Readings: Luke 24:36-53, True Christianity 695:5-6 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/4SlOL1uDz3M
Photo by Luis Dalvan from Pexels
The resurrection, as a theological event, touches on some of the fundamental tensions of spirituality: we exist in this world we are in, yet we believe there is something more beyond what we see; we have earthly bodies but an eternal spiritual soul; Jesus was a person walking on the earth and then did something miraculous and other-worldly. How are we to navigate, to inhabit, this in-between space of being both earthly and spiritual, natural and heavenly?
A consideration of this inbetween-ness permeates every aspect of our lives, in one way or another, but in a very particular way relates to how we interpret and approach our relationship to our planet, to the verdant and amazing life-filled rock that is our home. With Earth day coming up, I thought we might explore some of these themes through the lens of the resurrection.
Our text today is a post-resurrection appearance from the gospel of Luke. The disciples were meeting together when suddenly Jesus was in their midst. Can you imagine? Having Jesus appear so suddenly would have been super disconcerting, so of course they were startled and frightened as the text says they were.
But what does Jesus say to calm them down? I find it really interesting that he brings their attention to the realness, the earthliness of his body. “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
I mean, what would have been wrong with Jesus being a ghost? The bible is full of spiritual visitations, of angels appearing to people and imparting information and/or blessing. Certainly it would have been comforting for the disciples to see such a vision, to know that Jesus’ spirit continued to be with them. But that is not what the resurrection was supposed to be or communicate. Jesus is not just coming back to them, even to comfort them or inspire them, from the spiritual realm as angels often do. The point of the resurrection was that the wholeness, the realness of his actual body had been enlivened and was returned to them, to dwell in their midst.
Why was this important? Well, it certainly was miraculous, much more so than a simple vision. It collapsed the usual boundaries around what we understand to be possible. It was a complete and total repudiation of human ambition, avarice and cruelty. And so, the resurrection is often called a victory. A victory over death, a victory over sin, a victory over the limitations of our natural world.
And while I do think the resurrection was indeed a victory over the worst tendencies of humankind, I’m not sure we can extend it as a victory over anything else though, most particularly because of the way that Jesus invited people to see and interact with his risen self. What we see in our text today, is the resurrected Jesus circling back around to enfold, bless and re-enliven that which is earthly. The revelation of the transcendent and alive Jesus is anchored in the realness, the fleshliness of Jesus’ hands and feet, in a stomach that was hungry and ready to eat, that could eat, and did so.
Our bodies are powerfully connected to our earth. We are made out of the same carbon-based molecules as all the life around us. In order to function, our bodies need nutrients, elements, that exist in the soil, but we can’t just ingest the soil. We also need energy provided from our sun but we can’t absorb that energy directly either. So, our needs are provided for by entering into a relationship, a cycle, with the other living organisms of this world. We rely on plants (and animals that eat plants) to reorder and reorganize those soil nutrients and that sun energy into forms that will support our life once we consume them. Our bodies are irrevocably intertwined with the natural processes that surround us.
Jesus, in this post-resurrection appearance in Luke, draws our attention and the disciples attention, to his body. Look at my hands and feet. They are real. My body is showing up here, in your midst, in the midst of this natural world, as part of this natural world and not separate from it. Carbon-based molecules, the same as you, the same as all around you. And then, to drive the point home, he eats something. He enters into the cycle of need and survival and inter-dependence that all human bodies share.
And perhaps to some, this might taint the resurrection, to have the resurrected Jesus indulge in something so commonplace, so earthly, to be anchored so fully to the same things we are, to be so human, still. But, I believe that the true power of the resurrection is in the embrace of what is human, or in Swedenborgian terms, the union of the human and the divine.
Swedenborg writes: The Lord made his human divine from the divine in himself, and he thus became one with the Father…from this it follows that the Divine cannot be separated from the Human, nor the Human from the Divine; for, to separate them would be like separating the soul and body. (1) Through this process God became human and a human became God in one person. (2)
Union is why the Lord came, not to claim a victory. Winning and losing is not the construct that guides Divine Love. Certainly, many human flaws, evils, weaknesses, need to be cleared away before union can be fully effected, and yes, the clearing process is hard and long work sometimes. There is nothing wrong with declaring victory when something hard won is achieved. But union is the endgame, union with a creation and with creatures (us) who God loves. And so God returns to us in a way that sanctifies that creation and those creatures, drawing our eyes away from the bright shiny gone-from-the-tomb miracle and refocusing on the everyday miracles, and everyday bodies, that Jesus always sought to make holy.
Swedenborg, as a scientist, was always in awe of creation, bowled over by its beauty and complexity. And as you heard in our reading today, he regarded the processes of the natural world to be just as miraculous as anything related in our sacred texts. He wrote:
But because these things are always to be seen and have become familiar, usual and commonplace by constant repetition, they are not looked on as amazing, but as simply the effects of nature.
If we focus on the resurrection as victory over, rather than union with, our natural world, then if we are not careful, the next step is to feel superior to the natural world, for how else does a battle construct invite us to view that which is vanquished? If we focus on the resurrection as a relinquishment or transcendence of the natural world, and we forget to notice how the resurrection circles back to embrace the natural world, if we are not careful, the next step is to despise the natural world, for how else does a super-cession construct invite us to view that which will be left behind?
Our text today instead invites us to be witnesses. There was important work that the disciples were about to begin. But first it was to be anchored in a realization, a witnessing, of the smaller miracle of the resurrection. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” The final texts of the gospels all end with some version of commissioning, they all end with an invitation to further the story in our own way. The church has for a long time focused on helping people know and understand the story of Jesus, to appreciate that the divine became a person and how that communicates love to all of us. It is still perhaps the most worthy and moving story ever told. But let us not forget how the story also shows us that the divine became a body and how that communicates a love of creation. We are commissioned to spread the love; let us make sure that includes *all* the things God loves: our world, everything in it, and the way it is intentionally inter-connected.
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence. 44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
True Christianity 695:5-6
 Afterwards I talked with those angels about the amazing effects caused by the inflow from the spiritual world into the natural one. For instance, we talked about the way caterpillars turn into butterflies, about bees and drones, and the astonishing things the silkworm does, and also spiders…
 After this I related the amazing facts about plants, how they all progress from the seed in due sequence until they produce new seeds, exactly as if the earth knew how to provide and adapt its elements to the reproductive principle of the seed; and from this to bring forth a shoot, to broaden this to form a stem, to send forth branches from this, to clothe these with leaves, and later to embellish them with flowers, and beginning from their interiors to produce fruits, and by means of these produce as offspring seeds from which the plant can be born again. But because these things are always to be seen and have become familiar, usual and commonplace by constant repetition, they are not looked on as amazing, but as simply the effects of nature. People hold this view solely because they are ignorant of the existence of a spiritual world, working from within on and actuating every single thing which comes into existence and is formed in the world of nature and upon the natural earth, activating sensation and movement as the human mind does in the body. Nor do they know that every detail of nature is as it were a tunic, sheath or clothing enclosing spiritual things and serving at the lowest level to bring about the effects corresponding to the purpose of God the Creator.
Readings: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Mark 16:1-8, Heaven and Hell #523 (see below)
See also on Youtube at youtu.be/JILRiCoPkto
I love the gospel of Mark. There are plenty of reasons to love the other gospels; mystical John, compassionate Luke, steadfast Matthew. But there is something so direct about Mark. It is the shortest of the gospels and proceeds at a sustained clip, but I wouldn’t interpret that as being haphazard or leaving things out. Actually, every piece of the narrative is carefully constructed and ordered; there is not a single extraneous thing. It is all very intentional.
Including the end. The whole of the gospel of Mark actually ends right where our reading did: Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” End of the gospel. Now I don’t blame you if you are confused; your bible might actually continue for another page, but those last verses, where Jesus appears to the disciples and then is taken up to heaven, were added by a later author. The earliest copies of the gospel of Mark do not include that final part. And I kind of love that. Of course, I didn’t at first. When I first found out I was shocked, but it actually is completely the kind of thing the author of the gospel of Mark would do.
The gospel of Mark is acutely aware of how the reader is interacting with the story, so I’m not surprised that the author’s final act would be to invite the reader in. I watched a magic show on television recently where the magician, in the middle of the show, asked for someone in the audience to volunteer, who was willing to leave and come back to the performance on the next day. He then gave them a very thick notebook and an assignment to complete after they left. They were to go the first blank page in the notebook and write out how they thought the show would end. Then at the next show, they would read out to the next day’s audience what they wrote. Each time, with each person, their imagining of how the show would end would be incorporated into the show itself. Their story became a part of the ongoing story.
In a similar way, the gospel of Mark invites us in to finish the rest of the story ourselves. The author of Mark knew the women did eventually tell someone, as there is at least one epistle that relates the occurrence in a letter historically dated earlier than Mark. But he still chose to finish where he did for a narrative purpose: to collapse the distance between us, the reader, and the characters in the story, to place us in that story ourselves and ask us what we might do.
And you might remember that I have preached this before in a previous lectionary cycle. But this year, I think we might feel the significance of this story even more intently. Something really important was revealed to those women, something they did not expect to see.
Likewise, this past year, some really important things have been revealed to us all as well. A lot of what has been revealed will be deeply personal, of course, but some of it we also share. Some of it has been hard to see. For those of us with the privilege to have not noticed it before, we have now seen the full extent of racism and white supremacy in our country; we have seen the devastating consequences of people in power not telling the truth; we have seen the tension between individualism and the common good revealed by the pandemic. We have seen how vulnerable we and our systems are: lives and livelihoods lost, supply chains disrupted, neighbors in lines at the food banks, healthcare workers exhausted, people in the brink of eviction. We have seen our work/life boundary disappear, and the mental cost to isolation and constant change.
And we have also seen amazing things: We have seen the value of slowing down, the wonder of watching an azalea bloom before our very eyes, we have seen the levels of connection that can occur within families when we stay home, we have seen our communities stepping up for each other, businesses pivoting and adapting, the scientific community pulling off a most amazing feat, building upon years accumulated science to give us vaccines at a record speed. We have seen people rise up for justice and protecting the vulnerable, we have seen voting in unbelievable numbers, we have seen that we can still find humor in the most challenging of times, that we can still find connection without physical proximity.
During this time, things have been revealed to each of us that might not otherwise have been revealed. The tomb has been opened and surprising new realizations made known. We did not expect this. We did not ask for it. But now we have all this new knowledge, this new insight. Now what?
As we stand in the same space as those women, trembling, exhausted, bewildered, afraid, we are also called to ask ourselves: what responsibility do I have to what has been revealed to me? Just like these women, we are each being invited to step into our prophetic voice. This will mean different things to different people and situations, but what has been revealed will not be going away. It can be disregarded, ignored, forgotten, but it has been revealed nonetheless…and this is our work, our burden going forward, to figure out how to discharge that new responsibility, to write that next chapter in the gospel.
But, I don’t mean to imply that all there is to be found in Easter is responsibility and burden. While to do love the gospel of Mark for stopping so provocatively at such a human moment, we also know from the other gospels that it is not the end of the story. There is more coming. There will be wonder and amazement, there will be joy, there will be tears, there will be relief, there will be resolve as the leaders of a new movement settle in to the work that is before them.
For this is the gift of the resurrection: to know that the destination is joy. The empty tomb reveals an enormous potentiality, a glimpse into a universe of new beginnings. And sometimes our first reaction to that is fear. Change, even good change, is inherently scary.
But as we step into whatever new insight we have been given, we can know that God has promised resurrection as the ultimate outcome. Maybe it will take a while. Maybe it will take a lifetime, or several. But God has shown us what is possible, for us and for our world. God has affirmed what is to be. Therein lies the joy and the peace of Easter Sunday. It is just so simple. There will be new life. Always.
Faith is sometimes characterized in believing impossible or implausible things. But there is really only this one thing to believe in, at essence one thing that requires any faith at all. That God’s inherent presence in all of creation means that there is always the possibility of more life, more growth, more openness, more love. God became a person to show us this when we forgot.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the divine design. Swedenborg writes further:
In the process of taking on a human manifestation, God followed his own divine design. …in the act of creating, God introduced his design into the universe as a whole and into each and every thing in it. Therefore in the universe and in all its parts God's omnipotence follows and works according to the laws of his own design. (1)
In the words of our theology, our God came into the world, assumed the human, and thereby saved and redeemed humankind. But this is not like saving from a flood or fire, pulling people up and out of an inherently broken world. Rather, it is a saving in and through the divine design of this world, connecting Godself ever more deeply with this world and with us, a coming alongside. Our Lord is risen, and that rising is the design. And while our Lord, as acknowledged in our reading “never does anything contrary to his design,” *we* sometimes do though. And God’s answer is not to withdraw but to double down, to unite what is human and what is divine in a way that reveals what has been true from the beginning.
Easter Sunday is not the triumph of God *over* creation, it is the revealing of the heart of creation, and therein lies the joy, therein lies the celebration, therein lies the peace. Amidst all the loss and the brokenness, and this year has shown us so much of that, the divine design endures, allowing us to hope. Not an illusive hope that promises nothing more than escape, but a grounded embedded hope that allows us to get to work, to use our prophetic voice in the here and now.
I love these women in Mark, I just want to hug them. Knowing that their hearts are the same as ours, filled with us much no as yes, filled with as much apprehension as joy, and more than enough confusion, and probably a large serving of inadequacy. But they *did* tell someone. They did find their prophetic voice. So will we all, through a trust in the wisdom of God’s Easter revealing.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #89
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. 2 Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.”
14 The LORD is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. 15 Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! 16 The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” 17 I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. 18 The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. 19 Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. 20 This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. 21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. 22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 23 the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Heaven and Hell #523
The Lord never does anything contrary to his design because he himself is the design. The divine truth that emanates from him is what establishes the design, and divine truths are the laws of the design by which the Lord is leading us. Saving people by unmediated mercy is contrary to the divine design, and anything contrary to the divine design is contrary to the divine nature.
The divine design is heaven for us. We have distorted it by living contrary to its laws, which are divine truths. The Lord brings us back into the design out of pure mercy, through the laws of the design; and to the extent that we are brought back, we accept heaven into ourselves. Whoever accepts heaven enters heaven.