Touch and See: The Gospel for Bodies

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, April 19, 2015
Luke 24: 13-26, 28-48
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn

When I was very young, I apparently came to my mother very upset because I “couldn’t get into the car.” When she came to investigate, she discovered that the “Car” I was trying to get into was in fact the toy car on the ground in the playroom.  I couldn’t understand that my body would not fit into a thing many times smaller than myself. So I’ve never been very oriented in physical space.  I’ve always been fascinated with ideas, and words, in the abstract. It has taken me having a child myself to begin to orient myself in the world of concrete reality.

But when I read today’s gospel story, I was struck by the fact that it is rich with physical details. Jesus wants the disciples to touch his body and see that he is real. When they are still paralyzed with doubt and confusion he finally just asks them to give him a piece of fish to eat, because apparently everyone knows ghosts can’t eat.  The story talks about touching, seeing, the road, seven miles, breaking the bread, hands and feet, leftover fish.  It is rich with physical details because the story of Jesus’ resurrection is profoundly a story about bodies. It is a story grounded in flesh and blood reality. It is not a story for people who care only about ideas in the abstract, or photoshopped airbrushed pictures of bodies, but real people and real bodies with scars and you and me here and now in this building on this day in April wearing these clothes with the life stories we actually have, making our way through the world in these bodies.

This is all well and good and wonderful news, except that, well, there is the whole scientific problem with bodies rising from the dead. Nadia Bolz Weber, that tattooed sarcastic Lutheran Pastor from Colorado, one of my personal heroes, returned to Christian faith after a long exile about twenty years ago. When she returned to faith she attended a class in which they were studying the Apostles Creed. When they got to the part about the resurrection of the body, Nadia raised her hand and said, “Are we supposed to believe that this really happens to real bodies?” She figured it must be some kind of metaphor because resurrection of bodies is patently scientifically impossible as far as we know. So she was floored, and very skeptical, when the pastor said to her, “Yes, Nadia, real bodies.” What are we to do with this conundrum, as good intellectual modern human beings who affirm science and faith at the same time? Why does the Christian notion of the resurrection of Jesus, and the resurrection of the dead, even matter?

The other day I went to Carly’s school to have lunch with her.  I was crowded with what seemed like several hundred first graders in the cafeteria. Carly was sitting on my right and a little girl, let’s call her Amanda, was sitting to my left. At first, Amanda eyed me hesitantly. We didn’t know each other. We chatted politely while Carly and I and the other kids I knew better were joking and laughing. But slowly, Amanda seemed to decide that I was ok.  I could tell she had accepted me because as the meal progressed, and she enjoyed her pizza, her little body got closer and closer to mine. By the end of the meal, her entire side was pressed hard against my side. I was very careful about boundaries and didn’t do what I wanted to do, which was to pick this little girl up and put her on my lap and give her a huge hug. But it seemed clear she was communicating to me with her body. She was saying she felt connected with me and perhaps also that she was long overdue for some affection. 

I am sharing this every day story with you because I want to say that we live very physical lives. We are here in our bodies—our wonderful, less than perfect, nitty gritty bodies. And our bodies are much more than the sum of the tasks we need to do to keep them alive, like sleeping and eating. Our bodies are what we use to encounter the world and one another and even God, and our bodies are the arena in which what Christians call salvation happens.  It is precisely in this here and now that we are meant to encounter the risen Jesus.  Like the disciples in that locked room, despite multiple accounts of Jesus-sightings, we find it very difficult to believe that he is real for us, not just in the abstract world of ideas and talk that I have always loved, but in the actual and practical and ordinary world we inhabit. We need to know, but sometimes find it hard to believe, that the way of Jesus is real in the world of first graders and toy cars, and the world too of German airplanes that go down, and police who mistake guns for tasers. It matters to Laura Bathke and Dave McKenna who had surgeries recently, and it matters to Laura Perticara who wrote the article in Tidings this week about her passionate care for Earth Day, who walks to church even in the dead of winter in order to avoid polluting the air with her car. It is because Jesus is risen in the body that people like Don Samuels move to Northside and live there for two decades, and then have the audacity to invite us to go be his neighbors. Because the Word was made flesh and was resurrected in the flesh, the flesh matters.

Let’s look at today’s text again. Just before Jesus appears to his disciples where they are all meeting together, you remember, two of the disciples had been on the road to Emmaus. On that road, Jesus had walked and talked with them a long time, and their hearts had been burning within them, but they could not recognize him until they broke bread together. That moment of recognition was so powerful that these disciples left the town where they had arrived even though it was night to walk the seven miles in the dark back to Jerusalem to tell the others.  When they got back to the others they found it already a flurry of conversation because Peter had seen the Lord, too. Suddenly they believed the women who had been trying to tell them all along that the tomb was empty. But even so, when Jesus appears to them in the flesh, they still cannot believe it at first. You see, it took multiple occasions for them to begin to trust what their burning hearts and the women at the tomb had been telling them all along. It took their community a process, stages in time, for them to begin to have hope.

When I was preparing to begin my pilgrimage to Youthlink , to work with young adults experiencing homelessness, I interviewed people who were doing similar kinds of work.  One of them had been a chaplain in the juvenile detention system—for teenagers in prison.  I asked him if he had seen anything that gave hope to these teenagers called “juvenile” by the system. He said that for them to have hope, they had to see hope. Mere words, mere abstract theory, just talk, would not do.

It’s the same for all of us everywhere. Real hope is much more than an emotion. Hope, that Jesus is alive and that this physical world and our own bodies can experience God’s great shalom, is so impossible that it takes seeing and touching and tasting in community to believe it. This is one reason we have called Act Five of God’s Five Act play a new creation, new community.  We are learning about the new creation, God redeeming actual physical reality in Christ, through our new community—through encounters with one another. We don’t get to touch a physical Jesus. But we do get actual encounters with one another that point toward the radical power of the way of life Jesus ushered in.

How can we begin to experience, in reality, the hope that this is not just a nice story, just an impossible ideal? In World War II, there was a young teenage German boy named Jurgen Moltmann. He was drafted into the German army at age sixteen and fought for the Germans for a year before he was captured by the British. He spent the next four years in British Prisoner of War camps. Those years were full of despair for him and for most of his inmates. They had seen their own country ravaged by the war, but they also found out what had been going on at Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the concentration camps, and some of them felt it would be better not to live than to have to face the monstrosity of what their own country had done.  While Moltmann was in the POW camp in Northeast England, a Christian British couple asked permission to go visit these German POWs—these enemies of their own country. They got permission to take these German soldiers to church and to bring them to their own home to have dinner together. Jurgen Moltmann said that the incredible hospitality of this couple, tangible hospitality that was radically undeserved, planted a seed of hope in him. Moltmann became a Christian, and then after the war he became one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. His seminal work was called a Theology of Hope, and it was used as the basis for most liberation theology in Latin America and by oppressed people everywhere.

So you see, even though the resurrection of Jesus is completely impossible as far as science tells us, our tradition insists that it is grounded in physical reality because it is in physical reality that salvation happens, and that hope is born.  It took ordinary British Christians to show supernatural compassion to their German soldier enemies, in the form of drives to church and meals over the dinner table, to plant a seed of hope in Moltmann. And that seed has become an understanding of liberation through Christ that has sprouted all over the world.

I want to encourage you to use the Christian community—this one, here at St. Matthews, and what we call the communion of saints across time and space—to begin to look for signs of hope that make your hearts burn within you, because they are evidence that Christ is risen and that the world is indeed being made new.  Here are two ways you might do that.

First, begin to look for stories about evidence of new creation, and new community, that you see going on within you and around you.  When you see incredible acts of compassion, and generosity, and hope in despairing situations, please tell those stories, and try to recognize how the risen Christ is active in them.  Second, I want to recommend this book to you – Holy Women, Holy Men. How many of you know it? For nearly every day of the year, it has a story about different Christian men and women across time and space, from all different denominations, who have done incredible things in the power of God’s Spirit because of their faith. In a world where we are all too familiar with the very real and very terrible things Christians have done, it is good to see also the genuine transformation that has been wrought through Christians who were simply following the way of Jesus in their ordinary lives. For example, just this week, I read the story of Father Damien and Sister Marianne, who in the 19th century devoted their lives to serving lepers in Hawaii—a hopeless task, for leprosy has never been curable—but they did it with joy and ended up dying of leprosy themselves.  This week also tells the story of two of the first African American bishops in the Episcopal church, Bishop Demby and Bishop Delany, who did very much to promote justice for people of color in the Episcopal Church and in the country. These are just two of countless stories like them in this book. It helps to see, not just what we are trying to do in our own small community, but how the risen Christ has been made manifest through the physical acts of Christians across time and space. We experience the new creation through the new community.

Later we are going to pass the peace with one another. We are going to touch each others’ physical bodies as we shake hands and repeat the words Jesus said when he appeared to the disciples: Peace be with you. As you shake one anothers’ hands, today and whenever you shake anyone’s hand in the future, I invite you to look at the physical person in front of you and see Christ in that person. As you touch their hand and see their form, remember that the new creation, the new community, the way of Jesus, is about bodies, is about us here and now, and that hope is born when we encounter Christ in one another. The Word was made flesh, and the Word is continuing to be made flesh in us, when we break bread with one another, and when we serve the stranger in the name of Christ. Amen.