The Second Sunday of Easter: April 3, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Kyle Oliver, Assisting Priest at St. Michael’s Church
Today’s reading from the Gospel According to John is brought to you by a sometimes embarrassing word: bodies. Or flesh, if you prefer, which thanks to St. Paul is even more loaded.
This passage is an Easter reminder to us all that our bodies are real and that 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 a common philosophical expression, simply “a ghost in a machine.”
One thing our Christian tradition tries to be 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 often 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 unfortunate moniker. It’s Doubting Kyle who so often ducks out of commenting on the embarrassing details of the bodily resurrection. “Show me the marks,” the apostle Thomas says boldly. “Please don’t even mention the marks,” comes my tepid modern reply.
I believe this text is a reminder that, in order to understand the resurrection, we must make ourselves a little more available to the physical realities of both human suffering and human joy, that is, to the ways we need and the ways we experience resurrection. Including in our bodies.
Let me tell you about a friend of mine. I’ll call him Fred. Fred got married very young, and for the entire time I’d known him, he had serious difficulty in his marriage. These personal woes bled over into his professional life, which has made it hard for him to find work and pay the bills. As his marriage was ending and in the months since, I’ve been a part of his support system.
For more than a year, things were bleak. He was depressed and practically unemployed. He wasn’t taking very good care of himself. I’m sure I wouldn’t have either in his shoes.
Every time he called me, or I called him, it was clear from his voice that he was in that state of hopelessness that many who have been through divorce will recognize. Things got so bad that I needed a support system in my support of him. I’m grateful that a mutual acquaintance beared with my anguished missives as I tried to make sense of what my dear friend was going through.
About a month ago, I realized we were overdue for a check-in. I texted Fred, and a couple minutes later he called me. I could hear from the tone of his voice that something had changed. He’d made some new friends. His employment situation had improved. He seemed aware that he was starting to emerge from the … haze. From the depths.
And it’s no coincidence at all, I think, that after a few minutes of general catch-up, he started to talk in very concrete ways about his burgeoning yoga practice. Yoga is also an important part of my life, so his description of particular postures, of the way the room is set up, of the support he gets from teachers, and of the community that forms in the studio…all of that resonated with me on a bodily level.
Easter joy was breaking through early. As I stood there with the phone to my ear, I could feel a repeating alleluia rise up in me as I celebrated that, at least for now, Fred is risen.
It’s not every year that one gets to experience something like this, even second-hand as I did. That’s why I think it’s important for us to connect our memories of such stories with the rhythms of death and life that are all around us.
Of course, in the northern hemisphere, the Great 50 Days of Easter correspond reasonably well with the season of spring. So it’s no coincidence that we have all these inspiring if perhaps a bit cliched images of the resurrection: the newfound warmth of the sun, of lengthening days, green shoots that mark the marvel of new life, impossible blossoms whose hues renew our trust in a shared life not just profound but abundant.
Do you have a spring ritual? Maybe something you do every year on that first perfect day? A place you visit, an activity you throw yourself into, a taste, a smell, a new but familiar world?
Mine is a poem, I think the only one my father ever taught me. I’ve already had my moment with it this year, for reasons you’ll understand in a sec. But when the time comes again next year, I’ll do my best to think not just of my dad but of Fred, and the resurrection life he shared with me in 2016.
Here’s the poem:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Lovely, right? Before I heard it, I had never realized that a tree is golden before it is green. I guess that’s the power of poetry.
And yet leave it to Robert Frost to grant us about 2.7 seconds of joy before turning our thoughts back to disappointment, if not death. “Nothing gold can stay.”
That is the irreducible truth of life in this world, and it’s the reason why all our personal stories and inspiring poems and beloved spring rituals need, ultimately, to serve not just as a treasure in themselves but as pointers to something else, someone else.
Even as we worship together today, leaf is subsiding to leaf all around us. I haven’t checked back in with Fred, and there’s a good chance things aren’t still as uniformly rosy. So it goes.
That is why we need to hear this text every year after the abundant joy of the Vigil and of Easter Day. Because what we can experience, for now, only in part, Jesus has experienced in full. All our other stories and metaphors and experiences are pointers to what God has done in him.
The Risen Christ is the firstfruits of God’s triumphant victory over death. The Risen Christ is God’s promise in the flesh that we too, who have been wounded, will emerge in the flesh from our own tombs. By grace, the marks on our bodies will take on new meaning, never forgotten and yet finally and fully redeemed.
And so we pray on this morning, body and soul, with St. Thomas the Faithful Apostle: show us your marks, Lord Christ, that we who share in your death might live ever more fully in your life. Amen.