Monday, April 16, 2012

In the Bodies We Have

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Kate Alexander of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with her permission.

Easter last Sunday was wonderful. The church was packed. The music was glorious. The liturgy – beautiful. The roses on the altar – spectacular. Of course the food at coffee hour was a feast. This is not an exhaustive list of all that was great last Sunday, but I will add that I’m sure that a new record was set by the number of children hunting competitively and sometimes aggressively for eggs in the garden. What a glorious celebration all around.

Not to boast about Easter at Christ Church or anything, but at the 10:30 service we had over 450 people here. Which leads me to an issue I want to address. If you do the math, that’s about 225 people, give or take, drinking wine out of each of the two chalices. Which brings up a question that silently plagues Episcopalians far and near. It’s the question of germs. Be honest, we’ve all thought about it. Other denominations bypass the issue by serving wine or grape juice in individual glasses or even in hermetically sealed “to go” cups. But we profess to be one body because we all share one bread and one cup. Which leads us to worry about germs as we drink or dip from the same cup.

For those who have wondered, studies have actually been done about this. You’ll be relieved to know that the combination of heavily fortified wine, like the port we use here, and the sterling silver of the chalice kills just about every little organism. Plus, we have conscientious Eucharistic ministers who carefully wipe and turn the cup after each use. So all in all, there’s basically no chance of catching something communicable from the cup of wine.

But I would bet that Christians have been squeamish about the shared cup since the last supper. And there was a time in recent history when this was particularly true. When the AIDS epidemic hit San Francisco hard in the 1980s, there was great fear and misinformation about how one could or could not catch the disease. Not only did the question emerge about whether or not the communion cup was safe, people also asked the question of welcoming those infected into churches all together. It was a scary and confusing time.

I will never forget the story of how the Bishop of California responded. Presiding at the altar of Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill in the heart of San Francisco, The Rt. Rev. Bill Swing broke with tradition. Instead of receiving communion first, as was the custom, he waited until last. He made a point of being the last person to drink from the cup, standing in solidarity with those with HIV/AIDS. He believed that we all come to the altar seeking healing or grace in the bodies that we have, however broken. And he insisted not only that the cup was safe, but that it be there for everyone.

The story of that bishop’s witness in San Francisco reminds me of the story of Thomas witnessing the wounds of Christ. Both men were able to see the power of God in the human body, wounds and all. It’s too bad that history has dubbed the disciple “Doubting Thomas,” because I think that misses one of the most profound insights of today’s Gospel when Jesus shows Thomas his crucifixion wounds. The story often gets interpreted that Thomas’s faith was somehow inferior because he needed to see the risen Jesus for himself. He is doubting Thomas because he couldn’t take the first appearance to the other disciples on faith alone. He needed to see for himself. Jesus did say to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But if we think that this is the only moral of the story, there is something that we have missed that gets at the very heart of Christian witness.

Thomas asked to see the actual body of Jesus, the mark of the nails in his hands and the pierced flesh in his side. And this was a reasonable request, because Jesus, after all, was the word made flesh. And Thomas was part of a new religious movement that believed in incarnation, one in which the status of human bodies now mattered. Human bodies were no longer meaningless and ultimately biodegradable, they were now integral to living out a religious commitment that transcended death itself. Thomas wanted to witness the physicality of the risen Christ. And Thomas eventually saw with his own eyes and believed.

Stories of Jesus’ post-Easter appearances are mysterious. In various gospels, Jesus breathes, eats fish, and materializes inside of locked doors. He appears and vanishes, but the reports we have insist that this was not a ghost but a living, breathing, miraculous body. Whatever the disciples experienced exactly changed their understanding of Jesus and the future course of Christianity as a religion that embraced the body itself as holy.

Early churches were known for taking care of people like lepers and orphans. They tended to the bodies of those in need, because bodies had been made sacred through the incarnation. I know, some of you are thinking of St. Paul right now and how, because of him, Christianity has gotten a bad wrap for being body-hating. It’s true that he did have much to say about the vices of the body, as did many male theologians after him. But fundamentally, the status of the body had been elevated and made holy through the incarnation of God in Christ.

When I was preparing for ordination, I was required to meet with Bishop Swing at Grace Cathedral. I was fairly nervous. He asked me about my studies and future plans, and I could field those questions reasonably well. Then he asked me if I exercised regularly. This caught me by surprise. He got very serious for a moment and said that following Christ and preaching the gospel takes some stamina. And, he added, we all follow Christ in the bodies that we have, so we have to take care of them. We make our earthly pilgrimage in the body. He argued that our bodies themselves, in all of the joys and sorrows over a lifetime, are a locus for religious meaning. I’m grateful to him for that insight. I think it’s the same insight that Thomas was after all those years ago as he longed to see the living body of Jesus.

That miraculous body of the risen Lord is a sign to us that the power of God can reach us in spirit, mind, and even in the body, wounds and all. Ultimately, even death of the body itself will be swallowed up in victory. We may not understand the whole picture now, but one day we will. For now, we are all invited to the altar in the bodies we have, however we feel about them and whatever they have been through. All of us are people of incarnation, in bodies that are holy. Our wounds are welcome at the altar, because Christ sanctified both his wounds and ours in Easter triumph. As the body of the living Christ today, we eat and drink of one cup as Jesus did before and after his own death. And as we do, following in the footsteps of St. Thomas, we can catch a glimpse of resurrection with our own eyes. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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