Scripture: John 20:19-20, 24-29
Greetings friends! It is a true joy to be gathered with you this morning. As you have heard, my name is Bekah Maren Anderson. I am a preacher, writer, and disability theologian, and perhaps most importantly, a good friend and colleague of the amazing Allison. Many many thanks to her and Rebecca for bringing me to Lyndale this morning.
I am blessed to preach at many different congregations from week to week, and when I do, I like to bring greetings from one church to another, to remind us all that we are one body in Christ, however separated by time and distance we may be. And so this morning it is my pleasure to bring you greetings from the First Church of Winsted, in Winsted Connecticut, which was the last place I preached. May I have your permission to bring your greetings to the next place I preach?
Thank you so much.
I’ve been having trouble coming up with words for this sermon, and I think the reason is, what I want to tell you today is fundamentally not about words. It’s about the things we know in our bodies, the things that are true even when we cannot name them.
I am a words person. I’ve pretty much always been a words person. I learned to speak very quickly as a child, in large part because, as a child losing my vision, I was losing the ability to communicate by pointing at things. I started writing stories almost before I could read them, and I discovered my love for public speaking when I was in elementary school. I like elegant prose, or a well told story, or even a simple and clear set of instructions. Words are often where I go for comfort, inspiration, knowledge, humor, and connection.
Some of the most important things I have come to know about God, and about myself, I have learned through my body, through a deep sense of knowing that something is true, even if I can’t explain how I know it, or why. Sometimes words inspire these moments of embodied knowing. Sometimes the experiences inspire words, and become a song, or piece of writing. But I have found that almost no amount of talking about something can make it _feel true until I have that felt sense in my body. And in order to pick up these messages, to understand the things my body knows, I have to be present.
To me, our text this morning is all about this kind of embodied knowledge, and about presence.
In this story, it is still Easter day, the same day that Mary found the empty tomb, spoke to Jesus, and returned to tell the disciples of his resurrection. The text does not tell us whether the disciples believed her or not. Other Gospels state much more plainly that the disciples did not believe the women at the tomb, but John is a little more vague. When Mary Magdalene tells them she has seen Jesus, we hear nothing about how the rest of the disciples react. No denials or doubts, but also no outpouring of joy. I wonder if they simply did not take in her words at all. Remember that their beloved friend and teacher had died violently just days before. I wonder if they were simply too much in shock to hear what Mary told them.
But that night, they gather, doors locked in fear of the state. And then Jesus is with them. Present among them. And he says, “Peace be with you.” And the text does not say that the disciples rejoiced until _after Jesus shows them his hands and his side, which are wounded from his crucifixion. These marks, these wounds in his body that caused his death, are how he shows his dearest friends that he is alive. Words are not enough, not even his words. The disciples need to know this truth in their bodies, and for that, they need the evidence of his body: physically and tangibly present, marked and wounded, and alive.
Disability theologian Nancy Eiesland references this story in her groundbreaking work of disability theology, _The _Disabled _God. She writes about how remarkable it is that when Jesus rises from the dead, he still bares the wounds that killed him. And not only that, but those wounds are how he proves to his friends who he is. They are not blemishes on an otherwise perfect body; they are part of that perfect body, vital to what it means to be a resurrected body. Eiesland argues that this experience of baring a wounded risen body puts Jesus in solidarity with people with disabilities, and makes him in a sense disabled himself. It shows that bodies do not need to be “normal,” according to our societal understandings, in order to be holy. We might well consider Jesus’ risen body to be disabled. He has open wounds on his hands and his side, probably his feet as well. They probably look as frightening as they were to receive, and our society tends to include in the category of disability anyone whose body looks different in a way that bothers them. Furthermore, I wonder if these wounds hurt Jesus. Does he appear out of nowhere as a sign of his glory, or because walking on his feet is painful?
And so we have a risen Messiah whose body is visibly different from what society would consider a whole, healthy, normal body, one who maybe experiencing chronic pain. And these are experiences of disability. This means that God, through the person of Jesus, knows what it is like to bare a body that is other than expected, knows what it is to be disabled. And this is the body his friends know him by, the sign both of his humanity, and his divinity, his death and his resurrected life. If his body is such a sign, then why not my body? Our bodies? All bodies?
Understanding God as disabled is one of these things I knew, in my body, beyond words. I read only the title of Eiesland’s book, _The _Disabled _God, and I knew. Of course God is disabled. Of course God knows both my struggles, and the ways in which my blindness is simply a part of who I am, source of both joy and heartache. Of course God operates the way disabled people do: with whatever tools are at hand, inventing new ways of doing things as we go along, interdependent, taking our time, never working in the way the rest of the world expects. Of course. I couldn’t explain it until I had read Eiesland’s words. But my body knew it to be true.
But you can’t know what your body knows unless you are present to it. When we are tuned out, dissociated, too traumatized to be present, or simply not practiced at connecting to our bodies: we can miss the messages they are trying to send us. I, like many of us, spent years of my life doing my best to ignore most of my body’s messages, because so often those messages were that I was in distress—upset by instances of ableism, overstimulated in loud and crowded spaces, sitting with big feelings of anxiety and sadness—and I had been taught that I should not feel those things, especially if I didn’t have words to explain why. So I ignored what my body told me, and missed not only the chance to be present to my own need, but also opportunities for joy, self discovery, and connection to God.
This is what I think about when I think about Thomas’s absence from the other disciples that night. There are any number of reasons for him to have been elsewhere I’m sure. But, well, I relate to Thomas a lot, and so I imagine that he was absent because he just wasn’t ready to be present. Sometimes we aren’t ready to be with God, as painful as that may be. Sometimes we’re just running away from the pain, absent from the comforting embrace of our community, outside a locked door that would be opened for us, missing the appearance of God in our midst. When Thomas says emphatically that he will not believe unless he touches Jesus’ wounds, I hear two things. First, I hear that he knows that words are not enough. Thomas knows he needs embodied knowledge. He will not know in his own body that his Messiah lives until he can experience that living body for himself. Second, I hear that Thomas knows he is not ready. He doesn’t go out seeking Jesus; he simply declares what he needs in order to believe, and then waits.
A lot of people judge Thomas for this disbelief, and I’ve never been able to find it in myself to do that. There are many ways to understand belief. There are the words, and then there is the felt sense, the embodied knowledge. I think most of us want to rest in embodied knowledge all the time. I know I at least want to be able to look inside, and know in my bones that God loves me, and wants me to do the work of love and justice in the world. It motivates me, helps me recalibrate when I am lost or confused.
But, well, sometimes things happen that shake that embodied sense of knowing. Sometimes we lose track of it, or we find ourselves questioning things we once believed deeply. Sometimes we need to search, through words and experiences, to find a new sense of embodied knowing. And frankly, I find it impressive that Thomas knows what he needs in order to find that again. Would that we all knew what we needed in order to connect us to God.
I can’t find it in myself to judge Thomas, and I don’t think Jesus can either. He offers Thomas what he needs: “Here are my hands; here is my side.” And he does have this line: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed.” But I think it’s important to remember that a blessing for one does not mean a curse for another. Yes, blessed are those who believe without seeing. And blessed are those who believe by touching. Blessed are those who believe through words, and blessed are those who believe through anything but words. Blessed are those who don’t believe, and find that painful. Blessed are the many ways of believing, and the many paths to that belief.
This is a story of embodiment and presence. It is a story of God, finding ways to be present with us even when it seems impossible. It is a story of God, embodied even after death, embodied and wounded, showing us that an unmarked body, a nondisabled body, is not the same as a holy and whole body.
What does your body know? If you tune into the knowledge in your bones, what does it tell you? Do you know how to do that? Does it feel safe for you to do that? If you’ve never tried, if it sounds ridiculous to try—what happens if you do?
May we know the things our bodies know. May we be embodied, present. And may we find God, known through embodiment, present whenever we are ready. Amen.