Ever since I was little I’ve had an image of heaven as a place where everything would be absolutely perfect. Some of this likely came from the old family Bible that I’d often pull off the bookshelf to look at. It had realistic painted images throughout, but I loved the ones from the Garden of Eden in the book Genesis. Eve’s portrait was enchanting, especially given her silky blonde hair and dreamy blue eyes. At some point in my elementary school years I learned that heaven would be perfect just like that garden, and so the illustrations in that old Bible merged with my images of heaven.
Going to church throughout my teen years expanded my understanding in odd ways. I remember hearing that each of us will be 33 in heaven since that is the presumed age of Jesus when he died. Not only would we be the supposed idealistic age, we’d also get perfect bodies. Wrinkles would miraculously be smoothed out, hair regrown—but only in the places we wanted it. We’d be our ideal weight in heaven, so it took a bit of the worry of eating that whole bag of Doritos now. Add to that a mansion for each of us spec’d out by God for all our desires. Heaven, in that way, started becoming more and more like the American Dream at best, and a bit like Stepford at worst.
The last few years I’ve been reconsidering those ideas of perfection in heaven with all the trappings of American consumerism. I’ve pondered the connection between how we life in this life and the connection it has to the next life. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness—both physically walking trails and also in the harrowing times of life—that have influenced what I believe to be true.
It’s the Second Sunday of Easter and our Gospel lesson is the same every single year: Doubting Thomas. For whatever reason on that very first Easter, Thomas had been out of the house when Jesus appeared. In that scene, notice that the assembled disciples don’t have any clue that it’s Jesus until he shows them his hands and his side. “Then,” John writes, “they rejoices when they saw the Lord.” Before getting the visual proof of his scars, his friends don’t recognize him. After, they recognize him.
When Thomas gets back from his walk or from picking up the take out or grabbing that bag of Doritos from the local Qwik-E-Mart, Jesus is gone. The others tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, but he thinks they’re pulling a fast one on him. “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands,” he says, and then going in for dramatic flair continues, “and unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in his pierced side, I will not believe.” Besides the ick factor of Thomas physically touching the marks of the crucifixion, he needs the same thing at the others. They also had to see his hands and his side in order to recognize Jesus; they just didn’t verbalize that request.
You know the story, the next week eight days later, they’re all together again. Jesus appears once more. Thomas’s eyes become wide in astonishment. Jesus hols out his hands and lifts his shirt telling Thomas to reach out his own hand. Thomas immediately cries out, “My Lord and my God!” with no touching of scars necessary.
It took me a long time to see it, frankly, the thing about this story that began changing my understanding of the next life, but it’s right there front and center. I’m speaking of Jesus’ hands and his side. The places the nails held him on the cross and where a soldier thrust his spear after Jesus had taken his last breath. Do you see it yet yourself?
If Jesus carries his scars with him into the resurrected life of his kingdom, what makes us think we won’t still have ours?
That image of physical perfection in heaven that has been a mainstay in my thinking always did away with imperfect things like scars. That good-sized one on my right arm from an accident on my cousin’s farm would be gone. Or that small one on my chin when I fell as toddler onto a toy boat, erased. Never mind those emotional scars, the places where relationships had broken down and hurts had been endured and eventually forgiveness was found.
It seems the image of Jesus’ kingdom that I had conjured up in my head was not only a vision of perfectionism writ large, it also included a spiritual amnesia of some sort—a blacking out of the memories of those things that had once brought me pain.
I know I’m venturing out in deep theological waters on a Sunday where we’re still hungover from eating all those jelly beans. I could have just taken the easy route and patted us all on the back since unlike Thomas we didn’t need to see the physically risen and scarred Jesus in order to believe, so we are especially blessed by God.
And yet the real message of the resurrection lies in the power of love to overcome death. Of sustenance and strength found when we felt utterly alone in the wilderness. Of deep wounds both physically and spiritually finding healing. That to me is the key: Jesus’ resurrection does indeed bring healing and wholeness. Harrowing experiences in life shape and form us. Times that we’d never want to relive often bring us empathy for others. Jesus bears the marks of his crucifixion, and, as the Apostle Peter himself writes, “by his wounds we are healed.”
Our healing will take place as we enter into the resurrected life—we will not enter into Christ’s kingdom with things that have not been touched by his mercy and grace. But I still believe that at least some of those marks where we’ve been healed will be present in order to remind us always of the deep love God has shown to us. Those places which bears signs of deep resilience will become markers of God’s goodness.
Last week on Easter Day I preached about God mending us like my friend Laura mends worn socks and other clothing items often using bright thread. There’s a similar practice in Japan called Kintsugi which translated means “golden joinery.” The practice, often used on broken tea bowls, repairs pottery with lacquer which is then dusted with powdered gold. As one artist describes it, “Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates each artifact’s unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life.” These pottery bowls experience resurrection.
These days I’m less concerned about the perfect images I have of the next life that seem more influenced by a marketing guru trying to make me think heaven is nothing more than consumeristic bliss. Rather I’m seeing the importance of life in that kingdom both now and in the future as focused on relationships: our connections with God, one another, the created world and with ourselves. It’s not about perfection at all in the sense we often think of it as some ideal, but it’s about the wholeness and peace that we can find through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
What this story shows us vividly is that God’s love does not depend on us attaining some flawless state, but that God sees our broken bits and joins them back together making us more beautiful in the process. The risen Christ was known only because of his mended scars; he desires for us to find healing too.
As we baptize Nathan into this body of Christ, we are reminded of how important each of us is in the life of faith. In each of us is profound beauty and worth that is to be shared with the world. Let us live as people of the resurrection, as those who have truly experienced new life.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!