02 May 2011

"The resurrection of the body..."

My systematic theology professor recently made a comment about the preaching Christians hear this time of year, to the effect that it was a kind of a shame that few Easter sermons share the power and specificity of your average Good Friday sermon. She continued, that, rather, "Easter needs to be this great truth, and the death is the narrow gate by which we enter into this great hope. So we should reflect on this treatise [Gregory of Nyssa's On the Soul and Resurrection] in order to read someone seized by that conviction and to become seized by it ourselves."

This sermon, which I preached yesterday at St. John's, was basically my attempt to take her, and Nyssa, seriously. It was a bit of a departure for me (very little humor, lots of difficult imagery), but I got the impression that it hit home for a lot of people. "Good sermon--but heavy" was a representative comment. There's kind of a glaring transitional error in one of the footnotes (where some of the stuff I had to cut for time and cohesion ended up), which error I hope you'll indulge because I don't feel like regenerating the PDF.


Second Sunday in Easter:

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Take a minute, if you will, to be aware of your body. Closing your eyes might help. Notice how you're sitting. Feel the way your legs are crossed, or not. Take a deep breath and imagine your rib cage expanding as you do so. Keep your eyes closed and think of a time when you were glad to have a body, to be a body: Imagine lying in the sun or floating in the ocean or being tickled by a parent or hugged by a friend. It's OK to think about such things in church. Now think of a time when you felt estranged from your body, when it stopped working properly or caused you great pain or somehow just didn't feel right. Perhaps you're feeling this way today. Perhaps you've felt this way for a long time. [Pause.] OK, open your eyes as you feel so moved.

This little reflection is an Easter reminder to us all that our bodies are real, and they matter in this life and the next. They are an integral, not an extraneous, part of who we are. I am not, to use one writer's expression, simply “a ghost in a machine.”i Indeed, one thing our Christian tradition is clear about is that our bodies are part of what it means to be human.

And so I take as my text this morning John 20:25: “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”

The apostle Thomas—let's just call him Thomas, rather than “Doubting Thomas,” that unfair nickname we give him when we read this story each year —Thomas seems to understand all this body stuff profoundly. “If Jesus is really risen,” Thomas says, “he has a body, a distinctive body, a body I will recognize by its wounds and a body I want to see and touch for myself.” If anything, we sophisticated modern types are the ones who should consider adopting the apostle's moniker. It's Doubting Kyle who so often ducks out of commenting on the apparent impossibilities of the bodily resurrection. “Show me the marks,” the apostle Thomas says faithfully. “Please don't even mention the marks,” comes my tepid modern reply.

But I think the real reason we're afraid to talk about the physical reality of the resurrection has to do with our bodies, not Jesus' body; with our marks, not his. After all, our profession of the resurrection is nothing more or less than the claim that the God who fashions us can re-fashion us and that in the case of Jesus of Nazareth this refashioning has already occurred. That's no small article of faith, I grant you, but it's roughly on par not only with the Doctrine of Creation but with plenty of other things we Christians more readily believe. For instance, we don't do nearly as much hand-wringing about the Incarnation, the idea that God became vulnerable by being born into the world God created: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”ii Now there's a passage we can get behind.

No, I think we'd all be keener on the resurrection if we made ourselves a little more available to the realities of bodily human suffering, to the ways we need resurrection. It's not easy, but I think we owe it to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters to take account of the breadth and depth of our need to be healed, refashioned, perfected, resurrected. If we can't acknowledge the pain and woundedness in the world and in our very bodies, then of course the Easter message of hope will fall flat in the face of our apparent reality. If we try to pretend we don't carry this pain, then it's hard for us to imagine being set free from it. And so I ask us this morning, what and where are the wounds that mark these bodies [gesture] that God promises to raise?

Well, war inflicts such marks with cruel regularity. I watched this week an ABC News clip about the “Wounds of War” in Libya.”iii It was heartbreaking footage from early in the Civil War, taken aboard the first ship carrying wounded rebels to Turkey for treatment. Broken arms and legs were common, and the reporter spoke briefly with an amputee in tears and a wounded and bereaved mother for whom even tears seem finally to have failed. For each of those injured bodies sailing from North Africa, probably hundreds more now lie wounded, or dead, on battlefields and in the streets. And it is the very hopelessness of those persons—of many of the living and of all of the dead—that speaks to the power, the audacity, of our Easter proclamation. We claim that God can in some way, we know not how, make things right in the fulness of time—“bind[ing] up the broken-hearted”iv in this life and raising up the broken-bodied “at the last trumpet.”v It's almost too foolish to believe. Yet many who have born such marks for themselves do believe it, and some carry this hope precisely because they have born the marks as well.

Other human indignities lead to marks that differ greatly from a bullet wound or amputation. Those who have seen, in person or in images, the distended stomachs of the chronicly malnourished are no more likely to forget the sight for the lack of blood or bandage. And those who have lost their hair during chemotherapy are no less marked by their illness than if the tumors themselves were actually visible. Of course, we could go on bearing witness to these marks, as many in this world and some in this room do each day because they have no other choice. The point is, we are not ourselves so far away from the powers of death and darkness that Jesus descended into to vanquish.

Let me now ask your forgiveness for raising this dread imagery on a Sunday where I, at least, am accustomed to having a light-hearted laugh at Thomas' expense before going on to revel in the joy of a disciple reunited with his resurrected Lord and God. As I said, I think Thomas is on to something in his insistence that we must behold the wounds before we rejoice in their being overcome. But the good news we acclaim in the Easter season, the very best news our faith has to offer, is that the final word will be that rejoicing. And so we look to the stories—in scripture, and in our lives—of what that hope looks like. These stories can be touchstones for us. They are markers that point to Easter joy when all other hope has drained away.

One such story—no more than a moment really—took place for me earlier this year in the library at Virginia Seminary. I was doing some reading from a book the Episcopal Church publishes for use in ministry with those who are sick or dying. Having lost one grandparent to Parkinson's Disease with dementia and another to Alzheimer's, I was drawn to a prayer called “In Loss of Memory.” As many of you know, the marks of dementia are a terror to behold, so bad at times that it seems like the person we know is already gone, changed into someone we scarcely recognize. Working with dementia patients during my summer hospital chaplaincy had recently forced me to confront the memory of these wounds my grandparents carried in their last years. And so I think God had specially prepared me to hear to resurrection hope in the following prayer: “Holy God, you have known me from my mother's womb, and have been with me throughout my life. Protect me and keep me safe through all the changes that may come. Since I am sealed as Christ's own, help me to trust that who I am will never be lost to you.”vi I read that prayer, and I just started to cry. The promise that God held in care and would restore these people I love—that the mutations in their brains were, in resurrection hope, temporary conditions—this came as a balm for my wounds as well. Hope for the hopeless—that is the power of the gospel for all of us.

Of course, none of us knows exactly what the resurrection will be like.vii Unlike Thomas, we can only guess, because, unlike Thomas, we don't get to witness it on this side of our own resurrection. We can't yet see for ourselves the kind of change that God wrought in Jesus and will bring about in those Libyan amputees, in the victims of the tornadoes down south, in my grandparents, and in each one of us. We can't yet witness the reforming of our very bodies and the transformation of the marks of our suffering. But we can bear witness to those marks—and to our Easter hope about their fate. In the meantime, “Blessed are [we] who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”viii

iWalker Percy, “The Delta Factor” in The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, And What One Has to Do with the Other (New York: Picador, 2000): 9.

iiLuke 2:11.

iiiDavid Muir, “Wounds of War Bring Libya Together” on World News with Diane Sawyer (New York: ABC News, 2011): http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/wounds-war-libya-rebels-flee-president-obama-gadhafi-us-13288087 (accessed April 27, 2011).

ivIsaiah 61:1.

v1 Corinthians 15:52.

vi“In Loss of Memory” in Ministry with the Sick or Dying, Burial of a Child (New York: Church Publishing, 2000): 77.

vii Will our wounds, too, be changed but not erased, becoming “mark[s] of honor” as St. Augustine speculated? To be fair, he was talking about the bodies of the martyrs, so I'm being a little presumptuous here. I also like St. Gregory of Nyssa's image of the “draw[ing] together” of the parts of our former bodies so that “the rope of our body will be braided [together] by the soul,” which evokes in me the further image of the re-coiling and repairing of mutated DNA. I myself like the idea that a resurrection body that still bears marks is no less “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” to borrow those words we heard in 1 Peter. St. Augustine, The City of God: Volume 2, Marcus Dods, ed. (London: T&T Clark, 1871): 514; St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary, 1993): 68.

viiiJohn 20:29b.


Lara said...

Another great sermon, Kyle! Loved what you said about Thomas. I think that people paint in their minds a caricature of him smirking with his hands on his hips, his chin jutting out defiantly as he makes that statement. But I imagine him more as hearing the news and then sitting down, overwhelmed with the information and not allowing his bruised heart to believe Jesus is alive until he has proof. Because for that to be untrue--to lose him a second time--would be more than he could bear. Also enjoyed the prayer at the end; it's good to know that God remembers who we really are and loves us throughout our many changes.

Kyle Matthew Oliver said...

Thanks, Lara, I enjoyed yours as well!

By the way, how'd you like the sermon today? I loved the perfection poem, which I tracked down here.

Lara said...

Thanks! I really enjoyed his sermon; we talked about it at WOW and agreed that it was eloquent and the perfect model for length of time for community Eucharist, although I could have listened to him much longer. I liked how he tied in the Eucharist as our way of touching Christ's body. The poem was awesome--thanks for posting the link!

Kyle Matthew Oliver said...

In the interest of full disclosure: I just discovered that I specially highlighted the phrase "bodies matter" in my copy of McFague's The Body of God. It's funny how these phrases stick with you without you even realizing it. I wonder how common inadvertent plagiarism is...