An Open Table where Love knows no borders

When the Victim Returns

A sermon on Luke 24:36b-48 by Nathan Nettleton
The dominant story in this week’s news has been the returning home of the body of Private Jake Kovco. In case you spent the week in another universe and haven’t heard, Private Kovco last week became the first Australian soldier to be shot dead in Iraq. The story is complicated because we don’t know how he was shot — it appears to have been some sort of accident with his own weapon — and because of the bungle over the return of his body which initially saw the wrong body flown back to Australia. However, yesterday the body of Private Jake Kovco arrived back in Australia, and we now have our first Australian military victim of this war. In a week when Anzac day already had us thinking about the sacrifices of so many young men and women in various wars, we are once again confronted with a victim coming home in a flag draped coffin. Where is God in all this killing and dying, and when will it ever end?
It is natural and appropriate that we honour those who our nations have sacrificed in war. It is quite a different thing from glorifying or legitimising war. Our country, like all human societies, lives in fear of violent unrest growing to uncontainable proportions, and so it makes strategic decisions to protect itself. This doesn’t mean only defending ourselves against direct attacks; it is also about maintaining alliances and military partnerships that we might be dependent on if we ever were directly attacked. Our nation makes its military decisions in line with its strategic goals of maintaining our global interests and protecting ourselves against potential enemies. And in the pursuit of those strategic goals, our nation is willing to offer up its sons and daughters as sacrifices to the cause. On Anzac day, the nation remembered thousands of its sacrificial victims, and yesterday the nation brought home the body of its latest sacrificed victim. Private Kovco, and the thousands who went before you, I salute you. May you rest in peace and be raised in glory, and may the system that offered you up to death without ever securing an end to wars be swept aside by the coming culture of the Prince of Life and Peace.
The bungling of the return of Private Kovco’s body tells us something about what we humans do when we have offered up a victim as a sacrifice to our causes. We quickly hide the gruesome consequences and we don’t want to look. We can cope with a flag draped coffin, because that is a powerful and seemingly honourable symbol of the sacrifices we are willing to make to achieve our goals, but we don’t want to have to see the wounded body. We keep the wounded body out of sight. In modern day war, the governments and military establishment go to great lengths to ensure that the public do not see the human carnage that war causes. If we the public were allowed to see too much of the horrific destruction of human bodies wrought by war, we might start questioning the strategic goals in whose name these sacrifices are offered. We might start asking whether democracy and the flag and the national interests are really false gods for whom nobody’s children should be sacrificed.
One of the startling things about the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah is that he returns to us as the still sacrificed victim. We heard of this in today’s gospel reading. Jesus’ wounds are not hidden away, too horrific for human viewing. Instead he approaches us with wounded hands and feet on display. The account of him showing them to the disciples is not just about proving that it was really him. It is about revealing who he is now. What it tells us is that the violent execution of Jesus is not something he got over and recovered from enough to be raised back to life. These wounds were not just there because it was only a few days and they hadn’t had time to heal up yet. The fatal wounds in the body of Jesus are not going to heal up any more than the wounds in Private Kovco’s body are going to heal up. What we encounter in the risen Messiah is one who is simultaneously the extravagantly alive one and the fatally wounded one. This is the same vision we see in the book of Revelation when John tells us of his vision of a slaughtered lamb, still clearly fatally wounded, ruling from the throne of heaven. In a way it is a bit like those macabre images from horror films of the decapitated man walking around carrying his severed head under his arm. It is an impossible juxtaposition of life and death; one in which the undeniable presence of life leaves death robbed of its power. Death is shown up to be powerless to stop the rise and rise of life.
This makes the encounter with the risen Jesus a very very different thing from an encounter with someone who you thought was going to die but who has recovered and is well again. In the resurrection we encounter the risen but still crucified Jesus, and we are confronted by the deadly consequences of what our society will do to secure its interests and desires, and therefore we are confronted with the deadly consequences of our complicity in that offering up of sacrificial victims. For the disciples and anyone else who Jesus encountered in Jerusalem at that time, he presents as the crucified one. They cannot hide from their involvement in making him a sacrificial victim. “Better that one man be sacrificed than the whole society be endangered,” had said one of their political and religious leaders, and at some level, they had all concurred with that dominant philosophy. Whether they had joined with the mob baying for his blood, or driven the nails themselves, or betrayed, deserted or denied him, they had all played their part in the process by which society offers up another victim to secure its future. But this time they are confronted with a whole new ball game. This time, despite having got the body quickly wrapped up and buried, they find themselves face to face with the slaughtered one, more startlingly alive than ever, but clearly still horrifically wounded. This time the body is not hidden under a flag and then buried, to live only as a glorified memory. This time the victim returns with his wounds on display for all to see, all who were complicit in inflicting them.
We weren’t in Jerusalem at the time, so we are not directly and personally implicated in the lynching  of Jesus, but as he comes to us, we find that we too are confronted by our own victims. Perhaps he comes to us wearing army fatigues and saying, “here, see and touch this bullet wound in my head, and understand what you have done as a nation in the pursuit of your securities and your interests.” Perhaps he comes to us as a child who has died of malnutrition and disease while working as a child labourer in one of the sweat shops that makes the brand-name apparel with which we adorn ourselves, saying, “here, touch my wasted limbs and understand.” Perhaps he comes to us with lips sewn shut and mad terror still in his eyes, calling us to see and understand still more sacrificial victims who we have offered up in order to create a deterrent to any who might seek to share the riches of our lifestyle. And if that was all we encountered in the resurrection, it would be no cause for joy. It would be the most horrifying coming home to roost of all the demons of our past. It would be like a horrendous haunting, where all the ghosts of our victims came back to constantly remind us of what we have done.
But that is not all we encounter in the resurrection. It is not just the return of our slaughtered victim. Instead, the things we most powerfully encounter in the resurrected Jesus are life and grace. Although he comes to us still fatally wounded, what overwhelms us is his startling aliveness. Simultaneously dead and alive, it is life that is clearly the winner. Death is drained of its meaning. Death cannot prevent him from living. Though he is dead, yet he is more alive than ever and there is nothing death can do to stop him. And if the power of death has been broken, then we can face death ourselves with quite a different perspective. Although it still remains an unknown, and unknowns are always somewhat frightening, we now know that death is not the final word. There is a word more powerful than death, a word that Jesus comes to speak over us, to call us forth from the culture of death into the life that is really life.
And it is not only his life that overwhelms us, but his grace. Grace is always unexpected, and especially when it comes directly and quickly from our victims. It is his grace that makes this resurrection encounter so different from that horrible vision of being haunted by the resentful ghosts of our victims. In Jesus, we cannot help but see the deadly wounds we have helped inflict, but even more startlingly obvious is his complete freedom from any resentment or any vengefulness. He comes to us full of compassion and love for us, more than ready to release us from any sense of guilt or debt we feel weighed down by for our support of the sacrificing. He invites us to stand with him, to look at the world through his eyes, to see things from the perspective of the victims, and to be set free to love and reconcile and make peace. For there can be no doubt that once we see the world through his eyes, through the eyes of the victims, then wars will cease and love and justice will flourish and grow. No one can see the world through those eyes and come away unchanged.
In a few minutes time we will gather around the table, and there we will encounter the risen victim of our sacrificing. He will invite us to reach out our hands and touch his wounds and receive his broken body. He will invite us to know the astonishing and extravagant forgiveness with which he surrenders himself over to our violent sacrificing so that it might be unmasked and we might see and be set free from its cycles of violence and vengeance. Beware of the tendency to drape a flag over this broken body and repeat the mantras about sacrifices being made in the noble causes of freedom and national security. Instead, try to summon the courage to touch the wounded body and to know his solidarity with all our victims and with all of us when we are the victims, and to hear the words of forgiveness spoken by the ultimate sacrificial victim; “Your sins are forgiven. Receive my self-offering, and live.”
This is the astonishing mercy that only the victim can offer. This is the mercy which is placed into our hands as a special gift, the mercy upon which we invited to feed so that it might become a part of us, and we might become a part of him, and all might be made new. Take, eat, and know yourself forgiven and beloved. Take, eat, and be raised to life in all its fullness. Glory be to God!


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