Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
18 April 2021
1 John 3:1-7
It is Easter evening. The disciples are behind locked doors, afraid the authorities would come for them, too. Authoritarian regimes do that. It’s not only about silencing people by doing violence but also silencing them through intimidation.
Into this situation Jesus appears. That Jesus appeared suddenly may explain their response of fear and terror. But they would have been just as afraid had Jesus knocked on the door.
That the disciples had not yet understood the resurrection Luke makes clear when he writes, ‘they thought they were seeing a ghost.’ I am certain I would have reacted much the same, even though I grew up in the church. Jesus knows them well and names their fear, as he knows our fears. “Look 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.”
And then, Luke says something curious and telling: In their joy they were still disbelieving. The disciples had an, this seems too good to be true-moment, and Jesus, knowing they were asking to be pinched, pinches them by saying, “Do you have anything to eat?” And he eats a piece of broiled fish in their presence.
Jesus shows them his wounds and he eats in their presence. Jesus confirms that the one who stands in their midst is the one who had been hung on the cross. Jesus does not live on merely as a good idea, as good morals and good intentions, or as an immortal soul, but he has been raised and stands before them in the flesh.
This is important for two reasons.
First, the resurrection of Jesus validates his entire life and ministry, including his death on the cross. For if Christ had not been raised our faith would be in vain. (1 Corinthians 15)
Secondly, it affirms the bodily resurrection we confess in the creeds.
Christians have sometimes made their faith a little easier by believing in the immortality of the soul, which is a concept from ancient Greek philosophy, alien to the Bible. And I admit that believing in the resurrection of the body is more challenging, thinking of all the people there will be and how we would all fit.
But I think that the resurrection of the body is important, not only for Jesus. It is important because this is how the scriptures speak of the resurrection.
It is also important because if the aim of our life is the resurrection of our immortal soul, then our bodies would matter little, not the joys we experience in our bodies, not the human touch we need and long for, not the ailments for which we pray for healing. And yet Jesus’ ministry involved healing people, not only their souls, not only granting forgiveness, but the healing of their bodies.
When Jesus fed the 5000 he did so not only spiritually but provided food for the body’s nourishment, he washed the feet of his disciples, and when they had one last meal together is was in the presence of each other and with wine and bread, sharing real food and drink.
The body is important because we don’t exist outside of the body, we are not mere souls, and when we do not care for the body we also also diminish the soul.
Our study conference is next week, beginning on Monday afternoon.
I have done a little reading in preparation for the study conference. I came upon a remarkable piece on slavery.
North Americans often date the beginning of the slave trade to 1619 when the first enslaved people were brought to the shores of Virginia. However, the Portuguese had begun colonizing and enslaving Africans in the fifteenth century. After Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, the Portuguese soon began to export enslaved Africans to the New World, above all to Brazil.
In South America the Dominican order witnessed the injustice of slavery committed on the pretext of evangelization. The friars witnessed how rivers of gold turned into rivers of blood and disease. Forced indigenous labour and violence were justified on the basis of the great commission to preach and educate unbelievers. Indigenous people were literally worked to death. Their basic needs were not met, nor did they receive instruction in the faith.
And so the Dominicans then began to name the sins of slave holders in their sermons (the church still had influence in those days). They raised the stakes in a way that was as scandalous as it was Christian by announcing that anyone who refused to free their labourers and make restitution would be denied absolution in Confession. Excommunication was the last resort to effectively address such widespread injustice entrenched among members of the Church.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas often decries the fact that in Western wars Christians kill Christians and wonders whether our allegiance to the state which demands such sacrifice is stronger than it is to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for how could Christians agree to kill Christians?
But the Dominicans went further. They decried the violence Christians did to the indigenous people of the Americas, Christian or not.
Their resistance eventually made it back to Rome, where the church affirmed in 1537, long before the first African slaves landed in Virginia, the common condition and equal nature of humanity, the promotion of peaceful evangelization and the condemnation of missionary war, and the defence of the natural freedom and rights of every human being.
The church went on to state, “Those Indians and all unbelievers who will be discovered by Christians in the future, although they are outside the faith, should neither be deprived of their freedom nor their dominion over things. Indeed, they can use, control, and enjoy their liberty and dominion freely and lawfully, and should not be reduced to slavery.”1
I think it hard to conceive the pain of these indigenous peoples without believing that our bodies matter and that human beings cannot be reduced to souls. One thing the African American church has taught us is to recognize Jesus by his wounds, as the disciples do in our Gospel reading. And as African American believers recognized Jesus by his wounds they also recognized his presence in their wounds. The writer James Baldwin says that “Whites discovered the cross by way of the Bible, but black people discovered the Bible by way of the cross.”2
Our text from Luke does not stop with the fear the disciples experienced when they saw Jesus and his wounds, which not only identified Jesus but also reminded them of what they might suffer.
But Luke goes on and reports that Jesus declares them to be his witnesses.
And that is what we are called to be. Witnesses of God’s love that lived among us, suffered, died, and was raised from the dead. God’s love that is embodied and because it is embodied, it sees the suffering of the world and takes the side of those who suffer.
It is a love that gets involved in the affairs of the world, not mindlessly, but thoughtfully, lovingly, and intentionally.
The brave witness of the Dominicans of the 16th century and all others since is sign that Jesus has not left us orphaned but that he is among us and we can recognize him by his wounds.
1David Lantigua, On the Catholic Origins of Human Rights, Church Life Journal 23 May 2016, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-new-evangelization-in-the-americas-on-the-catholic-origins-of-human-rights/
2Quoted by James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPM-AtBWHrI