An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Touch and See

A sermon on Luke 24: 36b-48 by Nathan Nettleton

A couple of months ago I had an email conversation with a young man who was seeking my advice the week before his baptism after he had discovered that his church was going to baptise him by pouring and not by full immersion as he had expected. He was quite concerned about it, because he saw it as a matter of biblical obedience, but in his first email to me, he also articulated an argument about why it probably didn’t matter. He said:

I am not at all for stupid church traditions. I don’t think the physical element of the baptism is important, what’s more important is the spiritual side, thus the immersion is not a necessity. Also baptism is not a necessity in my mind. God knows that I have given my life to Jesus. And have confessed my previous sins, and current sins. I am sure he understands that and this baptism is not necessary for that purpose.

Now, while I supported his view that immersion, although preferable, was not the make or break of his baptism, I thought his reasoning was one of the classic misunderstandings of what faith in Jesus is all about. “The physical element doesn’t really matter; what’s important is the spiritual side.” So prevalent, but so wrong is this view, that most weeks in our liturgy, we confess its consequences as a sin: “When we fail to integrate spirit and flesh . . . Lord have mercy.”

In the gospel account we heard read tonight, the risen Christ appears to his disciples in a locked upstairs room, and their first reaction, despite the fact that several of them had already seen the empty tomb and they had all just just been hearing from the two who had met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, their first reaction was to panic and think they were seeing a ghost. A ghost, of course, is some kind of spiritual presence without a physical body. Clearly there is extreme confusion in their minds. They have heard the accounts of the two and of Simon Peter who has apparently seen the risen Lord too, but they don’t really believe it. It’s a bit like, “Well good on you. I’m happy for you. You’ve had some experience that makes you feel better. We know Jesus is dead because we saw the body, but we’re glad you feel like he’s still with you somehow. Good on you. That’s great.” But suddenly Jesus is there in plain view of them all, and their heads go into a spin. But so certain have they been that Jesus was thoroughly dead, and everybody knows that dead bodies stay dead, that the only possibility they can reach is that they are seeing a ghost.

And despite having just apparently entered through a locked door, Jesus is at pains to prove to them that he is not a ghost. “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 yet there is no shortage of faithful disciples and theologians who will still say that the resurrection is only some kind of spiritual thing: Jesus rises in our hearts or something like that. I’m not saying you can’t be a true follower of Jesus if you see it that way. The reality of course is that we don’t get the opportunity to touch and see the wounded hands of Jesus’ body, and the gospel writers are adamant that our faith and discipleship are not dependent on such an experience. But whatever the physics and biology of the resurrection, what is clear is that it is something completely unprecedented. It doesn’t fit any of our previous categories. It is not just a ghost. But it is not just the resuscitation of a corpse either. The life to which Jesus is raised is a physical life, but it is not just his old physical life restored, but something even bigger and fuller and more powerfully alive than ever before. You don’t know what that means? Join the club! The gospel writers and the Apostles didn’t know how to explain it either.

But what is very clear is that faith in Jesus is not one of those plentiful religions that says that the physical and the bodily don’t matter and that the only thing that matters is the spiritual. Faith in Jesus is not about transcending the body and achieving some pure spiritual relationship with God. The relationship with God that we are invited to in Jesus is a physical thing. It is known in bread and wine and water, in oil and the laying on of hands. In feeding the hungry and lifting up the downtrodden. In hugs and handshakes and the sign of the cross.

In a few minutes, we will be dunking Garry in the baptismal pool. If ever there was a reason to say that the physical dunking in water didn’t need to be done, this is it, because Garry has already been baptised, and we are only doing this as a reminder, as a reaffirmation. But Garry knows that this faith he is professing is a physical, hands-on thing, and it is expressed in physical, hands-on, all in totally, ways. So what better way to do that than with the no holds barred physicality of being plunged bodily into the water.

“Thus it is written,” says Jesus, “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” And this evening, in the physicalness of plunging Garry into the pool, and of exchanging touching signs of peace, and sharing in physical bread and wine, we are all witnesses of these things.


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