Stigmata

Sermon for Sunday, April 19, 2015 || Easter 3B || Luke 24:36b-48

StigmataStigma is not a happy word. If you use it in a sentence, more than likely the word “stigma” will be linked to something that people view as disgraceful or humiliating, whether that view is warranted or not. A couple of us recently read a book called The Rich and the Rest of Us by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, who spoke of the need to lift the stigma associated with the word “poverty” if we are ever going to muster the societal will to lift those on the margins. In years past, society has stigmatized attributes of people who exhibit less capacity than most, using words like “retarded” and “crippled” to describe those with mental and physical challenges. Suffice to say that members of every minority group – no matter the difference used to justify labeling them as “those people” – have been stigmatized in one way or another. Stigmas lead to segregation and prejudicial behavior and animosity. “Stigma” is not a happy word.

And so we need to begin this sermon by acknowledging once again the countercultural irony of the Christian faith. Both last week and this week, our Gospel writers John and Luke have narrated the scene of the Risen Jesus meeting his disciples and their companions for the first time. In both narratives Jesus shows them the wounds he suffered during his crucifixion: the marks of the nails in his hands and his feet, the mark of the spear in his side. And in both narratives, his wounds lead them to recognize him and rejoice (though Luke reminds us that disbelief and wonder temper their joy). Christian tradition has given a name to those wounds: the “Stigmata,” which is just the plural form of the word “stigma.”

Here, stigma is a happy word. Or at least Jesus turns it into one. The act of being crucified was thought of as the most awful and degrading form of humiliation in addition to being a horrible way to die. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul quotes a verse of scripture: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (3:13). Talk about a stigma! And yet by virtue of his resurrection, Jesus turned the cross from an instrument of torture, domination and death into a symbol of redemption, selflessness, and new life. If Jesus hadn’t redefined the cross, I doubt you would wear crosses around your necks or I would have one tattooed on my back.

Jesus’ life and ministry were all about redefining what people thought was acceptable. He took the prejudices fueling certain stigmas head on and gutted them. He touched those society had stigmatized as worthless or unclean: people with leprosy, blindness, and paralysis. He ate with poor people. He befriended tax collectors vilified for being in cahoots with the Romans. He conversed with foreign women. Jesus left every town he visited having laid waste to the stigmas that separated people from one another, having done his best to show people the healing grace that reconciliation brings.

Jesus spent his life demonstrating that the stigmas, which separated people from the larger society, would never separate those same people from him. His own physical Stigmata, made by nails driven through his wrists and ankles, are a further sign that Christ was willing to go to any lengths to suffer with and for those who are humiliated, marginalized, and disgraced. But here we need to make sure we don’t get stuck on Good Friday. If we forget about or try to explain away his resurrection, then the story ends the day the nail holes were made.

That’s why Luke makes a big deal about Jesus eating a piece of broiled fish. He really was there! And the marks of the wounds – the marks of his compassion, his suffering with and for everybody – remain even in his resurrected body. But right here we can sink into a theological morass if we don’t think hard about what the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet really mean. Here’s the problem. If we say that his Stigmata are only the marks of a humiliating death full of suffering and pain, then we are also saying that such humiliation and suffering leave their mark in the new life of the resurrection, that a legacy of disgrace can sully a new life of complete grace. Thankfully, we don’t need to go there because Jesus’ lifetime of reversing stigmas works on his own Stigmata, as well. Indeed, the fact that his resurrected self still bears the marks of his wounds gives us clues as to what our own resurrected life looks like.

On Friday, Jesus’ Stigmata are marks of failure. His blood drips from the nails, which keep his sagging body affixed to the humiliating cross. But on Sunday, those same wounds are marks of triumph. The nails are gone, but the blood remains, the blood of the Lamb that washes us clean. In the life of the Resurrection no failure is great enough on our part to swallow the enormity of the victory Christ invites us to share.

This triumph redefines his wounds so that they are so much more than simply the marks of his suffering. They are also the marks of his obedience and our redemption. And they are the marks by which his friends recognize him. In other words, he calls his friends back into relationship and back into belief by showing them these marks. Thus the life of the resurrection is one in which our relationship with Christ becomes perfect and complete. But we can begin to live this new life now, even though we are incapable of perfection or completion because, as we just said, our failures do not sully the ultimate triumph.

The Risen Christ is alive in us, propelling us toward culmination with God in the life of the resurrection. Therefore, we too are capable of demonstrating Jesus’ Stigmata. I don’t think we will actually bleed from our hands and feet as St. Francis of Assisi did, but the marks don’t need to be visible to be real. By virtue of our baptism, we have been marked as Christ’s own forever. This mark includes the promise to walk Jesus’ path as best we can. Jesus’ life and ministry reversed and gutted so many stigmas, so many flimsy reasons for separation. Jesus’ death and resurrection reversed and gutted the stigma of death with the promise of new life.

As we walk in Christ’s footsteps, hear him calling to you to continue his work. Do all in your power to reverse and gut the stigmas that continue to make people feel less than they are. Take a hard look at yourself and see what prejudices you hold. Ask where they come from. Ask who taught them to you. Ask if they are the kind of prejudices that Jesus would have blown right through. Chances are they will be. Because Jesus’ never met a stigmatized person he didn’t touch or talk to or embrace.

We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world. I pray that when people look at you and me, they will see the mark of Christ on us.

The dogwood flower (pictured above) has traditionally been used as an image of Christ’s wounds, as the red tips of the petals evoke the Stigmata.

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