Second Sunday of Easter
The temptation, even post-Resurrection, not to believe in the risen body of Jesus Christ our Lord – well, it’s real. How many Christians – theologians, bishops, and pastors among them – have wrestled with the claims we make about Jesus over the centuries? Some have said, “Jesus is resurrected in our memory.” Others have suggested that there’s no need – not really – to believe in the risen Lord. What matters is that we follow his message, more or less to love each other.
I think our particular difficulties with the resurrection, as 21st century people, stem from the ways we understand our bodies. We think we can do things to our bodies – real, powerful things, and that we are primarily the agents of change. So we want to lose weight: starve our bodies, wake up early to get to the gym. We want more beautiful noses, cheekbones, breasts, or we want to lose the paunch: find a doctor of our choosing and cut and chisel them in the operating room. We want to defy aging and death: perfection can be had when we select and buy products and procedures that are all scientifically proven.
By contrast, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection do not demonstrate that kind of procedural control over the body. Quite the contrary: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit,” says the Lord of all life, as he dies on the cross.
Moreover, Jesus’ resurrected body is fascinating, but quite uncontrollable, as the disciples find in today’s Gospel reading (John 20:19-31). Thomas wants a modicum of control: he wants not only to see the resurrected body, but to touch it. We’re Thomas – we want that too, and we certainly can’t blame him (or ourselves) for wanting what Thomas wants. But while Jesus consents in Thomas’ case – and Thomas touches the wounds and finds Jesus’ body – Jesus also admonishes that physically palpating the risen body of Jesus quite simply won’t be possible all the time.
Part of that is because resurrected bodies don’t look or act like supposed “real bodies” do. They don’t have the same rules. They can’t be controlled.
Today’s first reading shows people who are overwhelmed by the craziness and trouble that a resurrected body causes (Acts 5:27-41). From the point of view of the high council others with some authority in the Jewish community, Peter and the other disciples seem to be stirring up exactly the kind of unrest they had hoped would be put away for good with Jesus’ death, but this unrest has possibly become worse, for now the disciples are preaching that Jesus has come to life again!
The situation has become like the mythical many-headed beast; chop off one head, hoping to destroy it, and scores more appear in its place. Jesus Christ is being proclaimed, though Jesus is (in the council’s view) definitely dead and gone. How can this situation keep emerging, and even exploding, before their eyes?
Peter’s witness to Christ is important. If Peter were only speaking on his own behalf and trying to heal people on his own accord, the authorities might be worried, but not quite to the extent that we see them worried in this passage. If you study the history of this period at all, you will quickly realize that there were many, many people who were doing acts of healing (or who said they were), and who were proclaiming a resurrection from the dead.
Indeed, in today’s passage, we hear about two of them, from Gamaliel. Gamaliel wisely counsels: look, if this is real, it will go somewhere – God will cause stuff to happen that we just can’t explain. But if it’s not real, it will die a natural death, just like it did with these other guys who supposedly healed and rose from the dead. Many people said they would rise again, and said they and their disciples could heal. But because this time it is real, the focus is always squarely on Jesus. The disciples are not claiming that they, by themselves, can raise people – only that Jesus can and does.
Thus, Peter quotes from Psalm 118 (the same psalm we recite today), saying, “He is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” Recall that elsewhere (Matthew 16:18) Jesus has named Peter as Rock, on whom the church will be built. But though Peter is the Rock, he is careful never to mistake himself for Jesus, the cornerstone. Instead, anything he does that is good is done because of, and through, Jesus’ power.
Gamaliel is maybe our best example for how to respond to the Resurrected Body in the 21st century. Let us seek after what is truthful. What is real and true will keep us – and the best part is, we don’t even have to lift a finger to try to control that. What is false will simply die its own death.
What is true, I think, is this: while we like to think and hope we can control our own bodies, our very own lives and relationships and deaths make us confront, again and again, that we do not have that control. The very control that society tells us we have is a myth.
What is also true: Christians are called, then, to be people who die little deaths each day – deaths to self, to myths of control, to so-called perfection of our bodies and our lives. We are called to be imperfect people whom yet God calls and in whom God works, in mysterious ways.
And still true, even after two thousand years: in relinquishing control, we find we are free. We are freed from having to save ourselves. We are free to give away all that we have, free to love others even at a cost, free to be resurrected people, free to believe in the Resurrected Body. What is more, that is compelling. Pope Francis is compelling to so many people, I think, because in his Christian freedom, he has done things that shouldn’t be all that surprising to a people that believes in the resurrection: lives in a common house as pope, telephones unfamous people and talks to them, invites Syrian refugees to live in Vatican City, washes the feet of Muslims on Holy Thursday.
Let us go and also be people who seek the life of the Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.