Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was in college, I took several retreats at a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. Some of my more secular friends and even some of my pious Christian friends thought this a rather odd thing to do. If those monks wanted to remove themselves from the messy world, they thought, it was all well and good. But why would I want to. The vision they had of the monks were that they were perfect, almost spectral figures who were advanced enough in piety to leave “the world” and dwell in some ghostly alternative dimension. For all my adolescent grandiosity, my friends knew I was essentially a rather “down-to-earth” fellow and couldn’t see me floating around with these pious, spiritual people.

As I said in last week’s sermon, popular religion often holds a rather strange view of what it is to be “spiritual”: holy people floating about, profoundly detached from the material world. This is not the Christian view, however. The goal for the monks whom I liked to visit, and the lives of the saints, and God’s hope for all of us is not some sort of world-denying transcendence in this life. Certainly, piety and the virtues are important, but they are to be acted out in this world, because God has deemed this world, as strife-torn and sin-sick as it is, as being an appropriate place in which to become incarnate, in which he himself might abide.

Again, as I said last week, I think that our popular view of holiness might stem from a misconception about Jesus, a misconception which today’s Gospel means to dispel. When the risen Lord appeared to the disciples, he had them touch him in order to disabuse them from their initial fear that he was a ghost. It seems confusing that the disciples would react this way, since Luke tells us that they were talking about how Jesus had risen from the dead.

In fact, the passage appointed in our lectionary begins a couple of verses too late and thus we miss the transition which makes sense of this. The apostles had as yet not seen the risen Christ. They had only the empty tomb and the report of a man named Cleopas and his companion who had just met Jesus on a walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The apostles themselves only had the word of others on which to found their hope in the reality of the resurrection.

Thus, it is into a room filled not with joy but with confusion that Jesus entered and said “peace be with you.” This is why the apostles responded not by saying “and with thy spirit”, but by growing more confused and frightened. Was this a ghost, a figment of their imaginations brought about by wishful thinking? Was it a so-called “spiritual experience” in which the memory of Jesus was resurrected in their hearts, but wasn’t really there, as some contemporary theologians are want to argue?

No. Jesus has the apostles touch his very body and even make him something to eat. One cannot touch an imaginary friend. One cannot give breakfast to a sentiment. The disciples’ Lord had risen bodily, literally. He was still made of flesh and blood and bones just like them and just like us. And he still is, his incorruptible body just as much a real body as any other.

Christ’s body and the bodies of those Christians living in his risen life are certainly “spiritual bodies”, but they are no less physical bodies. I think some confusion has arisen from a false dichotomy between “spiritual” and “physical”. These two terms are not opposites. Rather, the opposite of “spiritual” is “profane” and the opposite of “physical” is “incorporeal”, or perhaps, to use the language of today’s Gospel, “ghostly”. The risen life can thus be both spiritual and physical, and it shouldn’t have to be any other way, for why else would God have given us these fleshy things called bodies (mine perhaps increasingly fleshy as I slump into middle age) in the first place. The prophet Joel prophesied about the day of Pentecost as the time when God would “pour [His] Spirit upon all flesh”, not that He would replace our flesh with spirits.

Something is spiritual by virtue of its being animated by a spirit, whether that be the Spirit of God, or the spirit of antichrist, which John mentions in his first epistle general, a little bit later in the letter from which we get today’s epistle. The point is that our bodies can be tools for glorifying their Creator, or as occasions for sin. Anyway, the Christian, by his or her baptism, is made a dwelling place for the right kind of spirit, that is the Holy Spirit.

And on the last day, when the dead shall be raised, they shall be raised with real, spirit-filled bodies. Christianity has never held that heaven is a ghost town. Rather we believe it will be a city filled with the real bodies of the faithful. As John says in today’s epistle, the precise nature of this body is as yet veiled in mystery, but “what we do know is this: when [God] is revealed we will be like Him, for we will see him as He is.”

So, what does all this mean for us now? Well, for starters, and as I mentioned last week, it means that our goal as faithful people is not to transcend the physical reality in which we find ourselves but to be God’s children in the midst of the created order. Just as God deigned it appropriate to come into this world with a real, tangible body and to remain for all eternity in such a body, albeit transformed, so we too are to be spiritual people in a real, physical world.

What’s more, to push it a bit further than I did last week, we are called to treat the created order as something good. Our bodies are not mere shells for our souls. They are, rather, gifts from God capable of being enlivened and transformed by the Holy Spirit. Despite what my college friends thought, this is something those monks in that abbey I went to knew very well. All of the sacrifice and austerity was not a means of denying the body, but of reminding one how the body was a gift from God, contingent on His provision of sustenance for it. Despite what we might think about the saints, all of the spiritual work and even corporal mortification which they underwent was not a means of subduing the body but of remembering to conform the body itself to Christ. So too must we reckon our bodies not as something keeping us from enjoying the divine life, but temples of the Holy Spirit to be treated with reverence and respect.

Likewise, the whole earth itself is not to be considered an impediment to the Christian life, but a gift from God to be treated with care and stewardship. Just like we humans fell into sin, so too did all creation fall after the sin of Adam, but in the Incarnation it was nonetheless deemed a place worthy of God’s own presence. As I suggested may be the case in my newsletter column this month, this was certainly my own experience Monday, taking in a natural wonder and being the more convinced of the wisdom and power of the one whom we claim set the stars in their courses–not from an unscientific “argument from design” but from a profoundly emotional sense in beholding something beautiful, explicable by human reason but not made the less wondrous for it.

So, Christ’s bodily nature after the resurrection should lead us to a certain respect for the created order and ourselves as a part of it. This naturally leads to some moral implications, the general principle being that what God has deemed good enough for himself should be honored by us, His people, and preserved for future generations.

There are also some implications here with regard to prayer. When we recognize the goodness of Creation and of our own “creatureliness”, our own embodiment, prayer becomes less a matter of transcending that reality and more a matter of inviting God’s transcendent glory and majesty, His Spirit, into our midst. Prayer is not escapism, not a means of downplaying our bodily existence or the difficulties that come along with it. Prayer is, rather, a means by which we ask God to fill that reality with His presence. The world and our individual existence within it are not illusory, not gnostic demiurgic emanations–they are God’s design and the reality in which God does His work. We cannot meditate our way out of this reality, nor should we. Rather we may and should always ask God to intercede in this Creation, which is His own possession, with the assurance that He will ultimately work his purposes out.

And finally, we should be ever mindful that God continues to enter this world and proclaim it His own, good possession. He continues to enter each of us and proclaim us as His children. This He does by His glorious, yet quotidian reappearing in the creatures of Bread and Wine. In these gifts, which we shall soon enjoy once more, Christ enters creation again; He enters common objects, that the Father might claim us, common earthbound men and women, as His own. May we be so aware of His bodily presence in this sacrament that we take it to our benefit and go out from here as resurrected people, given a foretaste of that city in which we shall one day dwell.

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