An In-Person Thing
Yoga has become an essential practice for my physical well-being. I realized several years ago, after a nagging back strain that if I didn’t exercise my body’s full range of motion, I’d lose it, and my office chair would begin to permanently dictate my posture. I would never claim to be an accomplished “yogi,” and my Wednesday night classes are not necessarily a pretty sight to behold, but my back thanks me nonetheless.
Like so many things this past year, Wednesday yoga has had to move online. My classmates and I had to trade the studio for our bedrooms, living rooms, and dorm rooms. We had to aim our laptop cameras or iPhones and set the lighting–you know how it works. Then we would receive verbal instruction from our teacher. The family dog would occasionally join in to model a perfect “down dog” or “up dog” posture, no doubt taking cues from our instructor’s two pugs.
I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m grateful. Zoom has been a lifeline; technology has kept us connected, and yet, yoga has just not been the same. And this was made painfully clear to me this past Wednesday when we were able to meet in person again. Back in the studio, the instructor was able to make “adjustments,” that is, physically position our bodies into the appropriate postures, pushing us, ever so gently, a little bit farther than we are able to go on our own. You see, yoga is just an in-person thing. Bodies tend to respond to the presence of other bodies, whether you’re being “adjusted” or simply in the proximity of another person who is bending and twisting in parallel with you. Being in-person is what we, as human beings, are made for. Being in-person is not only how we come to know others, it is how we come to know ourselves, and, according to Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance, it is also how we come to know God.
In today’s passage we encounter the disciples chatting away in amazement about a report that Jesus had appeared to two unsuspecting travelers on the road to Emmaus. He had walked and talked with these travelers but was only recognized by them when they shared a meal at the end of the day’s journey. Luke tells us that just as the disciples were commiserating over this tale, “Jesus, himself, stood among them.” What follows is probably the most concerted attempt in all the gospels to persuade the disciples and those, like us, who would later read Luke’s gospel, that Jesus’ resurrection was not merely a spiritual event. Jesus was resurrected in the flesh. The very same man that shared ministry with the disciples in Galilee now stood among them, in-person. “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And if that weren’t enough, Jesus then asks if they have anything to eat!
This distinction is an important one for a couple of reasons. Back when Luke’s gospel was written, about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, there were a number of fledgling Christian groups vying for authority, and one popular notion–adopted from the Greeks–was that the resurrected Christ was spirit only, an immortal soul. Luke wanted to make it clear that Christianity was not simply an extension of Greek philosophy–far from it. God had done a new thing in resurrecting Jesus. God blessed humanity by becoming flesh and living among us and then destroyed the worldly powers of sin and death by dying and rising to new life again–not as mere spirit, mind you, but as “flesh and bones” just like us. This is precisely how we know God today. God is present in the very material of the bread and wine of communion which we consume and digest with our bodies. As Paul says, God is present in you and me, members of the body of Christ. God is present–and perhaps most recognizable–in the least of those among us, those who are suffering physically in mind and body, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the grieving, the lonely, and the lost. Jesus, indeed, stands among us.
It is wonderful to be in-person with you today–standing, kneeling, and praying in parallel. Kind of like yoga, church is just an in-person thing. It’s how we come to know each other, ourselves, and God. At the same time, there are many members of the body of Christ still worshiping with us online, and given the unpredictability of this stubborn virus, those of us here could be back behind our screens again at some point. But, here’s some good news.
In the resurrection appearance that Luke tells us about today, the disciples behave, well, like they always do: well-meaning, but mostly clueless. While doing ministry together, Jesus had told them over and over about his impending death and resurrection but they didn’t get it. Instead they argued amongst themselves about who was the greatest, or how they could never deny knowing him if things got dicy. We know how that turned out. And here they are, moping around, not in church worshiping or out doing ministry. They’re probably reminiscing about the good old days. And then, out of nowhere, Jesus stood among them. They didn’t come to Jesus. Jesus became present to them. And, improbable as it might be, he was completely in-person.
My neighbor and I share a driveway. And not long after the pandemic began she and I were outside doing some spring yard work. And we fell into a conversation, talking across our driveway–socially distanced, of course–commiserating about missing church. It was a Sunday, in fact. She’s also an Episcopalian. And then out of nowhere something falls from above and crashes down onto the driveway right between us. We both jump back and look up into the canopy of the big oak that shades the driveway. And we look back at each other, and my neighbor’s is laughing. On the ground there is a broken loaf of bread. Now, this is not necessarily a bishop-approved practice, but it turns out that that morning while watching the online Eucharist broadcast from her church, my neighbor had set out her own bread intending for it to be consecrated as the priest said the Eucharistic prayer. After the service she took the leftover bread and set it outside for the birds. Well, as it so happens, a squirrel got to it first, ran it up the tree, and then out of nowhere, and under the most improbable of circumstances, Jesus stood among us. You can’t make this stuff up.
Church is an in-person thing, that is, it has to do with our bodies. Whether we are here together, behind our screens, moping with friends, or having a socially-distanced conversation across our driveway, Jesus has an uncanny way of showing up, standing among us, and opening our hearts. As Jesus says to the disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.” And, you know what? So are we. In turn, I think Jesus would have us be as present with one another as we can, in whatever creative form that takes–connecting, reaching out, encouraging, and loving. Being present, being “in-person” is not only how we come to know others, it is how we come to know ourselves, and it is also how we come to know God.
Easter 3, Year B