homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Thursday, April 20, 2017
What is our beginning? What is our end? We think we know: conception and birth on the one hand and death and decay on the other. Between those two mileposts, we live and move and have our being.
That’s the scientific view. But those of us raised in the church were told as children that death and decay are not the end: that beyond the grave is a new and spiritual life. Well, they probably didn’t put it to us this way at first. Instead, they told us, “When we die, we go to heaven.” There may also have been a qualifier: “If you’ve been good. If not, well, you go to other place, the place with a name you’re not allowed to say.” (It was bad theology to use the threat of hell to make children behave, but that’s a sermon for another day.)
At first it was easy to believe it would happen just like this: when we died, we would be magically transported to a new place. Then at some point we learned that dead bodies rot away. Now we needed another explanation: where in reality is the one who has died? And so we learned to separate body from spirit, and to see spirit as better than body because it would not decay. If we grew up with any sort of shame about our bodies, sexual or otherwise, this division may have become much more pronounced, and it may have served as some sort of cold comfort.
It is at this point that our understanding of death and eternal life began to diverge from the witness of the gospel writers. Why do I say it happened at this point? Because the resurrected Christ is not a ghost.
We admit to this every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in the resurrection of the body.” Do we? We say we do, but have we been properly grounded in what this might mean? When Jesus returns, not only is he in a physical body, but he’s hungry from the work of resurrecting! This story follows right on the heels of the story of the Road to Emmaus, in which two disciples walk with the resurrected Christ for seven miles without recognizing him: only when he breaks bread and gives it to them does his presence become clear. So Jesus is walking and eating just like they do, but in addition, there is a strange new quality to his body.
This may be puzzling to those of us who fully adopted a spirit-versus-matter dualism while we were still children. We had thought that our bodies were just something we had: a great tool at best, but not really “ourselves.” We can bite off our fingernails or even lose limbs and not lose any part of who we really are, right? We know from science that the body that was small enough to be born is not in any way the same body that moves and creaks painfully in our elder years. All the cells have replaced themselves many times over. So our bodies can’t really be all that central to who we are. Or are they?
Lately I’ve begun to think of myself differently than I used to. I am not a spirit trapped in a body, or even a spirit that has been given the incredible gift of a body. Rather, I am a deeply loved process. I am matter and energy trading back and forth. I am a continuation of myself at age 0, age 11, age 22, age 33, age 44. I am my body! This, too, is science, but it is also the gospel. The creature I am, whom God loves, is also the creature God loved at the beginning, when I was being formed secretly in the darkness of my mother’s womb. And Jesus comes back to us from the other side of death and decay to show us something of what lies in store. We will not say goodbye to our bodies, but we will be changed by the one who loves both matter and energy.
Now, it would be irresponsible of me not to admit that there is much else in the Bible to support the other, more familiar view of body versus spirit. When faced with the prospect of death, Jesus himself says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And speaking to the woman at the well, he says, “God is spirit.” If God is spirit and doesn’t have a mortal body, doesn’t that make spirit better than matter? These are both examples from John’s gospel, which tends to feel quite a bit less “embodied” and more “spiritual” than Luke’s.
Yet in this same gospel, after the resurrected Jesus appears inside a locked room like a ghost, he shows them the wounds in his hands, feet, and side. Jesus hasn’t simply traded in his badly damaged body for a new one. But his body is also able to do things that ours can’t. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that God does actually have a mortal body: that of Jesus of Nazareth. God chooses to exist on the same terms that we do: with a body that is limited in its lifespan.
It is this tension between two seemingly opposed understandings of our basic nature, that makes the resurrection appearances so thrilling to me. It is our inability to put it all together into a cohesive theory that reminds us who we are. We are God’s creatures; we belong to God and exist on God’s terms. We don’t fully understand or even want to accept those terms. We know from science that we are, like everything else in the universe, made up of matter and energy, and that matter and energy can be converted back and forth into each other. So we know that matter and energy are the chosen medium of the great Artist. But there is still so much we don’t know.
I imagine that our mortal deaths will bring us much wisdom. Surely death is the end of something significant, but Jesus shows us that it is also the beginning of something very exciting. Death is terrifying, yes. But I like to imagine that on the other side of that door, Jesus will greet us and welcome us as we look behind us for a moment and say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” And then Jesus will lead our resurrected bodies into all sorts of new wonders. Amen.