In the name of God who made this world, Christ who inhabited it, and the Holy Spirit who motivates us within it. Amen.
There’s a popular trope in literature and film that I’ve never really understood: the idea of pinching oneself to see if we’re awake. The fact of the matter is, no matter how unsettling or frightening a dream has been, I’ve never had the wherewithal within it to think of pinching myself to snap out of it. And no experience in my waking life has ever been so good or so bad as to make me question whether I was actually awake for it – I’ve never questioned my consciousness, whether conscious or not.
But the idea exists in popular culture: “pinch me, I must be dreaming…” There is, inherent within us, this connection between reality and flesh; truth and physicality. People will often say that “seeing is believing”, but in practice: feeling is knowing. What we think we know – those beliefs that go a step farther and reach down into our cores – those are things we’ve felt; things we’ve experienced for ourselves; things we understand through our own faculties – not just through the telling of others.
Last week, in the Gospel reading, we heard about Thomas – so often called “doubting Thomas” because he had to see in order to believe in the resurrection; and not just to see, but to touch the scars on his hands and feet and side. Of course, Thomas gets a bad rap – carrying the burden of being the doubter, when in fact, he just said the quiet part out loud. He dared utter the innocent doubt that most of us feel already.
This week, the Gospel takes us down that road again. Again, Christ is made known in the presence of those first followers. And again, it’s hard for them to believe. The Gospel tells us that Jesus greets them with a blessing of peace, but rather than recognizing him, they were “startled and terrified”, and they “thought that they were seeing a ghost”. Jesus said, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?... Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
If our faith were pure; if our faith were perfect – we wouldn’t need the flesh and bones. If our faith had everything we needed to dive in to the deep end of believing in Christ, his blessing of peace would have been enough to have known him. The peace would have been enough to assure us that Christ is real.
But it wasn’t enough for Christ’s followers. And if we’re entirely honest, it’s not enough for us, too, most of the time. We need something more concrete. We need flesh and bones. We need to see and touch and experience if we are to truly believe in Christ’s presence. Christ still needs flesh and bones if we are to truly believe and even eventually to know.
And I think that’s one of the things that’s been hardest for the church in this pandemic. It’s true that you can worship God in a sunset, or alone on a hike, or listening to a perfect piece of music, or untold other things. But Christianity is about community. It’s about taking the things the church does – things like worship and service and community and music (things that you could really do anywhere, with any number of groups) – and doing them here, together with other Christians, in the name of Jesus. Because it’s in that togetherness and with the purpose of Christ at our backs that our humble efforts rise up beyond the sum of their parts. They mean more than if we worshiped alone on a hike, or engaged in service through the Rotary Club, or built community in a bowling league, or appreciated music at the symphony. This collection of “things that we do” mean more because we do them together in the name of Christ. And what has been so hard about these past 13 months is that we can’t be together – at least not physically. And so much of what it means to know this faith is to know it physically – in flesh and bone – the same way those first disciples needed it.
So really, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not explicitly and easily believing in the Resurrection of Christ. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for needing the physical connection of this community that we’ve been missing so much these past months. Look how difficult it was for the disciples and Jesus’ closest and earliest followers. They even had the benefit of seeing and experiencing the resurrected Christ, and still they had trouble believing. For us, experiences of the resurrected Christ aren’t so literal or concrete. Of course it would take a bit more work. Of course it would be hard.
Our job, as Christians, is to make sure that Christ still has flesh. Not just a memory. Not some mere ghost. But living in flesh. And the only way we can do that is to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world – to live out, in flesh, the ministry to which we’re being called. People still are more likely to believe if that belief is borne out of their own experience. Even us – we’re more likely to believe if our belief comes from experience. But in order for anyone to experience Christ in the flesh, Christ needs flesh. And that’s us. No one of us is called to be Christ for everyone, but together we can be the flesh and bones that someone needs to see and experience if Christ is to be made real in their own life.
And, of course, it’s harder when we can’t be together, physically, and in the same room. But it’s not impossible. And this won’t always be our truth.
So often, in the church, particularly in the Episcopal Church, where we’re so comfortable living in our minds and exploring our interior lives – the church can get a little too comfortable living in the spirit world, or the intellectual world. There things might make more sense; there grace seems more readily available – but while the world of the spirit is meaningful, and complex, and a gift of God, the world of the flesh is where we’ve been placed; where we’ve been called to live this faith that God has given us. The world of the spirit is a gift, but not at the expense of the flesh. And the world of the flesh is where we’re called, but not to the detriment of the spirit. We are flesh and we are spirit. Both. For now, at least, they must exist in tandem.
Like the disciples, we need flesh and bones. And, like the disciples, we need the Resurrected Christ – the one who brings the spirit to the earth, and who stands on the edge between what is and what could be. We are both, and we need both.
And the world we’ve been called to serve needs both, too. Seeing is believing. Experience is knowing. And it’s only through us and our ministry that the world can see and experience the love of Christ that still lives. That’s our job. That’s our joy. That is Easter. Amen.