Sermon 19th April 2015

Eating and drinking, perishable and imperishable

Reading: Acts 3: 12 – 19;
1 John 3: 1 – 7;
Luke 24: 36b – 48

Isn’t it curious that the Gospels tell quite different stories about what
happened after the crucifixion. In the original ending of Mark there are no
resurrection appearances at all, but the people who go to the tomb are scared
of the angels. In Matthew, the disciples seem perfectly OK with seeing Jesus
and nobody is afraid. John, being John, and packed with symbolism, Jesus isn’t
recognised on his first appearance until he speaks a personal name. None of
the disciples questions his real presence once they discover who it is, but you
would think having spent some three years with Jesus they could figure it out
straight off!
The first appearance in Luke on the road to Emmaus, before this story, there’s
no fear at the stranger appearing but no recognition either. And right after
disappearing from Emmaus, when Jesus appears to other disciples, they are
afraid until he calms them down by showing he’s someone they can relate to –
a flesh and blood functioning human being; the only place in the Gospels where
the disciples who see the risen Jesus are afraid of him. Why should they be?
How odd, we might think; wouldn’t the disciples have been glad to see him?
And although Jesus gives them a quick scripture revision lesson to remind
them about what he’s promised earlier, Jesus is also giving them assurance that
yes, it’s really me, look at the evidence of my body; watch – I can eat with you
so I’m real, go tell everyone!
I have to wonder why all the Gospels describe the resurrection appearances as
flesh and blood, a resurrected Jesus recognisable as a human who speaks and
eats; whereas St Paul’s letters, much earlier on, aren’t that concerned with the
actual nature of the “appearances” and concentrate more on the contrast
between physical and spiritual. Paul’s own Damascus road experience wasn’t a
meeting with Jesus’ physical body but rather a voice from heaven and a blinding
light. Perhaps the later gospel writers found that as the expanding Christian
communities became more and more divorced from their Jewish heritage,
which presented God-created humans as indivisible body and soul; and added
more outside influences such as Greek thought, they had to describe
resurrection in human terms which their listeners would understand – that
what St Paul was writing about was too academic, perhaps too foreign. If we
add to this the real problems of translation from the subtleties of the original
Greek into English, that adds another dimension of difficulty.
Even just the New Testament terms “flesh and blood” and “body”; we might
think they are the same. Well – this might be true in English thinking. But in
Greek, “flesh” is usually “sarx” – this stuff which we can see and touch, which
rots away; and the word “body” is more often than not the greek “soma” , one
of the meanings being “an entire complete being”. And here’s perhaps a
provocative question – if Jesus was raised from the dead as a flesh and blood,
living breathing eating person, would he have to die again as a normal human
being? But if he was raised as “soma”, his whole being – what we might call that
Jewish indivisible “body and soul” – then he was raised as something new and
different. He was, as St Paul says repeatedly, transformed. As we will be
transformed. Flesh and blood, says Paul, the sarx stuff, cannot inherit the
kingdom of heaven. But as soma, our whole being, we can –and believe will –
be transformed from a short lived physical body into an immortal spiritual one.
There is a continuity of existence – the old body “puts on” the new body. The
mortal “puts on” immortality. The difference here is not between physical and
nonphysical, but between the nature of the old body and the nature of the new
one. St Paul never says that the earthly body becomes immortal. But all that
might have been a bit too much for the later Gospel writers to convince their
audiences about the reality of the Resurrection.
However….
Are we too concerned with trying to shape our beliefs using literal modern
meanings of Biblical and other texts? The Apostles’ Creed asks us to believe in
the resurrection of the body – the sarx body, yes, the actual word in in that
creed. I personally have a real problem with the Resurrection meaning that
Jesus walked out of the tomb as a flesh and blood human being in exactly the
same state as he died, because does that mean I will too be resurrected in the
same physical condition as when I die – to live eternally perhaps disease ridden,
in pain, lost in the ravages of dementia, too incapable of enjoying that life with
God? Not exactly what one would hope for from eternal life.
What I can believe in, and perhaps you can too, is in a resurrection which
doesn’t have to be intellectually understandable in 21st century terms of flesh
and blood. Should we be content with leaving the actual process of what
happens in the Resurrection as God’s mystery, and exploring more what the
resurrection appearance stories are trying to tell us about a real Jesus always
being with us – and our own eventual life with God through resurrection of
the dead; holding firmly to the belief that we will all experience resurrection,
because Jesus shows us that anything is possible with God?
Maybe if we can stop agonising over the jots and tittles of why and how and by
what means the Resurrection happened, and actually LIVE it, believe in it as
evidence of God’s covenantal love and promise to us through Jesus of eternal
life, it will become real by our living in that love. Forget the theological
treatises, the speculations, says Jesus to the disciples and us, just enjoy being
and eating with me, touching me. As he said to Thomas last week – do not
doubt but believe. You don’t have to understand it.
Jesus is just as available to us now as a spiritual body as he was to the people
who followed him around when he lived as a human fleshly body. He has been
raised, he is transformed; but he is genuinely with us even if we can’t recognise
him. Covenantal love does not stop when one partner dies, the other will
really and actually be “present” forever, even though it may not be physical.
We celebrate Peter’s and Alison’s 25th wedding anniversary today. They too
have given their promises to each other, reflecting the same covenantal love
which we believe is between us and God. When eventually and sadly one of
them dies, their relationship will not disappear but it will be changed from
something dependent on human perishability into something quite different and
equally real. And when we die we will be changed from our current sarx-y
bodies capable of sinning and decaying, into forgiven, loved, imperishable beings
who will live forever with God, just as Jesus promised.
Alleluia, Christ is risen