Sometimes the hands of the people we love are as familiar to us as our own hands. I think of my mother’s hands – not long and slim and elegant, not delicate feminine hands, but strong and capable hands. I can think back to my childhood and remember those hands – holding my hand as we walked across the street, patiently showing me how to tie my shoes, carefully holding my small hand clutching a pencil, showing me how to make words on paper, testing my forehead to see if I had a fever, putting a Band-aid on a skinned knee, playing the piano, not expertly, but well enough to play carols while we decorated the Christmas tree. Or, more recently, making beautiful vestments for her daughter, the priest. From a thousand miles away I can picture my mother’s hands, in detail.
And maybe you’re like that, too, with the people you love. Maybe you remember the thrill, the first time you held hands with a person you came to love. Maybe you remember the moment your spouse first put your wedding ring on your finger. Maybe the first time you saw your newborn child, you held out your finger and watched her tiny hand clutch it tightly, and maybe it made you cry because that tiny child had a grip on life so determined and so strong. The hands of those we love are imprinted on our minds.
Perhaps this is why the resurrected Jesus says “Look at my hands and my feet. Touch me and see.” The familiar hands that healed and blessed, the familiar feet that walked for miles alongside his friends – these they know as well as their own hands and feet. Yet these familiar hands are also evidence of Jesus’ death, carrying the wounds of his terrifying crucifixion. But here he is, in the midst of his friends, and these familiar, wounded hands and feet become evidence not only of death, but also of resurrection.
Luke, our gospel writer, is very careful to make sure we understand that the resurrection of Jesus is outside all categories we can understand. Jesus has a physical body – you can touch him, and he can eat a piece of broiled fish, of all things. it’s not a completely new body, because it still carries the marks of Jesus’ life on earth: the wounds of his crucifixion are still there on his hands and feet. But it’s not a physical body like yours and mine: he can suddenly appear behind locked doors, he can walk for miles alongside two good friends who don’t recognize him until he does something characteristic, like break bread and bless it, and then he disappears from their sight. This is a category of life we can’t possibly understand.
We understand the category of living people, and Jesus does not fit into this category, because he has died – the scriptures are emphatic about this. His death on the cross was no fake – he was dead and laid in tomb, and many people saw it happen.
We understand category of dead people – but Jesus doesn’t fit here either. Dead people do not get up and walk around – the ancient Jews knew this well. Modern people sometimes think the disciples must have been simple country bumpkins who didn’t know about death, and that’s why they could make up this crazy story about resurrection. But let’s be clear – they were far more familiar with death than we are – they lived with it every day. Their children died young, their wives and sisters and mothers died in childbirth, their elderly parents lived in the same house with them, they watched people die gruesome deaths on public crosses. They didn’t have sterile hospital rooms and beautifully appointed mortuaries that mask the reality of death. When someone died, the whole family was there with them. They knew far more, far more personally, about death than we do. These folks understood category of dead people, and Jesus didn’t fit it.
We even understand the category of ghosts. We may not believe in it, but we can understand what ghosts are – spirits of those who have died, who somehow linger and sometimes communicate with the living world. But Luke is very clear that Jesus is not a ghost, or a disembodied spirit, the soul of Jesus living on after his body has died: you can’t touch a ghost; a ghost doesn’t eat broiled fish. Jesus is not a ghost.
And we can understand the category of memories, but Jesus is not a memory, a realization that even after death, life still goes on, and Jesus’ kind words will live on even if his body doesn’t. This resurrected Jesus does not fit that category either. In fact, Jesus does not fit any of our known categories: living, dead, ghost, memory – Jesus is something neither the disciples nor we have ever seen before.
Jesus is something new: he is resurrected. Which is something that shatters all our known categories, a phenomenon that establishes a whole new order of being, something that has to open our minds to new possibilities for each of us. In the resurrection of Jesus, God is doing something new and unexpected, establishing a whole new category. Luke wants to be absolutely certain we understand: this resurrected body of Jesus’ is completely continuous with Jesus’ life on earth, and yet the resurrected Jesus is a whole new order of creation, something that somehow describes what God intends for all of us to become, in our eternal life in God’s presence . We don’t need to fear death – what Jesus was in the resurrection is what we will become.
But I think there’s more to the gospel writers’ insistence on the tangible reality of the resurrected Jesus than that. When we think of Jesus’ resurrection, our temptation is to spiritualize it like the disciples who thought the resurrected Jesus was a ghost; to say, see, the life of the spirit is more important than life of the old, discarded body, to say that Christianity means life after death, and that’s what really counts. That’s what the slave owners of the American South tried to tell their slaves, that their suffering now, in this life, didn’t matter, because Jesus would take them to heaven someday. But those same slaves could read in the scriptures that the God who promised life after death was the same God who heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt, the cries of those who were groaning under oppression, and brought them out of slavery into freedom in the Promised Land.
When we think of the resurrection of Jesus as a completely “spiritual” thing, we run the risk of doing the same thing those slave owners did. We might be tempted to think that the conditions of this world don’t matter, that God intends to rescue us all from this earth anyway, and so it’s all right that people live in poverty, that people are hungry, that people suffer.
Yet if we are tempted to think that Jesus cares only about so-called spiritual things, things like prayer and meditation and life after death, Jesus calls us right back to physical reality, the reality that you and I live in, the touchable, visible, embodied reality of everyday life, with these words: Look at my hands and my feet, he says. Touch me and see.
If nothing else is clear from our scriptures, what must be clear is that God is involved in our world – in its messiness, in its physicalness, in the everyday reality of things we can touch and see and feel. Here and now is where God comes to us. And here and now is where God calls us to be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection: witnesses in a way that makes that resurrection an observable, tangible reality in this world.
Jesus comes to us in simple, physical ways still today: the water of baptism, the bread and wine of holy communion. Yet St. John Chrysostom and several bishops of our church said, if you can see Christ’s body in the bread on the altar but you can’t see it in the beggar on the street, you haven’t seen him at all.
The wounds of Christ direct us to the wounds of the world, they call us to be witnesses of resurrection, they call us to be healers in this world.
Today is the 20th anniversary of the terrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and if you lived through that time, you can remember extraordinary stories of heroism in the midst of that disaster: people who risked their own lives to bring others out, people plunging into the burning rubble to save children in the day care center, doctors who labored for hours in a dark hole that was really too small for them, to amputate the leg of a woman trapped under debris, to get her out of a building that could have collapsed on her, and on them, at any moment, people putting their own hands to work in the service of others.
The Episcopal bishop of Oklahoma, Ed Konieczny, wrote to his diocese this week that when we think of those sad events, “let us not focus our attention on stories of anger, fear, or violence; but, rather, let us turn our attention to the stories of hope, love, and community that surround that day. Let us remember the immeasurably courageous rescuers who plunged into danger to save our neighbors. Let us remember the unified fortitude and kindness our capital city portrayed, reminding us all that we are truly stronger together than we are apart.”
I was touched this week to read that the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum is calling each Oklahoman this month in memory of the victims to do one act of service, one act of honor, and one act of kindness. Which I think is a discipline all Christians could undertake – in memory of all those who suffer and fall victim to the evil of this world, and in witness through it all to the resurrection of Jesus that tells us that this world matters, its suffering matters, its physical realities of poverty and hunger matter.
We could all do one act of service – for instance, we could participate in our Habitat for Humanity build date on May 2, we could help provide Mother’s Day gifts for homeless women through our purse collection, we could help feed the hungry at the Santa Maria Food Bank, we could do any number of other acts of service to help those in need.
We could do one act of honor – something to remember someone we love, a hero we admire, or someone who is currently working to serve others – like, for instance, what my friends and I used to do in high school: bake cookies to take to the firefighters in the fire station down the street.
We could do one act of kindness – visit a friend who is lonely, take a vow to say only kind things about each other, work to build up and support each other, this whole season of resurrection.
Acts of service, honor, kindness: These are things that Christians do – because we are witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, because we have felt the touch of his hands in our lives. Here I am, says Jesus. Touch and see.