Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were
seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
If the gospel stories were made up fictions, I think they would be very different. For one thing, they would try hard to get the story straight. Like accomplices in a crime, they would agree on one version of the story to tell.
But like witnesses of an auto accident, each sees Jesus from his own perspective, and each tells the story as he remembers it.
So, with all of the variation in details, it is fascinating to me to notice a detail they all include: the fact that it was hard to grasp that Jesus had actually risen from the dead in bodily form. Even though Jesus had predicted it, they had not understood, or had not believe it, or maybe a bit of both.
So, when they saw Jesus, they were surprised, confused, and terrified. Jesus first has to calm their fears before anything else happens. Luke tells us:
“Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were
seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
If this were simply a fictional account, I would think the authors would say they felt surprise, but then great joy – hugs all around – a group hug. There would be amazement and people would say things like “We are so happy to see you! We missed you.”
But the gospels tell it more realistically. In their culture, you were either a living person or else you were a ghost, a disembodied spirit – which was a scary thing, not a welcome presence.
Have you ever doubted that Jesus really rose from the dead bodily? Well I have too. And so did the disciples who knew him best, even when he was standing right there in front of them.
I am aware that there are many people who think the resurrection was merely a spiritual truth – like Jesus’ spiritual presence here now, and in the bread and the cup in the Lord’s Supper. But I think that is a mistake. And I think it is actually important to us that Jesus rose bodily, and we will get to that in a moment.
But the fact is that believing that someone can rise bodily from the dead is not easy, not now and not then, because that is simply not what happens in our experience.
Proving He is not a Ghost
Jesus is well aware of the problem, and so he gently takes the time to satisfy their skeptical minds. He knows they think he is a ghost, so he says:
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.”
Is that all it takes? Look and see? Touch? No, because illusions and hallucinations happen. Visions happen. Dreams happen. Who knows what tricks your eyes and mind can play on you, especially in an emotionally distraught condition. So Jesus goes one step further:
“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece
of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”
Ghosts don’t eat fish. In fact they don’t eat anything.
Is that enough? Matthew tells us that even when they are back in Galilee on the mountain, on the last day Jesus was with them physically:
“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matt 28:17)
Doubt – even after seeing him, touching him, and watching him eat fish. If you have trouble believing in a bodily resurrection, you are not the first, and you are not alone. In fact you are in quite good company.
God and the Physical World
But it is important that Jesus rose, not as a spirit, but as a physical body. Why? Because the Christian story is that God, the Creator of the physical world, the world with trees, stones, and physical bodies, loves the physical world that he made. He kept pronouncing it “good” in the Genesis creation story. In fact, “very good.”
God made us, his human creatures, in his image with a spiritual side. We can look at the Gulf of Mexico, or at the sun setting behind the clouds, and feel overwhelmed by his “eternal power and divine nature” as Paul says nature teaches us.
And yet we are aware too, of the distance between us and God. We humans turned from God and chose to eat the forbidden fruit – which we all do – and so our spirits long to re-connect with God.
Redemption of the Whole Person
We know we need redemption. We need redemption not just for our spiritual selves, but for our physical selves as well. We are not spirits who inhabit bodies – like the way Plato thought of us – as if the body were the “prison house of the soul.” That may be Plato’s story, but that is not the Christian story.
We are “living beings,” as the creation story tells us, with the breath of God in our physical lungs. And so, to redeem us, God came to us as a fully human being. The eternal, divine Word became real human flesh and lived among us” – as John’s gospel announces.
When Jesus redeems us, he redeems all of us. All of our humanity is taken up by his humanity, so that all of it can become what he is, a true child of God.
And this is exactly what the scriptures of the Old Testament, the Law of Moses and the prophets were pointing to – but it’s much easier to see it in hindsight. So, back to the story; Luke tells us:
“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,”
Could it be that God would become flesh – to the point that God-in-the-flesh could suffer and feel pain, like we do? Jesus continues:
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,”
He came to us, not as Athena comes to Troy in the guise of human, but not really one that could suffer pain or die. He came to us as a physical human, suffered pain as we do, and death as we all will. He was raised bodily, as we all will be.
Resurrection of the Body
This is part of why it is so important that Jesus was raised bodily: he is the firstfruits of the resurrection we will share.
We are physical, and therefore mortal. We know that we will all die. But death is not the end. We know that we will be with the Father in heaven, but
then, at last, we believe that God will make a new heaven and a new earth and that we will have resurrection bodies to live in on that new earth.
We will not just be spirits floating in space. We will recognize ourselves and each other, just as the disciples recognized Jesus. We will be re-united with those we love who have gone before us.
Think of what this means: the God who made a good physical world, and who became part of that physical world to redeem it, will one day make a new heavens and new earth for our resurrected bodies.
To put it theologically, the incarnation (that is, God becoming flesh) and the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body, both show how important this physical world is to God.
The Physical Planet God Made and Loves
This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that caring for this physical world, this planet not an option for us. God values this physical planet that he made. He put us in charge of it, like his personal landscaping crew, to tend it and care for it. This planet is our responsibility to manage. We have a mandate to use this planet well.
We have admitted that our story includes the fact that we all eat the forbidden fruit – we all do wrong. We all sin. When we believe that the reward is big enough, we do what we know is wrong.
Big rewards are what entice people to take risks and even to purposefully desecrate our planet. Big rewards, like big money, tempt people to rush the drilling process to the point of making dangerous mistakes. The rewards are bigger if you don’t spend the money on a drilling an emergency relief well from the start.
Big rewards lead people to justify just about any amount of damage to the environment in the name of profits for the company and return on investment for shareholders.
The Two Master Alternative
This is one place where it is abundantly clear to all of us that “no one can serve two masters.” No one can serve both God and money. One will aways loose. When money is on the table, people will take ridiculous risks, and people will be bad.
These folks must not think that they will ever have to face the Creator of this word and give account. They must not understand incarnation or believe in resurrection. They will have some surprises ahead, just as the disciples did.
This is one of the ways in which we need repentance. This is one of the areas in which we need forgiveness. This is part of the reason the resurrected Jesus said,
“repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”
Celebrate Earth Day
This is Earth Day. This day is special for us as Christians. We know who made this world, and we know our place in it. We know that we have been
redeemed by God who cared so much that he became one of us physical humans.
We Christians know that there is a future for this planet, so we are called to care for it, even at the risk of facing less financial gain. But we know our priorities and we know whom we serve. We know that we are called to keep this planet clean enough that the fish will be safe to eat in our resurrected bodies.