Mars Hill, Athens, about the year A.D. 51. You’re a raffish Jew from the outback, named Paul of Tarsus, come by way of Palestine and all the cowtowns of Asia Minor. You’re going to preach the Good News to well-heeled, sophisticated Athenians who long ago lost any real belief in the gods, or any real devotion to their own country. But they probably still practice gymnastics at the club, and one or two of them can probably still recite some Homer.
You’re no great orator yourself, although you can write a persuasive letter with a rhetorical turn of phrase. But you’re not much to look at, either. Well, that’s OK. The Athenians will be polite, and listen to you anyway. What else do they have to do? Not a lot, as your friend Luke remarks in his record of this day.
So you preach the one God by whom we live and move and have our being. The Athenians have a vague insight about Him already. You tell them you’ve noticed their shrine to “the unknown god.” They don’t necessarily believe all that rubbish from the old myths about Zeus cavorting with his sister Hera, or with various human women; that sort of story may be fine for the naïve plowboys up in Thessaly, but not for Athenians. One ruler of the universe? They’re not surprised. A Son of God? Well, depends on what you mean by “Son.” They’ll keep listening.
The immortality of the soul? Now, really smart people (Athenians, for example) are flattered by that notion. Their own Plato even suggested it five centuries earlier; maybe the soul lives on in some timeless realm; maybe it gets absorbed into universal being; maybe it returns after a thousand years for another cycle.
If Paul were wise he would have stopped there, with God and a Son and our immortal souls. The Athenians could buy that. But Paul had to go on and talk about the resurrection of the body, because unless Christ is raised in the body our faith is in vain.
And when they heard that, the Athenians look at this rumpled little Jew, probably wondering why on earth he would want that body back again. They shake their heads, smile, and go home. And that’s pretty much what folks still do. Immortality? Oh yes, that’s cool! The resurrection of the body? Aah, that’s just old fashioned Christian superstition.
There is, perhaps, no stranger tenet of the Creed—to us folks today, as much as to the Greeks back in Paul’s day—than the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of this limited, lumpish thing that grows old, wears out, dies, and decays. But if it’s hard to see how the body could rise again—and that has been a puzzler since the first Easter—it may be even harder to see why we would want it to rise again!
Why not take Plato’s view of the matter, that human beings at death simply slip this husk of flesh and are free? It’s certainly the driving, persuasive argument from the assisted suicide and euthanasia crowd. The Greek symbol for the psyche, the soul, was the butterfly. Butterflies don’t want their cocoons back—why should we?
St. Luke’s Gospel presents us with a very human Jesus, both before and after Easter. This is so very different from St. John’s Gospel, as the Jesus who emerges from those pages is such a mysterious and divine Jesus! But in Luke, Jesus is clearly the 2nd Adam, the greater Adam, the ultimate Adam. Jesus is The Son of God and the Church is His Eve, the mother of all the living, bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh.
There is a lot of touching that goes on in St. Luke’s Gospel, before and after Easter. A lot of touching…in love. From the intimacy of the Incarnation, when the Holy Spirit touches the young Mary, whom no man had touched, to the intimacy of the Upper Room when the resurrected Jesus not only shows the startled disciples His wounds but commands them to touch Him. No not little prissy touches…He invites all of them to lay their hands on Him and touch Him convincingly! Such an intimate privilege!
And between those touching moments, there is so much physical contact recorded in Luke. Jesus touches the lepers to heal them. He touches the dead to restore them to life. (Both kinds of touching declared unclean by the Law, but exploded by Jesus into acts of cleansing love!) Even the parables that are unique to Luke have lots of touching. The Good Samaritan touches the beaten man, binding up his wounds. And in the parable of the Prodigal Son, touching runs the whole spectrum from the pigs’ sloppy kisses to the waiting father’s forgiving embrace.
And then there’s all the grateful touching that comes in response. The anointings with oil and perfume and tears, the hands, the hair, the kisses from women and men who touch Jesus in the profound love of their gratitude and faith. So much touching!
Oh…and in this Gospel there’s eating! With Luke you get lots of eating! All the significant events transpire around a meal. Not only the Last Supper, but all the dinner parties with Pharisees and tax collectors, Jesus’ friends and foes. The parables overflow with celebratory parties, eating and drinking. Indeed, the whole of St. Luke’s Gospel gives us a Jesus and a faith which requires a body to eat and drink and make so very merry…even after Easter, at the supper in Emmaus and the fish dinner in the Upper Room.
What, then, is the body good for? St. Luke’s answer is simple and stunning. The body is for love and for other people. Think of the angels. Theirs is not an embodied existence. They are spirit creatures. Their existence is glorious, but it is not a fellowship, not a communion together. But we human beings are the sort of creature created with a physical body; a very great gift!
We not only have bodies; we make bodies. We make children. We also make the bodies of cities and neighborhoods and coffee clubs and congregations. Our love is given through the body…in all the rich variety of touch from spouse to family to friend; our union with God is mediated through the body…Jesus’ body, the body of believers, with our own mortal bodies and one day in our own resurrected bodies.
Oh yes…we also abuse our bodies; we abuse the bodies of others. And the gift of touch is exercised as much by sin as it is by faith and love. But this only shows that our embodied life in this world is incomplete…and the fullness for which our bodies were created is yet to come, when they are recreated anew in the resurrection. St. Luke points us in that direction!
Jesus, the eternal Son, was made flesh in a human body that He might be like us; and we have bodies, we make bodies, and we unite in bodies, that we might be like Him, that we may be one in Christ with God. The eternal Son was made man like us in the Incarnation, so that we created men, we created human beings, may have a body like His in the resurrection. According to St. Luke, Christmas and Easter, birth and resurrection, they always go together in Jesus!
The hope of the Christian faith, therefore, is so very different from the hope entertained by many of our “spiritual” contemporaries. Theirs is an immaterial hope, a great Nirvanic void. Our Christian hope is as tangible as your own body…your body which was buried with Christ in Holy Baptism, so that your body will be raised with Christ in the resurrection!
As St. John writes today, “What we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when He [Jesus] appears we will be like Him!” To feel His embrace in the resurrection, because we inhabit a body that will feel it.
And not only His embrace, but to feel the embrace of perfect love and immortal longing, from all those who have gone before us. To eat and drink anew with Him in the kingdom feast, because we have a body that can eat and drink, and laugh and marvel, pinching ourselves again and again (even marveling that we have a body to pinch) because we find ourselves in the midst of such unbelievable company.
So what could such a body be like? Well…ask the darkness to define the light. Ask death to describe life. St. Paul can only wax poetic about the mortal putting on immortality, the perishable putting on imperishability. St. John can only say, “We will be like Him.” “We will be like Him.”
But thank you, Dr. Luke, for showing us that after death we will not be a ghost. We will not be some disembodied spirit, banished from the delights of the body. After death we will eat and drink and touch and love, with a body, as if truly for the very first time…tasting the Spirit’s grace, seeing the Father’s face, feeling the Son’s embrace.
Thank you, Dr. Luke, thank you for showing us by your Easter account that in the resurrection we will certainly eat and drink and be merry, oh so very merry.