Sermon number three was from me.
Reading – Galatians 6.17b; Colossians 1.15-20
I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Come see His hands and His feet
The scars that speak of sacrifice
Hands that flung stars into space
To cruel nails surrendered
Saint Paul spoke, in his letter to the Galatians, of carrying the marks of Jesus branded on his body. The word that he used for ‘marks’ is the plural of the Greek word stigma, which means a physical mark made on the skin as a sign of disgrace or subjection – like being branded as a slave or a criminal. It’s where, of course, our word ‘stigma’ comes from. In Saint Paul’s case he is referring to the sufferings, and the physical scars, that he has received as a result of being an apostle of Jesus Christ. The plural of the word has become familiar to us as the term used when marks like those received by Jesus – the wounds on his hands and feet and in his side – are believed to have appeared on the bodies of certain saints. Stigmata.
Did Saint Paul have the stigmata> Is that what he was referring to? Probably not, though we can’t be sure. He is probably referring to the physical scares of his beatings and stonings. Saint Francis was the first clearly recorded person to have exhibited stigmata. In the year 1224, two years before his death, he went on a journey to La Verna with three companions for a forty day fast. While there, shortly before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which we still celebrate every year on September 14th, he received a vision. Brother Leo, who was with Saint Francis, records what happened.
All of a sudden there was a dazzling light. It was as though the heavens were exploding and splashing forth all their glory in millions of waterfalls of colours and stars. And in the centre of that bright whirlpool was a core of blinding light that flashed down from the depths of the sky with terrifying speed until suddenly it stopped, motionless and sacred, above a pointed rock in front of Francis. It was a fiery figure with wings, nailed to a cross of fire. Two flaming wings rose straight upward, two others opened out horizontally, and two more covered the figure. And the wounds in the hands and feet and heart were blazing rays of blood. The sparkling features of the Being wore an expression of supernatural beauty and grief. It was the face of Jesus, and Jesus spoke.
Then suddenly streams of fire and blood shot from His wounds and pierced the hands and feet of Francis with nails and his heart with the stab of a lance. As Francis uttered a mighty shout of joy and pain, the fiery image impressed itself into his body, as into a mirrored reflection of itself, with all its love, its beauty, and its grief. And it vanished within him. Another cry pierced the air. Then, with nails and wounds through his body, and with his soul and spirit aflame, Francis sank down, unconscious, in his blood.
Saint Francis carried on his hands and feet and side the marks of the wounds of Jesus until his death.
Such extreme manifestations of religious devotion are rare, of course. Far more common in our world, even today, are those who still carry the marks of Jesus branded on their body, as Saint Paul did. More people have been martyred since the turn to the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history. And worldwide thousands suffer and die each year because they are Christians. We are fortunate that in this country we do not suffer physically for our Christian faith. Many Christians have expressed concern about a rising tide of aggressive atheism that seems determined to put an end to religion. And yet we do not face the reality of physical suffering or of death because we are Christians. And perhaps that freedom from physical oppression of our faith leads us to be rather complacent about how we express it. Tertullian, the early Christian Father who lived around the turn of the third century, famously wrote “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And it is interesting that the Church has often flourished the most when it has faced severe oppression, attempts to stamp it out.
So we are not called here, in Christian Britain, to bear physical marks that display – as in the case of Saint Paul – our faith. But do we show in our lives, metaphorically speaking, the marks that brand us as followers of Jesus. Have we been prepared to suffer in any way because, like Saint Paul, like Saint Francis, we have desired to follow Jesus no matter what that might mean?
An example of how we might suffer compared to others is highlighted by C S Lewis. He made the point that if, as a Christian, our standard of living is the same as that of our neighbour who is not a Christian, then we are not living out our Christian responsibilities. Our finances should be available for Jesus to use. We may need to be prepared to speak out about political issues when we feel our elected representatives are not acting in accordance with the gospel. Or write letters, or sign petitions, or fight for the rights of others when they cannot fight for themselves. And sometimes we will be criticised for it. And there are all kinds of ways in which we can choose to behave, because we believe it is how Jesus would want us to behave, that make a difference to how people view us. And which may result in people criticising us – stigmatising us – because they don’t like being reminded what is right and just.
When Jesus walked this earth he taught people about God and love and justice and charity – and as a result was criticised, complained about, condemned by those in authority, and in the end crucified by those who didn’t get the message.
Jesus called upon his followers to take up their own cross and follow him. If we want to follow Jesus, if we are really determined to be obedient servants of our master, then we too can expect to bear the marks of Jesus branded on our own bodies. Perhaps not physically, but certainly spiritually.
The Prayer of Saint Francis
Lord, make me a channel of your peace,
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.