April 23rd – Dr. Shelly Rambo
This morning we welcomed to our pulpit Dr. Shelly Rambo, Associate Professor of Theology at Boston University School of Theology, and longtime friend of Steve Jungkeit.
“Witnessing Wounds” – John 20: 19-31
Sometimes wounds don’t go away. Bud came back from Vietnam but he never came back. His sister Gail said she lost her brother to war experiences that he never shared, lost him to practices of self-medication after that. Tracy still keeps the message on the house answering machine. “You’ve reached Pat, Traci, Sarah & Lindsey.” The recorded greeting predates her daughter’s death. Sarah, was killed in a car accident on her way to work. A newly minted grade-school teacher, Sarah was run off the road by someone texting. Tracy longs to hear her daughter’s voice. Sometimes wounds don’t go away. Cesar sat in my classroom a day after the elections in November. The wounds from a country that says he doesn’t belong, that he is a criminal, illegal, alien, other surfaced for him on November 11. “If they ask,” his mother instructs him from an early age, “tell them you were born in Los Angeles.” Sometimes wounds don’t go away.
For the past decade or so, I have been studying the impact of violence on individuals and communities. Physical impact is easy to register, but the invisible wounds (what we know of as trauma) are more difficult to decipher. I am interested in wounds that remain, and marks of past events that continue to shape us, work on us. In the phone greeting that sounds a loss, that registers pain that is difficult to name. The brother there, but not there. The palpable fear that lives just below the surface of the skin for many like Cesar.
The curious truth about trauma is that experiences do not simply go away.
* * * The Easter story of resurrection is often told as a story of newness, of triumph, the tomb is empty, tears wiped away, no more sorrow. This very familiar version of the Easter message cannot hold up under the weight of the stories of our lives, under these experiential truths that wounds don’t simply go away. It is too simple, too clean, too triumphant. Many of us know the forces that push wounds below the surface, that encourage us to ‘get over it,’ ‘to get on with it.’ And the Easter story often underscores these messages. It often fails to account for the ways that wounds work on us and in us.
This Sunday after Easter, the risen Jesus returns on the other side of death, and he shows his disciples his wounds. I invite you to this post-Easter gospel story in light of the stories of Bud, Tracy, and Cesar. In light of your stories—not named but are present in this room. Their stories, your stories, are stories of after-living—stories of living on with the deaths still palpable, still complex, still marking us. If the gospel is “good news,” what is the good news of these resurrection wounds?
The resurrection appearances in the gospels feature a risen Jesus with wounds. David Carr tells us that the gospels feature ways that the disciples, the Jesus followers, tried to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion. They are products of grief and confusion, despair and loss. Carr reminds us that they are written in post-traumatic territory. “They rewrite the story of Jesus,” he says, “in the wake of Roman trauma.” This context may help us see why they are weird and unwieldy, complex and messy, why there are so many cases of misrecognition and mistaken identity.
And yet we tidy them up in the name of resurrection. We read them in the afterglow of Easter. The story of Thomas is one of the most iconic appearance stories. It is often referred to as the ‘doubting Thomas’ story, and we tell it in this familiar pattern: Thomas is the doubter who refuses to believe the truth of who Jesus is, the veracity of his resurrection, until he sees it for himself. The plot of that story has become so familiar that we often disconnect it from the very visceral elements of the scene. We make it a Truth story—capital “T.” The spiritual meaning-making allows us to hover above this Upper Room.
While wounds are at the center of these gospel accounts, interpretations of this passage often have little to do with wounds. Reading back through theologians of the past, there are all sorts of ways of explaining these wounds away. Discomfort with the fleshiness of this scene. It gets carried up in Eucharistic debates and in theologies of the afterlife, with projections of the eternal body of Christ who ascends into heaven. Surely, that jewel-crowned, heavenly-robed Son of God cannot bear wounds.
It is the artists, the Caravaggio’s, who remind us that wounds are front and center. And the disciples, the viewers, are at eye level with the wound. This was Caravaggio’s great innovation on this scene. It was impossible for viewers to look away. I want to follow Caravaggio’s lead. Positioning you at the site of the wounds, it is impossible to look away.
* * * The disciples are on lockdown in a room. They are afraid to go outside. The grief is still fresh, still palpable. They expected that things would turn out differently. And now, it seems they have just “hunkered down.” No plan. Weary and confused, they are not even strategizing. They are still reeling from the events.
And suddenly, he appears. Standing in front of them. Coming out of nowhere. I imagine the bubble over one of the disciple’s heads: Who let him in? Wait, no, the doors are bolted shut. How did he get in? Am I seeing things? Am I losing my mind? All of the sensations rush back. And the risen Jesus begins to work with these sensations.
Three things happen next.
He registers their fear. In the haze, the daze, he addresses them. He names their fear, cutting directly to it with these words: “Peace be with you.” We take this as a simple greeting but he repeats it three times. It is as if he reads the temperature, the climate in the room. He names what holds them there.
Then, he displays the wounds. He shows them his hands and his side. He reveals the marks of his suffering. He exposes his wounds. Their response, reported by the gospel writer, is pretty straightforward. They see and rejoice. [“The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”] But immediately he seems to come back around, repeating the same words—“Peace be with you.” This coming back around again suggests that perhaps this encounter is not so easy to process. [Think about what prompts you to repeat something…..Perhaps parents know this experience….instructions that you give to a child not once, but twice.]
He turns them to wounds again as if they did not see the first time, It is too much to take in. The ‘overjoyed’ may be more ‘overwhelmed.’ It is as if he knows how easily wounds can be folded into what is familiar. It is as if their seeing and rejoicing is too quick. Perhaps they did not ‘see’ the wounds at all.
And, this time, he follows these words with something else. He breathes on them. He gives them breath. In this locked room, the air in the room is stale. There is no ventilation. Jesus’ breath is elemental, of earthy significance. Breath is the most fundamental unit of life. It is what defines us as living creatures, and it is what keeps us going. It is what we cannot live without. But the testimonies in the Jewish and Christian scriptures speak about breath as God’s life-giving presence and creative force. It is spirit – ruah, pneuma, shekinah. [It is a tabernacling presence when there is no tabernacle – no home, no building]. All words that speak about breath as the presence and power of God infusing all things, bringing the deadest of the dead, the driest of bones to life. Summon the ruah, God instructs Ezekiel. Call out to the four winds. Summon that breath, that wind, that spirit, to put flesh back on what had been presumed to be beyond the reach of life.
When the risen Jesus appears to them, he breathes like that. Into their dead hearts, their hopeless spirits. He infuses the room with new air.
When Thomas comes on the scene, we, as readers, often shift into a different gear. [Perhaps prompted by the topic headings included in many Bibles, separating the appearance to the disciples from the appearance to Thomas]. But Thomas’ encounter also begins with the words, “Peace be with you.” It comes around a third time, linking it to the earlier appearances. Thomas insists on seeing the wounds for himself. After he hears that he is late to the game, he makes his demands. His encounter adds another sense to this scene–touch. Reach out and touch the wounds, Jesus says to him. Plunge your finger into the pleura—the pleural cavity. No denying the senses involved. Visceral, corporeal, somatic, anatomical.
He registers their fear. He displays his wounds. He gives them breath.
* * * In the aftermath of death, and in this curious moment of his return, he is teaching them a new way. He is reorienting them to ingredients that they will need in the after-living. We often skip over these ingredients in order to get to the real meaning of resurrection. We skip over Mary’s tears blocking her vision. He responds by calling to her with the particular inflection of her name. It is a call that registers the pain of a woman who cannot erase the recorded greeting of her daughter’s name. The disciples immobile in a room together, short of breath, bodies locked up with loss. It is the breath that reminds you of your real worth, as creature loved into being, when the country you live in calls you illegal. From the burial scents to the invitation to touch, the resurrection accounts are doing work on us at another level of our lives. They are teaching us that all of our senses need to be activated to witness life that is still under the grip of death – post-traumatic gospel territory.
You see, this locked room becomes an interesting metaphor for what trauma does, for how it works. How the sting of death takes hold on us. It describes how our lives can hole up, like rooms within us, the doors kept tightly sealed. We close up, preserving ourselves from the outside. If we open that door just a little bit, if we let in a little air, if we crack the door, we may break. So the doors stay shut, and the wounds don’t rise to the surface. Instead, they are pushed further down, hidden from view. We know this room in its various forms.
And suddenly, there he is. He moves through those doors, insisting that fear must be addressed, that new air needs to be let in, that wounds must surface because resurrection does not end in a locked room. The danger in reading the Thomas story as the climax or making it a story about faith and doubt is that we shift this story into the cognitive register. If Thomas’ doubt is central, this scene can be fully played out as one in which the proof of Jesus’ resurrection is granted to him. It becomes a frontal lobe story about truth, propositions, assertions, evidence.
Instead, this episode, from the “get-go” targets the limbic system. For the neurobiologists in our midst, they will tell us that the limbic system is the fight/flight part of our brain. The clinicians will tell us that trauma lives in this part of our brain and not in our frontal lobe, not the cognitive part of our brain in which we make ordered meaning of what we experience. Instead, trauma lodges in our bodies, and the wounds don’t surface unless they are worked out—not be reason or explanation, but by touch, movement, and breath. We have raw episodes depicted here in the gospels. The Gospel of Mark is the rawest of all, because the original ending just leaves the disciples in shock outside the empty tomb. In this gospel, the risen Jesus returns to teach them how to touch what often goes unnoticed, untended. It is healing territory, if we let it be. Bodies, breath, skin, and touch.
* * * We are living in lockdown times. This room is a metaphor for our collective life. In our political life, it is not hard to see that the language of fear/security, anxiety/terror has overtaken us. America is operating out of its limbic system: orange and red alerts. “The war on terror.” Threat after threat. The operational logic is one that keeps us locked in, afraid of the outsider, doors closed, walls high. This is what happens when fear takes over and is instrumentalized.
This gospel text is timely. It asks us to rethink where we stand, where we are positioned, in an age of fear, amidst the ongoingness of trauma. And while we think we are operating in our cognitive register, this gospel story teaches us something about what it means to live in a post-traumatic world. It insists that we pay attention to the operations of fear. But it also cuts to and through that fear. Jesus appears. In the midst of it all. He does not ask Thomas to give an account of who he is. For all of Thomas’ cognitive prowess, Jesus cuts through that too. He asks Thomas to touch his skin. He asks him to come closer and not to turn away. Jesus does not satisfy his request. He intercepts it. The meaning of my return cannot be assumed or consumed by you. It is extended, as an invitation to perceive the world differently. You cannot rise about it all. You need to come closer to touch the wounds.
This display of wounds is not an invitation to suffer. Instead, he is repositioning the disciples, retraining their senses, activating them for the work ahead. You have lost the capacities to recognize truth, goodness, life. You are breathing stale air. That air is the air that the world breathes, the Johannine Jesus tells them, it is the air that says only certain people are entitled to life, entitled to recognition. This logic of competition, of privilege, of measuring worth by your bank accounts, this is the logic of lockdown. I give new breath, he says. Those gates will not prevail. I will not respect the walls built up by lockdown logic. Those locked doors will not keep me out. I came to teach you a new way.
To be disciples of the afterliving, you have to stay close, to work close to the surface of the skin. The teacher continues to teach. The healer continues to direct them to wounds. But this time, the wounds are harder to find. They have been buried, locked up, pushed down—both from internal and external forces.
For those who claim that the risen Jesus is God-enfleshed, this appearance has cosmic significance. It says to us that God holds the sufferings across time in this body, that he returns, not just as the body of a suffering one. He appears to display the histories of all suffering. This one knows not only individual sorrow but all sorrow. He bears in his body the marks of unimaginable histories. And yet in this body, he holds a hope that is enduring, everlasting. This resurrection appearance says to us that he does not forget wounds. He displays them in order to remake them, to weave a resurrecting body. He will not do this remaking by hovering above the surface of things. He will do it through this body of believers, of followers, of wound-tenders, of breath-givers. He chooses to do the work of transfiguring wounds in and through this motley crew of witnesses. Through us. We are those disciples in lockdown times.
We have to cultivate different senses to register life under conditions of lockdown. We have to develop capacities to see what lies below the surface, to track the ways and forms in which losses linger, to pay attention to what do not go away simply. We need to tend to our wounds, face difficult truths, have the courage to challenge the logic that keeps us in death’s grip.
Wounds do not simply go away. But neither do we. That’s the good news in post-traumatic gospel territory.
Dr. Shelly Rambo