By R. William Carroll
While the disciples were telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 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 when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:36ff.)
Touch me and see.
Jesus spoke these words to his disciples after he rose from the dead.
Touch me, he said, and see.
This is more or less Luke’s version of the Gospel we heard last week from John. You know, the one about doubting Thomas. To a large extent, as it was in that story, so it is here. Some disciples have seen the risen Lord; others have not. Then, Jesus himself appears, standing among them. And he says, touch me and see.
The two stories are not identical, though. Remember how Jesus concludes his encounter with Thomas, by observing that “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe”?
In today’s Gospel by contrast, Jesus rubs our noses in his flesh. He appeals to touch, the crudest of our senses, to show us his risen body. The point? He is no ghost. He is not merely a spiritual apparition. First, he offers us his body to inspect. Then, he asks us to bring him a piece of fish—and he eats it right in front of us.
Touch me and see, says Jesus, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. Then, he shows us his hands and his feet. The scars of his passion still mark his risen body. We know Jesus by his wounds—by what he suffered for us in the flesh.
Jesus gives himself to us as saving victim. Because he has tasted suffering and death, he can offer us new life. Because he returns with mercy for those who put him to death, we can trust him to be our judge. Jesus comes to offer us forgiveness. He forgives us for falling away—for betraying and denying him in his hour of need.
His risen flesh is important. For, without it, God’s desire to become incarnate would be frustrated and defeated by human evil. God wants to be Emmanuel—God with us in the flesh. And God has raised Jesus in his BODY, so that God can continue to dwell among us in the flesh. The body of Jesus signifies the full extent of our salvation. Jesus saves not just our souls but also our bodies. At great price to himself, he has redeemed our mortal flesh, and he is making us holy—here and now.
In recent years, it’s become fashionable to view early Christian heresies as suppressed movements for human liberation. Under the influence of such writers as Elaine Pagels, some are calling these heresies by a new name—“alternative Christianities.”
When considering the merits of this account of Christian origins, it is important to remember what particular problems there were that Irenaeus, the great champion of orthodoxy, found in Gnostics and similar heretics. These people denied the goodness of creation. They denied that the Creator of the universe is the same good God as the Father of Jesus. And lastly, they denied that Jesus came and suffered in the flesh. I would submit to you that there is nothing particularly progressive or liberating in these theories. On the basis of apostolic witness, the Church ruled them out, and we were right to do so.
In fact, those who espouse such theories may be rendered passive and docile when faced with human suffering or oppression. They may be more easily duped by the seductive glitter of markets that offer us endless empty choices but no real alternatives. And they may, in the end, be indifferent to the many real threats, ecological and otherwise, to the world we share.
Religion may or may not be the opiate of the masses. I suppose it depends on the religion. I take my stand with William Temple, the great Archbishop of Canterbury, who observed that Christianity is “the most materialistic of all great religions.” We see this in the Incarnation. We see it in the sacraments, which transform the natural elements, the fruits of the earth, and the products of human labor—water, oil, bread, and wine—into the means of salvation. We see it in the Creed of our baptism, in which we confess our faith in the “resurrection of the body.”
So much of what passes for Christianity today has far too much in common with Gnostic escapism—with the quest for a Revealer to show us a way out of this world rather than the attempt to follow Jesus in transforming God’s creation from within. Hence the fascination with the rapture on the Right and with syncretistic New Age fantasies on the Left—each the mirror image of the other. Christianity does not concern otherworldly myths, to be enjoyed in the privacy of our homes—or locked safely away within the four walls of our churches and confined to an hour or so on Sunday morning.
Like the Lord Jesus, we stake our claim in the public square—right out in the open, where he was crucified. Christianity is lived out in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in the political arena. Its influence is not confined to our churches and homes, as important as these are. Christianity is as this-worldly as our daily bread. It’s about God’s commitment to our FLESH.
Our relationship with Jesus is as personal as evangelicals keep telling us it is. Perhaps more so. It is deeply intimate. More intimate than sex. Jesus lives inside us, and we become one body, one flesh with him, in a way far more personal than our relationship with any other human being. Jesus has become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
Many contemporary evangelicals, under the influence of missionaries and Mennonites, and those two great Anglican priests, John and Charles Wesley (to say nothing of Jesus himself), are rediscovering the importance of embodied practices of sacrament and discipleship. At the same time, many mainline Christians, especially youth and young adults, are rediscovering our profound need for the same. We hunger and thirst for the Word of God made visible and tangible among us. We yearn to connect liturgy with discipleship—with following Jesus in the flesh. Moreover, voices from our inner cities, from abandoned rural places and postindustrial towns, and from the sweatshops, plantations, and war torn regions of our world are summoning us to a faith that seeks “not to interpret the world, but to change it.”
Faced with a world rife with suffering and injustice, a purely spiritual, private relationship with Jesus is no longer possible. In fact, it never really was. “Alternative” Christianities are at best a passing, luxurious fad for those privileged few who can still lay claim to a comfortable existence. At worst, they are a drug to numb the pain of those who no longer can do so—or who never could. The situation we face today calls us to something deeper and meatier: to a living relationship with Jesus and fresh practices of discipleship that put flesh and bones on his Gospel. Jesus is calling us to become what we eat at his table—to become his Body, broken and shared, for the life of the world.
Jesus came in the flesh. He suffered and died in the flesh. And, yes, he rose again in the flesh.
So touch him and see. Taste him and see. And follow him today.
The Rev. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.