This is the first of a four-part sermon series preached at Ellendale UMC about our new vision statement: “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ.” For the other sermons in the series, click on the links below:
Part 2: “…to be the feet of Jesus…”
Part 3: “…to be the voice of Jesus…”
Part 4: “…to be the body of Christ…”

A sermon on James 2:14-17 & John 9:1-12

A few Christmases ago, Carrie gave me a print of the painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son by the great artist Rembrandt van Rijn. It’s a remarkable piece in so many ways and you’ll likely hear me refer to it multiple times in sermons in the future. But there is one feature that I’ve been drawn toward multiple times, including this week as I’ve been pondering about the significance of the work of our hands in reference to being the hands of Christ, which is the first part of our new vision at Ellendale UMC.

The central figure in Rembrandt’s painting, as in Jesus’ parable, is the lovesick father who at long last welcomes home his wayward child. In Rembrandt’s portrayal of the encounter, there is something fascinating and beautiful about the father’s hands, which is featured on the cover of your bulletin.

rembrandt-father-hands

Do you notice the difference between the hands? One hand appears more rugged and masculine – wide and with thick fingers and appears more calloused. The other hand, however, looks softer and more feminine – narrow, caring, nurturing. Together these go “hand-in-hand”(I know…I know…preacher’s humor can be the worst) to give us a picture of the strong, yet tender love of God – gentle enough to embrace us without causing us harm; strong enough to rescue us and hold us secure. I went back to that painting this week and as I reexamined it, I saw the hands of my grandparents.

That rugged hand looked just my Papaw’s. I remember those hands well…hands that held onto a piano bench pad in the living room of his home. We grandchildren turned their living room into a rodeo frequently. He would hold the piano bench pad down between his chair and Granny’s, pretending that the pad was a gate holding in the bull, which was one of my uncles or my father with us, the bull riders, on their back…those rugged hands that grabbed me while I was giggling and kicking and screaming while he pulled me into his “bear trap” every Sunday (there was no getting out of Papaw’s bear traps)…hands that, when we had sleepovers at Papaw and Granny’s, would rub us down with Vick’s 44 vapor rub even though we weren’t sick, because we needed that “calming down” that only Vick’s could provide after those rodeos…hands that were rugged and calloused from feeding cattle or bloody from messing with the barbed wire fencing…hands that went through his garden and fields picking vegetables not only for Granny to prepare and cook but also to give to needy families in the area…hands of service…hands of work that as I’ve shared before gripped a hammer and fence post as he breathed his last.

That other hand is Granny’s, though. Papaw’s hands worked the earth. Granny’s work was more delicate – handiwork, needlework, crafty. The quality of her hands, while different from Papaw’s, was just as much needed. Her hands were caring…not inflicting Vick’s 44. Those hands were artistic – she played the piano some, but one of her best gifts was the care she gave through hospitality and cooking – preparing meals for family and guest, for friend and stranger alike…hands that frequently held a book, usually a Bible or a hymnbook as she loved the Lord and sang with all her might…hands that were well trained in serving and loving.

These are the hands of my grandparents…and they give me a glimpse, albeit imperfect, into what the hands of Jesus were all about. Our gospel lesson tells us one way in which Jesus’ hands go to work. Jesus’ hands in this passage worked with dirt and water. I’ve always been curious about Jesus’ use of spit and dirt, mud…it seems so, well, unsanitary, dirty, unclean, odd. But he does this here and on some other occasions, where he uses spit and dirt to form mud and rubs it over the eyes of a blind person to bring them vision, to give them, in a sense, new life. And as I pondered on this, I realized, as some of the ancient Christian writers did, that Jesus was revealing his relationship with the God who fashioned humans from the dirt all the way back in the account of creation in Genesis 2:7.

In the second century, there arose a teaching that challenged the notion that Jesus was truly and fully human but taught, rather, than Jesus only appeared to be like a human. You see, this teaching couldn’t grasp how someone could be both truly and fully God and truly and fully human. Yet one of the key leaders in the church at the time was a bishop named Irenaeus, who helped guide the church into maintaining belief in both Jesus’ full humanity as well as his full divinity. Irenaeus was a student of one of the Apostle John’s disciples. Irenaeus wrote about this connection between Jesus in the flesh and God’s work in creation by pointing out the work of Jesus’ hands:

Jesus bestowed sight on the one who was blind from birth – not by a word, but by an outward action. He did this neither casually nor simply because this was how it happened. He did it this way in order to show it was the same hand of God here that had also formed humans at the beginning. And therefore when his disciples asked him why he had been born blind, whether by his own fault or his parents’, Jesus said, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God might be manifested in him.” The work of God is, after all, the forming of humans…for the Lord took clay from the earth, and formed man. Notice here too how the Lord spit on the earth, and made clay and smeared it on his eyes, showing how the ancient creation was made. – St. Irenaeus

Hmmm…When the disciples get into a debate about some philosophical or theological argument about the origin of this suffering, about the problem of evil, Jesus’ takes them to a new level and his hands go to do the work of God. Maybe there’s a lesson there for us. For the disciples could’ve just said, “We’ll pray for you, blind man,” and then gone about their merry way. Just like the negative example depicted in the passage from James. But, if when walking down the road and our hands have the cure or the ability to supply the actual need of someone in search for it, we keep our hands in our pockets and just ask the theoretical question, then, well, we’re not being the hands of Christ and James tells us our faith is useless.

What sorts of things do we see Jesus doing with his hands in the gospels? Healing (as we have seen in our passage this morning and many, many other places where he touches an ill or dying or dead person, or in some cases where an ill person touches him); Jesus’ hands can be found drawing artwork in the sand one chapter earlier in John 8; they are touching the disciples who were afraid at the transfiguration in Matthew 17; Jesus’ hands washed feet; blessed, broke and dispersed bread; served others; touched the untouchable; got dirty by reaching to the unclean; and in the end were wide open as they were wounded and nailed to the cross to show the full expanse and embrace of God’s love. And that’s what the hands of Jesus convey – love!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!

And if our vision, I would say, is that we would be the hands of Christ to the world around us, then well our hands ought to be doing the same things that Jesus’ hands did in the gospels – creating, healing, giving grace, offering hope and encouragement and faith, getting dirty, washing feet, feeding the hungry, touching the untouchable, and willing to be wounded for the sake of God’s love.

Legend is told of a church that was destroyed during World War II.  Among the ruins there was but one item left standing, a statue of Jesus with his arms reaching out. However, his hands were severed in the midst of the wreckage. The church was rebuilt and a sculptor offered to make and attach new hands to restore the statue but the members of the church opted to let it stand as it was saying, “For Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work on earth.  If we do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, entertain the stranger, visit the imprisoned, and clothe the naked, who will?”

One last word – my grandparents’ hands, like everyone’s, withered over time. Granny’s hands weakened to where they couldn’t cook or create or serve like they once could. I had to come to terms with the reality that the work of the hands I witnessed in my grandparents would have to continue in people like me. The work is now ours. John Wesley made this observation when he talked about the transfer of ministry and leadership from Moses to Joshua in the Old Testament as they approached the promised land. Wesley made this statement: “Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.” We are here because of useful hands…some of those hands have withered, some have gone…but those hands have designed to strengthen ours so that when the time would come for us to take up the task, we would be able to do so. So, let not the withering of those useful hands be the weakening of ours. Let’s be the hands of Christ.

Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
Show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.

Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washes their feet,
Master who acts as a slave to them.

Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white,
Neighbors are near and far away.
 

These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love;
All these are neighbors to us and you.
 
Kneel at the feet of our friends, silently washing their feet,
This is the way we should live with you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Engraving of the Prodigal Son as a swineherd by Hans Sebald Beham, 1538 - photo credit: wikipedia

Engraving of the Prodigal Son as a swineherd by Hans Sebald Beham, 1538 (photo credit: wikipedia.org)

If the parable of the younger son is a portrait of the beauty of a repentant heart and changed life, then the backstory (which turns out to be the main story) is the beauty of the father’s steadfast mercy and kindness…a father who is willing to shame himself by hiking up his robe to run outside the boundaries of his house and farm to go get his lost son. He’ll pursue the son to keep anyone from shaming the younger son or keeping the bread from him. Townspeople and older brothers (or the “bouncers of God’s grace” as I call them) would say, “Don’t you even dare come back here…you’ve disgraced your father’s name enough. No more of that!” The father doesn’t let that shaming happen but goes outside to beat the bouncers to his returning, repentant son. This son who while he was in the distant country remembered that at home, there is “bread and enough to spare,” even for those who see themselves as lowest on the totem pole.

"...bread and enough to spare..." (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)

“…bread and enough to spare…” (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)

Behold the kindness that is meant to bring us home. Or, as St. Paul says: “God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life.” (Romans 2:4 CEB)