What is the nature of Jesus' resurrection body? | Jeff Nowers | May 5, 2019
Easter might seem like it has now passed us by. The 40 days of Lent built up to the climax of Holy Week, which ended finally in the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But it’s very important to remember that Easter is not reducible to the Sunday of the long weekend a couple of weeks ago. Easter is actually a season of 50 days that ends with the Day of Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate on June 9.
Why is Easter 50 days and not just one day? One reason—and there are many—is that Easter is a profound mystery, and we need time to contemplate it. Yes, Easter is a celebration that “death has been swallowed up in victory” (as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians), but it’s also a time to reflect on what the resurrection of Jesus really means. The tomb in which he was buried was found empty. Even some of the most skeptical historians grant that point. But what happened to Jesus? Did his corpse literally come back to life? What is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body? Is the resurrection simply a way of affirming that Jesus lives on in our memories and practices? Or is there more to it?
I need to tell you straight up that these are not questions with easy, straightforward answers. In the end, the resurrection of Jesus remains a mystery. But if we want to probe that mystery, we need to read carefully the post-resurrection appearances in the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The Gospel writers might not answer all our questions, but they do contain clues about how we can understand the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.
Today we’re given a fascinating story from John’s Gospel. It’s the fourth post-resurrection appearance that John records. In the three previous appearances, Jesus is not recognized when he’s first seen. He doesn’t seem to look like himself at all; he’s a stranger. Only when he speaks and acts directly is his identity known. He also seems to appear abruptly and suddenly, and to disappear in the same manner. Nevertheless, his appearances are tangible; he can be touched. And he doesn’t show up randomly. He appears in times of pathos and struggle. He comes to Mary Magdalene while she grieves by the empty tomb; he comes to the disciples when they fear their own execution might be imminent; and he addresses Thomas to alleviate his confusion and doubt.
While these first three post-resurrection appearances happen in or around Jerusalem, the fourth, which we encounter today, takes place in the north at the Sea of Galilee. The disciples have managed to escape from Jerusalem; they’ve headed back home to get on with their lives. At night they head out fishing but catch nothing. Meeting them in the morning at the shore is a stranger who suggests that they cast their net on the right side of the boat—and they end up with a haul of exactly 153 large fish. At this point they recognize that the stranger is Jesus. He invites them to a breakfast that he’s prepared right there on the beach.
One lesson of the story—and the same can be said for the other three post-resurrection appearances that John records—is that the risen Jesus is known and recognized by what he does. He displays empathy, concern, hospitality and friendship. Which is why he invites the disciples to a meal. And if you look closely, Jesus doesn’t even bother to inform the disciples who he is. They’ve already recognized him, not by vivid memories of his physical appearance—those don’t matter much anymore because Jesus now appears differently each time as a stranger—but by what he does. I think that holds true for us as well. We’re 2,000 years removed from when Jesus wandered throughout Israel, proclaiming and embodying Good News. We have no photographs of him, so we don’t know what he looked like. Nevertheless, we will know the resurrected Jesus by acts of mercy and justice that awaken us to see him.
The story, however, continues. After breakfast Jesus has a heart-to-heart with Peter. You’ll remember that Peter was the one disciple who followed at a distance behind Jesus as he was arrested and led away to stand trial. But when Peter is questioned about his association with Jesus, he denies he has anything to do with him—three times! So now Jesus wants to make certain that Peter is his true friend and committed to following in his way. He doesn’t point the finger at Peter and demand an apology for disloyalty. Rather, Jesus asks a simple question, three times over: Do you love me?
That same question is posed to each one of us. If we do love Jesus, like Peter insists he does, then Jesus invites us to feed his sheep. What does it mean exactly to love Jesus and feed his sheep? At the very least, it means an openness to being confronted and surprised by the presence of Jesus at our most vulnerable moments. Jesus comes to us in faces and bodies that we might not recognize, in our points of darkness and uncertainty. We see him in those who comfort us, support us, defend us, and help us not to fear. His resurrected body is not simply the corpse that was in the tomb. He lives through each and every one of us, insofar as we ourselves follow in his way and feed his sheep. Just as Jesus invites Peter, so Jesus invites us to care for each other, to bear one another’s burdens, to stand with each other when things are well but most especially when the going is rough.
In a few moments we will do something very similar to what Jesus did with his disciples on the night before he was crucified and on that morning on the beach of the Sea of Galilee: we’re going to share a simple meal of bread and wine. And in that meal the mystery of the risen Jesus is present, shining his light and love into us and through us in the act of sharing, so that we might be one in our love for each other and for our world that so desperately needs the hope of new life. As we break bread together and then leave to go out into the world, let us embody that love and that new life so that the risen Jesus will be known by all.