Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Easter – April 22, 2012
For two years while I was in seminary, I served as an intern at a local Episcopal church. One of my responsibilities during that time was being a storyteller in the Godly Play classroom for kindergarten through second grade. When I first started, I was a bit nervous and intimidated, as I didn’t feel terribly comfortable around small children. It was a wonderful experience however, and I learned a great deal in my time with the class, such as who would win in a fight between Noah and Moses (it was Noah, by the way, because he would have been really strong after building the Ark). It filled me with great sadness when I said goodbye to my kids for the last time as I prepared to move out here to Connecticut.
One Sunday, after I had told the day’s story, the kids started their work time and I was sitting quietly to one side of the classroom observing their work. While I was sitting there, one of my students, Emma, came up to me and out of the blue asked, “Was Jesus a zombie?” I sat there and drew upon all the experience and wisdom that I had collected thus far during seminary and responded, “What an interesting question, Emma. What do you think?”
Emma stood there for a second, thinking to herself quietly, before replying, “No, I don’t think that he was, because Zombies go like this, ‘aggghhhhh,’ and Jesus didn’t do that.” I nodded my head in agreement, because it seemed like as good a reason as any. With that question settled, Emma went back with the other children to continue at her work.
Jesus was not a zombie because he did not eat the disciples’ brains. While that statement may strike us as humorous, the author of today’s Gospel reading is concerned with something very similar. The early Christian communities didn’t know what to make of the resurrection; they didn’t know how to fit it into the framework of the world that they knew. As a result, there were many different theories circulating among these communities about what had happened. Some speculated that he was a spirit or a ghost, some that he was a re-animated body—Emma’s zombie theory wouldn’t have been too far off—and others speculated that it was an elaborate illusion perpetrated by God to make it appear that Jesus had physical form.
The author of Luke is trying to dispel some of these speculations in today’s reading. To those who theorized that Jesus was in fact now a spirit or a ghost, the author points out, “no, that can’t be the case, see we touched him and he had physical form.” To those who speculated that Jesus was an elaborate illusion or some form of the undead, the author replies, “no, see he was hungry and ate in front of us, just as before.” Today’s Gospel tries to establish once and for all that the resurrected Jesus was the same Jesus who had taught and shared meals with the disciples, was the same Jesus who had been crucified and died on the cross, and that he was the same Jesus they had placed in the tomb only days before. It was simply as though death had no power over him.
When you stop and think about it, this is really a rather odd story from the Gospel, and beyond settling debates among the first Christians, we might ask why this is at all important. There are two reasons, it tells us something about the nature of Jesus, and that in turn tells us about the nature of creation.
One of the first major controversies in the early Church was over the nature of Jesus. Was he fully human or was he fully God? On one end of the spectrum was the belief that he was actually human, but with a divine spirit that entered him at some point after his birth. At the other end was the belief, especially popular among Gnostics, that he was really just God pretending to be human for our sake. What would eventually emerge as the correct teaching was that Jesus was both fully human—not an illusion, but actually human—and fully God from the very start—not just a facet or emanation of the divine that arrived at a later date.
You can see how these begin to parallel the various theories about the resurrected Jesus! Jesus must have been both fully human and fully divine before and after the resurrection, otherwise it would not have been Jesus who was resurrected. It is only because Jesus was fully human that he was able to experience the human condition and it was only because Jesus was fully divine that he was able to communicate God’s love for us. In a very real way, by becoming human, God sanctified all of humanity—God made us holy.
Gnosticism holds a certain appeal in popular society today, just as it did back in the early church. Perhaps it is because it has a cool name. However, it tends to propagate a lot of very bad theology. One such example was a very strict duality between the physical world and the spiritual world. The physical world was seen as utterly corrupt and profane, the antithesis of the spiritual world, which was seen as pure and wholly good. The reason that the Gnostics favored the idea that Jesus was really just an elaborate illusion made to look human for our sake was because the idea that God would enter the corrupted and fallen physical creation was repugnant to them. To the Gnostics, our bodies and the rest of creation were things to be controlled, repressed, and endured until such time as our death would release our souls from their base existence.
But this is not what we believe, we believe in the Good News. We believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine and that by becoming human, God sanctified all of humanity. In the same way, we believe that God entered and became a part of the creation that God created, and in so doing sanctified all of creation; God made all of creation holy.
Today much of the world celebrates Earth Day, marking it with efforts to be better stewards of the planet that sustains our life. As Christians, we observe Earth Day both because God entrusted creation to our care, and because we know that the created world once bore God upon itself, holding up Jesus’ feet, filling him with food and drink, and cradling his head as he slept. God entered creation and all of creation became hallowed ground.
Here at St. Paul’s, we’re good about welcoming all people into our midst, which is founded in part on the understanding that we can and do meet Christ in all people. This Earth Day, I challenge you to expand that practice to all of creation. Go out into the world and see it as it is, hallowed ground, and meet Christ there. And when you do, don’t worry, he won’t eat your brains. Amen.