John 20:19-31 (Ezek 37:1-14, 1 John 5:4-10)
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
It’s become a very fashionable cliche’ for people to say nowadays, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” It’s a way of talking that seems open-minded and non-rigid while still embracing the idea of faith and the divine. But in truth, I think what is often meant is, “I want to deal with God on my own terms and in my own way, and so I’ll treat my faith like a buffet line at a cafeteria, and take only what I want and what appeals to me.” St. Augustine once said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don’t, it’s not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” All of this is in the same category as those who say they don’t believe in organized religion. While it’s true that religious institutions populated with fallen human beings are often going to be a mess, the rejection of any sort of organized religion is in actuality a rejection of any sort of tangible, concrete, real world, real life faith that involves real people. In the end it’s a rejection of Christianity which is all about God in the flesh. It’s an incarnate faith in the One who came to redeem human beings and all creation through His bodily death and bodily resurrection. That’s not just some free-floating spirituality; that’s real doctrine, real people, real, organized, congregation-type religion.
What our sinful nature wants is a generic, easily managed belief system of self-fulfillment. We like being “spiritual” because it sounds pious, but in fact, being “spiritual” often means taking the body out of the equation in favor of some sort of divine energy within. The sinful nature loves this because then you can claim to have faith while your bodily life is involved in unfaithfulness: gluttony or overdrinking with the mouth, lusting after others or viewing pornography with the eyes, taking part in ungodly gossip or crude joking with the mouth and ears, physical laziness in carrying out your real-world, organized, ordinary vocations that serve the neighbor.
It’s no coincidence, then, that our “spiritual, but not religious” culture grows more and more sexually immoral, as if one’s bodily behavior or one’s created gender is disconnected from one’s faith in the God who Himself made our bodies. A purely spiritual faith doesn’t necessarily concern itself with chastity, or for that matter with visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction” and keeping oneself “unstained from the world” as James 1:27 describes it. But in fact St. James calls the doing of those things “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.”
Focusing only on the soul and “being spiritual” is to miss the whole point of what the human spirit was created to do: namely, to animate one particular human body, to dwell in human flesh, to live in the perfect glory that God meant for us when He made man and breathed life into his physical body. There are those who think that the ultimate spiritual occurrence would be to have an out of body experience. But there is actually a term for an out of body experience, the separation of the spirit from the body–it’s called “death.” And the Bible refers to that as a curse, and our enemy.
To be truly alive is to be like Jesus after the resurrection. For on that first Easter evening, the disciples were locked in a room in fear. And who came to visit them? Not a ghost. Not a spirit. Not an idea in their heads or feelings in their hearts. Rather it was Jesus, the incarnate God, the bodily resurrected Son, who came to them. He did not come bearing a socially-acceptable, safe, and self-serving spirituality. Rather He came bearing His body, standing in the flesh among them, and He said to them: “Peace be with you.”
This is exactly what they needed to hear out loud in the midst of their fears and guilt and uncertainty about the future as they huddled behind locked doors. And it’s exactly what we need to hear, too. Jesus is saying, “Do not be afraid; I took away all your sins and failures in my death on the cross. I have conquered the grave for you; it has no power over you any longer. I have reconciled you to the Father. All is well. Let not your hearts be troubled. Peace be with you.”
This peace of God comes bodily. It is not an abstract idea, but a fleshly reality in Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the Source of Peace. Having given the apostles this gift, Jesus goes on to give them the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” And even here, the Spirit is not given to the apostles spiritually, but rather bodily. For notice how it says that the Lord “breathed on them.” He ordained them in this physical way, just as Jesus touched the sick and sinners to heal and release them. The apostles would later pass on this authority to forgive sins to other men, not through silent prayer, not through mystical divine energy rituals, but through the physical laying on of hands with the words of God.
Here’s another way of putting it and thinking about it: Jesus did not come to make the world more spiritual, but rather to restore and renew and glorify its tangible, concrete createdness. In a very real sense our bodies right now are only shadows of what they were created to be. The way the Bible speaks of it, what we look forward to as Christians is not so much us going to some spiritual existence in heaven, but heaven coming to earth, God coming to dwell with His resurrected people in a renewed creation freed from the curse.
So when St. Thomas the doubter was present the next Sunday, our Lord Jesus did not offer Him a mystical vision, positive energy, or an aura: rather He offered St. Thomas His very fleshly body, and His wounds, given physically for him to see and touch. Thomas did not look within for a spiritual experience with his eyes closed, but rather stuck his finger into the Lord’s hand and side. And Thomas confessed: “My Lord and my God!” He did not believe in Jesus the ghost or Jesus the literary character. He believed in Jesus: the Son of God, the Son of Man, who took flesh in order to die, who died in order to rise, who rose in order that we too might rise, and do so bodily.
There was another son of man from we heard about in the OT reading who had an encounter in the Spirit of the Lord that was anything but a “spiritual” experience. For Ezekiel saw a field of bones. And when the prophet preached the Word to these bones, the breath, that is, the spirit, entered them. But the result was not spiritual, but physical: “I will lay sinews upon you,” says the Lord, “and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live…. And there was a rattling and the bones came together.” And then came sinews and flesh and skin. And when the breath, that is, the spirit entered the flesh, the flesh came to life: “an exceedingly great army.” The Lord did not speak through Ezekiel promising a vague spirituality, but something starkly physical: “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves…. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37)
How remarkable this Word is, this promise fulfilled before the doubting eyes of Thomas, whose hands touched the reality, whose eyes saw physically. Thomas himself would go on to baptize, preach, and administer Holy Communion in the flesh until his dying day.
Anyone who would try to “spiritualize” Jesus is attempting to tame Him, control Him, and reduce Him to a moralizing, milquetoast guru, instead of submitting to the Almighty One who conquered death by dying, and who physically rose from the tomb so that we too might rise.
So let me say it once more: Christianity is not about generic spirituality, but about Jesus: His body and His blood, the water that flowed from His side, and the touch of His nail-scarred, forgiving hands. This is very Good News for you, and part of the good news is that you experience this Gospel physically, through your bodily senses–from your Holy Baptism which you experienced in the flesh through feeling the water and the sound waves of the words; from the preached Law and Gospel and Holy Absolution, receiving by faith that which comes by hearing with your ears; and from Holy Communion, the flesh and blood of Jesus eaten with the mouth by flesh and blood sinners, for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
“For everyone,” says John in the epistle, “who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ.”
Fellow believers, fellow religious Christians, our Lord does not compare us to phantoms that run on positive thoughts, but rather to “newborn babies” who “desire the pure milk of the Word.” For Jesus is risen from the dead, and He stood on His feet in the midst of the disciples and said with His mouth words that ring true still today, “Peace be with you.” This is how we now can confess with our mouths: “I believe in… the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” For Jesus has come in the flesh to join us to Himself and to make us to be members of His risen body. May we all confess the same thing about this incarnate One that Thomas did, “My Lord and my God!”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane for much of the above.)