Easter is tied to the spring equinox because it is tied to Passover, but without that tie it would still have been a brilliant idea. Spring (assuming it ever shows up to stay) has a way of making us feel alive–as everything around us bursts back into life–green shoots coming up through the soil, trees in full bloom, birds excitedly chirping and nesting. It is as if we, like the trees, have sap that rises towards the sun as it becomes brighter and hangs in the sky longer. It is as if our bodies inherently know something our minds have not quite cottoned onto yet–instinctively know resurrection, new life. Instinctively know that resurrection has a physical dimension that we sophisticated 21st century believers are quick to question or disbelieve.
But from the very beginning of the church, early Christians spoke of the resurrection of the body. This was partly about the resurrection of Jesus–the fact that they had seen, touched, spoken and eaten with him after he was raised from the dead. It was also about their belief that God meant to raise their own flesh too. They lived in the certainty that they would be raised from the dead-bodily raised–at the last trumpet. The God who had made their bodies and declared them to be good, would not have a sudden change of heart. Whatever happened after death, wherever they went with God, they were sure they were going bodily. This became orthodox Christian belief.
But in the hundreds, thousands of years since then, that belief, this bold hope, has become harder to sustain. We say it every Sunday in the Nicene Creed, but if you ask most Christians what they belief about life after life, they will talk not about a physical body but about a spiritual body–one that is vastly superior to the fleshy model. This side of the grave flesh is sluggish, tiresome, and prone to getting injured. St. Paul tends to equate flesh with sin–it is always dragging us in the wrong direction, making us do all the things we don’t want to do and none of the things we want to do. I understand all of this–but I do wonder what this aversion to flesh says about, does to, our idea of incarnation-the word that means “enfleshed”–both Jesus’ incarnation and our own.
Most of us were taught that incarnation is something that happened once–in Jesus. God in a move that is somewhat irrational and baffling, decided to become human and was incarnate (capital I) in Jesus. Jesus was Word Made Flesh and our job is to believe that and persuade others of its truth. The fate of our own flesh depends on our belief in this doctrine.
The older I get, though, the less enamored I am with doctrine. Though it seems that many Western Christians are obsessed with believing the “right” things, “saying the right formula”, I am not so sure God cares what we say–cares if we have all our doctrines right. And I am quite sure God cares a lot about what we do and how we live. And so I have come to think that resurrection is less doctrine than practice. I do believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, but I am persuaded that one of the points of his life, death, and resurrection was not that it was a one and done thing, God showing off, but to open a way to, to show how anyone who was, is willing, how God’s word could become incarnate in their own lives too. Jesus spent very little time talking about what people believed and a whole lot of time talking about how we live, what we do: “follow me and I will make you fish for people”, “Give to everyone who begs from you”, “Go and do likewise”. These aren’t intellectual pursuits to which we can attest or not, these are embodied, fleshy actions. Jesus taught his followers to take other peoples bodies as seriously as they took their own, to trust that birds, lilies, stars, wheat, vines, and sheep had a lot to teach us about the Kingdom of God. He taught his followers to see God in the world, to see God all around them, just as he did. To see God in the way creation worked as if he was saying we could learn about God and God’s kingdom by attending to the physical realities of earth, of bodies.
Practicing resurrection, practicing incarnation, is a teaching as old as the Gospels. Those who were here on Thursday heard of Jesus washing feet and sharing bread and wine with his friends. On his very last night on earth he didn’t give them a long list of things to think about, doctrines to believe, he gave them specific things to do-ways of being in their bodies together-ways that would keep on teaching them what they needed to know–teaching them what love looks like when it walks around on 2 feet-long after he was gone from their sight.
He knew that once he was gone from the face of the earth, God’s word would go on, but it would be in need of some new flesh. In order to carry on in his way the disciples would need something they could bump into on a regular basis, that would knock the rough edges off them and rough up the smooth places. Something so concrete, so present that they could not confine it to the realm of intellect, but would need to wear it-walk around in it-live it. He gave them bread and wine-to chew, to slurp–to share and enjoy. He gave them dirty, crusty feet that they could touch and care for -use to enter one another’s lives.
I am relieved, in a sense, that this year, this year in which many of us are experiencing fear, deep anxiety for the world that seems much less safe, much less certain than ever before in our lives a year in which we worry about the poor, the marginalized, the weak, the black, the brown, Jews, Muslims–basically any and all who are not white and hetero–I am relieved that into this broken, needy world, we have Mark’s telling of the Jesus story. Mark, from his opening line: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, to his last line; “and they fled in fear and told no one” is pushing us to embody Christ. He is telling us that Jesus life, death, and resurrection is not the ending of any story, Jesus or ours, but that it is only and always the beginning, it is an invitation to a new way of life-life very much in this world, in flesh. Mark fashions it as a divine game of “tag you’re it” and we are “it”. Mark pushes us to take the Word Made Flesh into our flesh and go, and tell everyone we meet that we have seen the Risen Christ and further that now we are to be his hands, his feet, his heart in this broken, hurting, breathtakingly beautiful, God inhabited world. Mark’s telling of the story assures is that it is OK to be afraid as we pick up and take over where Christ left off. Fear is an inherent part of the Gospel story. But the empty tomb tells us that darkness, fear, anxiety, hatred, even death, do not have the last word. That God has another ace up the holy sleeve, and in partnership with the Holy Spirit, it is us. You and me.
You see, for all our failure to honor them, our own and others, our bodies were and are God’s best way of getting to us, of getting to the world. To walk the way of resurrection, to practice incarnation, is to walk the way of life God opened for us in Jesus Christ, by showing us how to embody our own flesh faithfully, reverently, and fully-just as he did. When through the miracle of incarnation and resurrection, we are able to follow the leader, to follow God, for even a minute, then we too become God’s Easter people, the latest in a long line of bodily resurrections of God’s Word Made Flesh.
He is Risen. We are Risen. Alleluia!
*This sermon owes a debt to Barbara Brown Taylor whose thoughts greatly influenced it.