Bodily Resurrection

Sermon by Claire Betts

Readings: Acts 3.12-19, Luke 24.36-48 (Psalm 4, 1 John 3.1-7)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.

When Fr Matt asked me if I’d like to preach again, he actually offered me a choice of a couple of dates so I only have myself to blame in picking today’s extremely challenging topic of bodily resurrection! One of the things I’m really learning about sermons is that I approach the Gospel reading or the other readings from Scripture with lots of questions and after days of reading through writings from theologians I often end up with even more questions but it is always a fascinating experience!

Today’s Gospel is the sister reading to what Fr Guy preached about last week. Jesus has risen and is appearing in various places to various people. One of the preparations I like to do when I’m thinking about a sermon, is to look at the various representations of Gospel readings in Art and this week’s Luke reading was really tricky. Artists seem to want to show us lots of the other bits of this period – there’s a very famous Caravaggio in the National Gallery of the Supper at Emmaus and another of his in Berlin of doubting Thomas who we heard about last week but I had to really search to find the mundane act of Jesus eating fish in Luke’s Gospel. I found one in the end from the Cathedral in Siena in Italy. The different versions of the story, or different events in the time period, all give us the same message though: that Jesus had risen, not as a spirit or a ghost; but bodily. He tells his disciples to ‘touch me and see’ for themselves. He asks them for food and, while they are sitting round in a mixture of panic and wonder and disbelief, he eats some grilled fish. The Gospel tells us that they are ‘disbelieving’ but also that they were wondering ‘in their joy’ – it’s hard to comprehend but it is still Good News!

Jesus tells them that their task is to proclaim ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name’ but also asks them why they are frightened and doubting. His two messages are that of belief and repentance. Repent and Believe. But what are we called to believe?

We say it every week in the Apostles Creed which we’ve been using in lockdown: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.”

We believe in the resurrection, that we, like Christ, will rise again to live eternally with God.

Once you start thinking about it, the mechanics of it are really fascinating. The risen Jesus is the same but different. There are aspects of his risen self which are a continuation of his human experience – he still has his wounds and is ‘flesh and bones’ which he encourages the disciples to touch. But he is also changed, we know that this newly risen Jesus can appear and disappear in a way not possible for ordinary humans as he does in the upper room with the disciples and on the road to Emmaus.

So, if He has now what Paul calls a ‘celestial’ or heavenly body, does he still need to eat? He clearly can eat, He does it here and also presumably at the supper at Emmaus. Perhaps it is to comfort the disciples who fear they’re seeing a ghost; to demonstrate his physical reality. Maybe it’s just the continuity of his human nature again that is significant. He can still eat because he is really, bodily there.

St Paul has sometimes caused various controversies as his letters were meant for specific communities and are often taken out of context. It is sometimes argued that he taught only a resurrection of the spirit or soul and not the body. For example, in 1 Corinthians he says, “I tell you this, flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom of God.” But to put that quotation in context, one of my favourite bits comes next:

“Lo! I tell you a mystery,” he says. “We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. Oh death, where is thy victory? Oh death, where is thy sting?’ “

We shall all be changed. Changed in our Resurrection. It can seem like quite a lot to take in. Alice in Wonderland famously said that sometimes she’d believed “as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” and I sometimes think that it can feel a bit that way but, as Christians, we agree that God is the omnipotent creator which is one I personally don’t find very challenging as there is so much in creation to be in awe of and we believe that Mary carried God as man in her virginal womb and Jesus was fully human and fully divine and died for our sins. Belief in bodily resurrection isn’t too much more to believe, as Paul says, “Lo! I tell you a mystery”. And the really joyful part is knowing that death has no sting because bodily resurrection applies to us too!

When we try and picture the Resurrection it can be easy to picture a medieval image with ladders going up and down and little devils with pots of boiling oil and pitchforks and graves opening. Medieval Historian, Caroline Walker Bynam, gathered together the metaphors used by medieval theologians trying to explain what would happen to our bodies which show how they also tried to help people understand it. They described it as being like:

The flowering of a dry tree after winter

The donning of new clothes

The rebuilding of a temple

The hatching of an egg

The smelting of ore from clay

The return of the Phoenix from its own ashes

The reassembling of broken pot shards

And, the one I like best, the reforging of a statue that has been melted down. I prefer that image to putting on new clothes or hatching an egg because in melting down and reforming a statue you are reshaping the same ingredients to a new form, not adding or taking away.

Like Christ, we will be us but us made new. Paul wrote to the Philippians that it ‘will transform our lowly bodies’.

The resurrection, eternal life, is not just about our souls. When we did our book club last year, we looked at a few of the Church Fathers from the early Church and, unsurprisingly, as it’s a big and difficult subject, they grappled with the idea of Resurrection a lot. Justin Martyr was really clear in the second century saying that, ‘a man is both soul and body and Christ has promised to raise both, just as his own body was raised.’ But then even the Fathers were back to the mechanics of it all. In the 1200s, Thomas Aquinas was worrying about all our hair trimmings and nail clippings that we’d cut off across our lives. Were they all added back on to our reconstituted bodies? But we wouldn’t have super long hair and talons because that would be ridiculous so they must be absorbed somehow. St Augustine spent a long while worrying about the age and size of our resurrected forms. How tall would we be? How heavy? And, if we’d died by being eaten by a bear or a giant fish, would God be able to gather our digested bits? My favourite discovery was the writings of St Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. He fretted that as ‘nature has made no part of the body useless’ and we wouldn’t need a lot of the functions in our resurrected form, would we still need all our organs? He was particularly hung up on the importance of his bowels. He records his teacher’s answer though. She told him that, ‘the truth about this is stored up in the hidden treasury of wisdom and will be disclosed at the time we are taught the mystery of the resurrection.’ Paul’s mystery again. We aren’t supposed to know the details, just have faith that it will happen.

We don’t lose anything in death, we are made new but we are still us, like Justin Martyr said, God saves all of us and that is the Good News! Any one bit of us is not all of us. We are incomplete without our bodies. We are who we are because of our bodily selves, our minds, our memories and life experiences, our wills and our souls.

Thomas Aquinas taught that, like Christ, we would have bodies that were no longer limited by Earthly constructs of space and time. We would have no pain; we could move anywhere unrestrained by matter and also that we would be resplendently beautiful which is something to look forward to!

So Jesus’s two instructions were to Repent and Believe. Our other reading today that Chris read from Acts has Peter repeating Jesus’s message, ‘Repent and turn to God so your sins may be wiped out’. To repent isn’t just to say we’re sorry, it is to turn away from sin and turn towards God. To give our whole lives, our entire selves; body, mind and spirit to God. There’s another whole sermon in that which I’m sure Matt will come to in the coming weeks!

Be joyful today because God has told us a little of the mystery – as we repent and believe in Jesus Christ, we will come to share in His resurrection. Death will have no sting because it has been swallowed up in the victory of the resurrection and the life everlasting. Amen.