Hands Tell a Tale
My first funeral was of member killed in a bad accident at 47. The casket had to be closed. The widow begged the funeral director to see. He wisely refused. Finally, she asked to see a hand. I said, "Will that be enough?" She replied, "Pastor you can't be married to someone and not know their hands." I still see her sitting beside the coffin, lid ajar, holding the hand of the man she loved. I've told you before in distributing Communion you know working men's hands. The callouses, the ingrained grease, knicks, cuts, and scrapes all speak. Yes, hands tell a tale.
Ascension teaches us there are hands in heaven. Hands knit together in a mother's wombs. Hands with veins, bones, and prints. To speak of God's hands is not anthropomorphic. Ever since the incarnation, God the Son has human hands. And we see in our text, in a graphic way that He bodily took those hands to heaven. When we sing, "He's got the whole world in His hands," it's these hands we speak of. Hands with nail holes. These hands tell us we are blessed. I can't find elsewhere Jesus doing as Luke reports here: "When He had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven." The nail holes even after rising in a glorified body are still there. And those nail pierced hands go to heaven testifying of paid for sins and of the Father having accepted payment.
The nail-pierced, resurrected, glorified hands of Jesus tell a tale. They bespeak us righteous, but not just a one-and-done speaking. These hands continue to speak to this very day and on into eternity. Heb. 7:25 says, Jesus always lives to intercede for us. And 1 Jn. 2:1 says, "If anybody sins, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One." Jesus, you might say, talks with His hands. This was the Early Church's way of addressing the fact that Christians are ongoing sinners and that God's wrath is, present tense, revealed against sinners. The Modern church deals with these either by continually living under the Law, you better, you gotta, you have to, or by living under license. "We're all sinners. No big deal as long as you're sorry." The Early Church said that when we sin and God's wrath is about to strike us, the Son jumps before the Father, hands up, and says, "Remember Father I died for them."
The hands tell a tale from heaven and they tell one on earth too. It's true that according to the First Article of the Creed God has got the whole world in His hands, but according to the Second He has Christians in a special way. Jesus says He's got us in His hands. The Father gave us to Him for His innocent life and guilty death. We confess that He "purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil;" In John 10 we hear Jesus say, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of My Father's hand. I and the Father are one" (28-30).
Remember all the things Jesus did with His hands during His visible ministry? His hands rescued (Mt. 14:31); They healed (Mt. 8:3); they gave life (Lk. 8:54); blessed babies (Mk. 10:16). And not even with a whole hand but a mere finger, the finger of God, He cast out demons (Lk. 11:20). "Be still My Soul" sings, that the wind and waves still know the voice that ruled them while here below. So, our fears, our sicknesses, our babies, our devils haven't forgotten the power of the hand of the One who did as He willed to them, for them, and with them when He visibly walked the earth.
This story you probably know. During the bombing of a city in WW II. The city is variously in England, Germany, France, or Africa. In any event, a statue of Jesus was severely damaged. When the townspeople found the statue among the rubble, they mourned because it had been a beloved symbol of their faith and of God's presence. Experts were unable to repair its hands. Some suggested that they hire a sculptor to make new hands, but others wanted to leave it as it was as a permanent reminder of the tragedy of war. Ultimately, the statue remained without hands. However, the people of the city added on the base of the statue of Jesus a sign which read: "You are My hands."
I always thought this story apocryphal. In 2009 a Mormon blogger claims that the story actually originated at a Catholic Church in San Diego. The statue did exist outside the church, but the hands were broken off by vandals around 1980, not by bombing in the 1940s. Instead of repairing the hands, the church decided to put up a plaque at the base that states, "I have no hands but yours." This is a reference to a poem by Teresa of Avila that begins: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours." The statue is still there, outside that church, without hands. You can find still find photographs on the Web ().
Here's my point in bringing up the handless statue of Jesus, true or apocryphal. Does this picture of the handless Jesus lead you to worshipping Jesus, having great joy, and going to church continually to bless God? Well, that's what the ascending, yet still blessing hands of Jesus did for the apostles. The remainder of our text says, "Then they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God." To me, the handless Jesus illustration is a burden. Jesus needs my hands? These hands that are quick to point to others for blame. These hands that are upturned saying, "What can I do?" Jesus needs my hands which can't lift the burden of my sin let alone others? If Jesus' is depending on my hands, hands down, His Church is hurting. The truth is we need His hands not just for us but on us.
For a large part of Christianity, it doesn't matter that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. For us, we're hands on. But where can I, as the song tells me, "Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water. Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea." This 1971 song makes us think about Jesus' hands in a different way, in an eager way. But it begs the question: where is that hand of the Man who stilled waters and calmed seas? We already answered that it's in heaven and on earth. But is it here only spiritually, only by faith, nowhere to be touched or seen? To a large number of Christians that's exactly the case.
Back up just a bit. Nowhere in the N. T. do I find Jesus imparting forgiveness by laying on His hands. I find Him putting on hands to heal, to cast out demons, to raise the dead, but never to forgive. I think this highlights 2 things: the Word is what sends sins away. And the Church is the One who lays on the forgiving hands. Go to Acts; there Philip, Peter, Ananias, and Paul put their hands on someone to convey the Spirit and forgiveness. The forgiving hands of Jesus have always been found in the hands of men. This is parallel to Luther's thought that unless you seek the forgiveness of sins in the mouths of men, you'll never find it on earth. Likewise, the touch of Jesus. You know how the pastor asks in effect in the corporate and private rites of confession, "Do you believe my forgiveness is God's forgiveness"? Jesus' hand touches us through the hands of others.
Follow this connection to what men have been authorized to do in the stead and by the command of Jesus, and what they have not. Not even apostles had the ability to lay healing hands on at will. Paul doesn't heal Epaphroditus (Phi. 2:27). James isn't raised from the dead after being killed by Herod (Acts 12:2). But forgiveness as we see from our text is to be worldwide. And while Jesus puts it in the mouths of men, it is conveyed by touch. A Catholic priests answers the guy who wants to get forgiveness straight from God and not a priest with, "'You can do that, but then you don't hear the actual words of absolution. You simply 'think' you've been forgiven'" (The Deal, 97). Of course, you are forgiven every time you pray 'forgive us our trespasses", but God wants to give you more than that knowledge. We say as much in the 5th Chief Part: "we receive the absolution...from the pastor as from God Himself...firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven."
Extrapolate from words you hear to hands you feel. The Jesus you can't feel gives Water you can feel. The Body of Jesus you can't taste is tasted in Bread, and the Blood you can't see, smell, taste or touch is on earth today in Communion Wine you can. You're forgiven by Words you can hear, hands you can actually see and feel. It's not my hands that administer the Sacraments, lay on heads, or bless; it's His. This is the illustration of the boy awakened in the night by a thunderstorm running into his parents' room. His mom assures him that Jesus is with him and so are the angels. The boy says, "I know that, but I need someone with skin." We all do.
This sermon is not an attempt to exalt my hands or the hands of the pastoral office above yours. My desire is to emphasize the hands on nature of Christianity even once the hands of Christ ascended into heaven. Listen to Luther: "...When I lay my hands, it is the same as if God Himself had done it - likewise, when a boy or a woman pronounces Absolution, because both are members of Christ and have His power. We are not on this account to disparage the public office, which God wants to be free of contempt. But in an emergency, when no one else is available, a boy speaks the Absolution and lays his hand on my head, and it is just as powerful" (LW, 58, 75). Luther saw the hands of Jesus in all pastoral acts. In regard to marriage he believed, "This couple, whose hands have been interlaced by the pastor, ought to and should be certain that God Himself has interlaced their hands and considers them to be a married couple until death" (Peters, Conf., 171).
Hearing the tale of Jesus' hands on earth even now forgiving, giving, blessing, and helping, leads to worship, joy, and praise of God. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Ascension of Our (20220529); Luke 24:50-53