+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every year on the Sunday following Easter Day–commonly called Low Sunday–we hear the same Gospel reading, St. John’s account of the Lord appearing to “Doubting Thomas.” So, I’ve preached twelve sermons about this text, and usually it’s about Thomas’ doubt and belief and how we should be a bit more understanding of the poor man, because he’s more like us than we’d like to admit. I want to do something a bit different this year, then, and if you want a good reflection on that issue, I’d commend to you the “dialogue sermon” our bishop had with Canon Sutterisch for the Easter 2 service produced by the diocese.
This morning I want to focus on a matter we see running through all our readings today, namely the oft-overlooked affirmation in scripture of material reality. I say it’s overlooked because sometimes Christians, even relatively well-catechized ones, make this assumption that ours is a primarily disembodied faith.
Some years ago I even had two seminary-trained clergy (I note, not Episcopal clergy, though this confusion is not unheard of among clergy in our own corner of Christendom) who were shocked to learn that I believed Christ’s Resurrection (as well as ours on the last day) was a fundamentally bodily, physical Resurrection, not something merely spiritual or spectral. Christianity is a profoundly body-affirming faith, even in its most ascetic movements, which seek to deny not physicality but fallen fleshliness. More about that in a moment. The opposite, the rejection of material existence and the Creation which, though fallen, God deemed good, is not Christianity but Gnosticism.
Let’s consider this morning’s readings. In his First Epistle General, St. John writes:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.
The word of life, the second person of the Trinity, was not merely a principle or a spiritual force. It, he, was “made manifest” such that he could be seen and heard and touched.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, however one may feel about the economic policy which it may imply (and that, I think, is complicated), one thing it does not suggest is that the life of Christians is communal and has material implications. We do not see these early disciples each going his or her own way, becoming hermits, and living on bread and water to simulate a total detachment from physical existence. Whatever else might be said of the economics of early Christian community, it at least recognizes the fundamentally physical nature of existence, the understanding that possessions (however personal ownership and distribution is handled), are gifts from God created to enable human flourishing and require that we view them with a more nuanced moral and spiritual approach than simply saying “I detach myself from life and call these things illusory or somehow “less real” than some primal spiritual force, that they are some gnostic demiurge which must be shunned to enable us to disinterestedly float in the lotus position or something.
And finally, we have that famous story we hear this Sunday every year, but don’t worry right now whether Thomas was really doubting or believing (again, that’s a worthy question for a different sermon). Instead consider what Jesus does. On his first appearance in the upper room, he empowers the Apostles to forgive and retain sins by breathing on them. At his second appearance, when Thomas has joined the other Apostles, Jesus offers to let him touch his wounds. Jesus is making clear that his risen body is a physical body, and he continues to teach this message in the remainder of the Gospel, eating and drinking and building fire by which to warm himself and cook his breakfast.
There is one peculiar element of this story, and I love the answer one of my professors in seminary gave in a course I took on the Gospel of John. The doors are shut and locked, so how could an embodied Jesus get in? Is this not evidence that he is some kind of apparition or specter. Our prof said something like, “of course not; the point is that Jesus is even more solid than the door.” I don’t know whether explanation this holds up. I just know (1) I love it, and (2) John goes to such pains to affirm the physicality of the Risen Christ’s body that there must be some explanation like this.
Anyway, why is this all important? Why does it matter that Christ came back bodily and that we will too at the General Resurrection on the last day? It matters because it reminds us that Creation is not some inconvenient realm in which we can never live with purpose and gratitude. We are not just biding our time in some fleshy layover between states of pure spiritual existence. This life is not some mere test to see if we can become fully detached and join some kind of Nirvana or else get reincarnated as a slug or a chicken or something. God created the heavens and the earth and called them good. Our forebears’ fault caused it and us to fall, but God’s answer was not to dispatch some phantasmal lifeboats to get us out, but rather to redeem all of it. That redemption begins with God himself not only choosing to come to us as a man, but to die as one and to come back just as much of one. It will end when all other things end, not by God or entropy blowing it all up, but by the heavenly city coming to this earth that we might dwell in it, not as ghosties but as men and women, for all eternity. And our moral obligation is not to take this earth or our bodies or the well-being of our fellow human beings as soteriologically insignificant.
Sometimes poetry says it better than my theological ramblings, and so I’d like to close with the great 20th Century writer and Episcopalian John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” I cannot remember if I’ve ever included this in a sermon before. (To be honest, sometimes I can’t remember if I said something in a sermon or just posted on Facebook at one point or another, which is either a troubling indication about my memory or else just a reality of having been a priest for a while). So, if I’ve shared this before, forgive me, but it’s one of those texts which I think bears repeating, anyway:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.