April 24, 2022 sermon on John 20:19-31 by Pastor Galen
Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich (1343 – after 1416) was born in England in the year 1343, which means she was just six years old when the Bubonic Plague swept through her hometown. During the course of her lifetime, it’s estimated that the disease may have taken the lives of over half of the population of her city. Julian was also alive during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when the city was overwhelmed by rebel forces.
Even from a very young age, Julian had a deep longing for God. She longed to feel the passion of Christ, wishing even that she could have been “at the crucifixion along with Mary Magdalene and with the others who were Christ’s dear friends” (Revelations of Divine Love, 3). Julian longed to experience the passion of Christ because, she would later write, she desired “to suffer with him as others did who loved him” (Revelations, 3).
At the age of 30 years old, Julian fell so gravely ill that she thought she was going to die. The parish priest was called in to administer the last rites of the Church to her, in anticipation of her death. As the priest held a crucifix above the foot of her bed, Julian began to lose her sight and felt physically numb, but as she continued to gaze upon the cross she began to have a vision of Jesus hanging on the cross, suffering and dying.
This vision, and a series of 15 more visions that occured over the course of the next few days convinced Julian of God’s love for her, and for all humanity. In one of those visions, Jesus assured her that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Seeing the Risen Christ
Although Julian never saw the risen Christ in the flesh, as Jesus’s apostles did our Gospel account, the visions that Julian had of Christ’s suffering felt so real, and were so transformational for her, that she would continue to write and reflect theologically on those visions for the rest of her life, which ended up being a lot longer than anyone expected. Julian recovered completely from her illness, and lived 43 more years, to the age of 73. Her theological reflections on the visions that she had during that time, referred to now as Revelations of Divine Love, are the earliest surviving pieces of English literature that we know with certainty were written by a woman.
In John 20, Jesus’s disciples, with the exception of Thomas, were hiding behind a locked door, for fear that the same people who had crucified Jesus would be looking for them as well. Jesus had been falsely accused of being an insurrectionist, and so the authorities very well could have been looking to exterminate his followers as well.
Earlier in the day, several of the women disciples had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body and had discovered that his body was missing. Two angels appeared to them and told them that Jesus wasn’t there because he had risen, and the women instantly believed.
Their male counterparts, however were skeptical that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, and it wasn’t until Jesus appeared to them in the upper room that evening that they believed. But Thomas, who was not with them when Jesus appeared, refused to believe that Jesus had actually risen, saying, “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” (John 20:25).
And sure enough, the following week, Jesus reappeared, this time when Thomas was in the room. He addressed Thomas directly, saying, “‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe’” (John 20:27).
Jesus meets Julian in her doubts
Julian of Norwich never doubted that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But like Thomas, Julian did wrestle with significant doubts and questions. And like Thomas, Jesus appeared to her, albeit in a vision, and met her in the midst of her doubt and despair. As with Thomas and the other disciples, Jesus’s words to Julian were words of peace, and reassurance, and invitation. He did not reprimand her for her questions or scold her for her doubts, but rather invited her to a deeper understanding of his love.
In the vision mentioned above, in which Jesus assured Julian that “all shall be well,” Julian had been asking God the question of why sin exists in the world. Julian wrote, “I thought that if sin had never existed, we should all have been pure and like [the Lord], as God made us; and so I had often wondered before now in my folly why, in his great foreseeing wisdom, God had not prevented the beginning of sin; for then, I thought, all would have been well” (79).
Many of us have probably wondered the same thing at one time or another. We look around at all of the pain and suffering and injustice in the world that is caused by sin. War. School shootings. Global climate change. Racial injustice. Economic disparity. Domestic violence. Abuse. Embezzlement. The list could go on and on. Many is us have experienced the direct result of some of these injustices in our own lives.
Along with Julian, we ask, why does God allow this to happen? Why did God even allow sin to exist in the first place? It’s a fair question to ask, and it’s one that gets at the core of the Christian faith and tradition, and yet we each grapple with this in a different way. Some people try to ignore the pain and suffering of this world altogether. They try to drown it out with various forms of amusement or entertainment to try and forget that there is pain and suffering in the world.
Others decide, well, if we can’t avoid sin, then we might as well just give in! They enter into the fray. They seek to get revenge on anyone who has hurt them, they step on others to avoid being stepped on.
Others cope by drowning their sorrows, turning to various substances or unhealthy habits to try to numb the pain.
All of these coping mechanisms just further exacerbate the problem. We compound problems on top of problems. Sin on top of sin. We become trapped in cycles of sin and despair.
But Julian did not ignore these questions or try to avoid pain and suffering. Rather, she brought her questions directly before the Lord in prayer, and inquired as to why God allowed sin to exist at all.
And as Julian brought this question to the Lord, God brought to her mind all of the pain and suffering of all humanity. And then in a flash, as she saw the vision of Jesus hanging on the cross, she realized that the pain that Jesus had experienced on the cross was so much greater than all of the pain and suffering in the world. She realized that Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer, and that even though he was sinless and did not deserve to be punished for any sins of his own, he willingly took on the pain and suffering of all humanity.
She also discovered that suffering is what allows us to recognize sin for what it is, and to cry out to Jesus for help. Just as when we fall and break a bone in our body, it’s pain that alerts us to the fact that something is wrong, and motivates us to get help. Similarly, Julian discovered, that suffering “purges us and makes us know ourselves and pray for mercy” (79-80), drawing us deeper into intimacy with Christ and with God.
And indeed, Julian did grow deeper into intimacy with Christ. Over the course of her lifetime as she continued to reflect on questions of grief and suffering, and as she brought her doubts and questions before the Lord, Jesus continued to draw her closer in relationship with him. Using language that sounds quite radical even our own day and age, Julian of Norwich eventually came to see God as both our Father and our Mother, saying,
In this I saw that all the debt we owe, at God’s bidding for his fatherhood and motherhood, is fulfilled by loving God truly; a blessed love which Chist arouses in us. And this was shown in everything, and especially in the great, generous words where he says, ‘It is I that you love’ (142).
What a deep and meaningful encounter with God’s love. Oh that we would all experience such intimacy in our walks with Christ!
Effective Witnesses Wrestle with Doubt
Our theme for the next month or so is “We Are Witnesses.” And at first glance, we may look at people like the Apostle Thomas and Julian of Norwich, and we might wonder, what do they have to do with being witnesses?
Often we think of witnesses as people who have rock-solid faith, who never doubt or question God.
But in actuality the best witnesses for Jesus are often those people who have wrestled with doubts and despair, and came out the other side. Rather than turning away from God, they continually take their doubts and questions to the Lord and allow Jesus to minister to them. And their witness – their testimony – is how Jesus met them in their doubts and disbelief.
History tells us that the Apostle Thomas became a missionary to India – in fact the Orthodox Christian church in India traces its roots all the way back to the Apostle Thomas to this day!
Julian, too, became a witness in her own way. Not only did she write down her theological reflections and experiences with Jesus for later generations to read, but she also became known as a spiritual authority within her community, and served as an adviser to many. In 1411, when Julian was in her seventies, she was visited by the English Christian mystic and author Margery Kempe, who traveled to Norwich to obtain spiritual advice from Julian, saying she was “bidden by Our Lord” to go to “Dame Jelyan … for the anchoress was expert in” divine revelations, “and good counsel could give.”
We Are Witnesses
Friends, if we want to be effective witnesses for our Lord Jesus Christ, we do not have to push aside our questions, or ignore our doubts.The stories of Thomas and Julian demonstrate that we can bring our doubts and our fears and questions, our uncertainties, and even our anger and grief, and bring it to Jesus, trusting that God can and will meet us in our doubt and despair.
Jesus may not appear to us in bodily form, but Jesus can help us gain a clearer vision of himself, and Jesus can reframe our understanding of the world and our place in it.
So may we, like Thomas and like Julian, come before God, bringing our doubts and our questions. And may Jesus reveal his heart of love to us, speaking peace to us, and reassuring us that “all will be well,” so that we too may become effective witnesses of the Good News to those who have not yet come to believe.