The Rev. George Detweiler
1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Among the first visits I made in another congregation was to Harry, who entered a nursing home–the same one where his wife was already living–soon after I started as pastor. He was not expected to live more than a few months. But in the nursing home they took better care of him than he had ever taken of himself, and so three years later I went to say “good bye” to him. We talked, I prayed, he wished me well. This is ordinary stuff on the surface, but for me it was an encounter with the holy, with God’s ability to use the ordinariness of human life and the Church’s ministry to show himself to us.
You see, when I started visiting Harry he was not interested in prayer. My hunch is that his lifestyle prior to the nursing home was destructive. The signals from his family were that he drank and that he was abusive when he drank, which was all the time. But his wife, children and grandchildren were all part of our congregation and so we did our best to minister to him. We visited and buried his wife, welcomed his children and grandchildren at worship and other congregational activities, baptized several of his great-grandchildren, and we visited Harry. You could say that the congregation preached and practiced repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name with him.
The Duke Divinity School ethicist Stanley Hauerwas says that most Christians are far too spiritual in their practice of the Christian faith. Christianity “is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian, but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.” We believe in an incarnate God: one who took on human flesh and blood, and who by living and dying as we do, made human life holy, one whom God raised from death to show the destiny of our lives and bodies. We have an embodied faith, which is what makes it so messy sometimes.
The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says it a bit differently: at the end of his ministry Jesus “did not give the disciples something to think about, but some things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.” (Christian Century, 1/27/2009) Among those things that he gave them to do were: repent, forgive, baptize with water and the Spirit, eat and drink, wash feet, read and listen to the Word, pray, give, be and serve together as his followers.
This is what being God’s children in the second lesson means: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not been revealed.” Being God’s children is doing the things he gave us to do: repent, forgive, baptize with water and the Spirit, eat and drink, wash feet, read and listen to the Word, pray, give, be and serve together as his followers.
The most concentrated time for doing them just ended two weeks ago. In Holy Week we repent, forgive, wash feet, baptize, eat and drink, read and listen to the Word, pray, give, and serve together as Christ’s followers. In the services of Maundy Thursday alone we do most of them and it seems a little strange to most of us. Repenting and maybe forgiving we can manage, but what is washing feet about? Well, it is about repenting and forgiving, a sign of humility, that we are never too proud to get down on our knees in front of each other and do the work of a servant. But it also reminds us in a dramatic way that our faith in Christ is embodied–it is about our lives in our bodies, not somehow outside them. What we say and do, and how we say and do it, matters. The Christian faith is only believable when it is embodied–when we act in these ways toward one another.
In today’s gospel we see this embodied faith. The risen Christ appears to his disciples and says, “Look at my hands and my feet…Touch me and see.” It is not a ghost that appears to the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection, but the Lord himself in flesh and blood. We are witnesses to a faith and hope that have flesh and blood form. It takes form in repentance, forgiveness, baptizing with water and the Spirit, eating and drinking, washing feet, reading and listening to the Word, praying, giving, being and serving together as Christ’s followers.
This is not always pretty or reassuring. The imperfections in the Church and in us Christians have a way of seeping in and sometimes overwhelming the Spirit of God. But God’s Spirit continues to work on us as individuals and as a congregation, sanctifying us through the ordinary and sometimes boring work of repentance, forgiveness, baptizing with water and the Spirit, eating and drinking, washing feet, reading and listening to the Word, praying, giving, being and serving together as Christ’s followers. These are the practices of incarnation or embodiment, and how we come to know the power of the resurrection today.
Conversely, its power can be undermined by how we act. We have to be careful that we do not exhibit or excuse in other people rude behavior. Such behavior contradicts what we believe.
It is as Stanley Hauerwas and Barbara Brown Taylor say, Christians are the people who do what Jesus told us to do: repent, forgive, baptize with water and the Spirit, eat and drink, wash feet, read and listen to the Word, pray, give, be and serve together as his followers. When we do something else people notice the disconnect between what we say we believe and how we act.
Back to Harry: Over the three years I served that congregation, I observed a change in Harry, a softening toward faith in Jesus Christ and for that matter, toward other people. He was more attentive to and appreciative of the staff. He was also repentant about his past life and ready for forgiveness. This was the result of the ordinary ministry of his family’s congregation, of visits by lay people and pastors, and the work that we do together in Christ’s name. I know his children had a hard time accepting the change after all those years of abuse, but it was there, in his body, in his words and actions.
Every Sunday we gather to read and listen to the Word, to pray and to eat and drink the flesh and blood of the Risen Lord at the Lord’s table. We embody faith in Christ in these ways. By doing the things he gave us to do–repent, forgive, baptize with water and the Spirit, eat and drink, wash feet, read and listen to the Word, pray, give, be and serve together as his followers–we learn what it is to be his followers. We can do these things. We can practice to do them well, and in that way the Holy Spirit will continue to form us as God’s holy people.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!