Sunday April 21, 2019
3:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Spencer
The Resurrection of the Body
It was my first entombment.
As I nervously read through the Committal prayers in my Prayer Book for probably the fifth time, the hearse rolled through the tight turns of the old city cemetery full of the wealthy dead of years gone by. Our passenger in the back of the hearse was of somewhat humbler origins. But it mattered profoundly to her where she was buried. Buried, not cremated, she’d insisted. It was important to her what happened to her body.
As her casket was carried down the row of crypts, I recalled my visits with her in the rehab center and in her home. How I’d held her hand as she was told that the cancer would kill her this time. How I’d helped her cut up the plate of pancakes she’d wanted so badly on Shrove Tuesday. How I’d placed the host upon her tongue and then held the straw to her lips so she could have a sip of water to help her swallow the wafer more easily before she took the sip of wine. How I’d marked her forehead with a thumbful of the oil for the sick. Each time I saw her, I watched her tiny, frail body shrink more and more. And now we found ourselves at her resting place. And, as the wind off the river whipped past us, the cemetery workers in their matching coveralls, the funeral director and I prayed together around her coffin before they lifted her body up into the crypt and sealed it shut.
I believe in the Resurrection of the Body, the Creed says.
And what we’re talking about when we talk about The Resurrection of the Body is a twofold reality. First that Jesus was actually raised from the dead by the power of God on that first Easter Sunday. And that his risen body was not only no longer dead but that it was a new sort of a body. A heavenly body, as Saint Paul says. A spiritual body. This risen body of his, however, was very much still a body, his body. It bore the very real scars of his torture and Crucifixion. Our very own Saint Thomas could put his hands into the nail marks in his Risen Lord’s hands and into the spear wound in his side. Our Risen Lord could cook and eat and did so with his disciples. But we’re not talking zombies here. Jesus wasn’t the walking dead. He wasn’t a resuscitated corpse. He was a new creation. The first fruits of God’s glorious hope for all of us. Because that’s where the second half of the Resurrection of the Flesh comes in. Us. Our flesh. This body. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus, tradition tells us, at the last day, we too will have our bodies restored to us. But not simply as they were. Glorified, transformed, heavenly, spiritual bodies fit for that new heaven and new earth that the Book of Revelation talks about. And that transformation into glory begins here and now in these bodies.
It’s one of the hardest parts of our faith to believe, for some people. I’ve had many people say to me, “Look, Father, look Adam, surely we don’t believe in a bodily resurrection. It’s just a symbol, right? A metaphor?” When we celebrate Easter, we’re talking about the idea of hope or the power of memory, right? Something like that? Not this crazy story of a human body raised from the dead?
And, besides that, as Archbishop Rowan Williams asks, “Do we actually want this particular lump of bone and fat and hair that we know so well to have an eternal future?” It’s one of those places where our Christian faith gets scandalously strange - our abiding concern with bodily reality. And the Resurrection is one of those places where the mystery far outpaces our meagre attempt to explain or expound on it.
But there’s no escape into metaphor or symbol, the emphasis on the body here is consistent with the God we understand most completely in Jesus Christ. This God who most perfectly revealed himself to us as this particular human being in this particular human body at this particular point in human history. Jesus of Nazareth, the human face of God.
“The Son of God became man so that we might become God,” Saint Athanasius wrote. God took on flesh, a body, so that we in our bodily lives might become transformed by grace and incorporated as members of his Body. We, like the Emmaus road disciples, recognize and begin to realize that bodily reality in the breaking of the bread. In the very physical, embodied sacramental life of the church, in beautiful sacred architecture, in music and gesture and posture. Our faith, our hope, is inescapably a faith and hope that involves bodies.
As the cemetery staff finished sealing the crypt and the funeral director and I got into the hearse to drive away from the cemetery, the clouds which had been present all morning suddenly parted and sunlight shone down onto the graves and the crypts and the glittering Hudson River out in front of us. The funeral director turned to me and said, “How about that? God’s looking out for her.”
I think I said Amen. And he continued.
“After all I’ve seen,” he said, “people are surprised when I talk like that.”
I asked him what he meant by “All I’ve seen.” And he told me.
His funeral home is located near the heart of where the AIDS crisis hit hardest here in New York City. And during the peak of it all, most of the bodies coming through their doors had died of AIDS. In the beginning they didn’t know what was happening. But eventually they did. Some of the other guys in his line of work got scared. Could they catch it from the bodies? Did they already have it? He was a young guy. Still fairly new at his trade.
And here’s where I loved this guy. “It was my job,” he said, “I needed a job. And I did my job.” How can the son of autoworkers and steelworkers not love that blue collar outlook? He had a job to do and he did it.
But over time it became more than a job. He recalled to me how at the funerals, he’d see the same faces. Groups of friends. Neighborhood faces. But over time, there were fewer and fewer of them. Because he’d been burying them. He told me too about the families who would fly in, sign the paperwork, pay the bill and leave. Scandalized to have their son dying of this. No one back home in Ohio or Illinois could know why or how he died in New York City. It was too shameful.
And so this funeral director came to see his work as sacred. As treating these bodies, these people, with the dignity denied them by this terrible disease and all too often by their own families and by the world outside that frequently saw them as pariahs at best, dangerous at worst.
“And now that’s how I see my work,” he told me, “Some days I’ve got two guys on tables in the embalming area. One guy’s a millionaire, the other guy’s homeless. I treat ‘em the same. We see that don’t we Father, in our work, no matter who you are, you wind up in the same place. Figure I should treat everyone with the same care.”
God treats us with that care and dignity. The Risen Lord comes to transform these bodies, this reality, our particular lives, our actual world. That woman lying in bed, dying of cancer. That man working two backbreaking jobs to feed his family. All those individuals whose bodies have been broken by violence and all those who mourn those who have been killed in today’s bomb blasts in Sri Lanka. The Risen Lord comes to us all where we are, as we are. In our pain and complexity. In our embodied life.
“The Gospel treats us seriously in our wholeness…” Rowan Williams writes, “If God holds onto us through death, he holds on to every aspect of us.” It isn’t only our mind or our soul, some spiritual part of us, that God loves and wants to raise up into the new life of grace. It’s our creaking joints, our bad back, our growling stomach, our mother’s eyes, our father’s chin, our strong arms, our weak knees, our organs stricken with cancer, our brains struggling with dementia or depression, our failing heart, our beautiful smile, our loves and our hopes and our fears and our suffering, our memory and our mourning, things done and left undone.
God regards us as whole persons. God created us as whole persons. God loves us as whole persons. And God redeems and transforms and glorifies us as whole persons. God took on human flesh and suffered in that flesh and died in it and rose again to glorify it. Like the funeral director treating everybody, and every body with dignity, God mercifully accepts our selves, our souls and bodies, when we offer them. As they are. Our Risen Lord takes our weak or scarred or trembling hands in his broken, pierced, glorified hands. And he bids us, also, to rise.
As the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan once preached, “I believe in the Resurrection...I believe that none are wasted, or lost, or defiled forever.”
So that, in the words of the Prayer Book, “even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”