Third Sunday of Easter
1 John 3:1-7
The cover story for the April 16, 2012 issue of Time Magazine was entitled “Rethinking Heaven.” In the article, the author contrasted the popular conceptions of heaven (as most recently found in the popular book “Heaven is for Real”) with more full bodied accounts of the afterlife as recently put forward by N.T. Wright and others. Most people within the average congregation think of the afterlife and heaven as a realm filled with disembodied souls all hugging and congratulating each other on their arrival. This is the place where we walk down streets of gold with our long deceased Aunt Sally and where God sits in a “reaaally big” chair (this according to Colton Burpo, the child author of “Heaven is for Real”).
This week’s lectionary text from Luke challenges our common conceptions of life after death. Our reading comes at the close of the first day of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection, and should be considered within the context of the whole of chapter 24. The chapter begins with the empty tomb and the confused disciples. From there the resurrected Jesus takes a walk to Emmaus with two of his followers where he shares and meal and is revealed in the breaking of the bread. These two startled followers rush back to Jerusalem where “they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (35)
It is during this conversation that Jesus appears for the second and final time in Luke’s gospel. The disciples were “startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” (37) The imagery of a ghost, that is a disembodied spirit, whizzing through the air, here one moment and gone the next, is in keeping with some of our most popular ideas about the afterlife.
However, Jesus is not a ghost. To prove this, he invites the disciples to engage their senses, to look and touch, he points out the flesh and bone of his body, he explicitly shows them his marked hands and feet. And then, as if to close the door on any doubt, he asks for food and for the second time, the resurrected Jesus eats with his followers. There are few things more human than hunger pangs and God’s provision of food is established in the very beginning of the Genesis story. Jesus is referred to as the “bread of life” in John showing us that physical and spiritual nourishment always go hand in hand.
We see this in Jesus’ ministry and his encounters with the disciples after his resurrection. Sharing meals was the means through which his disciples recognized him (35). They knew it was him because he broke bread with them – until he ate with them, he was not even recognizable. Eating with his followers was an essential part of Jesus’ identity before and after his death and resurrection. We hear the stories of him eating with Mary and Martha, eating in the home of Simon the Pharisee, eating with Zacheaus, and making a dinner party into the setting for theological engagement. Jesus’ ministry happened around a table, which means that the very creaturely act of eating is a part of our life with God and God’s life with us. Food is a holy mystery because it is an engagement with life and death in its most intimate processes. It is God’s love made delectable. Popular conceptions of life after death lose the theological richness of food and eating and in doing so beg the question: why would God make table fellowship central to the ministry of Jesus, central to the continued life of the church and then banish such corporeal concerns for all of eternity (after death)?
Scripture is clear, that it is not just our souls, but all of creation that moans in travail waiting for redemption. In the same way, we await the redemption of our bodies as Paul reminds us in Romans 8. The scriptural accounts of the resurrected Jesus in Luke 24 directly contradict any version of the afterlife where our bodies and the earth are cast aside rather than redeemed.
We know our bodies are important to God because their creation occurs at the very beginning of God’s and our story. Indeed, the Bible is a book about bodies – live bodies, dead bodies, longing bodies, hungry bodies. Jesus lived an embodied life, died a bodily death and was raised to a newly transformed bodily life, a life which continues to be embodied in the Church.
When someone dies, pastors always hear the consoling words of friends and neighbors “she is in a better place now that she has cast off this mortal coil.” This mortal coil, though, was created by God and to deny our bodies is to deny the beauty of the work of our Creator. We do need to help our congregations rethink heaven. However, it is too late to do so at the grave side. But what of this week? What of the third week of Easter, as we continue to be startled by the resurrection? May this be a week for us to look upon the resurrected Christ and proclaim the goodness of creation.
*Many thanks to Sarah Jo Adams for her help with this post.