Week of Sunday April 19 - Easter 3
Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48
While they were talking about this Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.
Was I simply afraid? Or was it that the world in all its complexity and horror was too distressing to look upon— unplumbable and irredeemably unjust— an existence too absurd to believe that there could be a rational and ethical way in which to live?
I saw my teachers and lecturers aiming for high moral ground— very brave some of them— yet hopelessly compromised and contradictory in the way that they lived. Their critiques of society confirmed the feelings of absurdity and hopelessness I had brought to school and university. Their inconsistencies— so clear to the untested black and white moral standards of a teenager— were a prophecy of my own later failings.
In this slow drowning dilemma I discovered the "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ." The ancient words of the church which had flowed meaninglessly around me for as long as I could remember, were suddenly charged full with meaning. The agony of constant inadequacy was forgiven. The obsession to know, to have answers, to be able to define, was relieved.
Life did not need avoidance by hard partying or excessive exercise— I was too Puritan to party much— life could be enjoyed and treasured. My first childhood intimations of life's glory returned.
As a technician I learned to type detailed instructions at the command prompt. I learned to make sense of help files like this
ATTRIB [+R | -R] [+A | -A ] [+S | -S] [+H | -H] [+I | -I] [drive:][path][filename] [/S [/D] [/L]]
where the least error would cause the command to fail or, worse, lead to quite unintended results. In this kind of world one can become ever more accurate and detailed in one's knowledge, and at the same time say less and less about the meaning of life.
Discussing the meaning of life requires discursive language which is not pinned-down-defined to the last letter— and upper case, at that. It is language which seeks to open us to experience, and its interpretation, rather than to reify and harden one description of experience into the precise and unforgiving code of a computer, or the formal language of a scientific paper.
Luke 24: 36-48
But I was a science student. So I began to read the Gospel of Luke, and the others, not as the literature of experience, but as scientific papers. I made a category mistake. I thought metaphors meant to communicate the realities of our experience— designed to open me to similar experience— were descriptions of real things.
Because the metaphors were real— perhaps it is better to say, concrete— in my estimation, I was easy prey to the fundamentalism I first met in Frances Schaeffer: It was important to defend the Faith. There were liberals who were corrupting all that we held dear. They did not uphold the (real and concrete) truth.
When the trappings are removed, and the pieties scraped off, the theology to which he introduced me says that we will lose God unless we hold to certain fundamental beliefs (often asserted to be "facts") which are "real." Experience cannot be trusted. One must submit to the propositions of the Faith.
Such theologies are presented as protecting us from being "led astray," but in final analysis, are about protecting God! They do not trust that God can break into our meanderings, or that God is able to address new situations. Everything must be static or we will lose "Him." Why else would a person write a book entitled What will happen to God? (William Oddie)
Theologies which seek to halt change, and define the world by the mores and experiences of last year, are an oil slicked swamp upon the intellect. It's easier for a gull to get out of an oil spill than it is to rid ourselves of the grease of this thinking if we are unfortunate enough to land in it. But after the excitement of the heresies of certainty and safety had faded, and the weight of it all dragged me down, I began to realise these propositions of the Faith presented to me by Fundamentalism were not the foundations of the classic faith of the church in its experience of the risen Christ. They were the concretised interpretations of some conservative church leaders.
A Theology of Fear
And, as they had predicted, I did lose God… but not because of my "liberalism." The experience of God shrank to dry definitions because I succumbed to a theology of fear which had to hold onto certainties. The very claim to insure God led to the loss of God!
Because our experience cannot be trusted— that is too fearful a thing to do in the fundamentalist's world because we might be wrong, and we can't risk being wrong because we don't really believe in the forgiveness and grace of God—
because we can't trust experience, we submit to doctrines which have abandoned the meaning-full language of story. We submit ourselves to a received faith which is not the church's trust in the risen Christ who still comes and stands among us in our locked rooms, but turns out to be a trust in the ideas and authority of some conservative (and usually) American theologians.
The "FACTs" of our faith, which are distressingly easy to find on the internet, are not the whole church's experience of the risen Christ, but the codified and reified prognostications of these theologians. And we are called to a "FAITH" which too easily ends up being a submission to them and their ideas, rather than being a trust in God.
These theologies, even if unintentionally, denigrate any experience of the risen Jesus who stands among us. It becomes a "FEELING" which cannot be trusted.
More rationalistic than the worst stereotyping of Thomas, these theologies offer not wounds to touch, not experience to live, but only the dogmatic formulations of those who are afraid to live by following the risen Christ out of their locked rooms.
Which all brings us to the resurrection stories told by John (last week's lectionary of John 20:19-31) and, this week, in Luke 24:36-48.
In each of these stories there is a strong emphasis on the physical nature of the resurrected Christ. In John there are wounds to touch—"Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’" (John 20:27)
38He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:38-43)
We can never read these stories in isolation. They come to us filtered through our experience of the church, and never tabula rasa.
Fundamentalist fear, which is betrayed by its rationalism and reification immediately grasps hold of these particulars of the resurrection stories and makes them into shibboleths and sine qua nonsof genuine Christian faith.
If we are steeped in this background, the interpretation of these stories as gross physical facts— by which I mean that their significance is reduced to the fact of their physicality— is almost all that matters! There is no subtlety, no room for an opening to further experience. The resurrection becomes historical, and too often, only historical!
As one of my colleagues suggested, "Resurrection life is not limited to the physical restoration of Jesus to life." (Rev Greg Crawford) His physical resurrection is only the beginning.
But in the fundamentalist environment, if I "sign off" on physical resurrection the discussion is over. I am "orthodox." I need not be feared. If I do not "sign off" on this interpretation then nothing I say can be trusted. I am to be feared, because I am in error and may lead you into error… and you may lose God.
Physical resurrection in this environment is what I have termed the "gross physical facts." To go further, to enquire just what these gross physical facts are, is to invite suspicion.
So I was twice locked into my room. I was locked in for fear I would lose the approbation of my peers— fundamentalism isolates us from friends other than those in our congregation— and I was locked in my room for fear of the liberals, as the Gospel of John might put it.
Jesus kept coming and standing among us, but I could not bear to touch him. It was too dangerous. I remember a moment of insight when all the protective oil of the swamp was cut through: I suffered a terrifyingly real vison of myself teetering back from an incalculably deep and dark drop off the highest building in Adelaide. It was a moment of terror.
With new vision I see different possibilities.
Both Luke and John wrote as docetic and gnostic theologies began to develop in their religious environment. In such understandings, Jesus only appeared to be human. (In such theologies the resurrection cannot have been physical.) I suspect that at the root of these speculations there was a profound distrust and devaluing of the physical— matter— as being something unworthy of God. True divinity was above matter. In such world views, salvation would involve escaping from the corruption of matter rather than resurrecting it!
The Hebrew heritage of Judaism is almost diametrically opposed to this. "God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31) Whatever else one might have to say about "salvation," it would include the physical. When Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was "at hand" it would never have occurred to him to think of this in any other way than the physical restoration and redemption of Israel. Or, as Paul said, if the dead are not raised… he is referring to bodies. (1 Cor. 15)
Fundamentalism wants to see a body like mine when Jesus says
Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24)
But I am seeing, first of all, a reaction against the theologies and philosophies which devalue the physical. The story of physical resurrection hallows all earth; creation is good. The story of physical resurrection hallows our faulty and failing bodies; we are made good; the kingdom of God includes us. Grace and forgiveness do not reject our imperfections and blemishes. All-me is saved when I am saved.
When I do not cease the conversation after you "sign off" on physical resurrection, I begin to see the profound implications of physical resurrection. Shit and blood and phlegm are good. The deep seated loathing and fears which we transfer from these biological necessities into other aspects of our experience— we treat others, and ourselves, "like shit," for example— are open for healing.
This reassessment of the value of the physical stretches from our private revulsions about the workings of our bodies right through to our revulsions, exploitations, and hallowing of all Earth.
What does our obsession with pretty parks and gardens say about our alienation from the wild physical world of which we are a part? Why must we control and manicure to the centimetre? What fears are we seeking to tame?
What does our uncaring exploitation of earth (as long as it's NIMBY) say about our understanding of the goodness of creation?
What does our willingness to allow others to suffer the physical pain and deprivation we so diligently avoid— the dehumanising and de-physicalising of the people we Australians place in our concentration camps, for example— say about our hallowing of the physical?
Books could be written here. It is sufficient to say that our visceral and negative responses to shit, blood, and phlegm are a good indication of how much we need the resurrection of the physical as they show us how alienated we are in our own world. They are parts of the physical world around which we need to exercise caution, but without them, we would not be. Yet the use of the phrase "shit happens," in a recent New Times brought a letter of protest!
The Ambiguities of the Resurrection Stories
Bill Loader says of the Lukan reading
The proof is sealed when Jesus asks for something to eat and proceeds to eat a morsel of fish. It is as concrete as the invitation in John 20:27 that Thomas reach out and put his finger in Jesus’ wounds.
"It really did happen!" That was the message, but it was a message fraught with some difficulty. Jesus appears embodied, flesh and blood, and eats fish. He is not just a spirit. Yet this is a resurrection body which is traditionally not the same as a physical body - as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15 and Daniel 12 illustrates. Most images of resurrection bodies assume this different character. The transfiguration body of Jesus assumes the same. The Easter stories assume that Jesus could materialise and dematerialise, appear and disappear.
Such inconsistency is the sign that the resurrection stories are metaphor, not the "pinned-down-defined to the last letter" language of a scientific paper or the sworn statement of a court witness.
Something clearly happened to enable the survival of Jesus' followers as a group beyond his death. That something, we call it resurrection, is still palpable. We still have experiences where we say, "Yes… that's what they were talking about! That is him."
But honest assessment also confesses that we speak of that which we do not know. We are at the edge of our experience. We can only experience final death and resurrection in a non-repeatable manner. I shall have no coming back to here and now so that I may update my essay to be more accurate.
Honest assessment knows that "physical resurrection" is itself a metaphor. The survival of a "me," who is bound inseparably and with great fragility to the biological substrate of my brain, is not possible beyond death with any biology which we know. "Physical" can only be a grasping after something rather more complicated or transcendent that our current biological understandings. If we were to see it now, we might not even recognise it as physical, or even as life!
The Art of Resurrection
Where does this leave us when we meet the story of a physical Christ who eats scraps of fish?
Contra to the old fundamentalist slogan we have few facts— simply that something happened.
We must live in faith. That is the centrality of our existence as Christians. But not the faith that assents to a list of approved facts. We must live the faith which entrusts our life to the Jesus stories and their demands; for example, love one another as I have loved you.
And we must value our human physical experience rather than denigrate it as mere "feelings."
This means discipleship, like any way of living, must become an ongoing work of art.
We can (even deliberately) fail to learn to draw and live largely unconsciously.
We can take refuge in the banal, the kitsch, the second hand, or the perverted.
Or we can seek to live artfully. We must then understand, as my daughter once scrawled on the door of her studio, that "to be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail. That failure is [her] world and the shrink from it desertion…" (Beckett) Barbara Reich Gluck suggests Beckett made this statement as a statement of "pity and scorn" rather than as a statement of praise. (Beckett and Joyce: Friendship and Fiction by Barbara Reich Gluck, Bucknell University Press pp 119) Such living artfully will certainly seem to be "foolishness to Greeks." (1 Corinthians 1:23)
Or, as I once thought, an arbitrary choice in an impossible and alienating world.
All I have, finally, between now and then, is stories of resurrection or frozen fundamentalist dogma which has set its own arbitrary waypoints of authority. The artist in me— the theological artist— must constantly seek to redraw and retell the stories of resurrection, and of its implications.
So I say to myself
Remember the depth off the tower… the distance to fall… the terror of the darkness… the hatred and fear of me… and the fear in me.
Remember the grace and forgiveness that went far beyond a mere physical body. Remember the healing of "all-me," how the empty darkness beyond the edge of that black tower became warm and supporting, and all-me floated safe and loved.
Will you trust that?
Will you love and hallow the physical you that something beyond you loved? Will you allow it into the locked rooms of your terror and alienation and self-hatred?
Will you let the physical body break out of the box into which you locked him… or will you lock him down again, for fear of being touched? If he escapes from the room you may be called to follow! Will you risk that?
These are the first sketchings of the artist, the first words of the writer, as the lectionary of life places the stories of Easter before him again.
Generations of artist theologians have understood that leaving out the physical makes the resurrection story incoherent. We are physical. Easter, especially Easter in the Anthropocene, must be lived repenting and making reparation for centuries of ignoring the physical.
Oh, what a catastrophe for man
when he cut himself off from the rhythm of the year,
from his union with the sun and the earth.
Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was a personal, merely personal feeling,
taken away from the rising and setting of the sun,
and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and the equinox!
This is what is the matter with us.
We are bleeding at the roots...D.H. Lawrence
But the art is to recognise the inevitable incoherence at the edge of our pictures— and sometimes spilling far into our canvas— and not be afraid. For when we succumb to the fear of incoherence and seek to rationalise it off the page and out of our lives, we become supremely incoherent. We become fundamentalist in the worst sense. We define a coherent little universe into which we hermetically seal ourselves and battle to hold off the world.
That battle never ends. Grace always subverts fundamentalism, "even Fundamentalism is very often a channel through which grace may begin to flow." God will not be denied. But the battle scars. It drains energy from life. It seeks to undermine grace and joy… all for the sake of the supposed safety of certainty.
Like the fundamentalist, the artist always fails. But the artist knows joy. They know joy because they reach out and touch the incoherent, threatening body of resurrection. They let it touch them. They feed it! And in this, they affirm the physical in a way the fundamentalist can never afford.
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