Sermon; Easter 6A
Today is the Sixth Sunday of Easter. It is the final Sunday of the season with the resurrected Christ here on earth with his disciples before his Ascension, which is celebrated this Thursday, 40 days after the resurrection. As we come to the end, liturgically speaking, of Jesus' time on earth with us, I want to examine these past 40 days.
As Episcopalians we are comfortable living with ambiguity. We are comfortable living in the gray area between the easy black and white answers. We are comfortable living with the perceived inconsistencies of both/and. When someone asks me, “Do you think X, or is Y the better option?” I will often say, “Yes.” And this is all because we, as Episcopalians, have a history of walking the via media, the middle way. We are both Catholic and Protestant, and we know that, in most cases, it's more complicated than that.
I bring this up because the 40-day post-resurrection period with Jesus is a both/and event, and it challenges us to use that gray matter in our heads as we look between easy black and white explanations.
First, was the resurrection a literal, physical event? Yes. Early in the morning on the first day of the week some women went to the tomb to finish the burial rite. When they got there they found the tomb empty, the body of Jesus was gone. So this is the first indicator that this was a real, literal, physical event.
There are other places in the gospel stories where we learn of the physicality of the resurrection. In Matthew, the women take hold of Jesus' feet as they were going to tell the eleven that he had been raised. In Luke, Jesus breaks bread with two disciples in Emmaus. He invites others to touch him. He eats a piece of fish. And in the gospel of John, Mary holds onto the newly resurrected Christ, he invites Thomas to touch his wounds, and he has breakfast with some of the disciples after they had gone fishing. Our faith tells us that the resurrection was a literal and physical event.
Second, was the resurrection a spiritual event? Yes. In Matthew, Jesus appears out of nowhere to meet the women as they were on their way to tell the disciples that Christ had been raised. In Luke, Jesus is at first unrecognizable to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then, when they finally do recognize him, he vanishes from their sight. He then reappears out of thin air, causing the gathered disciples to think they are seeing a ghost. And in John, Mary Magdalene cannot at first recognize him because he had been so drastically changed in appearance. Additionally, Jesus has the ability to materialize through walls, as he does twice: once with the ten disciples in the evening of that first day and again the following week when Thomas is present. The resurrection is a spiritual event in which the person of Jesus is at first unrecognizable and who has the power to appear and disappear at will. Our faith tells us that the resurrection was a spiritual event connecting us to that realm of angels and archangels like nothing before.
The 40-day post-resurrection period is both physical and spiritual.
It shows that the resurrected Christ was an actual, physical, human body, thereby arguing against Gnostic heresies that claimed Christ was only a spiritual being. It shows that the resurrected Christ was spiritual in nature, thereby arguing against the belief that Jesus was just a really good guy. These 40 days, probably more than at any other time in his lifetime on earth, show the complete nature of Christ as fully human AND fully divine.
I believe it's important for us to pay attention to this physical and spiritual, this both/and, nature of Christ, especially now.
We, as the Church, make up the mystical and spiritual body of Christ. This place of Saint John's, and other holy places, is what many people refer to as a “thin place.” That is, it's a place where the boundary between physical and spiritual can be felt and sometimes seen. It is a place where angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, gather together with us. It is a place where you can feel the presence of God. It is the place where, through holy mysteries, simple bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the place where we are fed with spiritual food.
We, as the Church, also make up the physical Body of Christ here on earth. As Teresa of Avila said:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through 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 on earth but yours.
Besides all of that, when we gather together we are gathering as the physical body of Christ. We can see and touch others. Our physical presence together reflects and embodies the physical presence of Christ.
Which brings me to Holy Communion.
There have been some in the church wondering when I would celebrate Holy Eucharist again. In fact, there is a whole world of debate out there among church-type people, clergy and lay, about whether or not a priest should celebrate Holy Eucharist in this time of virtual gatherings. Our bishops, Sutton and Ihloff, came out in support of Spiritual Communion – one where a priest celebrates, and is the only one to physically receive the elements, while the people who are unable to physically receive, look upon the elements and are assured that they have received all of the spiritual benefits of Communion due to their deep desire.
Offering Spiritual Communion (or “Ocular Communion” – reception via viewing) is one thing when a person is lying in great bodily weakness or distress and is unable to physically receive the elements. It is quite another when the cause of being unable to receive the elements is a mass pandemic.
There are those who believe Spiritual Communion is a satisfactory answer during this pandemic when our buildings are shuttered and people are quarantined. I am not one of those people.
Holy Communion is not just spiritual food, it is also the physical embodiment of Body and Blood. We gather as a physical body to gain spiritual strength, and are fed by physical food in the holy mysteries that offers spiritual nourishment. We need both. We need the both/and of the post-resurrection Jesus to provide a physical presence and spiritual assurance.
Which is why during this time of virtual online worship we are offering Morning Prayer for the people of Saint John's and beyond. Until we can come together safely in some manner, until we can once again gather as the physical body of Christ, we will gather here, online and in our homes, and we will pray. Our virtual connectivity is important, but it cannot replace the physical gathering of the both/and of post-resurrection Jesus. Just as Jesus did not separate his physical body from his spiritual being, we must not separate the physical elements from their spiritual sustenance. We need both.
In-person worship is coming. It may not come as quickly as we desire. The leadership of Saint John's – Vestry, Commission Chairs, and myself – will work to do this as safely as possible while following all recommended guidelines. Our regatherings will occur in limited numbers and we are trying to figure out what that will look like. Everything from assigned seating to limited or no congregational singing to a Communion flow chart is being considered. Through all of this, we will be changed. And it is during this time that we are trying to figure out to what it is which are being changed and to what we are becoming. Just as the apostles had to navigate the change of a post-resurrection and post-ascension Jesus, we are trying to navigate a change that is no less daunting.
As we move forward, I ask for your continued patience. I ask for your continued dedication. I ask for your continued commitment to being the Church in these difficult times. I ask for your continued willingness to live in the gray area between easy black and white answers. And I ask for your continued prayers.
Holy Communion is a both/and, just as is Jesus. Jesus is both human and divine. He is both body and spirit. Holy Communion is both physical and spiritual. It is made up of worldly DNA and supernal glory. We cannot push one aside in favor of the other.
So until we can once again gather as both the physical and spiritual representation of Christ on earth, until we can once again receive the benefits of physical food and spiritual sustenance, until we can experience the both/and of the physical and spiritual post-resurrection Jesus, we will gather in homes, separated by distance but united in Christ, and we will pray. We will pray for safety and sanity. We will pray for health and compassion. We will pray for patience and understanding. We will pray for tenacity and relief. And we will pray that when we two or three are gathered together in Christ's Name, wherever we may be, in person or online, God will be in the midst of us.
As we contemplate our return into this holy space, as we look to incorporate best practices, as we work to ensure the safety of our parishioners, let us remember the both/and of the post-resurrection Jesus and let us look for ways that we ourselves can incorporate both the physical and spiritual nature of our faith into our daily lives.