Bodily Presence

Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a,22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

The collect (opening prayer) in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for the Second Sunday of Easter declares:

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect’s focus on the believer’s (those who have been reborn) participation in Christ’s body through their own lived experience and action is readily apparent in all three readings for this week in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

In Acts, Peter is preaching in public to the crowd that just witnessed the Pentecost event, which itself is described earlier in the chapter as an impressive bodily event. Peter, in the preceding verses, draws the attention of the crowd, but especially those Israelites that are present, to the way in which the Spirit in Pentecost fulfills the prophet Joel’s word that the Spirit will descend in anticipation of the apocalypse of the Lord’s coming. Beginning in verse 22, Peter exhorts the Israelites to see that Jesus is the Incarnate Lord, the subject of the words of the great prophets, who shows in his bodily life, death, and resurrection the power of Yahweh.

In Peter’s first letter, the second reading in the RCL for this week, we are reminded that benefits of the great deed wrought in the resurrection of Jesus Christ are already offered to Jesus’ followers: “…he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” While our inheritance is imperishable and in heaven, we experience our new birth even now.

Through this new birth, we can take joy and have the opportunity to glorify God, to love Jesus Christ, and to believe in Jesus even though we don’t see him. That human beings have the honor believing in, loving, and glorifying God is, to Peter, remarkable, as evident in his remark that these three are the result of the “outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Which brings us to the third reading, most famous for its telling of the story of “Doubting Thomas.” Before we get to Thomas, however, we should not pass over the description of the other disciples’ reaction at seeing the Risen Lord, nor should we miss Jesus’ words to them.

“Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

John ties the bodily appearance of Jesus (wounds and all) to a new experience of peace for the disciples. Moreover, Jesus’ resurrected body marks the sending of the disciples, including their mission to preach repentance and forgiveness.

Ten of the disciples respond to Jesus’ appearance with joy. But Thomas, having missed this meeting, responds with skepticism. Readers might be inclined to either scoff at Thomas’ doubt, or to valorize it. Whatever the attitude toward Thomas, John wants to focus our attention on Jesus’ response. Jesus honors Thomas’s brash insistence on bodily presence: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Yet, Jesus also honors those who believe without seeing — “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” — such as those to whom Peter preaches in Acts 2, those who might have heard second hand that Jesus had risen.

John 20 ends with the words that Jesus did all of these things following his resurrection, and John has recorded them, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The emphasis on bodily presence, whether Jesus’s, the disciples, or later followers, communicates an important lesson to us about the bodily acts of our Christian witness. It is certainly the case that Christ, unlike Thomas, isn’t interested in protecting himself, of shielding his wounds from others. Rather, those wounds become a sign of victory and life.

Likewise, our bodies play an important role in the way we testify to Christ’s love in the world and the way we participate in that love. Our readiness to be present to and with others on Christ’s behalf is not simply instrumental to our ability to love our neighbors as our selves. Rather, bodily presence is an essential condition to loving our neighbors. Those who are trying to be Christ in the world are not sent virtually. Rather, they are sent to be among others, to be physically present with them. Is it possible that, as those imitating Christ, we need to be ready to offer ourselves up physically to our neighbors in ways analogous to Christ’s willingness to let Thomas touch his wounds?

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