First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
April 15, 2018
“Flesh and Bones…. And Spirit”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
36While the disciples were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look 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.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.
It had been a long weekend and it wasn’t over, yet. There were a few hundred miles yet to go across the barren landscape of eastern Utah, not far enough south to be part of the exotic red rocks and not far enough north to be part of the majestic landscape of the Uinta mountain range. We had left camp just after lunch for the ten-hour drive home back to northern Utah. The Sunday afternoon drive from Colorado Springs to the Salt Lake Valley was usually a quiet trip. After a weekend of excitement and spiritual challenge and renewal, the van of high school kids usually slept. Which was okay. It was all part of making a shift from a heart-bending, friend-making, faith-forming time back to reality. But this time, this time, there was a darkness that hung over the quiet, a darkness that dulled even the brilliant noon-time sun. Something had happened in the previous days that would change the spirit of the group of kids that had known each other almost their entire lives.
For the life of me, I can’t remember the details but I think it had to do with a girl and a boy and maybe another girl and another boy. Because when you’re dealing with teenagers it usually involves romantic relationships of some kind or another. By the time we got to Rifle, Colorado, 180 miles east of Denver, everyone was awake but there was no conversation. The remnants of the argument filled the van and there didn’t seem to be room for words. Fifty miles later and the sun was about to set. We would be stopping for dinner in a small ranching community where we knew there was a mom and pop place that was good for burgers and fries. Eventually, as the shadows began to lengthen, voices could be heard. One and then another and then two more. They were soft and gentle. Not anywhere near the brutal, harsh voices that were spoken as we were leaving camp. Eventually, the voices were matched with rustling as bodies moved from one seat to another. We were trading places. Then in the slowly crescendo-ing cacophony of voices, laughter started to emerge. First a singular giggle. Then a second, echoing back the first tentative sounds of forgiveness and a careful return to relationship. Finally, whatever anger was left was pushed out the vents by good-hearted, belly laughs rolling along with the miles.
But then, the laughs softened and more whispers began. Should we do it now? In the middle of nowhere? Yea, it’d be great. Okay, let’s!
It had been our practice to bring some bread and juice for the trip home – communion. And it was time. John found a small turnout on the side of the road in the midst of the sagebrush and under the fading light of the sun. As we pulled the bread and juice out of the van and gathered in a circle away from the road, Tony, one of the seniors said he wanted to say the words. Not having an ordained person along for the ride, we usually let whoever wanted to say the words. Body of Christ… Broken. Cup of Christ…. Poured out. We figured no one was going to tell the communion police on us and, quite frankly, I don’t think Jesus cared all that much that a group of high school kids cared about communion enough to want to stop in the middle of nowhere to break bread and drink grape juice in remembrance of him.
But that time, it was different for it was all mixed up with tears and remembering other things… the time we got stranded in a blizzard along I-80. The time someone’s suitcase was left behind. The times that others had been with us but who had moved on in life. We had shared real experiences with one another. Real, life enriching, life giving experiences. And as we stood in a circle in our faded jeans and baseball caps, we realized that the connecting point for all of it was this guy named Jesus and the church that emerged from his life’s teachings. It wasn’t a gospel resurrection appearance like the ones told in scripture, but, as we reflected back they were all the evidence we needed to realize that Jesus was with us. We didn’t have the added touch of Jesus reaching out his wounded hand for us to see but his hands were in our midst. We didn’t have the luxury of sharing that bread with the one who had broken it with his friends to get this sacrament started but the words that have been spoken for centuries at the breaking of the bread reminded us he was there as our friend Tony said them. We hadn’t walked miles and miles along the dusty roads of Galilee hearing him tell stories about wedding banquets and farmers that sow seeds and his teachings about who really are those who are blessed. We had just come from walking pathways in a pine forest hearing those teachings through the lips of others and he was there, in the teaching, in the words, in our taking them into our own lives. In other words, the flesh and bones of Jesus weren’t literally “there” but the spirit of the living Christ definitely was.
The post-Easter resurrection appearances of Christ as told in the gospels are woven with stories of remembering the pre-Easter Jesus. For the early church, it was important that this was seen as a physical resurrection, not just the conjuring up of a ghost or the sentimental remembering where we say, “It’s as if he was there.” No the thing is, he was there. In the flesh and in the bone. Eating. Drinking. Touching and being touched. As they experienced more and more encounters with the one they had seen die, they realized that he had indeed risen.
When they saw him reach out his hand, Yah, that’s what he did when he was alive. The voice, yah, the voice was there, just like before. The wounds? Yes, the wounds of his death, they were there. He read scripture and they realized they had heard it that way before. And there was this certain way that he broke bread, and here, he was, doing it again, right in front of them, again. The experiences they had with this person after the crucifixion were the same as they had with Jesus before. Jesus really was with them, in the flesh and in the bone.
And if the verification of the resurrection were enough we could just stop right here, pull out some bread and grape juice and go home proclaiming Jesus Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. But this resurrection faith which we claim goes beyond that… and before that. It’s the connecting piece between who Jesus was and what Jesus did with the ongoing ministry and mission of a religion that emerged out of those who first encountered the Risen One.
In some of the resurrection appearances, Jesus is told to have breathed upon the disciples. Maybe it was to prove that he was alive. Ghosts don’t breath. But it is also a way of bestowing upon them the spirit of his life, the Holy Spirit. Sometimes called “little Pentecosts” this act serves to remind us that, as the ongoing “body of Christ” that which gives us life is that which came from the resurrected one. Not only were the flesh and bones raised, the spirit was, too. The spirit of compassion. The spirit of peace. The spirit of justice. The spirit that empowered the hands that touched and brought healing. The spirit that led the feet down dusty roads into the places of the poor and forgotten. The spirit that revealed abundance in the face of scarcity. The spirit that gave courage to others to follow in the footsteps of Christ and leave the handprints of love every where they went.
For that group of teenagers along that lonely road on the western slope of Colorado, it was the spirit of forgiveness that whispered into our ears in the silence: “Forgiveness.”
In few weeks, we’ll be celebrating the account of the resurrected Jesus ascending once again to the heavens, the church’s account about why the flesh and bones of Jesus aren’t around anymore. Believe what you may about all of that. But, you have to admit, that, even without the flesh and bones, that spirit thing still hangs around and inspires us, breathes into and upon us and even through us to remind us that we are equipped to be the hands of Christ in reaching out to those in need. We are the feet of Christ empowered to walk the dusty trails of life into the lives of those who could use a little, or a lot, of help just to get by. We are the words of Christ that bring comfort, or challenge, or hope. We’ve got the flesh and bones, with that spirit, Christ is indeed alive and in the world.