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.

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

+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 sixteen 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.

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, and we’re not well served by trying to fit this neatly into modern political terms), one thing it does make clear 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, put it in a newsletter article, or just posted on Facebook at one point or another). 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
Eleven apostles;
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.

Sermon for Easter Sunday

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

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

I recently read that Mel Gibson is making a sequel to his controversial 2004 film about Jesus’ crucifixion and I’m concerned based solely on its title– The Passion of the Christ [colon] Resurrection [hyphen] Chapter One. Now, I have a soft spot for the biblical epics of old Hollywood, and I think it would be great if that genre had a resurgence, but I have my doubts about this one. For one thing, the movie-going public seems to have tired of film franchises, and I’m not so sure the “Jesus Cinematic Universe” will reverse this trend.

On a more serious note, I suspect one element of the Resurrection accounts will be difficult to capture–namely the fact that over and over again the Risen Lord is not at first recognized by those whom he visits. He spends a great deal of time on the road to Emmaus with some disciples and they don’t know it’s him until he breaks bread with them. Other disciples are fishing unsuccessfully, Jesus instructs them to cast their nets again, and they only realize it’s him after a miraculous catch. And most dramatically of all, in this morning’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus until he calls her by name. I just hope Gibson’s film doesn’t rely on cheap tricks to try to explain this away–say, having Jesus hide behind a bush in the garden or making the Magdalene so weepy that it blurs her vision–because there is something different happening here.

On one level, it makes sense that Jesus’ risen body is different from the one he had during his earthly ministry. He has not merely been resuscitated; his body has been recreated and perfected. It will be so for us, too, at the General Resurrection on the last day. He went and we shall go from a corruptible body to an incorruptible body. You’ll not need to worry about your trick knee or lower back pain or whatever in Paradise. We will be changed, just as he was changed.

More interesting, though, is the means whereby Mary and the others came to recognize Jesus. Jesus was not playing tricks on them, but I think he was teaching them and us something important here. It was their prior experience with Jesus that had permitted them to see him–a shared meal, the miraculous provision of something needful, the gentle way in which he addresses Mary Magdalene. It was Christ relating to them as he had always done during life which finally opened their eyes. It was because they had all been in relationship with Jesus that they were able finally to see him for who he was. This is God’s promise to us, too. In his First Epistle General, John writes “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” This recognition is contingent, however, on our having known him on this side of eternity.

Because he has called us by name in Baptism, because he has broken bread with us in the Sacrament of the Altar, we have a good start, but in what other ways might we strive to come to know him more fully, more intimately?

There is an unfortunate reticence among us mainline Christians to use the language of personal relationship. I’m not guiltless on this count, and I’ve made bad jokes in the past about how I have an institutional relationship with Jesus. It is perhaps more accurate to say that I am so constituted that I find having an intellectual relationship with Christ more natural than having an emotional, personal one, and this is not to my credit. The fact of the matter is that Jesus wants to be on a first name basis with us, just as he was with Mary and with John, his beloved disciple. Yes, he is our Lord and God and Master. He desires also to be our dearest friend.

This only makes sense. If we’re to spend an eternity with somebody, it might be wise to get to know that person, right? Thanks be to God that we have this opportunity, because Jesus is alive. He reigns in glory from his throne in heaven. He gives of himself in the Sacrament. He is alive in the hearts of all who would abide in his love.

When I was a young man discerning a vocation in the church I had a spiritual director, a monk from the Order of the Holy Cross in New York. He told me that if I were to go down the path toward this peculiar life, as I ultimately did, the only thing that was going to see me through it was if I regarded my relationship with Jesus as what he called a “primary relationship” equivalent to the sort of relationship one would have with a spouse or a blood relative or a best friend. He was right, but I think he didn’t go far enough. Yes, that sort of relationship with Jesus is necessary for one in Holy Orders, but it’s no less necessary for any Christian man, woman, or child. For even those closest to us are capable of disappointing us or hurting us or abandoning us. This is simply the nature of fallen, sin-sick humanity. But there is one who loves us who will never, who can never, do these things–the sinless one who lives and desires only to be our companion in this life and in eternity. What’s more, maintaining this primary relationship makes all those other relationships easier, because we can look past those things which disappoint or annoy in them and in ourselves, knowing that we have all been caught up in the perfect love of Christ, which makes them and us lovable despite all the human nonsense that might militate against that fundamental reality.

My prayer on this day of triumph and joy for all of us is that, being convinced that we have a Savior who lives, we will be renewed in heart and mind to do those things which nurture our love of him and our recognition of his perfect love for us. As I am want to say, while the finer points of theology and Christian ethics may be complicated and difficult (precisely because they are important) this most important thing really isn’t that complicated. It is not “rocket surgery”, to use my favorite mixed metaphor. It’s as simple as coming to church and reading your bible and, most importantly of all, going to Jesus in prayer and speaking with him honestly and sincerely and simply, as one would speak to a friend.

He hears you, because he is alive. He will visit you in your times of greatest joy and of greatest sorrow, because he is alive. When friend and neighbor have been put far from you and darkness seems your only companion, he stands by your side, he will not abandon you, and you will see him if only you open your eyes, because he is alive. And at the last, when this life draws to a close, when this old world ebbs away, suddenly our eyes will open, and the first thing we see will be Jesus, and the first thing we hear will be those words he has desired us to hear all along: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the Kingdom which has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

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