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Text: Luke 24:36b – 46
One of the things about nostalgia is that no matter what “better” time you’re trying to get back to, there will always be people at that time trying to get back even further. When you were kids and teens and young adults and the world, the church, or your life was so much better, people then were complaining that it was actually much better thirty years before that, and then thirty years before that, and so on.
Take, for instance, the church. I’ve heard people complain that the church is in a bad place, and it’s because of all this arguing we’re doing. Between conservative and progressive factions, and that if they (whoever is on the opposite side from you) would just get with the program, things would be so much better. We should be like the early church, who never disagreed, who were united in their quest to spread the gospel.
Except, no. The first Christians were just as divided as us, and about issues that we would find weird and silly to argue about. Some of them are written right into the Bible: Paul’s arguments with James over inclusion of the Gentiles and circumcision, whether to eat meat that was sacrificed and blessed at pagan festivals, whether it was okay to get married, and whether Jesus really had a body.
That last one was one of the biggest, and it’s why in this passage, when Jesus appears to the disciples, there’s so much fuss being made about the fact that he has a body. “They thought they were seeing a ghost” (a pneuma, in Greek, a spirit or breath), “Look at my hands and feet; touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (see also the story of “doubting Thomas”), and most strikingly, “Have you anything to eat?” Jesus is hungry; this takes place about Monday, and he hasn’t eaten anything since Thursday evening.
Early Christians argued about this, whether Jesus, particularly the resurrected Christ, had a body. Because, Jesus is God, how could he have such a dirty, sinful body? Can you imagine Jesus going to the bathroom, getting a cold and having a really runny nose, getting sick after eating something undercooked and vomiting? Can you imagine Jesus being just as low and unclean as we are?
Some early Christians argued that Jesus only seemed to have a body, but was really a spirit. They have been called docetists, after the Greek word for “to seem,” and they and the people who argued what would become the orthodox position fought. Communities were pulled apart, and the author Luke, as well as the author of John, felt it was needed to put in a story about one or more of the disciples touching Jesus after he rose to make sure that people knew that Jesus was really a human being.
Why? What difference does it make?
Even now, I think we still tend to think of the body as inherently “wrong.” Our culture feeds that by telling us our individual bodies are wrong and we should strive for some idea of perfection. It’s why we get so hung up on sex and sexuality, which really should not be that big a deal, or why we have obsessions about what we’re eating, or cleanliness in a way that doesn’t actually care that much about real hygiene—your skincare routine does not make a difference as to whether you’re spreading disease by not washing your hands.
We think of ourselves as really being souls, or spirits. And when you picture yourself in heaven, do you see yourself with the body you have now? Or with a younger body, a thinner body, a more attractive body as if anyone in heaven cares? Men, do you picture yourselves with a full head of hair? With no wrinkles? With no aches and pains?
But what does thinking about our bodies as “not really us” mean to a person who has a disability? What does it mean to someone who’s body is the reason they are discriminated against because of black skin? What does it mean for someone who feels they have been “born in the wrong body?” Or maybe someone who doesn’t feel that way, it’s just that how society looks at bodies and what they mean is all wrong?
Does a person with a disability that takes away the ability to walk get to stand up and walk when they’re in heaven? That might seem like a good thing to say, but some people with disabilities I’ve talked to have told me about the times that people have said to them, “It’s okay, you’ll walk again in heaven,” and it feels like it just reinforces the fact that they’re not seen as fully human now, because of their disability.
You might not intend any hurt if you say something like that but one thing I think we all have to realize is we can say things without meaning to hurt and they will still hurt, because we’re not aware of all the unconscious attitudes we might have. We have to learn to accept it with grace when a person with a disability says to us, “That was kind of ableist,” even if we don’t mean it that way, or if a person of colour says, “That was kind of racists,” or when someone says, “That was kind of sexist/homophobic/transphobic/anti-Semitic/Islamophobic/etc.” We have to learn how to accept this kind of criticism with grace and humility, not with defensiveness and self-justification. It’s the only way to heal. None of us are free from the sins of racism/misogyny/ableism/etc. and we have to acknowledge that and repent.
Sorry, that was a side-track but it’s something I think should be said often. But my basic point is what the gospel reading is getting at is that the risen Christ is fully, and completely risen. Not just in spirit, but in body, and in a body that is, as he himself said, broken.
And I think this is a good thing, for us to consider. Our culture teaches us to hate ourselves, to hate our bodies, to hate the fact that we have to eat, even while it sells us food and clothing to make us prettier, and whatever the new diet fad is. The church has unfortunately taught us to view our bodies as sinful, despite what’s happening here.
And that has led to theological justification for some unfortunate things; that we shouldn’t care about the suffering of others, liberation from our own suffering, or even about the suffering we’re inflicting on others because that’s all just our sinful bodies, our real home is in heaven. Poor person going hungry? That’s just your sinful body. Black slave being whipped? That’s just your sinful body. Woman’s body being controlled? That’s just your sinful body. Even though Jesus eats, is whipped, has his body controlled.
But there’s a reason why body imagery is so present in the church throughout history; why we lift up a piece of bread and call it Jesus’ body, broken for you. What does that mean for those whose bodies have a disability, who or feel they live in the wrong body?
We say that God loves us just as we are, but we so rarely embody that love for ourselves or others. No matter what kind of body we have, no matter what we look like, no matter how we feel, God accepts us as we are. The disabled body is not less than the abled one; the trans woman’s body is not less of a woman’s body than that of a cis woman’s body; the body born without a limb is not “incomplete” in God’s eyes.
And the resurrected Jesus is not a ghost, or a spirit; not an idea, but a reality. The essential point is the same that has been the core of who and what Jesus is: God is with us. The God who comes to us, lives with us, dies with us, and rises again is not “better” than us, not different from us, not above us; can understand us, loves us fully, made us in Her image.
The Ancient Jews did not view the soul and the body as separate things; the soul, the breath, was an integral part of the body. Life after death was not the spirit going up to heaven, but God would raise all the dead at the end of days. And this is what we Christians take on as well when we have the story of Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection;” when we see him resurrected in body.
All of this seems strange to us, a bit hard to get our heads around, but it was an important debate in the ancient church, where you had Greeks with Platonic philosophy about ideal forms and only seeing shadows on the wall of a cave, verses Jews who understood themselves in much more embodied terms. But what it means for us, I think, is an imperative to simply be in the world, we are as we are, we’re not just waiting around for the next life. And those people who are suffering in their body now, because they’re poor and hungry, because society does not accommodate their disability, because society is racist to them—they’re actually suffering and we can’t just say they’ll be okay in the next life.
Love one another as the whole human you are and the whole human they are, because Jesus is wholly human, and God blesses our whole selves, body and soul. Amen.