“Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”
This encounter with Christ could be the most pivotal moment in the life of his disciples. Many of them were not present for his crucifixion; most heard only second-hand about his resurrection; they were left discerning fact from fiction based on information from the grape vine. And you and I all know how accurate that can be.
Jesus knows this too, so he shows up where his beloved friends are gathered. He reveals himself in the flesh. He offers his wounds, a chance to touch the risen Christ and believe in miracles. Christ is also making a statement by showing his scars: “the world around us does not get to define our worth based on outward appearance.” Jesus’ scars emphasise this sobering truth: even God was disabled by sin.
This word disabled has challenged my understanding of human difference over the years. We generally use it to define an aspect of one’s physical or mental being that differs from the typical population. For example, I was taught that being deaf was a disability. Maybe you were taught this too. In fact, I held this belief until I met my friend Jacob in seminary. See, Jacob is proficient in American Sign Language, because he grew up in a deaf community; many of his family experience hearing impairment, including his brother who came to seminary the following year. And because I had the chance to know his brother Noah, I now understand that many within the deaf community do NOT define deafness as a disability.
I will admit it took me a while to wrap my head around this. Not a disability? But you can’t hear! Noah and Jacob, and their flawless communication with truly intuitive facial expressions and signing, invited me to reconsider who defines disability. I was reminded again of this significant shift in thinking by Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith Lund, our UCC minister for disabilities and mental health justice. She co-led our worship online last week, and brought forth this image of Christ with his wounded hands and feet- as identifying with those who have also been disabled by the world around them. See, that’s the difference between an impairment and a disability. An impairment or physical abnormality is a personal experience that society refuses to accommodate, thereby disabling that person from full engagement in the community. I like to think about it like this: what if American Sign Language was normalized in our school systems? Would I have grown up thinking differently about deafness? Not as a disability, but as a difference that adds character to our world?
Noah was the first (or one of the first) deaf students at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I know he challenged all of us to consider how our educational systems (and really all of society) relegate those in the deaf community to the sidelines because of a lack of creativity. An unwillingness or lack of resources to adapt to a different pattern of communication. Of course, none of us can think of all the things all the time, which is why we must value and support the prophets among us who call attention to the ways we are inadvertently disabling people who would otherwise be able to offer tremendous gifts in building God’s kingdom.
Noah and his brother Jacob are prophets for the deaf, continuing in the tradition of the disabled Christ, “The Word made flesh among us,” illuminating the need for transformative work in the educational system. Noah and Jacob offered this same prophetic work in the church I was a part of during seminary, calling on us to create deaf-friendly worship opportunities, participating in the birth of the kingdom of God made new for the deaf community. Shortly after I moved back to SD, Jacob reached out to ask if I’d be willing to support the new ministry he and his brother co-founded birthed called Deaf International. “Deaf International is a community of Christians who desire to follow our Lord Jesus Christ in standing with the poor and oppressed by promoting human rights for Deaf people around the world and proclaiming the Good News of God's Kingdom in Deaf people's heart languages.”
Isn’t that truly beautiful? If it weren’t for my encounter with Jacob and Noah, I might still think about deafness as an inherent disability, not simply a physical difference inviting further creativity and collaboration. I’m still not nearly as creative as I’d like to be around dismantling the concept of deafness as disability, but I’ve been supporting Deaf International Ministries financially now for eight years, because I believe God’s Kingdom is stronger with fuller inclusion of the deaf community.
And isn’t that concept so much more gratifying in the end? Seeing difference not as something to inhibit community, but to expand us all in new ways of making Christ’s presence known? Jesus’ fleshy post-resurrection appearance matters; eating fish among his disciples to confirm his humanity, offering his wounds to confirm the way the world attempted to disable him. Jesus was willing to experience the heartache of being disabled by the world for the sake of transforming that same world, our world. And now he calls us to be witnesses to this truth. God submitted to disability so that we might overcome ours.
Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, another UCC minister, says of this pivotal moment in Christ’s life: “The Word is still being made flesh. That life requires something of us. As resurrection people, we cannot be content to be idle bystanders. We are witnesses, compelled to touch and see the world and participate in its transformation into the kin-dom of God. “The culmination of Jesus’ words to the disciples--’You are my witnesses’—is performative language in which the words do something. This scene is a kind of Lukan ordination. He first names and appoints the disciples as witnesses, literally, in Greek, martyrs. We are witnesses to and of God’s peace in the world. We are called to be carriers of that peace, transmitting it and transforming spaces by it. We are to reside within, finding our rest within the embrace of God. We are to be co-creators of it, providing fresh and new evidence of it to the idle bystander, the curious recorder, and the interested observer so that they too, when encountering followers of Jesus, may touch and see.”
Friends, we need each other to learn how to better accommodate difference SO THAT we do not continue cycles of disabling a-typical experiences of the flesh. If you have a story to share, if you’ve got a fresh idea for inclusive ministry, we need you to be our prophet. And I know some of you already are. Thank you for your voices of witness. If you want to support prophets among us, get involved and advocate for ministries devoted to dismantling the world that disables difference. If you’ve been moved by Jacob and Noah’s story, you’re welcome to google deafinternational.org and find out how you can become a witness on behalf of the deaf community. There is no end to this good work of advocating for the beauty and depth of difference among us.
This is such good news: you and I are witnesses to the risen Christ, no longer beholden to the world’s disabling sin...but made free in the creative Spirit of God. Amen!