A sermon for Easter 2C. In the past I have preached this as a single sermon, though as it stands in the present edit, it was preached in three parts. John 20:19-23 was read between the first and second parts and the remainder of the Gospel of the day, John 20:24-31, was read between the second and third parts.
Today in our worship we are going to be thinking about ‘hands’.
We’ve all got them, although most of the time we take them for granted.
So let’s just spend a moment looking at our hands. If you are holding anything – put it down. Hold out your hands – palm side up. (Did your teacher ever make you do this at school, to check whether you had washed your hands properly?) Look at the shape of your fingers. Perhaps there is a mark made by a ring. Or a scar caused by an accident. Or a callous caused by years of hard work. If your eyesight is good you may see those tiny ridges of skin called fingerprints. Every hand is different. No two hands are alike.
The human hand is a marvellous creation; a wonderful instrument. No other creature has such a sensitive and flexible hand. (Throwing a ball) Catch! Being able to catch and hold a ball is a unique feature of the human hand. It is because we have what is called an ‘opposable thumb’. And that enables us to grip things. Without our opposable thumb we could not turn screwdrivers or door knobs or bowl cricket balls. We use our hands to pick up and hold objects, to eat, to touch, to feel heat and texture.
Another important way we use our hands is to communicate. For blind people hands substitute for eyes in the reading of braille. For deaf people hands substitute for ears through the medium of Sign Language. And in this age of Information Technology our hands are the main way in which we interact with our electronic devices: whether it is a keyboard, a mouse or a touchscreen phone.
What about body language? What am I saying to you now? (Examples).
The importance of our hands as tools of communication was in body language was stated by Quintilian, a first century Roman expert in the art of rhetoric, or public speaking:
Other parts of the body assist the speaker but the hands speak themselves. By them we ask, promise, invoke, dismiss, threaten, entreat, deprecate; by them we express fear, joy, grief, our doubts, assent or penitence; we show moderation or profusion, and mark number or time.”
Of course, we can use our hands in ways that are negative, as well as positive. Hands can be outstretched in a gesture of peace, or they can strike out and punch or slap. Hands can handle weapons of destruction as easily as tools of peace. How we use our hands is very important.
And what about in church? We use our hands in a variety of ways. For me, one of the most moving moments is during Holy Communion, when the congregation comes to the Communion rail and kneels in reverence to receive the bread of life. I see a row of hands, outstretched and empty. Many years ago, during the Reformation, people fought hard for the right to have the bread, the body of Christ, placed into their hands.
‘Hands’ are mentioned in the Bible over 1,800 times. The word is used in all sorts of different ways; for example, the ‘hand of God’ is a symbolic way of talking about God’s creating and guiding activity in the world. In the Old Testament we find many examples of what we call ‘laying on of hands’, which symbolises the giving of a blessing or authority. So, for example, God tells Moses:
Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him. Present him to Eleazar the priest before the whole community, and publicly commission him to lead the people. ” (Numbers 20:18-19 New Living Translation)
This tradition of ‘laying on of hands’ has continued in the church. We still lay hands on those who are appointed to lead our community, at the ordination of ministers and deacons. For Christians it symbolises the giving of the Holy Spirit in power, for healing and for blessing.
But – in a moment – we are going to use our hands in a different way, as we wish one another the ‘peace of the Lord’. This reminds us of the first words that the risen Lord said to the disciples. And it also reminds us that, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we are to be reconciled with one another, and live in peace. And so we will say to one another ‘peace be with you’. It is our custom to shake hands as we do this (although strictly speaking, this is optional); so our hands become a sign of peace.
2. HANDS OF JESUS
What were Jesus’ hands like?
Jesus must have had rough hands – all those years of working in his father’s carpentry workshop. He was literally a handy-man. And even when Jesus left Nazareth and his father’s trade, he still understood the importance of using his hands. There are so many stories that testify to this.
Remember the blind man at Bethsaida? Jesus took him by the hand and brought him to a quiet place; there he spat on the man’s eyes and put his hands on them.
On another occasion a man with leprosy asked to be healed; again Jesus reached out, and touched him.
Reaching out, holding, touching, seems to have played an important part in Jesus’ healing ministry. But there were other occasions when Jesus used his hands. On the Sea of Galilee Peter got out of a boat to walk on the water. As he began to sink, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. And when parents brought their children to Jesus, he placed his hands on them and blessed them.
How often, when eating with his friends must Jesus have raised his hands in a gesture of thanksgiving, broken bread and shared it out. Not just at the Last Supper; we’re told that he did exactly the same at the feeding of the 5,000. And when he appeared as a stranger to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It was only when they sat down for a meal, and the stranger blessed and broke the bread, that they recognised him to be Jesus.
Then there was the time when Jesus knelt down and washed the disciples feet. Once again, a very intimate and personal gesture.
And it was these hands, rough carpenter’s hands, hands that had healed and comforted, blessed and broken bread, that on Good Friday were so cruelly nailed to the cross.
But, of course, the cross was not the end. Jesus came back, and his touching and healing and blessing played such an important part in re-establishing his relationship with his friends. As Lois Ainger writes in a meditation:
I feel the touch of a hand
stretched out to me
that men have nailed
but cannot be nailed down.
In our Gospel reading John explicitly mentions that the risen Lord still bears the marks of those nails in his hands. What was the very first thing that Jesus did after appearing in the locked room, and greeting the disciples ‘peace be with you’? He showed them his hands and his side.
That was, I believe, important for two reasons. Firstly as evidence that this really was him. That the one risen from death really is Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had seen crucified.
Secondly, it reminds us that Easter Sunday is not just the reversal of Good Friday; as if Good Friday was a big mistake that was put right on Easter Day. Rather, we are reminded that the path to new life was through the cross. No cross, no resurrection.
(Or to put it another way. It is a particular emphasis of John’s Gospel that Jesus’ glory is seen not just in his resurrection but also his obedient self-sacrifice on the cross. Jesus is now glorified; and the nail marks on his hands do not detract from his glory, but are signs of it.)
As we shall sing in our final hymn:
Crown him the Lord of love;
behold his hands and side –
rich wounds, yet visible above,
in beauty glorified.
That is why in Christian paintings, Jesus, though risen and glorified, is so often shown with nail-scarred hands. A good example is the massive tapestry in Coventry Cathedral designed by Graham Sutherland. It is a picture of Christ in glory, which although undeniably modern has its roots in early Christian art. This majestic Christ has his hands raised in blessing, and on his hands are the marks of the nails. For all eternity the risen and ascended Lord bears the wounds of the cross, a mark of his identification with suffering humankind.
3. HANDS OF JESUS TODAY
Our Bible reading tells the story of Thomas, or ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he has become known. I feel sorry for Thomas that he has been stuck with that nickname. First, because at the end of the story it is Thomas who calls Jesus ‘My Lord and my God!’ So doubting Thomas becomes faithful Thomas.
Second because that’s not the reason John tells the story. John is interested in making the connection between Easter Day and today. He’s looking back to that first Easter Day and saying: what about those of us who were not there when Jesus first appeared to his disciples? Are we at a disadvantage because we haven’t seen Jesus face to face?
In the story Thomas represents all of us. As John writes, “Thomas… was not with them when Jesus came.” And neither were we. And if we were in his place we would probably have reacted in exactly the same way. Because Thomas voices a real human need. Being told about Jesus by others doesn’t seem to be enough. Thomas wants to see Jesus and touch him. ‘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.’
Notice that Thomas doesn’t just want to see Jesus; he wants to touch him as well. Sometimes our eyes can fool us. Thomas wants to be certain that Jesus isn’t just a vision or a mirage or a ghost. As we’ve been discovering this morning, there’s something special about using our hands and our sense of touch.
So Thomas stands for all of us in our desire to see and touch Jesus. As we sing in a chorus:
Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus;
to reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.
How can people see Jesus today? How can we touch him, and feel his touch in return – when Jesus is not physically present among us?
The answer is very simple. Because Christ is present – here in his people. We are the body of Christ.
This idea was beautifully expressed in a prayer by Theresa of Avila, written over 400 years ago:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
So how can people touch – and be touched – by the hands of Jesus today? Simply by recognising that our hands are Jesus’ hands. Jesus uses us to reach out to others. And Jesus uses others to reach out to us.
Let us pray.
Lord, here are your hands.
Use these hands, Lord, to work for you;
Use these hands, Lord, to reach out to others for you;
to touch others for you;
Teach me, that I may learn your touch.
And if it be your will
that these hands become dirtied or calloused
or even wounded for you,
so be it, Lord. Amen.