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The Marks of the Church

Margaret LaMotte Torrence

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Marks of the Church

John 20:19-31

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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


“The Marks of the Church”

In 2007, the journalist Martha Raddatz published a book about the war in Iraq. In it she tells the story of a young widow finally receiving the body of her husband, after learning that he has been killed in that conflict.  But when the coffin arrives and is opened, she’s not quite convinced that this is her beloved; he looks smaller somehow. And so—much to the discomfort of the military escorts—she begins to unbutton the uniform that covers his body. She cannot be convinced of her husband’s identity until she finds her own name tattooed on his skin—until she touches that familiar mark. Only then can she say as she fingers the inscription: “That’s me, Lesley—and this is my Dusty.”[1]

I think of that story when I read accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. The people who loved him best seem to need to see his wounds before they can be sure of his identity. More than the color of his eyes or the cadence of his speech it is the marks of his suffering that announce to the disciples that this is their Lord, their teacher, their Jesus.

And how patient Jesus is with their need to know. It’s like that not only at the end of John’s gospel, but all the way through. It starts in the very first chapter:

  • When John the Baptist’s disciples are curious about Jesus,
    Jesus invites them to “Come and see.”[2]
  • A few verses later, when Nathanael is skeptical after hearing rumors about Jesus, his friend Phillip says again, “Come and see.” [3]
  • It’s what the Samaritan woman says to her neighbors after encountering Jesus at the well: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”[4]

The whole gospel respects the notion that we need to see and hear for ourselves—that faith grows from personal encounter.

But that same notion kicks up the obstacle that John’s gospel is designed to address: how will later generations come to know the love of God made known in Jesus? How will that personal encounter be possible from here on out?  Today’s passage is John’s answer in a nutshell.

You may have noticed that John can’t wait six weeks for Pentecost before the Spirit is set loose to empower the fledgling church. John’s version of the mighty wind of Pentecost issues here on Easter night, right from Jesus’ mouth.   The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the disciples as Jesus speaks “Peace,” and then exhales. It is not a storyline anyone could have anticipated.

Remember that today’s passage has its beginning on Easter evening.
The last few days have been filled with horror—not only the violence inflicted upon Jesus, and the crushing of the disciples’ hopes, but also the humiliation of their own responses: flights of fear, denial, and betrayal among the inner circle. Into that charged atmosphere, which must have included shame and recrimination, Jesus says “Peace.” He does not ask them to explain, or apologize, or fall to their knees. He just breathes wholeness, reconciliation, forgiveness into the room. And then, without skipping a beat, he lets his friends know that his breath is about to carry them into the world, because the same mission that God gave to Jesus, he is now giving to his friends.

But listen closely to this next part, because there’s a scholar named Sandra Schneiders who is having a powerful effect on current conversation about this passage. The NRSV translates verse 23 the way you heard it a few minutes ago: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Does that strike you as an abrupt change of tone? It feels that way to me.

Schneiders notes that this English translation has inserted words that are absent in the Greek, out of a presumption that they must have been intended. In the original language there is no mention of sin in the second half of that statement. It also helps to know that the word “retain” is as easily translated “hold fast” or “embrace.” So a more literal translation of that verse might be rendered this way: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; and anyone whom you embrace, they are held fast.”

Such a translation suggests that followers of Jesus have the capacity to hold fast to others until they find their way to faith. Since that’s a description of what Jesus does all through the Gospel of John—and also a description of what he’s about to do for Thomas, it makes perfect sense as a commission that he would share with his followers. Schneiders puts it this way: “Theologically, and particularly in the context of John’s Gospel, it is hardly conceivable that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness….”[5]

This isn’t a dry, academic matter; there are implications for us here, friends. Nearly every week in this room we share the peace of Christ in ritual fashion. We confess our sin, acknowledging our estrangement from God, each other, and the rest of creation. We claim again God’s mercy, and then we speak Christ’s peace to each other. Lately we’ve been wondering whether that ought to be accompanied by a handshake or a fist bump, so some good-natured laughter has been mixed in, but the roots of what we’re doing can be traced back to this text—and could not be more important.

That’s what we’re attempting on Sunday mornings, to offer a word of mercy and life that is ours only by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s Christ’s peace, not our own, that we hope to speak into the space between us. Our ritual is practice for what we need to do in the world, because the world is aching for this kind of encounter. Diane Roth, a Lutheran pastor in Texas, puts it this way:

“When those around us can no longer see Jesus, they are looking for him in our lives. They are looking for him in communities of faith that care for those who are needy, that sacrifice rather than hoard, that include rather than exclude, that listen before speaking. They are looking for us to hold out our hands to see if we have wounds. 

Jesus holds out his wounded hands to Thomas, the proof that his love and suffering are real—that he is the same man who was crucified. Maybe that is what the world is asking from us: to see what we are willing to risk for the sake of love, for the sake of one who loves us.”[6]

I began this sermon by talking about a tattoo, a tattoo that identified a soldier’s body for his young widow. Where I live most of the time, near Asheville, tattoos are ubiquitous, but my son got his first tattoo when he was a student just across the street. He didn’t surprise us with it. He came home first and asked for our blessing—really my blessing, since he knew that I was the parent who would struggle with his choice.

It isn’t that I mind tattoos in theory, but there’s something about the memory of that perfect little body that we brought into the world. Even though by the time we had the tattoo conversation he was 6’3” and bearded, I still could see that little boy, and there was part of me that wanted to protect him from choices that would mark him for the rest of his life. But he’d thought about all that. He’d been thinking about this tattoo for a long time. He wasn’t afraid to choose.

He came to me with a sheet of paper on which he’d printed the layout of the proposed tattoo. It was large, designed to begin on one shoulder and to run to the middle of his back. In bold, clear type it said simply, God is love.

Nate had anticipated all my reservations. He said, “It needs to be large; it’s a public statement. You wouldn’t believe the messages I hear on campus.” And then he went on, “I struggle with this—I do—but I want to struggle with it my whole life. I need to see this message in the mirror on good days and bad days—as my body ages, as I wear down.”

What does a mother say to that?

Which leads me to the question I want to ask you this morning.

As Scott reminded us at the beginning of the service, during the last few months a team of members of this church have been working on a self-study. They’ve been gathering demographic data; looking at the church’s history; they’ve been talking to community leaders, and asking you to describe and envision this church at its best—but this morning, as I ask you a question on their behalf, I’m asking you to respond more personally.

Distributed all over the sanctuary are small rectangles of yellow paper. If you are in the main part of the sanctuary, they should be in the pew racks in front of you. If you are in the balcony, they should be in the worship registers.

I’d love for each of you to find one of those sheets and to use it to answer a question that I will ask in just a moment. There also should be writing utensils nearby; please share with your neighbor if necessary. You don’t need to include your name, but once you’ve answered the question, please just add your sheet to the offering plate when it comes by.

You’ll get to see all your neighbors’ responses when you come to the fellowship hall in two weeks, on April 22, when the team will present some preliminary findings of their work and ask for further feedback. Please plan to come because the team wants to have a conversation with you before they begin writing their report. Once written that report will need to be approved by both the session and the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry. Once it is approved, it will be time to elect your Pastor Nominating Committee. We expect to do that in June.

But before we get to all of that exciting activity, I have three versions of what is essentially the same question. It can be answered by members and visitors alike, and we hope by persons of all ages. Don’t worry about retaining all of the wording of the questions. Trust that the Spirit is stirring in this place and just write what comes to you in response.

So here are my questions:

What’s the word or words that you need to see in the mirror to remember who and whose you are?

Or, what word has God written on your heart that needs to be shared with the world, as a public statement?

In effect, what would your tattoo say?


[1] Martha Raddatz, The Long Road Home, Putnam, 2007.

[2] John 1:39

[3] John 1:46

[4] John 4:29

[5] as quoted by Mary Hinkle Shore, commentary on John 20:19-31, Working Preacher

[6] Diane Roth, commentary on John 20:19-31, Christian Century

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor


Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111


Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.