The liturgy of the last two Sundays have presented us with Gospel readings from St John; but this Sunday we now switch to St Luke. There are differences between the accounts of the various Gospel writers but they have enough in common for us to realise that they do not differ in essentials but merely in perspective.
John, for example, makes much of St Thomas’ refusal to believe, as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. This results in Christ making a further appearance in the Upper Room and inviting Thomas to put his finger into the holes in his hands and side. Here we have only a vestige of this incident where St Luke tells us that Jesus, to prove that he is not a ghost, invites all the Apostles to touch him so they can verify for themselves that he is real flesh and bones.
Jesus eats some fish, again to prove that he is a real physical person. But, of course, there are some differences between what he was before the resurrection and what he is now. His is now, what we call in the Church, a glorified body. In his risen body Jesus is able to appear where he wishes at will, even being able to pass through locked doors. He was just as easily able to vanish from people’s sight whenever he chose.
Jesus was also able to appear to his followers but not be recognised by them until he decided the right moment for them to see who he really was had arrived. Examples of this include Mary Magdalene mistaking him for a gardener until he uttered her name, and also the disciples on the road to Emmaus who, despite spending a good while talking to him on the road, only came to recognise him in the breaking of bread.
So, this risen body which, as Jesus says, is real flesh and bones also has some qualities which are well beyond those which we possess here on earth. We can see then that the resurrected body of Jesus, even though it is made of flesh and blood, is able to do things that no normal earthly body can do.
From this we get a clue as to what our own bodies will be like when we eventually get to heaven. God promises us a bodily resurrection; but when we attain heaven we presume that the bodies we will inhabit there will be similar to the resurrected body of Jesus. We understand that these new bodies will not be susceptible to illness or sin and will most likely have some idealised form.
I think one of the reasons for this is that God wants us to be recognisably ourselves in the afterlife. And our being, as we experience it in this life, is a mixture of both spirit and flesh. We find it hard to separate our physical bodies from our spiritual nature. This is why suffering from amputations of facial disfigurements is so difficult for people. Losing our arms or legs means that we no longer feel that we are authentically ourselves anymore.
In the Apostles Creed we express our belief in ‘the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’. By this we mean that in the hereafter we will definitely have recognisable bodies but obviously they will need to possess greater qualities than the bodies that we now live in. The body we have in this life is open to corruption and has what you might call a limited shelf life. Also, when we die and our body is buried or cremated it ends up as a pile of dust and is eventually incorporated into the soil.
Clearly then we understand that when we are called from this life we will be given a completely new body which will be recognisable as our own but which we call our glorified body. It is a body which is appropriate for and adapted to the completely new and different conditions of eternal life.
The text set before us also says that Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures and instructed them to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all the nations. Earlier in the Gospels the disciples are often portrayed as being a bit dense and lacking in understanding. There are many examples of situations in which they completely misunderstand the message of Jesus; also on occasion they are to be found jockeying for position; and before the Crucifixion we see how Peter even denies knowing him.
But after the resurrection, particularly after Pentecost, we see that the Apostles have become completely new men. Their minds have been opened and they come to possess a courage which was previously unknown. Not only this, but as we can see from the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, they acquire a complete understanding of Jesus’ message, and along with this they achieve a fluency of speech and an articulacy not seen before. In a few short days they seem to have moved from being dunderheads to persons of intellect, courage and great insight.
This is an astonishing transformation. Before the resurrection they were hesitant and unsure but now they do not fear to proclaim the Gospel both to the generality of the people as well as to the authorities. Not only this, but we find that they are able to perform extraordinary miracles just as Jesus did. This is indeed a profound change; they have become completely new men.
Here it seems the Risen Christ is able to get the Apostles to come to this new depth of understanding rather swiftly; certainly, much more than he appeared to be able to do during his public ministry. We can only assume that this is the result of the powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit which occurred both at Pentecost but also on the occasions Jesus visited them in the Upper Room and breathed on them.
The transformation we see in the Apostles is a conversion from being followers to becoming leaders. This change in the Apostles enabled them to transform what was a widespread group of disciples of various degrees of commitment into the much more cohesive body which is the Church.
This powerful impetus, which is the result of the action of the Holy Spirit, continues within the Church down to this very day. Despite the faults and failings of both pastors and people the Church continues to flourish; it continues to reflect on the truths that Jesus taught and fearlessly proclaims them to whoever is willing to listen.
It remains a voice for the voiceless and carries on its ministry of reconciliation and love in the world. But most of all it is a community which draws the people together for worship and to celebrate the sacraments in praise of the one true God and Father of us all.