A number of years ago I knew a young woman who was looking for a church in which to get married. She nearly drove her fiancée and her mother crazy, scouting out just about every sanctuary in the city, looking for just the right one...the one with the prettiest stained glass windows, the one with just the right length of the center aisle, the one most accessible to the interstates and hotels, and so forth.
Finally, she made a decision. She ended up getting married in an old, cinder block, rectangular building with florescent lights, and electric organ. A few homemade felt banners that the youth group had made in the 60's or 70's were still up on the walls. Why the change? She finally realized something very important. She realized that this was the church where she had been baptized, where she had gone through confirmation class and had met her husband, where her grandparents' memorial services had been held. This was where she had come to know something of the love and grace of God, and she finally realized that, yes, the building was important, it was a sacred center, but its importance was in being a means to an end and not an end in and of itself.
This has not always been the case in our tradition. When the evangelist Luke was putting together his story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, he was living in a time in which the sacred center of religious people had been taken away. For the Jew, the Temple in Jerusalem was the sacred center. It was more than just a building; it was the dwelling place of the Most High. The closer you got to the center of it, the closer you got to the Holy of Holies. The temple represented the presence within the world of the true and living God.
But in the great struggle between Jews and Romans in the years 66-70 A.D., the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were left without a visible, tangible sign of the presence of God. The destruction sent a shock wave through Hellenistic Judaism, and as a result that branch of Judaism collapsed with the fall of the Temple.
Christianity survived, however, because it found its sacred center not in the Temple, but in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. You can imagine, then, the shock they felt when Jesus was crucified. It appeared the sacred center for his followers had been destroyed. The people who at first centered their relationship with God in a temple, and who had later found that center in a person, were left with neither temple nor person. Where did they turn? When the sacred center is destroyed, then what?
That seems to be the question that Luke is addressing in this strange reading. Jesus appears to his disciples, and they think he is a ghost, but he shows them his hands and feet and invites them to touch him. And then he says he's hungry. Eats some fish. Strange story! But it begins to make sense when we realize the question which Luke is seeking to address.
The issue is, where do we find the sacred center? When we want to find God, where do we go? If the temple is gone and Jesus of Nazareth is gone, where do we find that situation, that place, that occasion in which we can center ourselves and our lives in the living presence of God?
Luke begins to answer that in this funny little vignette about Jesus showing his crucifixion wounds to his followers and inviting them to touch him and then eating fish with them. Broiled fish, no less. Note the specificity! Obviously, Luke is wanting to say that a resurrected Jesus is not a ghost or a spirit but a physical being.
You see, it was important, crucial, for Luke to make this point and to make it as strongly as possible because there were people in that day who believed that God did not really become a human being in the person of Jesus. The notion was that flesh was evil...and God would not and could not become flesh and blood because the material and physical world were inferior to the "spiritual."
It was important for Luke to reaffirm the humanity of Jesus because he was countering an argument that went like this: Since the world and human flesh are evil and inferior, the goal of life is to rise above the world and eventually to escape from this world into the calm of the spirit. It then followed that we can ignore the physical aspects of life in the world and focus all of our attention on "spiritual" matters, for that was where ultimate value was found. Therefore, physical hurts and suffering and pain of human beings--such as hunger, disease, slavery--can be ignored by the church. That's not a legitimate concern of Christians, the logic went. Christians must be focused on "spiritual" concerns, on the condition of the soul.
Does any of that sound familiar? That was certainly the theology taught to the slaves in the south when they were allowed to go to church. Don't worry about things here on earth. Stick to spiritual issues. In the end, we point to the heavenly home, the place of the spirit.
I spent my first four years of ministry in the pastorate in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. When coal was first discovered and mined in the Appalachian Mountains, the coal magnates would set up a little coal community of row houses and at each end there would be a Protestant church built by the coal owners for the coal miners and their families. Sometimes Baptists or Methodists, maybe Pentecostal or Presbyterians. And they would even hire the preachers. But the preachers were to stick to "spiritual issues" and not issues of economics or mine safety or unions. Those were "dirty" issues that the church shouldn't be involved in. Stick to saving souls, the owners would tell the preachers.
But this heresy was not confined to the first or 19th centuries. The stories are legion from my friends and colleagues in the ministry even today with warnings from parishioners to stay away from politics, economics, issues of war and peace, or social issues like LGBT equality and more. "That has no place in church," a parishioner will say. "We need to stick to spiritual issues." "And besides," they often add, "we have our budget to think about!"
Luke wants to make it clear that the physical, earthly, flesh and blood world is real and valuable. Real and valuable enough for God to inhabit in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and in the person of the Risen Lord. To affirm the resurrection is not to affirm that Jesus is taken out of this world. Luke puts the Risen Christ right back into the world. "See my hands and feet and touch me."
Luke wants the reader to know that the place to look for the sacred is not beyond the earth. But the sacred center of life is still in the world, in the flesh and blood, material world. THIS is where God is active and alive. THIS is where people can know God and where God lives with and empowers people...IN THE FLESH!
And because of this passage and so many other passages in Luke, no one who reads these stories can then continue to believe that following Jesus Christ means being concerned only for matters related to the soul. Then, with the ancient heresies of Luke's day, and now, with those ancient heresies dusted off, the dwelling place of God is not off in the world of the spirit somewhere, but within this physical world in which we live.
I remember reading an email sent a few years ago by partners-in-mission who were serving in a Christian Palestinian village. They had been urged to come home by friends and loved ones who were worried about the outbreak of violence there. "Please come home," they'd say to this couple. "The American government has called for the full evacuation of Americans in the Middle East. Don't you want to leave?"
Here is a part of what they wrote:
We're still here because we believe. We came here out of a commitment to serve the church in the land of its birth.
We're still here because we hope....We hope that nationalism and fanaticism will not have their way, that the rift between East and West will not become an impossible dream, swallowing up lives and hopes for a peaceful future.
We're still here because we love. We love the people of this region. From Baghdad to Beirut, we have visited them, eaten with them, laughed and cried with them, worshipped and prayed with them. Having done so, it's impossible for us to think of them as enemies.
So we're still here because we're still called to work and minister here. But don't worry; we're not seeking our own martyrdom. But we haven't bought those plane tickets yet.
It became clear to me that they had touched the risen Christ. But we don't have to go to the Middle East in order to do that.
There was an article I read in a magazine a while back that began with the words, "Now that I have cancer, it's touching time." It was written by a Presbyterian minister who was diagnosed with cancer who noticed that now there seemed to be permission for people to touch him. He said, "It's funny that a broken body should somehow be more touchable than one that's "whole." Lifelong friends with whom he had only shaken hands were now hugging him. He made the point that in all the Bible there is only one story about Jesus being touched while he was alive. Now, Jesus touched others to be sure. And there was a woman who touched his garment. There was a woman who washed his feet with her hair. But this minister said that the one time someone reached out to touch Jesus was to betray him with a kiss. Maybe that's why all these resurrection appearances include touching. It's only after the breaking time of crucifixion that resurrection, the touching time, comes.
He concludes the article, "We seem able to touch one another in our brokenness in ways that we never can in wholeness. God likes to use broken things--broken flasks, broken bread, broken bodies, even relationships that are broken with a kiss. My body and spirit have been broken by cancer. That means it's OK to touch me. I'm thankful."
"Here, touch my hands and my feet," Jesus says to his disciples. "Get in touch with the physical scars, the bodily pain of human beings. Touch the hurts of real people, and you touch me."
There is no doubt that our church buildings are important. I serve a church in Memphis that is one of the most beautiful I have ever witnessed. A Presbyterian Cathedral, if there were such a thing. I love the symbolism of the carvings and the windows, the artistry of the woodwork, the majesty of the carillon tower with the four gospel writers carved into each corner; the faith and passions that went into this building. It is sacred space.
But this passage reminds us that the sacred center of life is not a building or a program...but is found in the daily ministry of the church of Jesus Christ as we are armpit deep in the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual...human hurts of people in our church, our community, and our world, as we gather around the Word of God and continually re-discover that God, living and true God, meets us and continues to empower us for ministry in this world.
"Here," he said, "touch my hands and my feet. Touch the hurts of real people and you touch me."
Let us pray. Dear God, you touched the world in the real life, breathing Son of yours, Jesus, whom we know as the Christ. We thank you that we are able to find our center, our meaning, in him. May we touch others as he has touched us with his love. Amen.