“When it was evening that day, the first day of the week the doors of the house where the disciples met were locked for fear...”a reflection on the Gospel for Easter 2: John 20:19-31
As this gospel reading begins we are in the evening of Easter Day. Jesus first appears to the disciples that very night. And he finds them hiding in fear. Their fear is justified, of course. Any of us would do the same thing if we had lived through the same three days as these disciples. If our friend had been killed, if we had abandoned that friend in her hour of need, if we had learned that somehow that friend was now alive – or something – because the body was missing. We’d be traumatized and afraid of what was coming next. Whenever we experience a series of bad events coming at us quickly, events that leave us suffering and confused we tend to shut down and hide in fear. It’s natural.
Several years ago Joan Chittister spoke on the subject of suffering at a conference at Chautauqua in New York State. Her presentation “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, the 9 Gifts of Suffering” has now been printed in a book by the same title.
The premise is that all people suffer. Each of us has this one common denominator in life, times of suffering. They come she says, just when we think life is perfect. Wham. Everything changes. Someone dies. Someone get sick. Depression hits. A job is lost. The list could continue on. We all suffer when life changes dramatically for unexpected reasons when we least expect it. These struggles are not just some mere inconvenience. These struggles are irreparable change. Life will never be the same again.
And the point is, how do we go about living through these times of great suffering with out giving up the soul?
She lists 9 struggles and the gift that comes from the struggle. By gift she means what we learn about ourselves, our lives, our faith, by living through the struggle.
The first struggle is change. Struggle brings unwanted change. The disciples have faced an unbelievable change: Jesus has been crucified. From this place of profound change comes the gift of conversion, we learn to recreate ourselves. For the disciples this struggle began with them running away but led to the resurrection. Throughout the Easter season, for the next seven weeks, we will hear resurrection stories in our Gospel. On Pentecost we learn that these stories led to a conversion of strength and courage in the disciples. It was the disciples new found strength, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, that built the Church. And from the early church came a legacy of human transformation that has lived over 2000 years.
The second is isolation. The struggle leaves us feeling alone, and in deep pain. The disciples are hiding in the room with the doors locked. They are hiding in fear. From isolation comes the gift of independence. Actively working to move through our suffering days leads us to a place where we can become independent from our pain, we learn to insist on living despite the pain. Anyone who has lived with a chronic illness or suffered for a long time knows this reality. Buddhists call this “mindfulness” having an observing eye, able to look with some detachment at the circumstances of one’s life even as one lives and feels life fully.
The third is darkness and its gift is faith. In the darkness of losing everything we come to believe in a life beyond the life we know, something greater than we are is acting in the world. On our darkest days it’s that something that gets us up in the morning. God stays with us in these dark moments. We are not abandoned. Jesus returns to the disciples, finds them in their darkest moment, in this room, and assures them that they are not alone. He is with them always. “My peace I give to you. My peace I leave with you.” His resurrected body bears the marks of his tragic death , resurrection did not remove the marks. Those marks of suffering remain and become part of his new life.
Forth is fear. In our struggle we face things we do not understand and cannot name. We are paralyzed by our unknowing, but in moving through the fear we come to know the gift of courage. Every tiny act of courage: getting out of bed in the morning. Going to work each day. Seeking help. Each step we take to move through the fear produces in us a little bit of courage. Each little step puts us back in control of our lives, even if on a small scale.
Fifth is powerlessness and its gift of surrender. It is not defensive. And it is not a giving over of the self. It is not an absence of self. However, it is the realization that we are not in control of everything. This surrender is trusting that someone greater than we are is there to hold us up and keep us going. For Christians this is clearly the message of God’s love poured out in Christ. We sing, Christ beneath us, Christ above us, Christ behind us, Christ before us…where ever we go Christ is there.
Sixth is vulnerability and its gift of self acceptance. In moving through the struggle we come to a place where we have to admit that we are wounded. We need to accept our own weaknesses. Especially the way we hurt others. It is from their vulnerability that the disciples finally changed. Their weakness becomes their strength. Like the disciples when we are able to accept ourselves for being who are we acquire a position of humility and grace. We come to know that God loves us in our brokenness, just as we are. Being loved like this by a gracious God enables us to love others just as they are.
Seventh is exhaustion – moving through struggle wears us out. But the gift of moving through struggle, of living though the exhaustion, the gift is endurance. We learn that life begins again. Endurance brings us hope.
Eighth is scarring. We cannot move through struggle without becoming scarred. Our woundedness leaves marks on us. These marks can make us bitter. Or they can make us better. We can become better people through our struggles. The very process of moving through the struggle, of becoming scarred, is the same process that makes us better people. Our woundedness, our scars, become the source of our compassion, our hope, our faith, our strength. We wear our scars gracefully when we are gentle with ourselves and others, when we live with compassion.
Jesus is marked. He appears in the room and shows these marks to the disciples. It is a sign to them that he is who he is. He is their friend. He is Jesus. He loves them just as they are. He has come to help them move through their deepest struggle. He has come again to help them be more fully who they are meant to be. The gift of scarring is hope.
Like Jesus our scars, our wounds, can be the source of transformation in to new life. We all know people who do not move through struggles with grace and hope, people who become angry and bitter. That is one way our struggles can change us. But Jesus offers us another way. Jesus, though scarred is now even more, a fuller expression of the love of God poured out for all humanity. This love is now able to be fully present to all of the disciples, and all of us, all the time. In the resurrection Jesus becomes the bridge for us between the divine world of God’s love and the human world of suffering. Jesus offers us a way, a path, a means, for moving through the struggles of life into new life. The process, the struggle, the transformation, is the peace of Christ.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.'"