A sermon on Luke 24: 36b-48 by Nathan Nettleton, 26 April 2009
A couple of months ago I had an email conversation with a young man who was seeking my advice the week before his baptism after he had discovered that his church was going to baptise him by pouring and not by full immersion as he had expected. He was quite concerned about it, because he saw it as a matter of biblical obedience, but in his first email to me, he also articulated an argument about why it probably didn’t matter. He said:
I am not at all for stupid church traditions. I don’t think the physical element of the baptism is important, what’s more important is the spiritual side, thus the immersion is not a necessity. Also baptism is not a necessity in my mind. God knows that I have given my life to Jesus. And have confessed my previous sins, and current sins. I am sure he understands that and this baptism is not necessary for that purpose.
Now, while I supported his view that immersion, although preferable, was not the make or break of his baptism, I thought his reasoning was one of the classic misunderstandings of what faith in Jesus is all about. “The physical element doesn’t really matter; what’s important is the spiritual side.” So prevalent, but so wrong is this view, that most weeks in our liturgy, we confess its consequences as a sin: “When we fail to integrate spirit and flesh . . . Lord have mercy.”
In the gospel account we heard read tonight, the risen Christ appears to his disciples in a locked upstairs room, and their first reaction, despite the fact that several of them had already seen the empty tomb and they had all just just been hearing from the two who had met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, their first reaction was to panic and think they were seeing a ghost. A ghost, of course, is some kind of spiritual presence without a physical body. Clearly there is extreme confusion in their minds. They have heard the accounts of the two and of Simon Peter who has apparently seen the risen Lord too, but they don’t really believe it. It’s a bit like, “Well good on you. I’m happy for you. You’ve had some experience that makes you feel better. We know Jesus is dead because we saw the body, but we’re glad you feel like he’s still with you somehow. Good on you. That’s great.” But suddenly Jesus is there in plain view of them all, and their heads go into a spin. But so certain have they been that Jesus was thoroughly dead, and everybody knows that dead bodies stay dead, that the only possibility they can reach is that they are seeing a ghost.
And despite having just apparently entered through a locked door, Jesus is at pains to prove to them that he is not a ghost. “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 yet there is no shortage of faithful disciples and theologians who will still say that the resurrection is only some kind of spiritual thing: Jesus rises in our hearts or something like that. I’m not saying you can’t be a true follower of Jesus if you see it that way. The reality of course is that we don’t get the opportunity to touch and see the wounded hands of Jesus’ body, and the gospel writers are adamant that our faith and discipleship are not dependent on such an experience. But whatever the physics and biology of the resurrection, what is clear is that it is something completely unprecedented. It doesn’t fit any of our previous categories. It is not just a ghost. But it is not just the resuscitation of a corpse either. The life to which Jesus is raised is a physical life, but it is not just his old physical life restored, but something even bigger and fuller and more powerfully alive than ever before. You don’t know what that means? Join the club! The gospel writers and the Apostles didn’t know how to explain it either.
But what is very clear is that faith in Jesus is not one of those plentiful religions that says that the physical and the bodily don’t matter and that the only thing that matters is the spiritual. Faith in Jesus is not about transcending the body and achieving some pure spiritual relationship with God. The relationship with God that we are invited to in Jesus is a physical thing. It is known in bread and wine and water, in oil and the laying on of hands. In feeding the hungry and lifting up the downtrodden. In hugs and handshakes and the sign of the cross.
In a few minutes, we will be dunking Garry in the baptismal pool. If ever there was a reason to say that the physical dunking in water didn’t need to be done, this is it, because Garry has already been baptised, and we are only doing this as a reminder, as a reaffirmation. But Garry knows that this faith he is professing is a physical, hands-on thing, and it is expressed in physical, hands-on, all in totally, ways. So what better way to do that than with the no holds barred physicality of being plunged bodily into the water.
“Thus it is written,” says Jesus, “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” And this evening, in the physicalness of plunging Garry into the pool, and of exchanging touching signs of peace, and sharing in physical bread and wine, we are all witnesses of these things.
My first visit here was on Palm Sunday, and I interrupted the service in the car park by riding in on my motorcycle. Three years have passed since that night, and I have, in that time, gone from an irregular visitor to someone much more committed to this church, and to you, its people.
It was through David and Jill Friebel that I discovered South Yarra. Dissatisfaction with myself was high. I felt I was two dimensional - work and self-interest. I felt shallow. My stress levels at work were extremely high, and I found that I was bringing everything home. I sought out assistance from David as my GP to find a way to reduce those levels. David suggested I meet with Jill to discuss my spiritual needs, even though, at the time, I didn’t know that was what I needed. My logical self did not understand that in order to be a real person, my soul needed healing as much as my mind.
Jill spoke of God and Jesus from a completely different perspective to any I had heard before. She told me of God’s love and forgiveness, of His desire to be close to us, and draw us close to Him. Obeying the Ten Commandments was not the be all to end all. My teenage years at church in Warracknabeal had given me a very different impression, it being a traditional church. Jill spoke highly of South Yarra, and the people there. It seemed worth a visit, although took me almost 6 months to actually get here.
There was a certain calm that descended on me as I continued to visit. I found it helped to be here. The participatory nature of the liturgy gradually drew me away from the fringes, where I first wanted to remain. When Nathan approached me about entering the Catechumenate, some two years after I first came, I felt ready to become more committed. I also felt a call to join some kind of group – close to work by preference, so that I could get there with the minimum of inconvenience. I needed to share my experiences and compare them to others. The search of St. Kilda for such a place was fruitless. Eventually my search led me to attending Jill and David’s small group, something I had previously put in the ‘too hard to get to’ slot. I wanted to learn more, as well, so my drive to and from work became my bible study time – listening to the entire Bible dramatised on CD. Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating were also on my ‘play list’. From them I learnt that it wasn’t about being good enough, it’s about God’s love being given regardless. So much of what I heard rang true – and made other things so much clearer than ever before.
The grief I brought here with me was over Jan, more than the death of our daughters. I did find solace in my grief over our daughters, but it was the unresolved issues with my wife that upset me most. When I understood how much Jan needed to close off her grief, we sought Nathan’s assistance in creating a service of farewell for the girls, a service where I felt totally exposed to God and yet not in the least perturbed by that. I felt that God had taken me as I was, and I felt a freedom that I had not felt before. We are very grateful to Nathan for the work he had put into the liturgy, capturing our emotions; and for sharing the moment with us. I was relieved that it had been a very positive experience for us both. It had honoured the girls in the way we had wanted it to, and given them the farewell Jan had desired. Jan’s decision to join me in the Catechumenate that day was not totally unexpected. I was always hopeful that she would join me on the journey. Our previous foray into joint church life had not been successful though. After initial doubts at the wisdom of her making such a commitment so quickly, I found that, in fact, a lot of my confusion had cleared, and I became more positive. I looked forward to our journeying together. Through this journey, I have found our relationship renewed, and a common purpose in our previously aimless life together.
My ongoing journey is about healing of mind, body and spirit. As with many that Christ and the Apostles healed, it is through the faith I am building that I have had the courage to reach out and accept the love, forgiveness and peace of God. Stress is still part of my life, but there is also hope and joy; old love rekindled and new love found. As a family and as a couple, we will still have our problems to contend with, but we are now more able to talk to each other, and work through the problems as a team, rather than trying to lay blame at each other’s feet for every small thing that happens. There is more joy and laughter in our home now, as well as tears and frustrations, and a feeling of belonging to each other and to Christ that has arisen from, and extends to, being here. I do not claim to be healed or free of sin – I am healing, and learning to forgive myself when I sin, as I forgive others who I perceive to have sinned against me. This is a journey that will take the rest of my life to complete, and it is my hope that you will allow me to join with you on that journey, to learn from you the life of light, love and freedom.