I spent four hours this week in the car with Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket, and Grandpa Joe. Leo and Julian listen to books on CD, and I recently burned an audio copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. How many of you have read that or seen one of the movie versions—raise your hand maybe…?
The story goes like this: Charlie is a kid from a poor family. He wins a lottery and gets to visit the candy factory run by Willy Wonka. Four other children go with him. All of them, except Charlie, screw it up by stealing candy they’re not supposed to eat. The book is essentially a sermon to kids about good and bad behavior. For example, one of the kids has an incurable gum chewing habit, her name is Violet. Violet steals some experimental gum during the tour. When she chews it, she blows up like a giant blueberry and turns violet. At the end of the book, Violet is back to normal size, but is still the color violet. Each of the kids, except for Charlie, bear marks like these. Their mistakes leave scars on their bodies. Charlie passes the test; he alone is whole. He wins. Willy Wonka gives him the candy factory. Violet and the rest lose because their imperfections leave them scarred. There is some hope for them, at the end, but there is a lot more shame.
These marks that the children bear in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made me wonder something about the resurrection that we see in the passage from John 20 that we heard read. Charlie is scarred, and so victorious. After the resurrection, Jesus still bears his wounds. Jesus bears marks of shame, more like Violet than Charlie. And we are still scarred, like Jesus. We still mess up and we still die. Why then do we call Easter a victory? Wounds are bad. Why have Christians celebrated the wounds of Jesus?
Christians have tended not to avoid Jesus’ wounds and blood, but instead emphasize them. The reading from revelation today says that Jesus “freed us from our sins by his blood.” We have hymns about being washed in the blood of the lamb, though not so many in our hymnal. One of my favorite medieval writers is Julian of Norwich, namesake of our daughter. Julian (of Norwich) writes some pretty weird stuff about Jesus’ wounds. In a vision she had, the wound in Jesus’ side—from where he was stabbed on the cross—was, she says, “a beautiful and delightful place which was large enough for all mankind who shall be saved.” She goes on and on about Jesus’ blood. “There is no liquid created which he likes to give us so much; it is as plentiful as it is precious…The precious plenty of his beloved blood descended into hell”…it “overflows the whole earth…ascended into heaven to the blessed body…and there in him it bleeds and intercedes for us… for ever.” All of the weird things that Christians say about Jesus’ bloody wounds flirt with perversity—sometimes crossing the line from a nice image into a dark fascination with suffering. So again I wonder, what kind of victory was Easter, if Jesus still bears his wounds, and we still die?
Here’s one answer. the wounds aren’t good, in and of themselves; they are the marks of divine love. Because in the world as it is, loving in freedom often leads to suffering, and God loved us, in Christ, with perfect freedom.
I like the way the English Catholic writer Herbert McCabe puts it. He says, “we have made a world in which there is no way to of being human that does not involve suffering.” The idea is something like this: We humans are talking animals. Our life is built around communication. Our end, our ultimate goal, is friendship—with each other, with God. But we have made a world in which it is impossible to live that goal freely. So much gets in the way—think about how Isaac described all the grudges that define our lives last week. We refuse to give each other the love we need. We refuse to receive the love others give us. Or, we try, but we are wounded by so much, and all those wounds get in the way—our hands shake as someone extends friendship to us, and we drop the gift even as it is offered. Not always of course, life is beautiful. But through all that beauty runs our own frailty, our own fallenness, our own wounds. We are human. After the fall, being human means wounding others and being wounded.
Jesus doesn’t rescue us from being human, he becomes human. In doing so, he transforms humanity. Jesus lives a life of perfect love, befriending sinners and tax collectors like us. He is the first human being to be perfectly free. Because he accepts his life as a gift. He lives in perfect trust that the one he called Father, the one who sent him, is with him and for him no matter what. You get a picture of freedom like this when you see a child run to a friend with utter abandon, caught up only in the joy of the other person. Or when you see two soccer players or musicians totally in sync with each other. Maybe you experience it sometimes—you pass the ball, you play a note, you do a favor in trust that the person beside you will take what you’ve given and make something beautiful with it. We live this freedom now and then; Jesus lived it in every moment.
Kindness and beauty is often rewarded, and people did love Jesus. But true love, totally free love like this, will sooner or later run up against the mess we make of our history. And that’s why Jesus died. Jesus died because he was totally faithful to the mission God had sent him on: the mission to be perfectly, freely human. Like an ailing body rejecting an organ transplant, we rejected him.
Here is how Herbert McCabe describes it, he says that all of Jesus’ life was a prayer, ending with the crucifixion. Like a pass, like a favor, like note played on the piano, Jesus offered his life up in the trust that God would receive what he had given and make something beautiful with it. And in his resurrected flesh, God did.
The reading from Revelation today says that Jesus is the “firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” it says that he “made us to be a Kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.”
Jesus invites us into his freedom, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit celebrates and perfects the love between Jesus and the one who sent him. But that love isn’t closed, it invites us to join the circle. In our John 20 reading Jesus breathes on the disciples and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In Acts, the early church shared its possessions freely, healed the sick, and preached without concern for what would follow. When threatened with death, Peter responds with perfect freedom: “we must obey God rather than any human authority,” as we heard read today.
It’s beautiful. But those human authorities eventually kill Peter, just like they killed Jesus. Just like they killed Martin Luther King Jr., and a hundred thousand others. We will wound each other. We still bear the wounds others inflicted. We still die.
What I love about the reading from John 20, though, is that it shows us how our wounds can become something else. The things others have done to you, the things you have done to others, to yourself, the things that we did to Christ—all those injuries—they’re not the end of the story. They don’t linger only as shame. When Thomas meets Jesus, Jesus’ wounds draw them close together. Perverse as it might sound, those wounds are a gift that Jesus gives to Thomas, and to us. They are the sign of what it cost to love freely. And Thomas responds to that gift, totally in sync now—what he says sounds almost like an involuntary gasp: “My Lord and my God!” The things that were intended to kill Jesus now become signs of everything Jesus has triumphed over, even if that triumph is not complete.
Julian of Norwich, again, thought that this could be true of us too. “Although a person has the scars of healed wounds,” she writes, “when they appear before God they do not deface but ennoble.” Even the wounds we inflict on ourselves will not be a source of shame, she says, The “badge of [our] sin [will be] changed into glory.” She doesn’t say that because she thinks the evil we suffer and inflict is good. It’s not. Jesus doesn’t suffer because suffering purifies. Jesus suffers because he will not turn away from loving us with perfect freedom. The marks of that suffering—the nail holes, the wound in his side—are badges of honor not because it is good to suffer, but because they show what it cost God to love. (And as long we remember that, I think all the weird stuff about blood is beautiful and good and true.)
So, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Violet’s purple skin after her ordeal is not finally shameful, it’s a picture of what we might all become. Painfully and beautifully transformed. Bearing the marks of what was done to us, of what we have done to ourselves, and to others. But wearing those marks, now, not in shame, but as a sign of what God is helping us to endure.
What kind of victory is Easter? It is like the first ray of sunrise. The darkness lingers, but a single shaft of light promises that soon everything will be illuminated.