April 12, Second Sunday of Easter

Bryan Cones

John 20:19-31; 1 John 1:1—2:2

As I’ve been reading today’s gospel this week, I’ve been imagining what I might look like “resurrected.” Maybe try it yourself—imagining you that is. Do you look the same as you do now? Or are you maybe just a little younger, or fitter, or stronger? I’m noticing for example that I have a bit more hair and definitely less gray; perhaps there are resurrected washboard abs in my future.

In particular what I am not noticing are any scars or injuries or defects, unlike Jesus in today’s gospel story, who appears with all his gaping wounds on display. I have to admit that is not how I imagine my own “heavenly body.” I find the image a bit jarring. So, when I hear Jesus invite Thomas, to “put your finger here and see my hands,” and “Reach out your hand and put it in my side,” my own response is something like: Eww! That’s gross! I mean, really—do you have to touch the wounds, put your hand inside Jesus, to believe. Is that what Easter faith is?

This is pretty strong language for the gospel of John, which is much more likely to have Jesus expounding about his metaphysical relationship to his Father. For John, this story is pretty meaty, pretty fleshy. It’s so fleshy, in fact, that it leads me to wonder just what was going on in that early Christian community. Was there some argument, not about faith in Jesus as such, but about the resurrection, about Jesus’ body? Are we hearing just one very graphic side of the argument here?

I think we are: There was a sizeable group of Christians, in John’s community who believed that Jesus didn’t really have a body to begin with, maybe he wasn’t really properly human. His human appearance was a divine illusion. Some believed that Jesus didn’t really experience death, and after the crucifixion Jesus became a pure spirit. Sometimes these Christians are called “gnostics,” because they believed Jesus saved us by his heavenly knowledge, which frees our eternal souls from fleshy prisons. He certainly didn’t save us through his death, and the Risen One, however he appeared, would not still be wounded by his earthly ordeal, which after all was merely an illusion.

And so we have our argument: On the one side, a really human Jesus, who really died, and who really rose again, wounds and all. And on the other, a purely spiritual Savior, free from fleshy entanglements, who comes to free our souls from our bodies.

Obviously, the meatier argument, the one where Jesus has real flesh, won the day. You can hear it in the second reading, from the same school of thought as our gospel: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” Later in John’s gospel, they will eat with the risen Jesus, too.

But let’s put ourselves in those Gnostic Christians shoes for a minute: There’s a reason why their doctrine was so attractive: If Jesus has no real flesh then being Christian means being free from fleshy distractions and the fleshy failures that go with it. Through the ages Gnostic Christians —and they’ve always existed— have often been champion ascetics, giving up sex and food and possessions, though nowadays it sometimes appears in opposite form: A kind of Christianity that behaves as if the Earth doesn’t really matter, so we can drill it, frack it, and use it all up at will, since we’re going to get a new one anyway.

And the idea that Jesus didn’t really suffer and die is pretty attractive, too. Maybe that means Christians don’t really suffer and die, or that at least all the suffering that being bodies produces, from disease and impairment and just getting older, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. And who wouldn’t want to experience eternity as a pure spirit, an ideal form of ourselves, all the bad stuff erased, “perfect,” just as God is “perfect.”

Frankly, lining that up against the risen Jesus in today’s gospel, who so obviously suffered, and is still even wounded after death, makes the Gnostics’ argument: Wouldn’t it be nicer to be all cleaned up and fixed in eternity, all the scars of life wiped away, erased, and forgotten?

Then again, what would be the point of all our struggles, all our pain, all our crosses, if after life is said and done, they are all just forgotten, erased. Aren’t those parts of our stories, too? The broken bones and broken hearts, the disappointments and failures, the impairments and disabilities, even the worst sufferings of our lives-- aren’t they as important in shaping us as the joys and successes and high points? Don’t they also make us who and what we are? I wonder if the mystery of the cross and resurrection, has something to do with the claim that our God can bring life even out of the greatest difficulties of being human, of having bodies that matter: There is no scar or suffering, no insult or trouble, that renders God powerless to bring forth life again.

The mystery revealed in the symbol of the resurrection is that seen with eyes of Christian faith, every injury of body or mind, every breast lost to cancer, every scar from a bullet, every vanished memory, every town destroyed and life lost in a terrible storm, every deep grief, every misunderstood and persecuted difference, every suffering that comes with life, all of it is held in the mystery of God, and all of it is redeemed in Christ.

The resurrection may not fix us, or give us washboard abs, or make us “perfect,” whatever that might mean; it certainly doesn’t erase who we are and where we’ve been. But it does make us entirely whole. And that faith, while not always easy to swallow, is, for me at least, a faith worth believing in.