Front and center in today’s gospel is the body of Jesus: we have two stories of two different appearances that Jesus made to his disciples following his resurrection, and both stories highlight the embodied nature of the risen Lord. But there are some very interesting and very significant subtleties at work here as well: what it means to be a body and how the experience of embodiment bears on the life of faith has changed. Before the cross, being a body meant one thing, but now after the cross being a body means something else.
You might think the gospel writer highlights the body of Jesus in order to prove that the resurrection really happened: by making it clear that the experience the disciples had of the risen Lord included an encounter with his body, the gospel writer is demonstrating that the story of the resurrection is true. The body of Jesus, in other words, is a kind of proof, an eyewitness account of a tangible, physical event. What could be more convincing than physical evidence?
But I’m not sure this is actually the point of John’s account of the resurrection. We do see something like this in Luke’s account. Just like in John, Jesus appears to the disciples on the evening of the day of the resurrection. But then Luke says that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost, so Jesus says to them, “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when they’re still not convinced, Jesus asks them for something to eat. “They gave him a piece of boiled fish,” Luke says, “and he took it and ate it in their presence.”
That sounds like a story about proof; that sounds like a story about the risen Lord that argues that because the disciples had an encounter with Jesus that included an encounter with his body, the resurrection really happened. But I don’t think we see that in John; I think I see something else in John. The body of Jesus plays a different role in John than it does in Luke.
There are two clues in John’s account that give us some insight into what John wants to say about the body of the risen Lord. The first clue has to do with what Jesus offers to his disciples when he appears among them. The first time he appears, “he showed them his hands and his side.” And then, when he appears to them again a week later, he says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
In both instances, what Jesus offers to his disciples is not just an encounter with his body, but more specifically an encounter with his woundedness. It’s not the physicality of the resurrection per se that’s important, it’s the fact that the risen Lord still bears the marks of the cross. It was in his woundedness that the disciples saw the Lord, and then they rejoiced.
Now, why is that important? Think of what it might have meant for the disciples to encounter a resurrected Jesus who did not bear the marks of the cross: that would have been strange. Did he really overcome death, or did he somehow evade it? Is the power of God stronger than the powers of this world, or will we never really know? Is this even the same guy?
By showing them his wounds, Jesus not only reassured his disciples that he was indeed the one who had suffered and died, but that in him it was God himself who had suffered. In other words, the wounds of Jesus testify to the abiding and eternal empathy of God on behalf of a creation that is subject to sin and suffering and death. In Christ, God takes the brokenness of the world onto himself and does not shrink from it or reject it, even after the resurrection.
John says that after he showed them his wounds, the disciples rejoiced. Maybe their rejoicing had just as much to do with what the marks of the cross told the disciples about the love of God as it did with the fact that their Lord had returned to them.
Here’s the second clue that John gives us about the body of Jesus: Jesus said to his disciples, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’.”
There’s actually quite a bit going on here, but all of it is connected in some way to the body of Jesus. The most embodied thing that’s going on has to do with the way Jesus imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit: he breathes on his disciples. I like to call this John’s account of Pentecost. In Luke’s account, of course, Jesus promises the gift of the Spirit, but the Spirit is not actually given until after both the resurrection and the ascension. And there’s nothing in Luke’s account that even hints at the very concrete, very corporeal act we see in John.
When Jesus breathes on his disciples and bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit, we see the fulfillment of something that was said about him at the very beginning of his ministry. John the Baptist identified Jesus as the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and John’s gospel in particular makes a big deal of this: Jesus is described as the one who “gives the Spirit without measure.” And now, that promise is fulfilled through the resurrected body of the Lord.
In light of the fact this is John’s gospel we’re hearing, this is significant. Throughout John, there is a noticeable tension between matter and spirit. Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is from above, but they are from below. Jesus tells Nicodemus that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven, but only that which is born of water and the Spirit. Jesus calls himself the true bread that comes down from heaven, not like the bread that perishes.
But now, in light of the resurrection, we see this tension resolved: spirit is no longer opposed to matter, the earthly and the heavenly are no longer divided by an unbridgeable chasm, but in the body of the resurrected Lord they have been brought near to one another. There is still a distinction to be made, but that distinction no longer means radical separation.
And that’s closely related to something else we see going on in this passage: Jesus recruits his disciples to be a part of the work he himself is doing. No longer are they simply to follow him and imitate him; now they are to find their place as members of his body. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Well, how exactly did the Father send him? The Father sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but in order that through him the world might be saved. The Father judges
no one, but has given all judgment to the Son. Just as the Father has life in himself, so has he granted the Son to have life in himself. And now, just as the Father sent him, Jesus sends his disciples, so that they might be a part of the work he himself is doing.
So we have these two very general themes that emerge out of the encounter between Jesus and his disciples: on the one hand there’s this bit about the woundedness of God, and on the other there’s this bit about the sending of the disciples. And both of those themes are grounded in the body of the resurrected Lord. That’s significant for us, because it shows us something about how the life of faith is manifest in our lives.
Some want to turn faith into an idea and make it about something we do with our minds. Others want to turn faith into a feeling and make it about something we do with our emotions. But Jesus shows us that if you’re not going to walk the walk, you may as well not talk the talk: the life of faith is manifest most clearly in the body.
Like Jesus, we are called to bear the brokenness of this world, and when we do that we can expect to end up with some wounds of our own. But if it’s true to say that it is by his wounds we are healed, then it may also very well be true to say that by our own woundedness the redemptive power of God is made available to the world. When we abandon ourselves in obedience and trust to God, then will we find ourselves rising with him in his new life.
And like Jesus, we are called to go into the world. As members of his body, we are now the ones in whom the union of spirit and matter, heaven and earth is to be manifest. We receive the gift of the Spirit from him, and we share that gift with others, passing it on through our embodied actions in the world, unleashing the power of the Spirit on an unsuspecting world. When we go forth in his name and are faithful to the ministries to which he calls us, then we encounter him in his woundedness and are led with our brother Thomas to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”
Today’s gospel ends with this passage: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” What is Jesus doing right now? What is the risen, embodied Lord doing today, here, in our midst? What are we called to do in the world to embody his presence? How might we bear witness to the truth that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of the living God, so that the world might believe in him, and that through believing they might have life in his name?