The Risen Material Jesus
Since the Resurrection is the most extraordinary event of Jesus’ life, it is striking that Jesus' behavior in the stories of the first Easter is relatively unspectacular. True, he comes and goes in unexplained ways, but there are no miracles, no public appearances even, nothing in the Easter story that suggests spectacular divine power - except, of course, the presence of the risen Jesus himself.
While during his historical earthly ministry Jesus’ life was marked by acts of power, the demonstrations which the risen Christ makes to his disciples seem marked by a desire to show how ordinary he is. Remember from last week the famous encounter with Thomas; Jesus’ dramatic punchline is not “Look Thomas, I don’t have wounds any more” as though his material body now did not matter, but "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
Today’s Gospel makes a related point; if Thomas’ problem was disbelief in general, today the disciples’ problem is a type of wrong belief. This group believes, but believe they have seen a ghost, as most translations have it. Literally they think they have seen “a spirit” - the same word in Greek means both, as we are sometimes reminded by the traditional language of “Holy Ghost” - but this is a misunderstanding.
Jesus’ response to them is simple but weighty:
"Touch me and see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
The appetite of this risen Jesus is emphasized in Luke’s Gospel and in John’s too. This story comes right after the famous road to Emmaus episode, where two other disciples walked with him without recognizing him until he was made known to them at the crucial moment of breaking bread. The most distinctive thing that the evangelists recall Jesus doing is something we all do.
Fear is a common theme in all the Easter stories, but the idea that the disciples are afraid because they have stumbled into some Gothic horror story puts us entirely on the wrong track. We should not assume that his having flesh and bones was in itself less frightening than if he had not had them. Jesus’ reassurance is a correction. As in the Thomas story, his material presence is confronting because it establishes not just the fact of the resurrection, but its nature.
That “ghost,” that purely spiritual Jesus, would have been a more convenient version, surely. His material self, whose implausibility causes Christians no end of trouble both in our own minds as well as in the eyes of others, would have been much easier to dispense with at the cross. Rid of the inconvenient facts of his social and historical location, and all that teaching about a new order of God’s reign, along with his body, we could make Jesus a much more appealing as well as more plausible savior, and in doing so relegate him to the realm of religious experience, of spirituality, where we know our contemporaries would really warm to him.
In fact this is what some forms of Christianity do, precisely - making Jesus an imaginary friend, as malleable as a purely spiritual being would be, rather than a first century Jew bringing inconvenient material and physical practices and demands with him.
And in the same breath we may pursue another heresy regarding his death and ours, namely the fantasy that the meaning of his Easter reappearance somehow guarantees our own persistence after death, as spiritual beings not material ones.
In a week when death has had some prominence in the news for a variety or reasons ranging from sad to outrageous, from royal funerals to mass shootings to the continued parade of unjustified homicides of black men at the hands of law enforcement, the message about death contained in Jesus’ resurrection is confronting, and hopeful.
In fact the material Jesus makes very clear that the Gospel places the power of God over death not in vague notions of our persistence, in something inherent in us, but in something only inherent in God - in the power of God to overcome death itself. There is no trace here of the enticing but self-serving view that all will be well just because death is not the end. All will be well, but only because the same power of God that overcame Jesus’ death can overcome ours too.
The victories that death claims day after day, both through the natural course of age, the cruel indifference that has allowed the pandemic to be so much worse than it need have been, and the unnatural uses of violence and oppression, all are shown by the resurrection of Jesus to be false for the same reason; not our inherent spiritual nature, but God’s inherent justice. The one who raised the poor man Jesus from death will raise Daunte Wright and Philip Mountbatten from death, and their futures will be found in the future of Jesus. God’s raising of Jesus from death was not the reassurance that the spirit goes on, but that he goes on; it is the beginning of the end, of his reign, the divine judgement in which wrongs will be righted and every tear wiped away.
Meanwhile we who believe in him believe his presence is with us, already and still, material. It is here not in the vagaries of a malleable spiritual ideal, but in the reality of our own bodies, which are now his body, as St Paul tells us. This is not a mere metaphor, it is our firm Christian belief. And so too we worship him here not merely with prayer, or with our interior selves, but with the substances of bread and wine, as he commanded us. So when we eat and drink we remember him - and again become his members, we dwelling in him and he in us - and recall not just the story of his Last Supper, but of these Easter suppers too. We recall how he ate with the disciples to demonstrate his own bodily reality and to constitute with them this new body, this new community that follows him, our common meal thus the constant proclamation of his presence with us now and of his victory over sin and death. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ our Lord!