The Wounds of Christ

Sermon for Trinity Sunday by the Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

Gen 1:1-2:4a; Ps 8
2 Cor 13:11-13; Matt 28:16-20

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While I was in seminary, I was privileged to see an extraordinary exhibit at the National Gallery in London. Called “Seeing Salvation,” it presented an array of images of Christ spanning almost 2,000 years. I wandered rapt among Roman sarcophagi, Medieval statues, and exquisite paintings, until I came upon a painting which made no sense to me: five red oblongs on a white ground, a weird abstract thing which did not fit in at all. When I approached it, I read that it was a painting of the wounds of Christ: not the body; just the wounds. Apparently, meditating on them had been a popular Medieval devotion. It struck me as a bit weird.

These last two weeks, we have all been meditating on the wounds of Christ. We have seen them in the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and in the death of Manuel Ellis, choked to death by police while the Black Lives Matter demonstrations were occurring. We have seen them in the pain and anguish of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking the streets to protest police brutality against black people, not only in the States, but around the world. We have seen them here in Canada in death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who plunged from her balcony on the 24th floor, possibly pushed by police — a death which evokes the deaths of Wayne Reyes, D’Andre Campbell, Eishia Husdon, Randy Cochrane, Sean Thompson, Machuar Madut, Greg Ritchie, Abdirahman Abdi, and at least 19 other black, indigenous, or racialized people killed by Canadian police since 2013.

We have seen those wounds in the massive deployment of force against peaceful demonstrators, who have been confronted in the States by members of the National Guard and officials from the Bureau of Prisons, and who have repeatedly suffered assault, including vehicular assault, at the hands of the police who have sworn to serve and protect them, and we have seen it here in Montreal last Sunday, when a largely-peaceful protest was forcibly dispersed by police wielding pepper spray and tear gas — police actions which resulted in wider violence.

We have seen them in the statistics (if we have not averted our eyes); out of 461 fatal encounters with police between 2000 and 2017, black and indigenous Canadians make up more than 25% of the victims, while making up only 8% of the population. [1] These statistics do not claim that none of the victims of police violence were engaged in illegal activity. But, somehow, police seem to be able to apprehend white suspects under similar circumstances without killing them. That’s the disparity.

The twin scourges of anti-black/anti-indigenous racism and of white supremacy are indeed wounds in the body of Christ. They are wounds to the bodies and souls of each person in our society, whether we want these things to exist or not. White people are wounded when we are given privileges which are not offered to our brothers and sisters, because we are made to be complicit in their oppression. People of color are wounded by living in constant danger, by being cut off from top-notch education and excellent healthcare and the opportunity to use their god-given gifts to the fullest extent for the betterment of all, by being told from their birth that they matter less. They/you matter. I speak to you in the name of God: you matter. Systemic racism and white supremacy are wounds to us all as long as we are not part of the healing.

And now I want to say something just to the white people in the room for a moment: Over the last few months, we have lived with a set of significant restrictions on our lives: We have been ordered to stay in our neighborhoods. We have been told to stay home to be safe. We have had to make a constant set of calculations about danger: Is it safe to go to the grocery store, or do we need to order in? Is it safe to drive, or will we be stopped by police manning checkpoints? If we get an ice cream cone, will we die? Those restrictions are what life is like for many of our brothers and sisters of color, not just during Covid, but all the time. And we no longer have to imagine what it might be like to live in constant danger, to have an enemy outside the door, waiting to strike without warning. Now, we know.

It is past time for that healing. Long past time.

Today is Trinity Sunday, when I am supposed to speak to you about the nature of God. We’ll get there, but I want to begin by taking us back to last Sunday, because if there is any holy day which gives us the tools with which to fight white supremacy, it’s Pentecost. That was the day when twelve frightened disciples (and some women) were given courage and power to proclaim to all the world the good news of God in Jesus Christ. You’ll remember that all the people were gathered in the Temple at Jerusalem for a great feast, the feast which marks the giving of the Law of God, and suddenly there was a rushing wind and tongues of fire appeared on the heads of the disciples and they began to speak of the mighty works of God — and each person understood in their own language. As Bertrand reminded us, Pentecost is seen as the undoing of Babel — the day on which God undid the curse of difference. But if God undid difference, God did not do it in any simplistic way. God did not cancel difference; God sanctified it. God sanctified it. God poured out God’s spirit on people from every race and tongue and nation. God spoke to each of them as they were, because God had made each of them as they were — and pronounced it good.

The miracle of Pentecost is not that we are made to be the same, but that we are given ears to hear and to understand one another. God reverses, not difference, but alienation. In the house of God, differences no longer divide people and leave them trapped behind walls of fear; rather, they are a cause for mutual delight as we explore together the riches of the unfolding of the mind of God. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17) – for “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

On Pentecost, God gives us the model of beloved community, and that model is unity, not uniformity. Being joined together by the love of God, even though — and maybe even because — we are different. We see the same thing if we turn our gaze toward the Trinity, who is three distinct and equal persons, bound forever in unity of being by mutual love and delight. I am not privy to the mind of God, but I suspect that the confluence of these two holy days gives us a glimpse of the divine plan: beloved community in heaven finding its living reflection on earth. Unity, not uniformity. Communion, not estrangement. Love, not fear. The image in which we were made — each of us, and all of us together.

This sacred mystery of distinct identities held together by love, which is God’s nature, is, for us, a choice — a choice, but not an option. We for whom Christ is the Way must walk in that Way; and honesty compels us to admit that we have too often failed. We have allowed our faith to be coopted by systems of power because we wanted power; we were able to convince ourselves that we would use the power we earned by corrupt means for good; we have shaped self-justifying theologies which have enabled us to demean and debase the very people God called us to love. The result has been lamentable: as theologian Howard Thurman reminds us, for much of Christian history, “a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples.” [2]

Thurman recounts that when he went to a conference at the Law College of the University of Columbo in Ceylon, the principal of the college (who was Hindu) invited him to have coffee. Then he recounted Christianity’s complicity in slavery and in other colonial abuses, and asked how Thurman, a black man, could be a Christian, saying: “I do not wish to seem rude to you, sir. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.”[3]

When I read that story, I wept. I wept because I love Jesus, and I wept because that man’s statement was perfectly intelligible to me as a person raised in Judaism, who felt called to follow Christ even though people bearing his name had killed my people for two thousand years. And I wept because I knew the answer: which is grace. By grace, people who have suffered at the hands of Christians have been able nonetheless to see beyond our actions into the fire of God’s mercy.

In Christ, the poor man finds his truest home. You can read the Bible cover to cover, and you will see one thing: God is always on the side of the oppressed. James Cone writes, “In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomes his; their despair, divine despair. Through Christ the poor man is offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes him other than human.” [4] Freedom to rebel against that which makes him other than human. YES!!!

That is the freedom which draws us to Christ. That is the freedom which enables a slave to stand on her feet and know herself to be free. It is the freedom which led hundreds of thousands of people to pour into the streets this week and demand that our societies cast off the yoke of racial oppression, whether that oppression take the form of disadvantage or of complicity in unjust privilege. It is the freedom each of us embraces when we turn from evil and ask God’s help to embrace what is good.

It is time, my friends. It is so long past time. It is time to cast off denial and to cast off shame. Premier Legault may wish to believe that there is no systemic racism in Quebec, but black Canadians earn on average one third less than other Canadians, even when indigenous Canadians are counted among the others. They are twice as likely to be low income; twice as likely as any other group to be the victims of hate crime; and, while 94% of black youth long for a university degree, only 30% achieve that goal, compared to 54% overall. That is what systemic racism looks like: the broken dreams of God’s children.

Friends, it is not enough to be anti-racist in our words. Too often, we people of good will have allowed our words and our distress to function like a placebo, convincing ourselves that our pain means we are on the side of the angels, when, in fact, we are doing nothing to change the game. Being anti-racist is not a matter of words or of attitude, but of putting ourselves on the line. Having skin in the game.

We who are Christian need to take the side of the oppressed (in our voting, in our purchasing, in our hiring decisions), because that’s where God already is. If we want to be with God, we have to go there. When God chose to redeem us, God put God’s skin on the line for us. It is only in that complete solidarity that we can begin to know “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fulness of God.” (Eph 3:18-19) By grace, “God [can] transmute defeat into triumph, ugliness into beauty, despair into hope, the cross into the resurrection.” God can, and God does. The question is, will you?

[1] For those 461 deaths, 18 officers have faced charges, and, so far, only two have been convicted.

[2] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 2.

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power.







  1. Reply
    Greta and Paul Helmer says:

    Challenging and uncomfortable!
    Thank you so much for your sermon!

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