Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sermon for Proper 5

St Paul's, Pekin--Luke 7:11-17

We can’t read very much of the Bible, particularly the gospels, without running into materials that we would label as “miraculous”—things that happen that are outside our expectations of the way the universe naturally behaves: Talking animals, water turning into wine, people who have been blind from birth suddenly being able to see, people who have been crippled from birth suddenly being able to walk, and people whose hearts have stopped beating and whose lungs have stopped breathing and whose bodies have assumed the temperature of the air around them suddenly sitting up and carrying on a conversation, looking quite normal. When we encounter such stories, one possible response is to be skeptical, and insist that they were made up from whole cloth by charlatans bent on deceiving people for their own gain. We can decide not to take them literally, and assign them a merely symbolic meaning. The one thing we are sure not to do is say to ourselves, “Of course. That sort of thing happens all the time.”

What most of us are stuck with, then, is Door #3. We don’t want to be unbelieving skeptics, but we do want to be realistic. So we compromise: Miracles happened in Bible times, but they don’t happen in our time. Not very often, at any rate. Certainly not routinely. We come to church on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, and we hear about Jesus stumbling onto a funeral procession. He was a stranger in town; he didn’t even know either the dead guy or his mother, a widow who had just lost the only other member of her family. But Jesus is so moved by the occasion, he has such compassion on the woman, that he first tells the woman, “Don’t cry,” and then walks up to the stretcher on which the man is being carried to his grave. He says to the body, “Young man, I say to you, arise,” whereupon the deceased man’s heart resumes beating, his lungs reinflate, normal color returns to his face, and he sits up on his own power and starts talking with those around him. And when we hear this story some 2000 years later, we may shed a tear or two, because we love happy endings, and we love that fact that this man was restored to life, and that his mother’s grief was assuaged, and we admire Jesus so much because of his compassionate heart.

But we’re also envious. We’re envious of the widow of Nain and of her son, and everyone else who was healed by Jesus’ compassionate touch or compassionate words. We’re envious because they got to see Jesus with their naked eyes, they got to feel his skin on theirs, they were close enough to feel the warmth of his breath. He was part of their ordinary sensory experience. We have to be content with reading about him in the pages of scripture, with hoping that he might hear and answer our prayers, but not being able to look straight into his eyes and beg. We feel deprived. Our sense of deprivation stems from the fact that we do not have ordinary sensory contact with the living Christ. His incarnate body is no longer in our world; Jesus lives, but he doesn’t live in our sphere of reality. And since we cannot see and hear and touch Jesus in the same way that those whom we envy were able to see and hear and touch him, our minds start wandering in all sorts of unhelpful directions, and, before we know it, we start to question whether God cares as much about us as he did for them. Now we’re really in a dither, and it feels like we’re on the verge of joining the skeptics who think all miracle stories are just a bunch of hogwash.
Perhaps, at this point, a little bit of basic theological education would be helpful. In the letters of St Paul, in several places, we run into the expression “body of Christ” in reference to the Church. That’s not an unfamiliar phrase to most Christians. It gets used in sermons and articles and casual conversation so frequently that we scarcely give it a second thought. But, perhaps because of the very familiarity of the term, I’m afraid our tendency is to take it as a metaphor, as a figure of speech, when, in fact, it would be more helpful if we understood it literally. The Church is not just like a body; it is a body. It’s not just like the Body of Christ; it is the Body of Christ. The Church is the extension of the incarnation of God in Christ into time and space, into our time and our space. Through the organic life of the Church—through the reading and study of scripture, through the sacraments, through the liturgy, through the historic succession of ordained ministry, through the rich and complex relationships between the individual members of the Body—the Church makes Christ present in and to the world. The Head of the Church is Christ, and those who have seen the Body have seen the Head; those who experience the ministry of the Body have experienced the ministry of the Head.

So, when we get out theology straight, it becomes possible to deal creatively and positively with our envy of those who lived in Palestine twenty centuries ago and felt beads of Jesus’ sweat fall onto their own skin as he ministered to them with compassion and healing. They really have no advantage over us. In that village of Nain, it was Jesus who walked bodily up to the widow who was mourning her son, and said to her with sound waves that fell on her ear drums, in the words of her native language, “Do not weep.” And it was Jesus who walked bodily up to the stretcher bearing the remains of the dead man, and commanded him to rise from death. Jesus did those things with his body. And if the Church is indeed the Body of Christ…then make the logical leap with me. See with me that the Church is the medium through which we still experience the compassionate touch of Jesus. As the members of that body, you and I and the whole company of the baptized are the first ones to experience that compassionate touch. Then, through us, that touch is available to the world. Jesus still has compassion. We, collectively, are the vehicle of that compassion. Jesus still heals—physically, emotionally, materially, and spiritually—and we, collectively, are the agents of that healing. And, yes, miracles still happen. They’re not commonplace; they’ve never been commonplace. They’ve always been signs of the age that is coming, but not yet fully arrived. Yet, I would be so bold as to suggest that the sum total of miracles that happen now in any given year exceeds the sum total of miracles that happened during any given year of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Why? Because the “body of Christ”—and, hence, the compassionate and healing touch of Christ—can now be in a lot more places than was possible when the body of Christ was contained by a hundred mile corridor between southern Lebanon and Jerusalem. And, of course, the compassionate and healing touch of Jesus is not restricted to miracles. We will experience that touch when we come to the altar for Holy Communion. Some may experience that touch downstairs during coffee hour, or in any number of different ways in the coming week.

When we understand how it is that Jesus touches us yet today, even as he touched the Widow of Nain and her son, when we understand that it is in the organic life of the Church that Jesus’ touch is still to be found, we are inspired to an even greater level of faithfulness in our participation in the Church’s life. Why would we deprive ourselves of the healing and compassionate touch of Jesus when we know that his touch is available in the liturgy, in the sacraments, and in the community of the Church, from organized ministries to sitting around a table in the parish hall over lemonade and cookies? And when we know that the Church is the Body of Christ, and we have been joined to that Body in the waters of baptism, we are inspired to even more faithful participation in the mission of the Church. Why would we deprive the world of the compassionate and healing touch of Christ when we know that we are cells in the body through which that touch is extended and offered? Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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