Flesh, Bones, and the Common Good

I saw a show recently about the strange requests people made in their wills. Many people leave very particular instructions for what to do with their bodies after they die. The creator of Marvel comics instructed that he be cremated and that his ashes were to be mixed into the ink when a certain comic was published. His staff honored his request – 4000 copies of the comic were made with his ashes! Dust to dust, ashes to ink?

My favorite is about a man who died in the early 1800’s. He wanted his skin to be taken off of his body and stretched into a drum. Every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, someone was to play “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on him!

I’ll give you one more example. A wealthy man died in 1920. He believed in reincarnation. So he instructed his servants to set the table each evening, and prepare and serve a full dinner in case he and his relatives came back and were hungry. The servants did this for 40 years until the money ran out in 1960!

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus does come back from the dead to eat dinner. Only, He isn’t reincarnated, He is resurrected.  It is evening of Easter Day. Jesus has just walked along the road to Emmaus with two of His followers, albeit incognito. They don’t recognize Him until He sits down to dinner with them. When Jesus says grace and breaks off a piece of bread, their eyes are opened and they realize the identity of their dinner guest. But, lo and behold, at that moment He vanishes from their sight, as if he’s been teleported elsewhere.

The 2 followers then zip off to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that they’d seen Jesus alive. At that moment, Jesus suddenly appears to them. They all freak out, thinking that they are seeing a ghost. You’ll remember that they had the same reaction to Jesus when they saw him walking on the water – another ghost sighting. Evidently, these guys were alert to the paranormal.

But, Jesus assures them, that though He has risen from the dead, He is neither a ghost nor a reincarnated soul. He says, “A ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones.” He shows them the scars on His hands and feet. He invites them to touch Him. The disciples are still “disbelieving and marveling”, as the text says. So, finally Jesus asks for something to eat. They produce some broiled fish, which Jesus gobbles up. I suppose dying, descending into Hell, and being raised from the dead makes a body hungry.

I love the corporeal details of the first Easter: the flesh and bones reality of Jesus Christ, but risen from the dead. You’ll remember that in John’s account, Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger in the marks of his crucifixion wounds and his hand into the spear hole in his side. Check out the Carravagio painting of this moment. The details have a slight zombie/walking dead feel to them, although Jesus makes clear that He is neither a zombie, a ghost, or an undead being: He is fully alive with a taste for bread, fish and wine.

John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” captures the crucial importance of His “flesh and bones”.

Make no mistake: if he rose at all/It was as His body; /If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit, / The amino acids rekindle,/ The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,/ Each soft spring recurrent; / It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the Eleven apostles; / It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes /The same valved heart / That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered / Out of enduring Might / New strength to enclose.

I’m not sure that Updike’s biological specifics of the resurrection are completely accurate, but you get his point. After all, God became a body when He was born in Bethlehem, and He remained a body after he was raised from the dead. Easter is not just a symbolic affair, or the pipe dream of disciples; Jesus of Nazareth actually rose from the dead, offered his body for inspection, and ate some fish.

These physical descriptions are important because they identify Jesus to His disciples – He is actually the very man they had the last supper with previous Thursday. But they also show us that our so-called “spirituality” is never to be separated from our bodily life.  That is the heresy of Gnosticism. Always be wary of super-spiritual people who ignore the realities of this world, of this life. Jesus forever roots Christianity in this bodily world, when He gives us the summary of the Law. He Love God AND love your neighbor.

God so loved the world, and therefore He is interested in the bodily welfare of all people. Sometimes this is called the “common good”. Justin Welby, our archbishop of Canterbury, recently spoke about the common good. He said, “Common good springs out of a theological understanding of the human being created by God, in the image of God, saved through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of infinite, intrinsic personal value. The common good starts with the intrinsic value of each human being and looks at policies that will maximize the opportunity for each human being.”

Don’t get worried that we are going to espouse one political policy for the common good over another. The best way to enact a common good is up for debate. What is not up for debate, at least in terms of our faith, is the call to love your neighbor as yourself. And as a salt of the earth character in one of George Eliot’s short stories says, “When a man comes in hungry and tired, piety won’t feed him, I reckon’. It’s right enough to be spiritual – I’m no enemy to that; but I like my potatoes mealy.”

When asked how the common good actually happens in this fallen world, Welby said, “There is only one way to this, which is internal transformation…. as we contemplate our self-centeredness and move to other-centeredness. We move from the sword and the shield – i.e., you conquer things and then you guard them – to the towel and the cross – you serve the towel of Jesus at the Last Supper and you sacrifice. You serve and you sacrifice. The latter is the way of joy. The former is the way of fear.”

So, what have I said so far? The biblical accounts of the resurrection stress the bodily appearance of Jesus to his disciples. This is crucial because God loves the world and desires our common good, both body and soul. Our call as His modern day disciples is to care for people – not conquer and guard, but serve and sacrifice.

That call brings us right back to where we started – the risen body of Jesus Christ standing before his disciples, standing before us. Our failure to serve and to sacrifice is what led him to the cross to die for our sins.  And while, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we may do some good in this world and for our neighbor, we will continue to fall short, even though we know that serving is the way of joy.

The morning of Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, I showed up at 6:45 in the morning to prepare for our Men’s Bible Study. I found a homeless man, a person I know fairly well, sleeping on the cold alleyway concrete. I shooed him off. I didn’t even offer him one of the warm Bodos bagels I had in my bag, or the hot coffee I had brewing in the kitchen. Then I led a study on Jesus at the last supper, taking His towel and serving His disciples, saying, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

My internal transformation has much more ground to cover.  As Eliot says, “the best of us are but poor wretches just saved from shipwreck: can we feel anything but awe and pity when we see a fellow passenger swallowed by the waves?”

My guess is that your internal transformation has more ground to cover too. This is why Jesus says what He does to His disciples at the end of the gospel. His final words – something like the request He is making in His will, if He had one.  Here is his wish for when He is gone, at least bodily gone from this world. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in His name to all then nations of the world.”

For you He served and for you He sacrificed. You are forgiven. Ground zero of our common good is this: Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.