The Third Sunday of Eastertide

The Gospel story is another version of that told by John – our Lord’s first appearance to the disciples after his resurrection. There are differences, because John was actually there and describes what he saw and what was important to him, whereas Luke is reporting at second hand. Because in his Gospel this follows on from the account of the two disciples going to Emmaus, my guess is that he got it from one of them: it is their account of what happened when they got back to Jerusalem.

The scene confronts us with a question that still puzzles and divides Christians: what exactly does it mean to say that Jesus rose from the dead? What do we mean when we say we believe in the resurrection, not just of Jesus, but one day of ourselves also?

When Jesus appeared, with his greeting of peace, the disciples were terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost – a disembodied spirit. In response, Jesus challenged them to see and touch him, and when they continued in bewilderment, he asked for food and ate some fish. Yet he was able, it seems, to appear and disappear at will.

Years later, writing to Christians at Corinth, St Paul makes a distinction between “earthly bodies” and “heavenly bodies”. But both are real bodies. It is a mistake to talk as if, when we die, we simply “go to heaven”. Certainly we go to be with Jesus, and certainly our earthly bodies return to dust and ashes, but that is not the end. Christians are supposed to believe, not just in immortality, but in resurrection: because (as John tells us in the Book of Revelation) one day God will create new heavens and a new earth. When God created the world, at the beginning of the Bible, he saw all things that he had made, that they were good. The Bible tells how things went wrong, particularly for human beings, but it never suggests that the world itself is bad. God in Jesus has repaired what was wrong, and the resurrection of Jesus is the first example of what this will mean for all of us: a new existence just as real and solid as our present one, but with all the sorrow and suffering, all the limitations and weaknesses removed in a world made new.

The story in Acts follows from the healing of the crippled man. He sat begging at the gate of the Temple when Peter and John came by. Peter said, “I haven’t got money, but I give you what I can. In the name of Jesus, rise up!” The word “rise” is exactly the same as when we say “Christ is risen.” In a real sense, the healing received by the cripple was a first foretaste of the healing we shall all receive in the resurrection, a freeing from what cripples our humanity, above all from the effects of death itself. “God,” said Peter, ”raised Jesus from the dead, and we are witnesses to this. It is by our trust in Jesus, by calling on his Name, that this man has been made strong, been given perfect health.”

John, in his Letter, tells us that while we are already God’s children, we still haven’t experienced all that God has in store for us. What we will be has not yet been revealed. But one thing we can be sure of is this: when Jesus reveals himself again, at what we often call the “Last Day”, but which might better be called the First Day of the new creation, when this happens we shall not only see him as he really is, but we shall be like him! Not disembodied spirits in some other world, but just as solid and real as Jesus on the day of his resurrection; reunited with those who loved him, still able to enjoy the natural pleasures of eating and drinking – but (to be flippant) never risking indigestion!

Here in the Eucharist, we have a foretaste of this. Jesus comes to us, really and truly, under the visible forms of bread and wine. We don’t yet see him as he really is, but we do know his presence, nourishing and sustaining us even in this earthly life. The promise is that our final state will not be leaving this world to go to heaven somewhere else, but, when Jesus returns, heaven itself coming down to earth. “I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”