15 April 2018

Look and See

Luke 24:36b-48

Third Sunday of Easter

I have a confession to make.  I really dislike the word “spiritual.”  I really do.  It’s not a bad word, as words go.  I’ve been known to use it now and again, but I try hard not to, especially in a sermon or in a class or meeting or conversation.  I really try not to use it around the church.  Sometimes I slip.  Sometimes there’s no other word that comes to mind.  Sometimes I give up the fight.  It’s just easier to use it than to talk around it. 

I also don’t like when someone says to me, “You’re such a spiritual person.”  There, another confession.  I deflect that designation, resist that label.  I don’t want to be thought of as spiritual.  I would rather be known as someone who’s religious.  But being religious has come to have so many negative associations these days, along with the word “religion.”  “Religion,” from the Latin religare, means “to bind back” or “to connect.”  Healthy, living, dynamic religiosity binds us back to the source, to God; a healthy, living, dynamic religiosity is continually connecting one to God and to one’s neighbor and to one’s self, connecting one to the earth, to the world, to the world.  This is why I have deep concerns—here’s another confession—when I hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  I understand what they’re saying and can appreciate why they want to distance themselves from religious life and so-called “organized” religion.  I get why many are suspicious of religious institutions, I really do.  I don’t blame them.  There are days when I feel the same way—yet, another confession.  Now, I don’t judge anyone for using that spiritual/not-religious mantra.  And I certainly don’t judge you or anyone if you have no problems with the word “spiritual” or, even, “spirituality”—actually, that’s another word I don’t like to use. I do, of course, but wish we could come up with a different word, a better word, a more theologically/biblically-grounded word.

That said, you won’t find the word “religion” anywhere in the Bible.  Jesus never said, “Follow me and I will make you religious.”  And you’ll search in vain for the word “spirituality” in the Bible.  It’s not there.  Paul does use something like “spiritual” in talking about the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in us; then we are “spiritual.”   But, Jesus never said, “Follow me and I will make you spiritual.”  He never said, “I am the way to deepen your spirituality.” 

The problem—and I confess, it’s my problem and have a hunch that it’s also the Church’s problem—with the way the church uses words such as “spirituality” and “spiritual” is the way they validate a dualistic view of things.  These words substantiate an attitude that is more Greek than Jewish, an outlook that has more in common with Plato or Aristotle than with the God of Abraham and Sarah or Jesus.  You see the Greek worldview divided everything into two essential categories: good and bad.  The eternal, because it was not subject to decay, was good; the temporal, because it’s subject to change and therefore decay, was bad.  The eternal and the temporal, being opposites, could never coexist.  Spirit, because it was eternal was good; matter, because it was subject to decay, was bad.  The soul, understood as divine and therefore immortal, was viewed as good; the body, subject to decay and imperfections, was bad.  Soul and spirit were privileged over body and matter.  This dualism or binary configuration extended into everything: heaven, good; earth, bad.  Male, good; woman, bad; Greek, good; barbarian, bad.  It’s this privileging of soul/spirit over body/matter, this Greek philosophy that had enormous influence upon the history of the Church, which originates within a Jewish world view.  This was a huge debate in the early Church.  The third century theologian Tertullian (c.155 - c.240) famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Prescription Against Heretics).  Many of these binary assumptions have wreaked havoc upon both the Church and the West.  We could be here all day and night to tell that story. But truth be told, the Church remains cursed by these false dichotomies. 

The Jewish experience was less prone to dividing up reality this way.  They lived with a greater holistic sense of things.  Psalm 24:1 beautifully captures this, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”  All the world, not some of it, not the good parts, not the “spiritual” parts, not just the “holy” parts, but all of it belongs to God.  The Hebrew scriptures aren’t exempt of dualism, there’s plenty of patriarchal misogyny to go around.  But one thing they didn’t do is privilege the spirit over the matter.  If anything, it’s the other way around.  Matter, including bodies, are sacred.  Bodies are holy.  A human being is a child of the earth, Adam, meaning “dust creature,” formed from clay, molded into a human being through the divine creativity of God, imagined into being, made in the image of God—from the earth.  God breathed into the dirt and the dirt came alive. It’s true, we might have challenging relationship with our bodies.  We might feel uncomfortable in our bodies.  And sometimes our bodies betray us and get sick.  The body doesn’t last forever.  Nevertheless, God loves and honors the body.  Think about it, who would you be without your body?  You cannot be who you are without it.  The body is more than just a container for the soul (that’s a Greek idea, by the way).

Spirit and matter are held together.  The spirit or breath of God loves to be enfleshed, incarnated in the world, in history, in us, in the Son.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (Jn. 1:14).  The flesh, the body matters to God.  This physical world, this earth, this heavenly body out of which we were formed, matters to God.  Matter matters to God.  Indeed, the fact that the resurrection of a body, and not the immortality of the soul, stands at the center of the Christian experience, should tell us something about how God values the body and continues to seek embodiment in the world.  It’s why, from a Christian perspective, the Christian life is not an out-of-the-body, but an in-the-body experience.  The Spirit of Christ embeds us in our bodies, into reality, into the suffering of the world.  The Christian is not rescued out of the world, but put more deeply, more profoundly into the world in a radically different way, to love and heal and transform the world.  

To be honest, I don’t understand why some of our fellow-Christians fail to see this.  In fact, one of the nagging sins of our time, I believe, is “spiritualization” of the Gospel. You can hear it when people say that Jesus was only interested in “spiritual” things, therefore the church should only be interested in “spiritual” concerns, which means that we should not be involved in social justice issues or the care of creation or make statements about the economy or the sins of capitalism or speak out against political corruption and denounce leaders who fail to provide for the welfare and well-being of God’s children. Whenever you see or hear this happening, that’s spiritualizing the gospel—and when we spiritualize we’re far removed from God’s Kingdom, we’re alienated from the gospel.

Look at Luke’s Gospel.  Can you feel the physicality of these resurrection stories?  They’re not ghost stories, stories about spirits.  Luke is at pains to stress this.  In Luke, the first resurrection appearance to the disciples occurred not at the tomb, but on the road to Emmaus.  The disciples are walking; Jesus is walking.  There’s nothing like walking to remind us that we are bodies in motion. This was clear to me on the Camino, walking 500 miles across Spain.  The more you walk the more you realize you don’t “have” a body, you are a body, a body in motion that’s moving, a sensing, smelly, aching body, a body conscious of itself as body.  Jesus is talking as he walks.  Jesus’ body is hungry, a body that needs care and nourishment.  It’s at table with him, we’re told, reaching for a loaf of bread, lifting it up, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to them, that’s when they recognized him.  Watching this guest take and lift and bless and break and give them bread triggered the memory of another who took and lifted his body on a cross, who blessed them with his body, a body that was broken—that’s when they recognized him.  The invisible becomes visible.  Then they remembered him, literally, re-membered him, members that were previously separated were joined together.  Then Jesus leaves them, his presence all the more real in his absence.  There’s nothing spiritual about this.

And Jesus appears again.  He stands among them.  “Peace be with you.” The disciples are terrified.  They thought he was a ghost.  “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I” (Luke 24:39).  A ghost doesn’t have hands, real hands; a ghost doesn’t have feet, real feet.  “Touch me and see; for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:39). Perhaps a ghost would have been easier to handle.  He’s not a ghost. He’s a human being, he’s flesh and bones.  A body.  A living being.  He has weight.  He takes up space.  He’s solid.  Real.  Then he offers his hands, shows him his feet.  Look. Touch.  See.

And then, one of my favorite verses in scripture, Luke tells us, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”—it’s an odd construction.  “In their joy they were disbelieving and wondering.” Or, “while they were yet in disbelief from joy.”  Either way, resurrection has a way of disorienting us.  Joy can sometimes do that. But, almost ignoring the disciples’ shock and disbelief, Jesus says, “I’m hungry. I've been kind of busy the last couple of days. Do you have anything to eat around here?” So they gave him some broiled fish, which he then took—with his hands, of course—and ate before them—a resurrected body eating before them.

Unlike John’s Gospel, where Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger in his side (Jn. 20:26-29), in Luke, Jesus never refers to the wounds and scars of the crucifixion. When Jesus says, look at his flesh and bones, it could simply mean, “Look at me.  I’m real.”  But I think it’s deeper than that.  He says, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I.”  In other words, there’s something about those hands and feet that tell them who he is.  Those hands and feet were familiar.  Those were the hands that blessed the children and healed the lame; those were feet they knew, feet they were called to follow.  They were the hands and feet stretched out in love, and pierced.  Luke doesn’t say this, it’s implied: his hands and feet tell the whole story, his hands and feet are preaching, these wounded hands and feet reveal him to them.  They could recognize him and welcome him into their fearful lives because they knew those hands and feet belonged to their Messiah, the hands and feet of a body that was broken.  Look. Touch. See.

Can you feel the physicality of this text?  It’s tangible. Concrete. Remarkable, to be sure—yet very real.  This text and others show us that resurrection is a this-world experience. It begins here.  In other words, as followers of the crucified-risen Lord we are sent into this world, empowered by the Spirit, to be witnesses of resurrection in the here and now.  It is possible for us to look and see and touch the presence of the Lord among us and within us.  

He’s most recognizable, perhaps, wherever we consider his hands and feet—hands that blessed and healed, feet that walked the extra mile for us, hands and feet that were pierced and scarred, a body wounded in love, knowing that, somehow, we are connected to his wounds and scars, connected to those hands and feet.  In many respects, isn’t this what the Crucified-Risen Lord is always saying to us: look, touch, see?  Jesus says, “Look at my wounds which are also your wounds, don’t be afraid to touch the wounded places; see my scars which are also your scars. Look and touch and see—if you dare—resurrection.”  Because of him, empowered by him, we are free to enter into the wounded, hurting places of the world, we are free to enter into the wounded parts of our lives—look, touch, see—if we dare, resurrection. Christ sends us, his Church, into the world.  My friend Brett Webb-Mitchell, a pastor and author who has written extensively on Christian pilgrimage, says the Church as the body of Christ is always “a body in motion.”[1]

Christ becomes recognizable when we look and see our own hands and feet moving in the world.  He becomes our hands and feet and we engage the world, we throw ourselves, throw our bodies into the work of the gospel. 

It was the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), whom I read when I walked the Camino, who said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  Your body.

There are many people who’ve embodied the gospel in this way. I'm sure you know many in your life.  One who comes to mind, for me, is Harriet Tubman (c.1820-1913).  I was learning more about her remarkable life recently.[2]  A slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who escaped from slavery.  Her path to freedom, in 1849, took her through a graveyard, Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, outside of Preston, Maryland, one of the stops on the Underground Railway.  It was a meeting place on the way to freedom. Tubman had an extraordinary faith, a woman of deep conviction, courage and strength.  It was her faith that led her to risk her life, risk her body, for the sake of her freedom.  The gospel, she knew, wasn’t just “spiritual,” it had to be embodied.  After her escape, her faith led her on a long, dangerous walk that eventually led her into Delaware.  

When she crossed into freedom, she described what some might call a “spiritual experience.” (I would call it a religious experience.)  She said once her feet crossed over into the North, “I looked into my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything.  The sun came up like gold through the trees, and I felt like I was in heaven.”  An embodied experience.  It was an experience that put her more deeply into her body, a body once “owned” by another was now owned by her.  Real. Tangible.  Alive.  Everything transfigured.  More real.  Realer than real.  She returned to the South, risking her body, again and again, to liberate other bodies.  She made thirteen treacherous trips back into the South and helped about seventy slaves cross over the Jordan into freedom.  Think about it, she helped seventy enslaved persons, with shackled hands and feet, seventy bodies walk into freedom.[3]  

That’s resurrection.  

That’s the gospel.

“Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. 
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. 
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, 
yours are the eyes through 
which he looks compassion on this world,   
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  

Your body.

Image: "Jesus' Appearance while the Apostles are at Table" by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319).

[1] Brett Webb-Mitchell, Practicing Pilgrimage: On Being and Becoming God’s Pilgrim People (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), xii.
[2] I’m grateful for Lee Hinson-Hasty’s article for the Presbyterian Foundation, “Resurrection” along Harriet Tubman’s Pathway to Freedom.
[3]Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (One World, 2004).  See also, Harriet Tubman Myths and Facts.

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