Psalm 16 and John 20:19-29
In 1970, Aleksandyr Solzhenitzyn, a writer from the Soviet Union, won the Nobel Prize for literature. Fearing that his nation’s government wouldn’t allow him to return home if he left the country, he didn’t go to Sweden to get the award.
Solzhenitzyn had written several novels, but only one of them had been published in Russian, and that’s the one for which he was awarded the prize. His other writings had been hand-typed and carbon copied. They circulated illegally. Because of what he wrote in those, he was arrested in 1974 and thrown out of the Soviet Union the next day. For a few months he stayed here and there in Europe; then moved to the United States, where he HATED the culture. He found American life too soft, American culture too shallow and American people too weak. When the Soviet Union was no more, he returned to Russia in 1994.
In one of his novels there was a character who was an intellectual imprisoned for his opinions. This man did slave labor by day, continuing his linguistic research and scholarly writing by night. His project was to prove that all human languages began from the word for “hand”, thereby connecting language to “work”, showing that he was a good communist, and winning release from prison.
There’s an expression in English with at least two meanings. “Give me a hand” means, “help me,” and “applaud for me”. When someone asks for help, saying, “give me a hand”, and you applaud because she’s already doing a good job, she’s not happy! The Taiwanese expression, “Please add a hand and foot”, means, “help me,” no joke.
I: Jesus’ Hands: John 20:20, John 20:25
In John 20:20 we read that Jesus did four things when his disciples were hiding in a locked house. 1) He came; 2) He stood among them; 3) He greeted them with peace; and 4) He showed them his hands. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing him. Of those four things, only one had to do with their seeing, and it was related to his hands.
When I was a kid, though my father was important to me, I never thought he was in any way important in the world at large. He was a father like all my friends had. One day I discovered a box of the name cards he used in his work (which involved his meeting a lot of people). To me at that time, , having name cards made someone very important. After I finished my first degree and came to Taiwan, where name cards are common, I had some made for myself, and I felt very important.
At Jesus’ time there weren’t name cards. People knew who he was because others whom they trusted told them about him. When he appeared in that room where his friends were hiding, though all had heard from Mary that he was alive, and two of them had even seen the empty tomb, there was still a lot of doubt in the air. It seems that coming, standing and greeting were not enough. When they saw the hands, things changed. They were filled with joy! Those hands were marked from his death a couple of days earlier. Those marks that identified him to them as “the crucified one,” now alive again.
Every three or four years since 1982 I’ve gone to America to spend several months. I preach at a different church every Sunday. After worship it’s the custom for the preacher to stand at the door and shake hands with people on their way out. Once I was at a rural church where many members were farmers. When shaking hands with those men and women I realized: how soft my own hands were and; how large, rough and strong the hands of farmers were. These hands were a sort of name card. They said, “I work with cows; I work with machines; I work with animals; I work!”
Jesus hands were many things to many people. In that room that day, they were his name card. Jesus’ hands said to his friends that he was the one who had been hung on a cross. Jesus was special. His friends in that room were more like us… ordinary folks. One of those ordinary folk’s hands were mentioned in the story, but he wasn’t there the first day. His hands tell us a different story.
II: Thomas’ Hands John 20:26-27
Thomas was just as physically able to see, hear, smell, taste and touch as the rest of them, but he refused to believe what THEY believed. He insisted on seeing with his own eyes and touching with his own fingers and hands. For him; learning required touching.
People believe many things about many things. Sometimes it comes as a shock when a scientist or scholar expresses a different opinion. We ESPECIALLY don’t like it if the different opinion directly contradicts something we’ve recently used to make a point. Last Fall I taught 3 different courses. In the first session of each course I used the same exercise to help students consider if they learned better by listening, seeing, doing or touching. The exercise was based on some educational theory that I’d learned long ago about individual learning styles. Early this year an educational psychologist published an article totally debunking that set of theories. In the future, I’ll have to develop a new introductory lesson!
Thomas didn’t need to “see and touch” because of his “individual learning style”, he needed to see and touch because his doubts were aroused. He spoke about fingers and hand because those are the parts of human anatomy best designed for learning from touch. We have the nerve cells involved in touch all over our bodies. So long as they are connected to our brains we can figure out what we’re touching or what is touching us. The special cells that pick up sensations are more common in our hands than anywhere else on our bodies, and more of the brain is involved in interpreting touch signals from the hands than from other parts of our bodies.
Engineers and technicians who design and make artificial hands have solved many problems about how to give a person who has lost an arm or hand some recovery of ability to do physical things, but nothing can replace the sense of touch that is lost with the limb. When we touch, we learn things about the temperature, texture and solidness of what we encounter. We may even be able to tell if it’s heavy or light.
In verse 26 we read that when Jesus came returned to the room where the disciples and Thomas were gathered, Thomas saw, and heard and was invited to touch. Nothing we read says that he actually DID touch. We DO read that in the presence of Jesus he believed and he said so. In the presence of Jesus’ hands, Thomas’ fingers and hands were unnecessary.
III: God’s Hands Psalm 16:5
Jesus once told a woman “God is Spirit,” something that she already knew. (He was “mansplaining.”) The Greek culture around them wasn’t quite so sure. The gods of Greek folk religion were undying and had marvelous spiritual powers, but they also had the same physical desires and psychological weaknesses as the people who worshiped them. Folk religion here in Taiwan and around the world can get like that, too. A believer imagines, “the gods likes the things I like and need the things I need, so it’s both my duty and my privilege to make sure that the gods get what I like, and I can eat the leftovers!”.
Even though biblical religion teaches us that God is spirit, and doesn’t have a body like us, lots of biblical language still uses body parts to describe God.
God’s eyes (Psalm 11:4)
God’s face (11:7)
God’s ear (Psl 17:1, & 6)
God’s lips (17:4)
God’s wings (17:8),
God’s hand (17:14)
God’s nostrils (18:8)
God’s feet (18:9).
In Exodus 33 there’s language about God’s butt, which is said to look like that of a cow.
In the translation of the Bible we use here at Tainan International Community Church, God’s hands are mentioned in Psalm 16:5 ”You, Lord, are all I have, and you give me all I need; my future is in your hands.” Though that’s a good way to interpret the original language, which says something like “You, God, are in charge of what happens to me”, it’s hard to build a case for God’s “hands” on that line.
Remember that when we read the psalms we’re reading the words of poets, who use a lot of expressions that may not be supported by what we’d like to call, “facts”: A poet’s use of a particular word carries meanings beyond facts. A poet using a word like “hands” may be indicating more of her feelings about God’s care than anything about God. However, when a prophet quotes God, we may want to pay more attention. In Isaiah 49: the writer quotes God as saying to people, “See, I have inscribed your names on the palms of my hands” Does THAT mean that God has hands? Not necessarily. It’s God being a poet, telling us that we are loved. OK, IF God had hands, our names would be found written thereon. That’s how much God loves us.
The British poet Margaret Cropper wrote a poem in 1975 that holds up an ideal for us.
Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all,
healing pain and sickness, blessing children small,
washing tired feet and saving those who fall;
Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all.
Take my hands, Lord Jesus, let them work for you;
make them strong and gentle, kind in all I do.
Let me watch you, Jesus, till I’m gentle, too,
till my hands are kind hands, quick to work for you.
We have a choice about our hands. We can use them to show kindness and love, support and aid. That’s our choice. We can use them to correct people, set them straight, punish them. Our hands can be like those of Jesus in that room, signs of our identity. Our hands can be like those of Thomas in that room, used to get information. Our hands can be like those of God in the psalm, symbols of support, or like the ones from the prophet, reminding us who we love.
Sisters and brothers, whatever else we do with our hands, may yours and mine be used in the service of love.
In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit, AMEN