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April 24, 2022
It happens every year like clockwork. In the time around Easter, Christian leaders and theologians start asking whether it matters if Jesus actually came back from the dead in his physical body. Was it a bodily resurrection or some kind of spiritual or supernatural experience? I mostly find these debates tiresome and grumpily think to myself that these people must have far more time and far fewer e-mails to answer than I do.
To be fair, it’s a debate that’s been going on for centuries. The Apostles’ Creed even gets in on the action. That creed came together in its earliest form in the year 340 but kept being reshaped until somewhere around the year 700. But you’ll notice that we say at the end of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Resurrection of the body, as if our Christian ancestors wanted to be clear that both the body of Jesus and our own bodies would find new life as bodies, not just as ethereal spirits.
Even the poets weigh in. John Updike was a churchgoer who spent several of his churchgoing years in a Lutheran church. Updike wrote a poem called “Seven Stanzas at Easter” that begins with the lines “Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body.” [i] The poem goes on to say:
…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.
Updike uses visceral, bodily language to assert his belief that Jesus came back in a body. Hinged thumbs and toes…valved heart…flesh. Updike very clearly comes down in the camp of bodily resurrection.
The author of the Gospel of John would agree. You heard all the bodily details in today’s gospel, didn’t you? We find the disciples’ bodies huddled together in fear behind locked doors. And then Jesus is right there with them, wishing them peace and showing him his hands and his feet. The writer knows we get what that’s about. Jesus is showing them his wounds – the places where his hands and feet have been pierced by the nails. And then Jesus breathes on his disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit. He calms their terror with his breath.
When Thomas misses out on that first visit from Jesus, he understandably wants to experience it for himself – to see Jesus, to touch those wounds. That doesn’t make him a doubter. That makes him a faithful witness.
It’s no surprise that Thomas and the others long to encounter the risen Jesus themselves. Hearing about an amazing thing from other people is never as satisfying as experiencing it yourself. And Jesus had taught them about treating bodies with reverence. The last time they were in this room together, they had shared a meal together. I imagine them laughing together, slapping each other on the shoulders, talking with their mouths full. And of course Jesus had washed their feet, caring for what might have been the most repulsive part of their bodies at the end of a long day of walking the dirty streets.
Bodies matter to Jesus. And the body of Jesus, crucified and risen, matters to Thomas. It matters to us.
You may notice that the word “believe” shows up a lot in today’s gospel. Who will believe and under what conditions? We think of believing as something that we do with our minds, but that’s not primarily what John’s gospel understands belief to be. The verb “believe” – pisteuō in the Greek – appears 99 times in the Gospel of John. By contrast, that word shows up no more than ten times in each of the other three gospels. The Greek verb and its noun form usually get translated into English as the words “believe” and “faith.”
One scholar, Jouette Bassler, notes that neither “belief” nor “faith” conveys the nuances of the Greek words.[ii] The primary nuance of the Greek, she says, is “trust or confidence.” It means firmly relying on someone. It’s about trusting in, not believing that.
That’s an important distinction in John’s Gospel, which shows us again and again that belief is not primarily a cognitive activity. Instead belief is about a relationship with Jesus – a trust in Jesus, who longs for us to experience a life of community and love and hope. As the gospel says: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Jesus wants belief – trust in who he is and what he embodies – to lead the way to life. Abundant life.
It is, of course, a wonderful thing to bring our minds to our faith. Jesus is all about welcoming people’s questions and wonderings. But faith is not about signing off on a list of doctrines. It’s not about agreeing to a set of intellectual propositions. Faith is about trust. It’s about relationship. It’s about love. And it’s about how we live out that trust and love in community.
Remember that in John’s gospel Jesus has a long conversation with a woman at the well, both of them, we imagine, sweating in the mid-day sun. The woman trusts Jesus with her story – all of it – even the unflattering, scandalous parts – and then she goes and tells her neighbors about Jesus. That one-on-one conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, speaking and listening to each other, leads her to new kinds of relationships in her community.
Following Jesus, may we keep talking to each other and learning from each other.
In John’s gospel a man born blind is healed by Jesus, who touches his eyes. But that’s not where the story ends. Jesus makes sure the man is reconnected to the community that for too long had tried to blame the man for his own disability. The physical healing leads to a restoration of relationships.
Following Jesus, may we keep seeing each other fully and working toward inclusion for all people.
Each of the disciples whose feet he washed, though confused about what Jesus was doing, could sense that he was forming them into a new kind of community. Those relationships – with him and with each other – would carry them through the chaotic, uncertain days of the early church.
Following Jesus, may we embody a sacrificial love as we serve and as we lead.
Today in our Prayers of the People, we will pray for several members of our community who have died in recent weeks while experiencing homelessness. Kevin, Jonathan, “K,” and Bruce all had their challenges in this life. But they also had people who loved them – a community of friends on the streets and those who helped them in all kinds of ways. And they had a resilience far greater than most of us. Let’s think of them as we collect clothing and socks and underwear throughout the month of May. Because one of the first things that people need is dignity – to have their bodies warm and clothed.
Following Jesus, may we care for the bodies that are too easily judged or rejected.
By trusting in Jesus, crucified and risen, we learn how to trust each other. We practice how to care for one another. We look and we listen, we breathe in and breathe out, we laugh, we cry. We offer our strength when we have it and receive help when we struggle.
We believe, and we have life in his name. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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