No exceptions.
Dear Church, dear people of God who are the Church, you are needed. God needs your hands, your hearts, your dedication to lives of serving and loving God and this world in all her need for redemption. The disciples – and we – are called to observe what God in Christ has done and is seeking to do for and by love and mercy with and through us for the sake of the world. There are too many of us locked figuratively and literally in upper rooms or prisons. Yet Jesus is appearing to declare “Peace.” “Look at my hands, look at my side.” These wounds are healed, this body is risen, and this means you, too, can have new and resurrected life. You, too, can unlock the doors of your hearts and descend with compassion to a confused and broken world in desperate need of restorative healers.
Days like that one that I shared alongside my niece – many years ago now – are precious. Precious moments to drink in, precious moments to be observed. And today, this second Sunday of Easter, we are also being given the precious opportunity to observe the Living Savior Christ, who seeks to give us and this world “new birth into living hope.” And this is living hope made possible through the resurrection of Jesus who gave everything so that we might be joined to the Everything of God, the light and love and new life of Christ.