2nd Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 20:19-31;
Acts 5:27-32; Rev. 1:4-8
SALVATION INCLUDES BODIES, TOO
One of the more difficult times as a pastor has been accompanying members on their journey of healing when they’ve suffered strokes. Fortunately, modern medicine often both lessens the effects of stroke, and improves the rehab process, giving a lot more hope these days for a full recovery.
But stroke rehab is still difficult, especially at the outset. A stroke survivor often has to face relearning doing the simplest of things just like a child — how to walk, how to talk, and even how to do simple tasks like eating and brushing their teeth. They are forced to think about things they long ago ceased to think about, like putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a joyous and wondrous time when toddlers are training their little bodies to walk and talk. At that young age we never have to be conscious of doing such basic human activities. Think of all the things our bodies do automatically for us . . . until something like a stroke hits, or M.S., or Parkinson’s. But when our body seemingly betrays us, we once again have to think consciously about doing those things again. Our body has forgotten what it learned long ago. And sometimes after illness or injury, our bodies even resist us — they can at times seem like the enemy.
I think it’s significant that the Christian Good News begins with the resurrection of a human body. Raising Jesus on Easter is the promise that God is saving our bodies, too. It’s not about God saving us from our bodies or from the world. It’s about the saving of our bodies and of the world.1 In our Easter Gospel today, Jesus is sporting the first model of a resurrection body. It’s different than his previous body: he suddenly appears in locked rooms, and his disciples don’t recognize him at first. But his resurrection body also bears the characteristics of a body. You can touch it. It bears the marks of his wounds from being executed on a cross. Jesus’ new body is the down payment on a New Creation — a saved body for a saved world.
Today’s Gospel uses Thomas to expresses our doubts about all this. Here’s the question: what exactly is the nature of our doubts? Do we doubt that God can resurrect dead people with a new body? Perhaps that’s part of it. But do we also doubt that God would want to raise dead people with new bodies? Isn’t there at least a part of us that wonders why God would bother to save bodies? In the end, we often experience our bodies as our enemies — they fail us. They are the thing that holds us back from being truly free. Even for those who don’t face a stroke or other affliction that diminishes the physical body, the natural aging process still creates problems for our bodies. As our minds and spirits mature and gain wisdom, our bodies gradually fail us.
From early on in the church — beginning Easter evening with Thomas! — we’ve had serious doubts about why God would want to save our bodies. What’s the point?! It’s been part of our human experience that our bodies limit us, and it’s our spirits that truly make us free and define us. So what’s the point?
Here’s the point: God created us to be in relationship with the world and each other. Our bodies keep us bound to one another. True freedom is not being independent of others. True freedom is being dependent in ways that enhance one another and complete one another. Through our relationships, we become complete. There can be no human fulfillment, or “salvation,” that does not also fulfill others and the world around us. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” This is the interrelatedness of our bodies in the world, so that the Christian affirmation of resurrection of the body is the affirmation that you and I are created to be with and for each other.
Let’s think about recovery from stroke once more. It is a struggle. One suffers through it. But it is also something we cannot do without others. One of our great strengths here at Prince of Peace is the way in which we help one another through times of struggle and times of suffering. That’s when human beings are at their best!
Let’s consider the alternative. Viewing freedom as independence from others goes along with the dualism of seeing the body as limiting and the spirit as truly free. In that way of thinking, the body becomes expendable. We objectify it. We treat it as a thing, sometimes even as a commodity to buy or sell. In our history, it has made it easier for Christians to justify things like slavery. For example did you know that in the slave fortresses of West Africa in the 18th century, white people made sure to baptize Africans in mass against their wills? They saw themselves as saving their souls before selling their bodies into slavery.
What about today’s consumerism? How much have our bodies become simply another thing among all the other things we consume? Body images are produced, marketed, and sold. Certain body types become objects of mass desire as they are objectified and displayed as commodities in advertising, other media, and the celebrity cult. In the astonishing rise of pornography in recent years — assisted by the “disengaged” portal of the Internet — the body-person is depersonalized, to the possessive gaze of the eroticized observer.2
Does the dualism of body and spirit also make it easier for us to live with “collateral damage” from our drones and smart bombs? Brian McLaren wrote last week that, “One of my Good Friday disciplines is to remember Jesus’ words, ‘Don’t weep for me, daughters of Jerusalem.’ I then ask for whom I should weep today.” Last Friday, Brian decided to pray for all the civilians our drones are killing.
When Christians follow Thomas in doubting bodily resurrection, it continues to reinforce our culturally generated habits that imagine and treat the body only as an object. It prevents us from the full impact of the resurrection upon the world: that salvation is not salvation from the body and from the world, but of the body and of the world. Jesus confronts the doubt of Thomas with the marks of his living and dying for others on his body. What would it mean for us to respond with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” Would it be to affirm with a disciple like Martin Luther King, Jr. the interrelatedness of all us? Would it mean changes in our consumerism? A resistance to the evils of objectifying bodies in advertising and pornography? Would it mean a different political stance on using weaponry like drones? Believing in the resurrection of the body is to believe in the freedom that comes from being in relationship to all others, and to truly say to any child of God, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 7, 2013
1. This sermon is heavily indebted to Brian Robinette‘s Grammars of Resurrection, ch. 3, “Bodies in Abstentia.” For this particular sentence or phrasing, see p. 134.