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St. Pauls – Easter 3 – 4/18/21

What’s the point of bodies? The past year has made the scene of our Gospel lesson for today—a bunch of adult friends gathered in the same room for a meal—a rare occurrence,. What was a simple, wholly unappreciated fact of life beforehand—putting our bodies in a room together—vanished in an instant. It was only a little over a year ago, when we said we’d make our worship services online only for a few weeks during the lockdown, sure that we’d be back by Easter. Since then, it’s safe to say that all of us have come to a greater recognition of what a wonderful thing it is to gather with others, to be close and seen.

In Luke’s telling of Easter evening, the disciples are gathered—huddled, really— in a room as they hide from the authorities responsible for Jesus’s execution a couple days prior. Two of their friends, one named Cleopas, ran in a few moments before to announce that they had seen Jesus, that he had walked with them to Emmaus and explained the scriptures to them, that they had recognized him only when he broke the bread.

Then suddenly Jesus is there! He’s saying, Peace be with you, but the disciples are terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost, a spirit (24:36-37). They didn’t see how Jesus could be standing in front of them in a body. His body had been killed. He was dead. The tomb was empty, but what could that really mean?

Jesus goes to work to convince his disciples that he is not a ghost but that he is standing before them fully human, body and all. He is not an apparition but the real thing. He presents his hands and feet to them, holding them out to show where the nails had been, offering that they can even touch, can reach out for confirmation that yes, indeed, Jesus is standing there alive, in the flesh.

When that is not enough to persuade them, he asks if there’s anything edible around, and they scrounge up some leftover fish for Jesus to eat. What could be more human than eating? If you’ve seen Disney’s new film Soul, you’ll know that bodiless spirits can try to eat human food but that it doesn’t work very well: the food falls straight through, entirely intact. But, Jesus, not being a ghost, eats the whole piece of fish. Finally, the disciples believe their eyes.

Lately, the trends in the way that folks think about their bodies seem to be going in two directions. On the one hand, people (at least claim to) love their bodies! Many folks are extremely conscious of what they are and are not willing to put into their bodies, eating only the most organic, GMO-free tofu; they love exercising and trying through exercise and nutrition to form their bodies to be the way that they want their bodies to perform and appear. They hope that the right wellness and lifestyle choices will all but offer the ability to cheat death, that they might get out of life alive as Stanley Hauerwas puts it.

Or they love their bodies so much that they refuse to conform societal pressure that they should make their bodies appear a certain way. This body-positive movement tells people to embrace the body they are. And there’s much Christians can find to like about the idea of loving their bodies, knowing that our bodies are good gifts from a good Creator. But haven’t we all gotten frustrated, feeling the effects of decay, death’s creeping tendrils in our bodies? It would have been pastoral malpractice for me to tell those on the verge of death as sometimes their own bodies were responsible for the very malady tormenting them that they really just needed to love that very body more.

The opposite trend seems to treat bodies as an inconvenience, an uncomfortable vestige of an evolutionary process that couldn’t find any other options. These folks might refer to bodies as meat sacks or bags of chemicals, dreaming of a day when we might be able to defeat its limitations, negating the effects of aging. For folks like this, the distancing of the pandemic presages a future only seldom if at all requiring in interaction in meatspace, where everything can be handled virtually. In the most extreme forms, these futurists or transhumanists—as in transcending what is human—hope that a day may come when we can upload our consciousnesses to computers, shuffling off this mortal coil not in death but in an upload of the self. In this singularity, as they sometimes call it, these virtual human beings (if they can really be called human) would be able to live essentially forever, so long as nothing happened to their servers. Out here that will not work.

Though uploading consciousness to the cloud is a cruel parody of going to heaven, this repudiation of death is something that Christians can identify with as well. We are under no obligation to embrace death as a friend nor even to accept the decay and disease we experience beforehand as anything other than an unnatural intrusion into God’s plan for humanity. The key difference comes in where we look for the redemption from death’s clutches: while the futurists are looking ahead at more advanced computers, Christians look back to a rural Jewish rabbi, God’s Son, who trampled death by death. Where the futurists want to be saved from their bodies, we look to a day when we can be saved into our resurrected bodies, bodies that can, like Jesus’s, touch and be touched, can eat food with friends, can continue to share real—albeit transformed—space.

Christianity offers a middle way between these two excesses. We can love our bodies better as the good gifts they are when we aren’t expecting that the right diet or the right computer program will come along to help us get out of life alive. We can love them better too when we’re not expecting them to be unalloyed goods, that some things about our bodies are consequences of living in a world ruled by sin and death. What Jesus promises does not end at learning to love our mortal flesh a little better; it ends at transfigured, spiritual flesh when we too are resurrected, are given bodies recognizably our own and yet no longer feeling the effects of sin and death.

All those things we love about bodies— those things that make one wonder why these futurists are so desperate to shed their bodies—are taken up into the spiritual bodies we will receive. God’s plan for the universe will not be complete until we have received these spiritual bodies. Christian hope is about more than going to heaven, about being a bodiless soul; being a bodiless soul in heaven is not God’s best for us. For everything which is not God, existence in the body proper to that thing is good for that thing. Christians hope is for an embodied future. The caress of the beloved, the meal with friends: these are part of God’s future for us.

Scott Cairns’—-“YHWH’s Image”

But when YHWH Himself finally sat on the dewy lawn—the first stage of his work all but finished—He took in a great breath laced with all lush odors of creation. It made him almost giddy. As He exhaled, a sigh and sweet mist spread out from him, settling over the earth.

In that obscurity, YHWH sat for an appalling interval, so extreme that even Time opened its eyes, and once, despite itself, let its tail twitch. Then YHWH lay back, running His hands over the damp grasses, and in deep contemplation reached into the soil, lifting great handsful of trembling clay to His lips, which parted to avail another breath.

With this clay He began to coat His shins, cover His thighs, His chest. He continued this layering, and, when He had been wholly interred, He parted the clay at His side, and retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself to wander in what remained of that early morning mist.

Let Us Pray

Almighty God, 

you created us to be embodied creatures, 

not as punishment but as gifts. 

You gave us bodies 

because our bodies might be means for our union with you. 

But we ate the wrong thing— sorry about that—

and our bodies have since born within them 

the devastating effects of sin: 

we get sick, our bodies break down, and last we die.

You could have decided that we had lost our body privileges 

after all the countless ways we have since misused them. 

Instead, you determined to take one for yourself 

from Mary’s flesh by the Holy Spirit. 

When we killed that body (yet another mistake on our part), 

you could have jettisoned it—

being God you’re the only one who really doesn’t have to have one—

but instead you raised that very body back to life.

When you did that, 

we finally began to realize that you really mean for our bodies 

to be part of the salvation you came to bring. 

You fully intend to raise us as well. 

Your defeat of the power which death holds over us 

means that death is not the end of our embodied existence. 

Help us to use and enjoy the gift of our bodies in the meantime. Amen..