Sermon Preached at CDSP

Michael Aune—May 3, 2006

John 6: 35-40

Ten days ago, on the Second Sunday of Easter, most believers in this world heard read that extraordinary lesson from the 20th chapter of John where the resurrected Jesus appears through locked doors, breathes his Spirit upon the disciples, blesses them with peace, and commissions them to a ministry of forgiveness. He’s back… fresh from the grave, present in the midst of the disciples in solid human form, breathing on them the same Spirit that God breathed to create the world, to create humankind, to make those dry bones in the 37th chapter of Ezekiel live again and to bring them home—God breathed so that the disciples can embrace the resurrected Jesus and begin to practice a ministry of the sharing of the forgiveness of sins. I mention this reading because as we shall soon see, it will provide an angle on today’s Gospel text from the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of John.

But first, it’s back to that extraordinary lesson from ten days ago—When Thomas heard from the other disciples that they had seen the Lord, he said: “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 hand in his side, I will not believe.” And we know the rest: Jesus appears again a week later only this time Thomas is present. And Jesus said to him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered: “My Lord and my God!” And ever since Jesus uttered these words, Thomas has been branded the doubter, the doofus disciple who was too skeptical of heart and too sluggish of mind to really “get it.” Really?

Instead of repeating these tired, old interpretations of Thomas, there has been a radically different one that has been causing quite a buzz on our campus of late. Our late colleague, friend, and Professor of NT, Robert Smith, in what we hope is a soon-to-be-published commentary on the Gospel of John, has argued that this Thomas story might indeed be the interpretive key to the Johannine puzzle. It was this story that kept pulling Robert back to seek a fresh reading, both of the Thomas story and of the entire Fourth Gospel. The title of his commentary, Wounded Lord: Reading John through the Eyes of Thomas, points us, even pulls us, in that direction.

What we discover is that Thomas was not asking to see Jesus with his own two eyes. Nor did he want to take hold of him and carry on a conversation with him. Nor did he want Jesus to float through the locked doors or pass through the solid walls as he had the previous week when Thomas was not there. No… listen to these startling words from Professor Smith’s commentary: “Thomas asks for something different, something quite specific and really odd. He says, ‘I want to see the wounds, wounds in Jesus’ hands and side, and I want to touch those wounds.’” And Smith continues: “Isn’t it odd that the resurrected body of Jesus should have wounds? Isn’t resurrection by definition a glorification, a transfiguration, a total healing? Shouldn’t resurrection remove every trace of old weakness, every hint of prior vulnerability?” … Thomas makes his demand and then Jesus appears and without any rebuking, he offers Thomas precisely what he desires. At that point Thomas utters his confession, “My Lord and my God!” John presents Thomas as one who asks exactly the right question and then utters the truest confession…that a Jesus without wounds means Jesus without the cross and hence a Jesus inadequate to meet the deepest needs of humankind.”

With this interpretive lens, then, what happens when we read John’s Gospel through Thomas’ eyes, re-orienting our reading by those wounds on Jesus’ exalted body? This reading would be, I like to think, “Bultmann with a twist.” That great exegete of the Fourth Gospel never tired of emphasizing that Jesus is the Revealer of God. Neither did our friend and colleague Professor Smith. The “twist,” however, is this: It is the living but wounded Jesus who is the Revealer of God. These wounds are integral to the identity of the mystery we call “God.” God is like this Jesus with his wounds.

So, when we come to today’s lesson from the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of John—one of those great I AM sayings—with our eyes focused on the wounds of Christ, what we discover is that the “I” uttering this saying is not simply the One who once walked the pathways of Galilee and Judea. No, we hear: I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE—not “I, THE INVINCIBLE AND IMMORTAL ONE, I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE. Rather, it is like this: “I, WITH WOUNDS IN HANDS AND SIDE, I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE.” For the Fourth Evangelist, the whole paradox of God’s revelation in Jesus is present in this Incarnate One. The bread of life refers to Jesus’ teaching and revelation AND later on in this chapter, will become more explicitly eucharistic—but not yet. For now, this passage is about God’s will for human salvation, made accessible in Jesus.

Here is the gift…here is the bestowal of life—in fact, if we wish to know the will of God, it is right here in this Jesus who, as we heard in today’s reading, “should lose nothing of all that God has given me, but raise it up at the last day.” What is gained, then, when Jesus is seen and believed, is nothing less than eternal life and resurrection on the last day.

Certainly this is enough of a startling claim to get folks “murmuring” or wondering yet one more time about who this Jesus really is. How in the world can this One claim to be anything so special as “God’s own gift of eternal-life giving bread?” Bultmann was quite right, I think, in regarding the framework of this startling claim as the revelation of God to the world and the crisis that it brings. For when God comes in this Jesus, it is in a totally different way than we might expect.

But we should have already been tipped off to this in the very first chapter of John—“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God did not stay distant, remote, and isolated; rather God chose to live with humanity in the midst of human weakness, confusion, and pain. To become flesh is to love, to grieve, and someday to die. And the incarnation binds Jesus to the “everydayness” of human experience—our experience. What this meant for John’s readers and what this means for us is that human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible. We are given intimate, palpable, and bodily access to the reality of God. It is exactly here that Robert Smith’s “hermeneutic” of Wounded Lord really gets some traction. For a Wounded Lord means that for John and also for John’s readers and hearers, the wounds are always in view—are central and essential in any estimate of Jesus, in any talk of God, and in any teaching of discipleship. No cross-less Jesus here—not at all!

A cross-less, unwounded Jesus, then, is not the answer—even if he happens to be the Jesus of much of American Christianity. You know the One—who has followers who believe that the benefits of their special relationship with this glorious Jesus are a form of entitlement—whether of being private insiders, of being superior to others, of being exclusivists, of being militant toward other faiths, even to other Christians who happen to think differently. But this is not the Jesus who meets us in John’s Gospel. The way in which the Revealer comes is as the One who bears forever the marks of nails and spear. Those wounds will never go away. The Revealer has not passed over to some sublime existence immune to suffering. Even after Good Friday and Easter, God continues to turn to the world through the wounded Christ and in no other way. Resurrection and incarnation are of a piece—“revelatory” of who God is.

And is this not the point of this day when we are called together to celebrate and to share the eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, to eat this bread of life? Surely more is going on than just the recommendation that we should be more frequent communicants. This wounded Christ bids us to peer into the depths and see to the heart of God—that, in Luther’s words, is “a friendly heart beating with such love for you—to fill your own hearts with love.” We will indeed miss these things unless we take the wounded but forever living Christ deeply into our lives, as food and drink, so that he becomes bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

In just a bit, we will hear that Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, which places our believing in this wounded but forever living Jesus within the framework of what God has been up to since the creation of the world and what God will do to bring it all to completion, bringing life out of death, raising it all:

We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets and, above all, in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. In him, you brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life…

In the fulness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the church, and the author of our salvation…

And we will hear when we come to the Lord’s Table, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Not nice images to be sure, but if Easter means “Jesus is back,” then he is back, as our friend and colleague Robert Smith wrote, “as the One still bearing in his hands and side the marks of his cruel wounding. These wounds will never go away…and so we will believe once again that the universe…you and I…are upheld in wounded hands of unimaginably deep love and compassion.”