The Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Isaiah 11: 6 – 9, John 20:19-31
Easter Day began for me as I walked up to church to see Easton and Everett Sapp planting what appeared to be one and half million brightly colored plastic easter eggs all over the lawn. It didn’t appear there was much attempt to hide them. The lawn was polka-dotted with pastel as Everett and Easton ran all over the place, their strong little boy legs pumping and their voices laughing and talking excitedly. Soon the lawn was crowded with little people in their Easter best carrying distinctive baskets in stubbly fingers and laughing and running as they bent or climbed or stood on tiptoe to find as many eggs as they could. We’ll probably still be finding eggs from this year when those kids graduate from high school.
The service itself began with music filling our ears and our beautiful sanctuary and chancel brightened with dozens of Easter lilies. As always, I followed our young acolytes, proud in their new blue robes with Easter white sashes, as they carried the banners and the Gospel book and the white celebration streamers through the crowd of bodies of every size and shape and race and gender identity that had joined us for our first full Easter in three years. The acolytes continue to be Covid-careful, as do many of our choir and congregation, wearing their masks. Over the last couple of years, I have learned to identify our youth and our children by their eyes, and to realize it is really true that eyes can smile, and laugh, and express sarcasm and grief and joy and frustration, and that each set of eyes does it in their own unique way.
At communion, for the first time in two years, we returned to the extremely physical way that St. Stephen has traditionally celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Long lines formed at each station as people who were able and willing walked forward to tear bread from a loaf and dip it in a cup of either wine or grape juice—these representing the body and blood of Christ, of which we are symbolically and spiritually part. Many though preferred to stay seated and take the pew communion sets, still appropriately cautious of their physical health in these Covid times.
This past Easter Sunday, we celebrated the physical resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ in a very deeply and appropriately physical way. Our bodies celebrated the risen body of Christ whose intensely physical suffering and death we spent Passion Week reflecting on and whose very physical resurrection destroyed the power of death and promised us eternal life. Indeed, so many of the images of life in the fullness of God’s Kingdom are deeply, intensely physical. It is presented as an endless feast; a gathering of the saints with singing and even, to the horror of some Baptists, dancing. According to our reading from Isaiah it is a return to the Garden of Eden complete with all the animals we know and love and even fear, but with a key caveat—the animals, even the carnivores, will be vegetarian, “the lion will eat straw like the ox,” for they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord. In other places the Kingdom is presented as a wedding banquet and even as the act of marriage itself—including its consummation.
These may be metaphors, or they may be literally true—we won’t know ‘til we get there. But the Bible is laced with the gritty, down-to-earth, deeply physical realism of the Hebrew language and of Judaism overall, a physicality so on display whenever you go to Israel and see a people who celebrate and grieve and fight and love and work and worship and disagree with an intense passion that is somewhat alien and off-putting to many Westerners. That’s because, despite our Christian heritage, we are more influenced by Greek culture and thinking than by Hebrew. Greek philosophy spoke of the body and soul as separate things. They thought of the material world as temporary and the spiritual world as eternal. Many Greeks viewed the body and the material world in general as corrupt, polluted, something we needed to be free of so that our eternal souls could at last be their true selves. As early, very Jewish Christianity extended itself into the Gentile world and became more and more Gentile, this Greek thinking had a powerful influence on many Gentile Christians and caused some of the first theological disagreements of early Christianity. Were the material world, and the body, created good by God as the Hebrew Bible maintained; or were the material world and the body corrupt, temporary, and Christ meant to free us of both? Much of this debate hinged around a key question: Was Jesus’ own resurrection physical or spiritual?
Our Gospel reading for today is meant to address exactly this theological disagreement. The Gospel of John was written in a way that appealed to Christians who were deeply influenced by the Greek way of thought. For instance, John begins by calling the pre-existent Jesus the Logos, the Word of God. Logos was a long-standing Greek philosophical term that meant “principles of order or knowledge.” Stoics used it to mean “the generative principle of the universe.” The Gospel of John became one of the favorites of an early branch of Christians called the Valentians, who held strongly to the Greek ideas of separation of body and soul. And so our passage for today was as much as anything a message to them that they needed to re-think their theology.
In this story, the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and they are amazed and excited—all but one, Thomas, who wasn’t there for Jesus’ first appearance. He declares that until he can put his fingers in the wounds in Jesus’ hands from the nails of the cross and put his hand in the hole that a soldier’s spear put in Jesus’ side, he would not believe. I don’t think you can get more physical than that. Otherwise, to Thomas, the so-called resurrected Jesus would be nothing more than a ghost, and a ghost story is not God’s hope for the dawning of the new age.
Then Jesus appears and “he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” And Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!” And all this is the Gospel of John’s way of saying to Greek thinkers, “Hey, a lot of your Greek thinking is okay, even pretty good. But here’s one really important place where you’re wrong. Jesus was physically raised from the dead. And you will be, too.”
And really, if you think about it, what does it mean to imagine ourselves without our bodies? Do we really think that Easter Sunday would have been better without little hands to pick up easter eggs or our discordant unique voices to sing God’s praise? Don’t we all agree that doing online communion, or even using our communion coffee creamer sets in the pew racks, just isn’t as spiritually satisfying as the highly physical way we normally do communion?
The fact is, even when we try to imagine ourselves as disembodied, we still imagine ourselves bodily. It raises the question of whether we are even ourselves without our bodies. Science only confirms this. Our moods, our foibles, our dispositions—our personalities—are not harbored in some secret place of the soul. In fact, they aren’t even harbored in one place, like our brains, as we tend to think. The chemicals and electronic impulses and drives that make up the human being are located throughout the body, interacting with one another in the ways that make us who we are. The Hebrew idea was always we are whole people, that every aspect of our being is needed to make us who we are, which is why we are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Strength means the physical—the body.
I was struck that this month The New York Times ran a number of columns by Christians affirming the bodily resurrection. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, wrote in her article “Why It Matters That Jesus Really did Rise from the Dead” that unless Jesus’ bodily resurrection is literally true, then the Gospel promise of “All Things New” is just a hopeful lie—but if it is true, then we can truly have confidence in “a new heaven and a new earth.” She writes, “If Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected, then Easter is less real than the budding buzz of Spring, less real than a dying breath, less real than my own hands, feet and skin. I have no interest,” she says, “in a Christianity that isn’t deeply, profoundly, irreducibly material.”
But, she says, “If Jesus defeated death one morning in Jerusalem, then suddenly every revitalization, every new birth, every repaired relationship, every ascent from despair, every joy after grief, every recovery from addiction, every coral reef regeneration, every achievement of justice, every rediscovery of beauty, every miracle, every found hope becomes a sign of what Jesus did in history and of a promised future where all things are made new.”
Esau McCaulley, a contributing NYT opinion writer who teaches New Testament, writes a striking piece called “What Good Friday and Easter Mean for Black Americans Like Me.” He writes, “We (Christians) believe that one day the entire created world will be transformed to become what God always intended it to be: free of pain, death, and sorrow. It will be an earth that still contains some of the things of this life: food, art, mountains, lakes, beaches and culture. There will be hip-hop, spirituals, soul music and grits (with cheese, salt and pepper—not sugar) in the renewed creation. Christians believe that our bodies will be resurrected from the dead to live in this transformed earth. Like earth itself, these bodies will be transfigured or perfected, but they will still be our bodies.”
But then McCaulley comes to the clincher. “We are hurtling toward an Easter celebration, but for many Black bodies, the last few years have felt like an extended Good Friday. Bodily suffering has been a constant feature of the African American experience. We know well the persistent disregard of our bodies from the auction block to the lynching tree to the knee upon the neck of George Floyd.… If a Black body can be hanged from a tree and burned, never to be restored again, what kind of victory is the survival of a soul? The mob, then, would be able to take something that even God cannot restore.
“I am often asked,” McCaulley continues, “what gives me hope to go on, given the evil I see in the world. I find encouragement in a set of images more powerful than the photos, videos, and funerals chronicling Black death: the vision of all those Black bodies who trusted in God called back to life, free to laugh, dance and sing. Not in a disembodied spiritual state in some heavenly afterlife but in this world remade by the power of God.”
Both Warren’s and McCaulley’s articles really illustrate the practical, real-world impact of believing, or not believing, in the resurrection of the dead. In the Greek, “the body isn’t important” way of thinking it becomes much easier to justify or dismiss as irrelevant things like suffering, the impact of global climate change, or social injustice—real, concrete, down-to-earth realities that matter to real people and mattered to Jesus, too. But if the physical body matters, if our bodies are so important that we are raised with them; and likewise if God intends to make a new, but still very concrete and material earth; then body and earth and the material world are just as important, just as eternal, as the soul and the spirit.
If God truly will make all things material new, then standing up for what’s right even at cost of life and limb, sacrificing for the sake of others, treating nature gently and loving even our enemies despite all the odds against it, all these things are essential. To strive to make this material world in which we live a better place for the material bodies of the people, flora and fauna who live in it, is always a victory and always a step toward God’s true intention for all the world and all the people in it.
Can you stand for all those good things and be a good Christian and yet not believe in the physical resurrection of the dead? Of course you can. The Bible itself contains variations on a more spiritualized perspective in some places. But still, I believe that to believe in bodily resurrection changes everything. It adds joy and meaning not only to our vision of the world to come, but to our real lives in the here and now. Likewise it adds a level of accountability and responsibility that can have a positive impact on our lives—and on the world. It matters to believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead—and that by the grace of God, we will too.