Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sermon: "A Corporeal Gospel", Luke 24:33-48 (April 18, 2021)


Many of you who are on Facebook have been following along with the adventures of “Office Dog”. Lately, I’ve been bringing my older dog, Murray, into the office with me on Mondays (and sometimes Tuesdays). I like to document all the silly and adorable things my pets do, and at some point, I decided to share Murray’s Monday adventures on Facebook for fun. It’s brought me joy, and if your comments are anything to judge by, you seem to enjoy these pictures, too.

If I’m being honest, though, I don’t bring Murray to the office with me just for amusement’s sake. I bring him as a survival tactic. Like everyone, I’ve been hit hard by the isolation of this pandemic, and it’s easy to lose hope in times like these. Over the past year, the one thing that's ministered to me more than anything else—more than bible studies and Zoom meetings with colleagues and kind letters and notes—has been my pets. Don’t get me wrong; those other things have been wonderful and life-giving, too, but sometimes there’s just nothing like sitting quietly with a small animal curled up in your lap to remind you what unconditional love REALLY looks and feels like, and to convince you that there’s still good in the world.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Many people have turned to animals for comfort over this past year. Pet adoption has increased dramatically during the pandemic, as evidenced by anecdotes,[1] statistics,[2] and even scientific studies.[3] According to one study, 93% of people who got a “pandemic pet” felt improved mental and physical wellbeing.[2] Pets minister to our whole selves, body and spirit. In some ways, I believe that God has called them to their own mystical ordination, one that human beings are completely ignorant of, but is just as vital to the work of God's kingdom as the contributions of their human clergy, elder, and deacon counterparts.

This idea may seem strange, because we usually think of ministry in terms of words. Scripture is at the center of worship, and the sermon is the most substantial element. When we talk about spreading the Good News, we're usually assuming that this will be done through persuasive conversations or personal testimony. And as Presbyterians, we’re all familiar with the countless meetings and committees and discussions that shape our ministry together. Of course, there’s no way for animals to take part in this sort of evangelism, so we assume that they don’t take part at all. When we view ministry only through this lens, it provides US with a ready excuse not to participate, either. Many of us are uncomfortable with public speaking, or consider our words inadequate for preaching, or don’t have a robust theological vocabulary. When ministry revolves around words, it automatically excludes those who don’t feel they have this gift.

But when we think about ministry in this way, we're demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of what Jesus calls his disciples to. Yes, he tells them to make disciples of all nations and to preach “a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins”…but at no point does he insist that this must be done verbally. In fact, if we actually pay attention to the example that he sets immediately following his resurrection, we find that the opposite is true. When he meets two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus has an entire conversation with them—including chastising them for misunderstanding recent events—yet the disciples persist in their cluelessness, even after this verbal exchange with the resurrected Lord. It’s only when Jesus breaks bread with them—an act of caring for their physical needs—that their eyes are finally opened to the scriptures.

Jesus takes the opposite tack in his next post-resurrection appearance (our Scripture reading for today). When he stands among the frightened disciples in Jerusalem, he initiates his new ministry to them with his body: “Touch me and see!” When the disciples still persist in trying to make logical sense out of everything, Jesus insists that they get out of their heads and focus instead on the physical, saying, “You got anything to eat?” Certainly, this question serves as proof of his bodily resurrection, since everyone knows that spirits can’t eat fish, but it has a deeper, more profound meaning, too.

Remember that, while the resurrected Jesus indeed has a physical body, it’s different than the one he’d dwelt in previously. His body is no longer subject to decay because Jesus defeated death through his crucifixion and resurrection. He doesn’t NEED to eat. And yet he does, in order to set an example for the disciples. As important as the gospel is, it’s impossible to hear when your most basic needs haven’t been met. It’s hard to believe good news when you feel awful, whether from hunger, weariness, or fear. Jesus only begins his verbal lesson AFTER the physical was taken care of. And then, in contrast to those on the road to Emmaus, these disciples’ minds are readily opened to the scriptures.

Although Communion is modeled after the Last Supper, it more properly commemorates these post-resurrection meals. This is why we even HAVE sacraments in the first place—because our body is the first and most direct way that we encounter Christ and come to know the gospel. It’s the physicality of eating bread, drinking from the cup, being immersed in the waters of baptism, that opens us up to Christ’s real presence among us. Christians have been arguing about theology for millennia, and we’re no closer to understanding Jesus with our words now than we were in the first century. But the sacraments have endured, relatively unchanged, in all that time, because we can understand with our bodies that which remains an inscrutable mystery to our minds.

In fact, sometimes a physical experience is the ONLY way to get the message across. Not everyone can wrap their minds around theological concepts like teleology, theodicy, soteriology, and anamnesis (I myself often have to look them up before I remember what they mean), but we all understand the feeling of being fed when we’re hungry. Not everyone knows the “right words” to say to someone who’s suffering, but we all know how to show up and be present with them. Not everyone shares a language, but we all have a body. And sometimes, it’s the only tool that we have to communicate the Good News of Christ’s salvation and God’s love. Sometimes, it’s the only way that we have to evangelize.

This, I think, is why so many people have welcomed new pets into their home over the past year. Somehow, we’ve recognized within ourselves a deep, indescribable need for connection, one that words simply can’t meet and has been neglected during quarantine. And we’ve found that animals are uniquely able to minister to this need. They’re willing to offer their presence, their play, their affection, without condition or complication. And they never dilute their ministry with unnecessary chatter (although occasionally I do wish my dogs would bark a little less—but nobody’s perfect). They really do embody the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (who happens to be the patron saint of animals): “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

We can learn from the ministries of Office Dog and other animals, and the model offered to us by the resurrected Christ. If we aren’t using our own bodies to care for the bodies of others, then we aren’t really doing ministry. We aren’t really sharing the entirety of the gospel. We aren’t really witnessing to the full reality of the resurrection. Every time we share a meal, sit with a friend, stand in solidarity with the oppressed, donate blood, volunteer, or even wear a mask in public, we’re doing important ministry that our words could never accomplish on their own. We may not be boldly proclaiming Christ as Lord and savior with our voices, but we’re proving it with our bodies…and we’re demonstrating how it makes a difference.

Jesus doesn’t just change minds; he changes lives. This “change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins” that Christ charges us to preach isn’t as difficult to communicate as we might fool ourselves into believing. We don’t need fancy words; we don’t need to remember the finer points of scripture; we don’t need to be excellent debaters. We just need to offer life—not the idea of life, but the experience of life, its richness and fullness as communicated to us by Jesus—to everyone we meet. And sometimes, that’s as simple as making another person’s experience of life a little bit easier and safer.

Office dog will continue to join me at church during the week, not because he owes it to me, but because it brings joy to both of us. Every time he’s physically present with me, I catch a small glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven must be like. It’s not spirits floating around abstractly. It’s a dog curled up in a familiar lap, offering comfort. It’s a friend offering treats to her furry companion, offering delight. It’s two creatures caring for one another for the sheer joy it brings them. This is the Good News. This is the kingdom of God. May we, too, share it generously with the world…and when necessary, use words. Amen.



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