For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 22, 2012 (The Third Sunday of Easter, Series B)
When someone has died, and then one of their loved ones thinks they see him again, one of the possibilities that people think of is that they’re seeing that person’s ghost, or spirit, as if somehow his spirit didn’t make it to its eternal destination and is somehow stuck in this world for some reason. The idea that the non-physical part of a person, his spirit or ghost, can get “stuck” in this world, especially when the circumstances of his death were tragic or violent or otherwise out of the ordinary, is a popular one in many cultures, and it is often used to explain creepy and weird feelings associated with old houses, cemeteries, battlefields, and the like. Of course, it’s not a Christian idea but one imported from various pagan superstitions, but it’s very common. Sometimes Christians might also think that, while a person’s spirit isn’t stuck in this world the way pagan ideas would have it, nevertheless God can grant a special communication between that person in heaven and his loved ones here on earth for specific reasons. I think this latter idea is certainly possible, as we do have occasional instances of it in the Bible, but I’m not sure that’s what is really going on every time somebody thinks they can see or hear their loved one. Sometimes it can just be the mind playing tricks on you, too.
Either way, that’s the sort of thing the disciples thought at first when Jesus appeared to them on Easter evening in the locked room where they had gathered. They knew Jesus had died, and so their first conclusion when they saw Him was that they were seeing His spirit. And this was no mere shadowy voice or faint illumination that could have been a trick of the lighting, either. They clearly saw Jesus standing in front of them. They couldn’t explain it away by wishful thinking or tricks of their eyes or ears. He was really visible. And so, since they knew He had died, and they also knew the room they were in was locked, they concluded that His spirit was visiting them.
But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, does several things to prove that He is not a spirit. He invites them to touch Him, and then he eats a piece of fish in front of them, fish that He actually swallows with His throat, and which stays in His stomach rather than falling through His body onto the floor as would happen if He were just a ghost. He wants to get the idea that He is a ghost out of their heads right away. He has come to proclaim to them that He is risen from the dead, not just spiritually but bodily as well. He has come to tell them that death itself, the separation of body and soul, has been destroyed and that He has won for them eternal life with Him, His Father, and the Spirit.
What the disciples experienced on the third day after His crucifixion was not a mere apparition or spiritual event. Jesus’ body was really gone from the tomb, it was reunited with His soul, and He really was alive. Easter isn’t just about the abstract concept of life after death, or about the fact that the circle of life goes on even after death has struck our loved ones, the way that new grass and new flowers and new leaves spring up even after the ones from last year lay dead and brown. Easter is about the resurrection of the body. Easter is about the fact that the physical creation is an integral part of what Christ has redeemed. Easter is about the fact that God, who created the physical world as well as the spiritual, sees the physical as good and worth saving.
That’s not what many religious philosophies out there will tell you. Most Eastern religions will tell you that the physical world is either evil or meaningless. There was an ancient heresy that arose within Christianity called “gnosticism” which teaches the same thing. In fact, most liberal forms of Christianity, once they get done telling you what they don’t believe, are pretty much left with gnosticism as the only thing left to tell you they do believe. According to gnosticism, the physical world is the result of some sort of mistake that happened in the spiritual realm, and is thus either meaningless or evil, depending on which gnostic you listen to. And thus either everything physical is a distraction that must be ignored or eliminated, or we can basically do whatever we want to with our physical existence because the physical doesn’t matter anyway.
What the Scriptures tell us about the physical creation is that, even though it’s been messed up by Adam and Eve’s sin and thus it doesn’t work nearly as well as it was created to, it was created to be very good, and it will be restored to that perfection on the last day. Even in the midst of the chaos and destruction and sorrow that sin has brought into this old world, the physical elements are things that God made and which God can use for His purposes. Even despite how we misuse His physical gifts, He keeps sustaining us, not only for this life, but for the life to come using precisely physical things.
That was the point Jesus was making when He invited the disciples (including Thomas a week later) to touch Him, and when he ate the fish in front of them. The physical is also part of what He came to save. It’s not just as spirits that we will live forever with God, but as men and women with flesh and blood, bones and skin, just as He had flesh and blood, bones, and skin when He appeared to the disciples that night. Eternal life is not just a matter of our soul moving on to a “better place,” but about this physical world and our own physical bodies becoming that better place, because the sin that causes sickness and death, tragedy and destruction, will be removed, not just from us, but from the physical world itself.
And so the physical has meaning. What we do in our bodies has meaning. That’s why we can’t simply let our fellow Christians do whatever they want without admonishing them or even, if necessary, disciplining them, because what they, and we, do in the body is a confession of either faith or doubt as to what God says about the body. Adultery and divorce are a failure to confess His faithfulness toward us. Stealing is a failure to confess the goodness of His gifts to us and to our neighbor. Murder is a denial that life itself is a good gift from the creator of life. And so on.
That’s also why we confess that God uses precisely the physical to bring us back to Him. He doesn’t operate primarily by putting feelings in our hearts, but by putting words into our ears, water on our heads, and bread and wine that are His body and blood into our mouths. It’s not how you feel about God that matters. It’s what He actually says to you using the objective, tangible, audible Word and Sacraments that matters. And what He says is, your sins are forgiven, and you will live bodily with Him forever. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +