A Sermon on John 20:19-31
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, after he’s followed Virgil through hell, after he’s climbed the seven story mountain of purgatory, watching penitents shed the remnants of each of the seven deadly sins as they climb, he arrives at the edge the garden of Eden on the top of the mountain. It’s a journey back to square one. He will go into Eden and then from there into heaven where the beautiful Beatrice will great him. There’s only one thing he must do before he can enter the garden–he has to forget.
He has to forget his sins, he has to forget the person who lived in sin and death. The garden of Eden is an earthly paradise and the memory of sin would color the whole experience of the garden. To enter Eden while remembering sin would be like coming to a wedding dressed for a funeral. On the border of Eden there is a river called Lethe, it is the river of forgetting and it is through that river that Dante must pass before entering the garden.
Forgive and forget. That’s the way we wish it could be. And there’s some sense to that. In order to reach real reconciliation, we can’t constantly hold onto the past. If we can’t forget to some degree then we will just keep opening up old wounds, we will never find healing. But even with healing, there will still be scars, there will still be evidence of the past. It cannot be completely buried. Freud, for all of his problems, taught us that. The wounds and memories that we try to bury in ourselves return in other, often terrible ways. We need more than forgetting to heal.
That brings us to the next river. The end of the journey of purgatory doesn’t just stop with the river of Lethe. After a penitent has forgotten their mortal sin they must drink of the river of Eunoe–the river of positive remembrance that reminds and strengthens them of all of the good things in their life. British theologian John Milbank calls the two rivers “the double waters of forgiveness.” True reconciliation and forgiveness requires both rivers he says, we must have forgetting where we let go of our old life and we must have positive re-membering in which we rebuild that life in the light of God’s reconciling grace. Milbank gives Augustine’s Confessions as a supreme example of this, a classic Christian work in which Augustine writes his autobiography as a prayer to God, renarrating his own story in light of God’s grace.
I thought of the double waters of forgiveness, the rivers of Lethe and Eunoe this week as I tried to work through what is somet
hing of a mystery in our gospel reading–the wounds of Jesus.
It’s strange how Jesus appears after his resurrection. His body is certainly different from our bodies. He appears through walls, in rooms with locked doors. But its clear that he is no ghost. He has a body, he even cooks and eats food in several post-resurrection accounts. The strangest thing about his resurrected body, though, is that despite rising from the dead, doing something incredible and miraculous, Jesus returns with all the wounds of his execution.
That’s just not how we would tell the story, these days. If we wanted to tell the story of a resurrection, in a hollywood movie we would have Jesus lying in the tomb, his body bloody, his hands and feet with holes in them from the nails, his head cut from the crown of thorns, his side wounded with the Roman soldier’s spear. Then there would be a bright light. Something would start to happen to his body. We would use our whole special effects budget to have CGI of the wounds closing up, Jesus’ body going back to normal just before his eyes flutter and he gasps air, resurrected! But that’s not what happened. In both instances of his appearance in todays Gospel reading, the text is clear–he shows them his wounds.
Perhaps a way into understanding this strange, post resurrection reality could be found in looking at the first letter of Peter which quotes a passage from Isaiah. Peter writes this to the church that was being persecuted:
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
“By his wound you have been healed.” Perhaps this explains why the resurrected Jesus still has the wounds of the cross, why he wasn’t just restored after the crucifixion like nothing ever happened. Maybe in Jesus’ work of reconciling the world to God, of bringing God’s reign of forgiveness, the wounds of his willingness to suffer and die rather than call for God’s judgement and vengeance are key. These wounds aren’t some shameful bad memory, they aren’t some terrible tragedy that needs forgetting. In the the resurrection Christ has drunk from the river of Eunoe, he has changed the memory of what happened at Golgatha into something good, a story of redemption rather than defeat and death. To live with the wounds of crucifixion in his post-resurrection may be the mark that God has accomplished that last wish on the cross–Father forgive them.
And the best news is that through this forgiveness, through this reconciliation, Christ has made it possible for us to live resurrected lives with our own wounds. We can’t just enter Eden as though nothing ever happened. Most of us by the time we’ve come to accept God’s grace already have some scars and wounds. Christ is showing us in his wounds that even the worst that the world can bring to us, the deepest damage it can do, can be a part of our resurrected body. We have to forget our old life, we have to go down into the tomb of our baptism, but when resurrection comes we come back with our memories in tact–re-membered as part of a new story.
So what are the wounds that you have? What are the scars that you need to put into a different story? When Christ comes and says, touch my wounds he is telling us he has done the work of bringing us to a new and better life, our memories retold, our future restored.