By Matt Stromberg
We all have wounds. Some are quite literal scars that mark our bodies to remind us of some pain or injury we suffered. Others are less visible, such as the wound of emotional trauma or heartbreak. It is a sad fact that to live is, at least in some sense, to suffer. The question is not whether we will suffer, but what we will do with our suffering. Generally, those who are the wisest and most compassionate also tend to be the ones who have suffered the most. They have made their suffering a source of light and truth for others.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, he did not hide his wounds but displayed them openly in their presence. What exactly did this accomplish? What truths did he intend to communicate to them in this way?
First, Jesus’ wounds confirm to his disciples his identity. The one who was standing before them was indeed their teacher who was taken away from them by armed guards and cruelly executed. The same man who died and was laid in a tomb was now standing before them. No wonder they were shocked and terrified. They thought they were seeing a ghost.
In presenting them his wounds to touch and feel, he demonstrates that he is not a ghostly apparition, a vision, or hallucination, but an actual flesh and bone person. His wounds show also that he really was crucified.
There is a story about the poet and committed Christian W.H. Auden. He was attending a lecture comparing Christianity and Buddhism. The speaker told a story in which the Buddha was attacked by spears. Before the spears could reach him they were changed to flowers. Auden yelled from the back of the hall, “ON GOOD FRIDAY THE SPEARS WERE REAL!”
The nails that punctured the hands and feet of our Lord and the spear that pierced his side were indeed real. The wounds that they made were real. Jesus’ death was real and horrible, but his victory was also real! On the third day he was raised bodily from his tomb.
Some deal with the problem of suffering by maintaining that it is all an illusion, but Jesus’ wounds tell us that suffering is a reality. The pain we suffer in life is real, but it is not the last word.
The question remains, if Jesus really was victorious why does he still bear his scars even in glory? Saint Paul says of the resurrection of the body that “it is sown in weakness but raised in power.” Surely we shouldn’t infer from this that the saints will be raised with bodies ravaged from age, missing limbs, or riddled with bullet holes. No, in the resurrection, Jesus was no longer subject to the weaknesses of mortal flesh, but he had reasons for maintaining his wounds.
His wounds make intercession for us before the throne of God. Having been raised to heaven, he forever presents through his wounds his one, perfect, and all sufficient sacrifice before the Father for our sake. They are the wounds of love and the perpetual demonstration of his passion for us. So long as he loves us and grieves for our sin he is wounded, but they are also his jewels and trophies, the marks of his victory. They testify always that he has overcome sin and changed our weakness into strength and our shame into glory.
Finally, we must ask how the wounds of Jesus speak to our own wounds.
The existence of suffering leads many to conclude that God is either indifferent to our pain or that he is less than all powerful. As our wounded, risen Lord, Jesus reconciles this contradiction in his own person. The existence of suffering is a great mystery, but the wounds of Jesus tell us that it is not because God is indifferent to our pain. He shares in our suffering as one of us and has the scars to prove it. The preacher and evangelist John Stott writes,
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in my imagination, I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world.
The wounds of Christ demonstrate God’s vulnerability for our sake, but the fact that he is raised tells us that he was not powerless in the face of suffering — he willingly became vulnerable for us — for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising its shame. Through his resurrection he proves that suffering and death has no dominion over him.
There is a reason for suffering. We may not understand the reason God allows it to continue, but Jesus’ resurrection tells us that God is able to bring goodness and redemption even out of the horror of evil. Jesus had to first suffer before entering into glory, but he is able to bring good out of even the most horrific evil. His death and resurrection show us that suffering can be the means of God’s triumph.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, he opened the scriptures to them and taught them that the messiah had to suffer and die before entering into his glory. If we can be made to see the necessity of Jesus’ own suffering and the triumphant goodness and joy that God brought about as a result of it, perhaps we can also be made to see that God has a purpose for our own suffering beyond what we can understand.
When Jesus’ friends saw him alive again, they could hardly believe their eyes for the joy they felt. The wonder and amazement they must have felt is vividly captured by J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings. When the wizard Gandalf appears again to his friends after being believed to be dead, the hobbit Sam cries out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
Jesus’ death and resurrection is the means through which God brings healing and redemption to the world. The rising of Jesus’ body from the tomb is the first step in an even greater act through which God will make all things well and set every wrong right. We have this hope by faith in the resurrected Christ, but we experience a foretaste of what we will only one day know in its fullness every time we choose to allow God to work redemptively through the suffering we endure. Will we allow our suffering to paralyze us, to rob us of our joy, and estrange us from God and all we love? Or will we draw near to Christ in our suffering—who always suffers beside us—and allow him to lead us out into the world in compassion for others? Again the question is not whether we will suffer, but what we will do with our suffering.
The Rev. Matt Stromberg is rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church, Schenectady, New York.