Second Sunday of Easter, rcl yr b, 2021
St. John’s Stay-at-Home
ACTS 4:32-35; PSALM 133; 1 JOHN 1:1-2:2; JOHN 20:19-31
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at
and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life
It’s not clear that these first words from the first letter of John are intended to describe the resurrection of Jesus: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
The words are fleshly words, bodily words, words about the material physicality of John’s community experience of “the word of life”: hearing, seeing, looking, touching.
They could just as easily speak to other parts of Christian life. So when the letter opens, as it does, this way: speaking of what’s been heard, seen, looked at, and touched with hands, concerning the word of life, it could speak to preaching and sacramental worship, where we hear a sermon and the prayers, where we see, look at, and touch the sacrament. Perhaps this is what John’s letter is speaking to? Preaching and sacramental worship are surely things “concerning the word of life.”
But the opening of the letter could, perhaps, speak to the body of Christ that is the church; where we hear other members of the church speak, where we see, look at, and embrace one another (COVID not applying). Perhaps, this is what John’s letter is speaking to?
But where else might we look to gain some insight? We could look to Christian doctrine, surely. As John’s letter speaks of a “word of life” that we can hear, see, look at, and touch with our hands, perhaps he was inspired to begin his letter like John’s Gospel begins. John’s Gospel opens with one of the great hymns of the church, a hymn to the word made flesh, a word that was heard, seen, looked at and touched with hands. Is the incarnation of the Word of God, born into this life of ours, the key to understanding the opening of John’s first letter? This, most certainly, is a contender!
Well, we’ll leave historical-critical readings of John’s first letter to the historical critics, at least today; and close readings to readers who can read more closely than I. Instead, we will follow where the lectionary would most certainly lead us—and that’s not to the fleshliness of worship, nor is it it the fleshliness of the church community, nor is it the word made flesh in the incarnation.
The lectionary as a whole today, it being the Second Sunday of Easter, where 1st John is paired with the account of Thomas encountering his Lord after his death and in the upper room—the lectionary leads us to reflection on another Christian doctrine, the one we will confess in a moment in the Apostle’s Creed: and that is the resurrection of the body.
In this case, the “word of life” that can be heard, seen, looked at, and touched with hands, is the Resurrected One that Thomas, in our gospel reading, hears, sees and looks at, but also, most importantly, touches with his hands.
It was not long after I fell out of a tree that this particular point of Christian teaching came to mean so much to me. In fact, this point of credal doctrine—that we believe “in the resurrection of the body”—was a deeply important and significant part of my adult conversion. When you’re nineteen, and standing tall, only to have the sort of injury I did—where, at the age of twenty, you don’t walk out of the hospital, fully recovered and still standing tall—questions about what it means to truly live in a body comes to have some importance. Escape from my body didn’t hold much promise—I wanted to know what it meant to live in my body.
And as Christianity came to make more and more sense to me, as the gospels started to speak more and more directly to me, it was the resurrection accounts that held more and more importance to me. And that’s because they were stories about how to live in a body—and a broken one, at that.
These accounts, like the one of Thomas, have to do with a Jesus that has a body. They are not about Jesus’s spirit, or Jesus’s disembodied soul—if they were, they would’ve been told much differently. John, in fact, goes to great lengths to speak of the bodiliness, the fleshliness, of Jesus’s resurrection.
Yes, Jesus does go through a locked door. So we know it’s not a body exactly like ours, at least not ours at the moment. But the fleshliness of this body isn’t simply referred to embarrassingly, or passed by and barely mentioned. John has Thomas put his finger right in the flesh of Jesus—not only to hear Jesus, or to look at and see Jesus, but to touch Jesus with his hands.
These stories though don’t stand alone; within the sweep and scope of Christian doctrine, Jesus is the one “raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died,” as Paul puts it in First Corinthians; “Christ” is “the first fruits,” and we are those who will be raised after him, those “who belong to Christ” and will be raised when he comes again. (This is all part of Paul’s long description of resurrection bodies.)
And so the Apostle’s Creed speaks not simply of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but of “the resurrection of the body,” because this isn’t just about Jesus. Christ is simply the first to be resurrected; a resurrection that is a promise made to us, about our bodies, that we too would have resurrection bodies on the last day, granted bodies much like his.
And so, for me, the scars on the hands, the scars on the feet, and scars on his side are so important. Jesus is known in the healed wounds we can see; the healed wound Thomas can touch. And it would be for you, too, I hope, Good News: that just as Jesus is resurrected in the body, just as he is healed, so too are we healed. Certainly, by his grace, we are healed in our spirits; there is no strong distinction here between body and spirit. Be sure that we would be healed bodily too, yet still seen as who we are: scarred and wounded, as he is; and yet, in him, the crucified one who is the resurrected one, made entirely whole.
And as so many things are in this strange existence we call the Christian life, this sort of wounded healing, this sort of broken wholeness, is not an either/or proposal. We are not broken or healed. Neither is this about being wounded now and healed later, or broken now and whole later. While that wounded healing, and broken wholeness, is something we will experience in a more fulsome way on the last day, we are, nevertheless, wounded now and healed by God’s grace now; broken now and made whole by God’s grace now, in the name of the crucified one and the same one resurrected, in whom we place our hope and trust—AMEN.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons