Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Broiled Fish and Resurrected Bodies

I gave the following as a faculty devotion. It's been slightly edited for posting here. Many of the thoughts stem from E.L. Mascall's Christ, the Christian, and the Church, "Early Traditions and the Origins of Chrsitianity" by N.T. Wright, and Fr. Glenn's recent sermons.

READING: Luke 24:36-43
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit 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. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
The newspaper headline would be: “Resurrected Christ appears in crowded room, eats broiled fish.”

I find the fish particularly interesting, because it fits in with a series of events in Jesus' ministry connected to food and drink. Think of the turning of the water into wine, feedings of thousands, the Last Supper.

Food is a particularly recurrent feature of the resurrected Jesus. Earlier in Luke 24—just before the account we read—St. Luke tells us of Christ's appearance on the road to Emmaus, during which he breaks bread with the two followers of Christ. On Thursday Sarah will give us a no-doubt brilliant exegesis of Jesus' post-fishing breakfast with some disciples. And here, of course, here we have Jesus snacking on some broiled fish. It says he “ate it before them,” which paints an odd picture to me—Jesus chowing down on fish, everyone staring at him, mouths probably still agape.

These food details interest me, and not just because I like food. Growing up, I interpreted the appearances of Christ between his resurrection and ascension as primarily about proof that he was in fact raised from the dead. That's obviously a huge part of these stories. It wasn't until much later that I started thinking about those appearances in light of the promised and yet-to-come resurrection of the dead.

It's significant that the writers of the New Testament and the early church saw Jesus' resurrected self as the first image of resurrected humanity. In these appearances we're not so much seeing evidence of Christ's divinity at work, but rather his perfected humanity. So, in other words, one reason the things he did in his resurrected body matter is because they are things we will do. (I recognize that this is a big claim, which I will by no means prove here, but I do think the witness of Scripture and the Church support it.)

Jesus' resurrected body was the same human body that went through the crucifixion, but it's been transformed. He didn't lose his distinctiveness. He was identifiably the same person—Mary Magdalene and the disciples both recognize him. But at the same point in time, he's not immediately recognizable. It's not until Jesus says Mary's name that she knows him, and it's not until Jesus breaks bread that the disciples on the road to Emmaus understand with whom it is that they are sharing a meal. Jesus' body bears the scars of the crucifixion, but it's also a body that seems to appear inside a locked room without, you know, unlocking the door. And, again, it's Christ's resurrected but fully human body that is doing these things.

Sunday and Monday's readings come from 1 Corinthians 15. In that famous chapter, St. Paul explicitly connects the resurrection of Christ in particular with the promised future resurrection of all Christians. St. Paul, in other words, works from the details of the resurrected Jesus to draw conclusions about our own resurrected bodies.

The chapter begins with St. Paul briefly listing Jesus' appearances after his resurrection. Then he shifts to the importance and meaning of the literal resurrection—“If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to pitied.” Finally, he closes with a detailed exposition of what happens in resurrection—and how what happened to Jesus shows us what will happen to each of us. Here's a small portion:

"What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body put on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (l Cor. 15:50-54 is N.T. Wright's translation; v. 55 is from the ESV)

That last line inspired the great Anglican priest and poet John Donne to pen one of his most famous poems, "Death Be Not Proud." The earlier part inspired another English poet, the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. I'll finish with his poem in a minute.

But I want first to return to where I started: food. Why does it matter that Jesus snacked on broiled fish after his resurrection?

I think it reveals an absolutely critical truth about the fleshiness of our future imperishable selves. We are, each of us, immortal. We've all heard C.S. Lewis' famous passage about human immortality before—Lewis says that “it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” And so Lewis calls us to treat each other with the proper care and awe due to a bearer of the image of God.

What I think this passage in Luke illustrates particularly well is that the "we" who will be immortal includes our bodies. It does not merely refer to spiritual essences or non-corporeal, non-physical souls. We are bodies—and we are souls too (consider the creation of Adam—dust of the ground and breath of God united). We may be separated from our bodies temporarily after death—St. Paul refers to this as being “unclothed” in 2 Corinthians 5—but our bodily selves will be restored and perfected at the last.

Just as the physical signs of Christ's crucifixion wounds persisted after his resurrection—which is quite shocking, when you think about it—so too what we do now in these bodies—and what is done to these bodies of ours by others—will matter in the hereafter. Our resurrected bodies will retain the signs and evidence of this life. Our bodies are not track suits to be discarded at the last—not superfluous fleshy containers of what really matters. Our bodies are, rather, the immortal creation of God Himself, incorporated into Christ here and now, to be resurrected and perfected in the life of the world to come. And so it is not just our thoughts and beliefs and feelings that matter. Our physical actions matter—not just, I would argue, the healthy choices we make for our own bodies, but the choices we make with our own bodies that effect others in our community and in creation—because by our actions, we participate in either the creative redemption of God's world or the destruction of it.

Jesus came back to the disciples bearing the evidence of his wounds on the cross. And then he ate a broiled fish in front of them.

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As I said, I want to finish with a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. It's odd and confusing, but stick with it because it's also incredible. A literal interpretation of the first half of it is hard to figure out and pretty much impossible to pick up on first listen. But don't worry about that too much. Listen for the general shifts and stick around for the finish. Hopkins begins, as far as I can hear, with a meditation on the beauty of the created world, and then that gradually collapses into the decay and death to which all created things are doomed. Until something interrupts it.


“That Nature is a Hericlitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

CLOUD-PUFFBALL, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks ' treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark
   Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.
   Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
   In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
  Is immortal diamond.