3 Easter B
April 19, 2015
The risen Jesus is not a ghost. The risen Jesus is a solid physical reality. The disciples touch him and Jesus eats real food with them. In their grief and in the terrible uncertainty of their lives, Jesus is not present in just some spiritual way. We know about the spiritual presence, say, of a loved one who has died. As we remember the care or the advice or the habits or the commitments of a parent or a spouse or a dear friend who has died, it is as though they become spiritually present for us. And we certainly treasure and return to those moments when we can feel the spiritual presence of those we have loved. But that is not the way the risen Jesus was present with his disciples on that first Easter evening. We say in our confession, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The incarnation – God taking on a real physical presence in our time and place – is as important at Easter as it is at Christmas.
My father was killed in a car accident when I was just starting my second year of ministry as a pastor. I remember getting the call from my sister. My mother was in the hospital, but her injuries were not serious. It took a little bit for the truth of this death to sink in, but when it did there was just that terrible emptiness. I kind of went into auto pilot, focusing on the details that needed to be taken care of. I took task of contacting my oldest brother, who was in the middle of interview for a new job, and since this was way before the days of cell phones, he was hard to locate. I also needed to find someone to take the services of the three-point parish my wife and I were serving in South Dakota. Then there were all the details of funeral planning. All those things to do, just kept my mind occupied so that I mostly ignored the grief that was churning inside me.
It was the presence of people that I had known since childhood that carried me through that time and provided the healing and hope I needed for that time of grief. My aunt and uncle, who my parents were on their way to visit in Wisconsin, brought my mother home. Then, as my siblings gathered, the house in Eitzen was full. But there was an abundance of food that none of us prepared. Once my mother was home, there was a steady stream of neighbors and friends stopping at the house, “to bring over a hot dish or a salad,” they said, but it was the way they surrounded us with words of sympathy and hugs of support. It was God’s people being God’s presence for us with food to eat.
And at the funeral—while I don’t remember what the pastor said, I remember my cousin Tom singing “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” and I remember when it came time in the service to confess our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, I stood there silent. I don’t know if the grief just finally hit me with it’s full force, or if at that moment I just couldn’t believe—that the randomness of my father’s death made me doubt that anything pure chance ruled the world, and I just couldn’t say those words of faith. But while I was silent, while I just couldn’t say those words, the whole congregation behind me said the words that I could not say. And I was lifted up by their faith, and I knew that they were carrying me, because that is what the people of God do for one another—sometimes we pray for others when they can no longer pray for themselves, sometimes the faith we hold, holds up others in times of doubt and uncertainty.
And then as we left the church, Elmer Morey stood on the stairs going up to the balcony pulling the rope to toll the church bell as we walked out of the church and across the cemetery to where my father’s grave had been dug. The bell kept tolling until all were gathered at the grave. I don’t know if Elmer was counting my father’s 74 years or if someone signaled him when people were gathered at the grave. Normally the casket would have been placed in the hearse and driven across the cemetery, but the ground was too soft from heavy September rains, so the pall bearers carried it all the way to the grave. Cyril and Eldon and Norman and Alvin and Karl and Raymond, the farmers whose farms adjoined my father’s farm, carried him to his place of rest. And seeing Raymond carrying the casket was a sign of grace and reconciliation. Ray and my father had let anger and a stubborn spirit infect their friendship – they hadn’t spoken to each other for maybe five years, but Ray took his part as a neighbor and for the sake of the friendship they once had, and it felt that healing happened in that walk across the cemetery. And healing happened, not because of any kind of spiritual presence, but the physical presence of neighbors.
After the ascension Jesus was no longer present with his disciples as he was immediately after the resurrection. But we are made the children of God in baptism and we are the body of Christ in the here and the now. Yes, the risen Jesus uses you and me to become His physical presence. After the ascension, we are Christ’s body. As Theresa of Avila put it:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,