Minister's Sermon - Sunday 5th May 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 5th May 2019

John 20.19-23

One of the difficulties we have in talking about mental health issues in church, is that what we’ve come to understand in the 21st century, is a long way from the biblical world. So, the bible can get in the way of us a developing a healthy Christian perspective on mental health issues. As a result, I struggled to find a reading, and chose the one we’ve heard after reading a book written for the Inclusive Church movement about mental health. Because it seemed to me that the stories of Jesus healing people - whether they suffered from physical or mental illnesses – are too constrained by the cultural assumptions embedded in them. And they don’t easily help us understand, what we need to know about healing, today. About how to live together, and particularly, how to live together with our wounds and scars. What I’m going to say this morning, isn’t only about mental health issues, because there shouldn’t be any difference in the way we relate to people and issues that we find challenging. But it is particularly important in the context of mental health because Christians and the church need to demonstrate – and not just say – that people with mental health problems are no different from the rest of us. We’re going to look at the reading in two parts, under two themes, and I’ve separated them out on the paper you have with the readings.

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.

The disciples will surely have heard the news that Jesus is alive. Mary Magdalene will have told them. Yet they’re still hiding behind locked doors! Fear of the Jewish religious leaders had led them to isolate themselves. And fear does this. It may not be rational to onlookers, but it is real to those who experience it, and the feeling needs to be respected. Not be dismissed as irrational or stupid. Jesus doesn’t. He comes to be with them in their fear. Without criticism. He is simply there. In their midst. Wes Howard Brook, asks, “And is this not how it should be for all gatherings of would-be disciples who shake in fear…?” (1) For somehow, whenever we are afraid, whatever the reason is for our fear, Jesus is in our midst, whether we know it or not. Offering the gift of peace. I’ll come to the peace he offered them in a little while. But for now, I want to look at what he did first, as “he showed them his hands and his side.” Some commentators see this verse as a simple confirmation that this is the Jesus who was crucified. Others suggest it emphasises the authority he’ll soon transfer to his disciples. For me, Jesus’ wounds in his hands and his side are important, because of what they say about God’s identity and ours. I see Jesus’ “hands and side,” as being symbolic of all human wounding, all scars visible or hidden. Not only the physical ones that are obvious here, but also our hidden emotional, mental or spiritual problems that don’t get usually get talked about in public. The point, ‘though isn’t being wounded, itself. There is nothing positive about wounding, for other people, or ourselves. And it can be abuse or self-harm. The point, is what Jesus being raised from the dead with his wounds intact, says about God and humanity.

A book that’s made a deep impression on me is “The Disabled God” by Nancy Eiesland. I first read it in the late 1990s, and was so impressed by it, that I re-read it when I was on sabbatical in 2010 a year after she’d died. Eisland was born with a congenital bone disorder and underwent many operations in her younger years. The experience had a profound impact on her theology. For her, God was neither all-powerful, nor a suffering servant, but “a survivor, unpitying and forthright.” (2) Of course, it’s easy to make God in our own image, but it’s also good to have our traditional images of God questioned. And I think she understands John’s Jesus well. So, when he appears in the midst of his frightened friends, and presents “his [wounded, scared,] impaired hands and side,” she says that “the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God.” (3) “…the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God.” And he appears as the disabled God, not only to help them recognise who he is, but so that they might also recognise their own “impairment” in him. It doesn’t surprise me that someone with a physical impairment would want to see their disability in God. But I think it’s also relevant to those who live with other impairments - including mental health illnesses – since there is a long-standing tradition that the wound in Jesus’ side witnesses to hidden suffering.

Many people find Eisland’s perspective on disability, challenging, and there are two main reasons. The first has to do with the high value our society places on our minds and bodies being perfect. We know it’s not possible. Yet in the media, sport, the fashion and music industries and many other places, there’s an expectation that men and women will have well-honed bodies and beautiful faces. And that those of us who don’t are somehow less than those who appear to be. There’s considerable evidence about how damaging this is, especially to young people, and about the impact it’s having on their mental health. Faced with such ideas about human perfection, it’s important that Christians affirm our understanding, that everyone is made in the image of God. In the account of the creation we read: “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’” This is a profoundly countercultural assertion. And yet it’s also at the root of the second reason people struggle with Eisland’s ideas. For if human beings are made in the image of God, and God is perfect, how can those with disabilities be made in God’s image? What are we to do with disabilities people are born with? And how can we make sense of Eisland’s suggestion that we can recognise our own impairments and illnesses in Jesus after the resurrection?

I like pictures of bible stories. They’re as much interpretations of the scriptures, as sermons, hymns, poems and so on. And over the years I’ve learnt from them. One of the things I noticed a few years ago, is that not all artists show Jesus’ wounds, in pictures of him after his resurrection. So, these questions aren’t just questions that we’re asking now, they are questions God’s people have been asking for centuries! Here are some examples.

These first three illustrate the reading from John’s Gospel. So, the scars in Jesus’ hand and side, are visible in all three pictures. In these three there are no scars. The first is Christ in Majesty from northern Spain from the 12th century. The second is from the 6th century. It’s the oldest icon of Christ. The third is a modern one. Christ’s wounds are not visible. For the communities they were painted for the idea that God’s perfection is compromised by wounds is intolerable. In other time and places, ‘though, Christ’s wounds have become as important, as they were to Nancy Eisland. This isn’t simply an American feminist’s idea! Here is a mediaeval painting from Italy. A modern one. And one from the 16th century. These each affirm, that Jesus’s resurrected body includes human wounds, and reveals something about God that was previously hidden.

I’m not asking you to like these pictures. I don’t! But part of the answer to the questions I raised about Nancy Eisland’s ideas, is, we’re not the first generation to struggle with them. And like them we don’t know. Because we can’t fully understand God’s nature. So, while some err on the side of God’s perfection. Others choose God’s weakness, vulnerability, and woundedness. But if talking about the nature of God feels too complicated or too contentious. What we can say, is that her ideas offer us a fuller understanding of human beings, than the society we live does. For by drawing attention to his wounds, in his resurrected body, Jesus reveals a new humanity. Eisland says that Jesus is “the revelation of true personhood, [affirming] that full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.” (4) That to be human is to be wounded, impaired, ill in some way or other. I think this is really important, not just for people with mental health impairments, but for all of us. Because being human is an experience of being limited and wounded. The form our wounding takes isn’t the same. But no-one’s impairments should result in them leading a less than full life. And the purpose of human communities - whether churches or wider society – should be to enable all to thrive. (Not just economically) Because in God’s economy everyone has a gift to give. And I think this invites us to see our wounds and limitations as integral to our identity as people created in God’s image.

What do you think of the idea that everyone as a “wounded person”? How might it help or hinder the way we relate to each other?

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” …  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The only positive thing that many commentators say about the disciples in this story, is that despite their fear, they were together. They had not scattered. They had remained together and were supporting each other. As Jesus comes among them, he says, “Peace be with you.” He’d used a similar phrase when they were gathered together on the night before he died. During a long conversation after he’d washed the disciples’ feet, he something similar, twice. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” With these words, Jesus invited them to allow his peace to give them courage to face persecution from the political and religious authorities, without fear. But I think his words are equally applicable to those who experience rejection, because of their mental health problems, a physical impairment, or because of some other difference. This is the peace the church can and should be offering. For the peace that opens locked doors also opens locked hearts. To reinforce this, Jesus offers them peace a second time, and then “he breathed on them and said… ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” This “act of ‘blowing in’ spirit” (5) evokes God’s first act of breathing in. In the second creation story in Genesis we read: “7 …then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the person became a living being.” Now, the “fearful community, hiding in the dust of its shame, is infused with ‘holy spirit’ from the mouth of Jesus.” (6) The word for “breath,” is used in the Greek version of the Genesis text and in John’s Gospel, and it’s the same. It’s the breath that was given to the first human. The breath that is the “presence of God that allows life to come to being.” (7) Not just in the beginning, but here after the resurrection and ever since, when people experience peace and new life.

In their book on mental health, Jean Vanier and John Swinton, write about the church’s role in “walking with people who have mental illness.” For them, it “is not focused on curing… [it is] to enable healing.” (8) They distinguish between being cured and healing. A cure, they say, has to do with disease being got rid of. While healing, is about learning to live with illnesses and impairments well, and finding health in the midst of dis-ease. I know scientists are working hard to cure diseases, but for many mental health conditions, drugs don’t provide a simple chemical cure. Being healed, is about learning to live well, and it is possible to experience peace and healing even ‘though we may not be cured. So, just as Jesus met with the disciples and spoke peace to their fear, the church is called to offer places to meet, where people might experience peace. But as wounded, broken people, we cannot do this alone. We do it in the power of the Spirit. For the Holy Spirit prevents us from being stuck with our limitations and wounds. By enabling us to glimpse the possibility, that even though we are not as whole as we might be (yet), that is not the same as saying that we are all that we can be. We are always in the process of becoming the people God made us to be. And the Holy Spirit inspires, sustains and enables us in our wounded and limited humanity, to become people and a community that reveals the glory that God first revealed to us in Jesus.

I’m struck by Jesus’ tenderness towards the disciples. This is John’s version of Pentecost. Yet in Jesus’ breathing, there is none of the disturbing power of Luke’s story, in the Book of Acts. It is peaceful and tender. Jean Vanier speaks about the importance of tenderness in relating to people with mental illnesses and impairments. “Tenderness,” he says, “is an amazing capacity. Tenderness means listening with compassion to people’s stories and their suffering; it means meeting and welcoming another person with gentleness and care, offering understanding without the desire to dominate or teach. To act tenderly is to call forth and welcome the gift of the other, as we, in turn, offer our gift. Tenderness implies mutual trust and humility. Isn’t tenderness a gift of the Holy Spirit which flows from the tenderness of a God who is tender? Tenderness… restores personhood. [It] is a revelation of discipleship carried out in the Spirit. Maybe,” he says, “we will end up saying, I am sorry I can do nothing for you, but I want you to know that I care for you.’ ‘Maybe we can out you in touch with someone who can help?’ Such an admission is the beginning point of healing. Maybe doing absolutely nothing is what needs to be done? Being rather than doing may be the key to meeting those with difficult experiences. We offer… hospitality. We talk a little… We learn to live one another’s pain and share one another’s alienation. Real meeting means being willing to feel lost with those who feel lost and using the sharing of our lostness as the basis of communion. As the song, [we’ll sing later] goes, ‘I once was lost but now I’m found.’ This is at the heart of compassionate meeting; an amazing grace!” (9)

Vanier and Swinton see this grace, peace and healing being not only for people with mental illnesses, but also for those who are willing to meet with them, as they own their own brokenness and impairment. But this is only possible when we create places where each person can be themselves. Rather than being the people others think we should be. When that happens, they’ve seen transformations taking place, but it only happens when those of us who are well – whether as individual Christians or the church - do not insist on being in control of the meeting, because we think we’re the only ones who have something to offer. The only caveat I need to make to that, is that we ensure the safety of all involved, so safeguarding matters. Boundaries are necessary to ensure everyone is safe. To create meeting places where there is no judgement, but humility, openness and compassion. And this is where I think Jesus’ final words are important, even ‘though it isn’t immediately obvious, why. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The Greek word for “forgive,” is, “let go of.” That “let go” is the same thing let go that Jesus has just said to Mary Magdalene when she tried to keep hold of him in the garden. It’s, let go of everything, that gets in the way of love, new life, and resurrection life. Every idea, every feeling, everything. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says over and over again, that community life is about love, so here he’s telling them to let go of everything that prevents them from being a loving, life-giving community for all. If they hold onto their grudges or get stuck in focusing on each other’s imperfections, he says, then they will focus on sin and dis-ease and not on love. But if they are able to accept the human condition, and our human tendency to betray and be afraid, then they will be able to live together in a welcoming, hospitable community. I may be making too big a leap, but I think that what Jesus says here, also includes how we relate to each other with all our differences and imperfections and illnesses. Accepting that we each have imperfections, living together tenderly, and without judgement. Allowing each other to be open about ourselves. Letting go, forgiving those things that don’t appear to be loving, yet result from someone’s condition. Is to live as Jesus did. To offer peace, healing, grace. To do what Jesus sends us to do. “Just as the Father sent me…” And when we do, we will all experience the peace, healing and grace of the resurrection. For in every time and place the Risen Christ is found among wounded, ill and limited people, who are being inspired by the Spirit of God, to reveal the fullness of God’s glory. Even now – and even here!

What are we doing to provide space for people with mental health problems as individuals and as a church? What might help our meetings to be more “tender”? How have you been changed by “tender meetings”?

Sue Keegan von Allmen

References

(1) Wes Howard Brook Becoming Children of God 1994, 456

(2) Nancy L Eiesland The Disabled God (Abingdon Press, Nashville) 1994, 89, 100.

(3) Nancy L Eiesland The Disabled God (Abingdon Press, Nashville) 1994, 100.

(4) (5) (6) (9) Wes Howard Brook Becoming Children of God 1994, 458

(7) Jean Vanier and John Swinton Mental Health: The inclusive Church resource 201* kindle version location 649

(8) Jean Vanier and John Swinton Mental Health: The inclusive Church resource 201* kindle version location 730