A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We tend to draw a sharp distinction between material things and spiritual things, don’t we? It’s the dividing line between Church stuff and world stuff, between prayer and work, between a daily quiet time—those few minutes given over wholly to spiritual reflection and study—and all the other business we have to attend to—the busy-ness involved in earning a living, keeping a home, and caring for ourselves and our families.
The distinction between physical and spiritual is surely very present in the minds of those members of the Daughters of the Holy Cross who have been studying the Biblical duo Mary and Martha this year. Perhaps you remember the story from St Luke’s Gospel of Jesus in the shared home of these two sisters. Martha bustles about, trying to get dinner on the table. She attends to the physical, material, temporal things of this life, in all of their urgency and importance. Mary, on the other hand, sits at the feet of Jesus and listens. Her focus is on the spiritual and the eternal–the deep yearning for God in the heart of human beings. The difference between them is sharp and clear…and, it would seem, irreconcilable.
The way we read the Mary and Martha story is just one expression of our tendency—our drive—to look upon things physical and things spiritual as two great opposed realities. They stand like paired mountain-peaks: distinct and unbridgeable. We recognize that both are interesting and desirable. We see that both claim our attention and our commitment. And so our lives, it would seem, are lived out in the valley below those peaks. Sometimes we find ourselves climbing the rugged, ever-growing mass of physical stuff and stability: the things that the world around us tells us we need to have to be happy. Sometimes we find ourselves drawn to the airy heights of spiritual practices and spiritual purposes: the things that preachers and gurus tell us we need to do to be holy. But whatever we do, we always find ourselves moving—always vacillating between the two peaks, always pulled between the spiritual and the physical, always without a resting place, always without a lasting home.
Perhaps you expect me now to turn to Scripture to find a way out of this dilemma. But look again to today’s readings. What hope do they bring us as we sit and listen from our dwelling place in that deep valley between materiality and spirituality? The First Epistle of St John thunders down at us from the heights of Mount Spiritual: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” John’s soaring, beautiful words call us to glimpse the spiritual reality of our identity—the fact that we are daughters and sons of God—shining through our physical exteriors. This seems so clearly to settle the question in favor of the spiritual.
But then, from the mighty slopes of Physicality booms the story from St Luke’s Gospel this morning, where all is heavy with materiality. As the disciples cower from what they think is a spirit—a ghost—Jesus gives them abundant physical evidence that he is no specter, no spiritual reality only, but that he is also a risen physical body. “Look at my hands and my feet…touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And as if his appeal to his physical body isn’t enough, Jesus takes things one step further: he asks them for something to eat. The Risen Jesus engages in the basic physical activity necessary to fuel our basic physical bodies. As John makes the powerful case for spirituality, so Luke strikes back hard for the material and the physical. And we are left stuck fast in our valley—pulled between the two great poles of our present reality—unable to rest in our rushing back and forth.
That is, until, we turn again to consider the promise hidden in our Epistle reading this morning. To be sure, John speaks only vaguely of our yet unrealized spiritual nature. But “what we do know is this: when he is revealed we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is.” When Jesus is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Inclined though we may be to read John as the high-minded spokesman for all things spiritual, we must pay careful attention to what he says here. For in this moment, John pushes all of our hope, all of our yearning, all of our anxiety, all of our fretting, all of our vacillating between the spiritual and the physical onto Jesus. And what do we find in his presence? What can we see by the light of his glory and grace?
In the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, we see a God who is Spirit, and who must be worshiped in spirit and truth, taking on our human flesh in all its physical frailty and material need. In the ministry of Jesus the Messiah, we see feeble, fainting, fallen human bodies become the canvases on which are displayed the spiritual power and purposes of God. In the death of Jesus the Savior, we see a human body and a human soul bearing the fullness of human pain both physical and spiritual–and we simultaneously see the divine Son of God reconciling in his own sacrificial flesh this physical creation with the spiritual justice of its Great Creator.
And in the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, we see at last the hand of God undoing the false dichotomy and the fake distinction between body and soul—between the material and the spiritual—between God and humankind. For to look upon the Risen Jesus is to see God’s purpose for human beings finally restored. To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see the realization of God’s intention when he first formed us in his own image: when he shaped Adam out of the dust of the earth—out of the stuff of Creation, out of the heavy, messy, physical material of this world—and breathed into human nostrils the breath of the Holy Spirit. To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see that, at last, there is no great war, no dividing line, no irreconcilable division between the spiritual and the material: for God has taken our physical nature to himself. And in the Resurrection he has not discarded it, but he has rather redeemed and sanctified it.
To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see, beloved, that there is no “Mount Spiritual” and “Mount Physical”, distinct and incompatible. There is, at last, only “the mountain of the Lord’s house”, “beautiful and lofty over all the earth, the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of our great King.”
This reconciling promise is made manifest to us in the gift of sacraments in the life of Christ’s Church. For in this holy place–this physical building consecrated by the prayers of the saints and the presence of God–material things become for us the means of spiritual life. Unremarkable words spoken from this pulpit become, by God’s grace, the Word of life and salvation. Ordinary water poured into that font washes our souls from sin and ushers us into new birth. Plain bread and wine taken, and broken and eaten at that altar in remembrance of Christ’s life, and death, and resurrection become for us the Body and Blood of Our Lord—the Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation. All of these gifts and more have been entrusted to the Church—a flawed and fallen human institution nevertheless filled with the indwelling Spirit of God.
And this reconciliation of physical and spiritual—this sanctification of material things for the good of both bodies and souls—does not stop at the doors of this building. It flows from here with the force of a mighty river with Good News for all people, and indeed all creation. For as the Risen Jesus commissioned his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, so too he commissions us today: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s Name to all nations.” To be reconciled is to become a reconciler. To learn in the sacraments that God has overcome the false division between the physical and the spiritual is to become a teacher of that extraordinary truth. It is to become a messenger of the Good News that these bodies and this world matter in God’s sight. It is to remember that the whole of God’s good creation rejoices at this announcement.
It is to embrace the promise we have heard this morning. “When he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Come and see him as he is–as he reveals himself–in the gift of the sacrament upon this altar. Come and be made like him through his transforming presence in this place. Come and be filled with the risen life of Christ the Lord. And then go forth to announce to all nations–to all creation–the power of his resurrection. AMEN.