John 20:24-25; 1 John 1:1-4
“Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” When I looked for the source of this quote, I thought I would find it belonged to Mark Twain. But no. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a physician and poet, and father of the supreme court justice. Senior, who was also known for his wry sense of humor as he wrote about Boston life.
Later, Johnny Cash picked up the saying and wrote a song called, “No Earthly Good.” Johnny Cash, certainly a man acquainted with sorrows, painted the saying as a critique of the folks who see themselves standing on the high ground of heaven, but who won’t reach out to share their blessing. It is a criticism of religion which sees itself as having to do with the next life, while giving up on this one.
Some of the popular gospel hymns I grew up with, even “Amazing Grace,” sometimes feel like good illustrations of this mentality. Always, they seem to conclude with verses about how wonderful it will be when we get to heaven. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, that when we’d first begun.” Where is the passion for the Kingdom of God right here, right now? I remember as a child being ill at ease singing these verses – I didn’t really want to go to heaven. It sounded boring.
This is what seems so earth-shattering about the resurrection. Jesus came back! Jesus did not desert us, or the earth, or all the bodily life he had known. He came back fully invested in his body, wounds and all!
John, author of the three small missives near the end of the New Testament, worried about the people of his community. Some of them were so heavenly minded, they were of no earthly good! One might be tempted to think of the first decades of the church as a “honeymoon period.” Those who had walked and talked with Jesus were still around and could tell the stories first-hand. The Holy Spirit had been poured out on all the people. Miracles happened. So much fresh new energy of the Spirit!
But they were not unlike us. After Easter Sunday, we went back home, to our jobs, families, doctor appointments, apartment-searching, bill-paying, tax season – and slowly, or not-so-slowly, the joy of Easter’s glory faded. Was it real? Did it really mean anything?
As the weeks after Easter wore on, the Jerusalem converts went back home, back to their jobs and families and the day-to-day work of living. Many would return to Jerusalem in 50 days for the Pentecost festival. But that would have little to do with Jesus of Nazareth. The events of Easter began to fade, become dream-like, even to the point where people were not sure that Jesus was ever a real human being.
The general philosophy of life at the time saw this world as just a poor “image” or copy of the real thing. Everything we experience on earth is only a dark shadow of the real. Thus everything associated with the body was tainted, less than ideal. The only things truly good are of the world of the spirit, the gods. If only we can let go of all bodily toils and pleasures, we might experience real goodness.
The gospel, the good news, is that this is not how it works! God made us body and soul, to live as unified body and souls, with each other as a community of body-and-soul human beings – modeled after Jesus.
A group from John’s church had already separated from John’s group and started their own community. They denied the real tangible resurrection of Jesus. He was God, all right. But not human. Jesus only appeared to be human. Perfect things cannot be human. John was writing to the remnant. Stay. Don’t go with the others. What I am telling you is what we have seen and heard. It is real. Jesus was God. God was Jesus. God loves us and became human because God so wanted to be close to us. This is how resurrection teaches us to live – determinedly in love with the world and all its creatures.
Can you see how important Thomas’ story is now? Yes it is about doubt and faith. Doubting Thomas. Seriously – How many of us don’t live our life of faith with a healthy dose of doubt? But what about Jesus in this story? Look past the doubter to what the doubter beheld – Jesus in the flesh! He was very gentle, loving. Not angry and judging. It is okay to want to touch and feel. I want you to know this is a real human body. Jesus shows him his hands and side. This is real.
And he came back in the same human body he had lived for the past 30 years or so. How many of us, given the chance for resurrection wouldn’t make a few changes in this body? Not Jesus. He didn’t even have his wounds covered, or healed. You would think a resurrected body would be perfect. But not this one. This little detail is sooooo important! We don’t have to be perfect – We can doubt a little. We don’t have to be perfect – our bodies can be wounded. It doesn’t make us less beloved, less human.
Jesus’ resurrection days were a grand affirmation of life! And of the material world. Matter really matters to God!
John was battling with a determined heresy, one which has tinged so much of Christian history. Often we have been taught the negative. That the body is evil and must be tamed. And in spending our effort taming our own bodies, we lose the great commission to spread the great messages of the Gospel – grace, healing, and restorative justice. We have become myopic in self-examination and have forgotten that mistakes are what God is about. We all make them. God forgives. The only way we learn is by making mistakes. And sometimes, even, the things we thought were mistakes, turn out not to be mistakes at all, but the surprising path of the Spirit to bring us exactly where we need to be to serve.
This is why the proclamation of forgiveness every Sunday when we gather is so important. We all have failures. It is part of who we are. God knows. God forgives and stays in connection with the beloved wounded ones.
Obsessive guilt about our embodiment has too often kept us “from the greater matters of the law: justice, mercy, and good faith,” as Jesus says to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:23).
Hear the good news: God has forever made human flesh the privileged place of the divine encounter. We have had enough of dualism, enough of the separation of body and spirit, enough over-emphasis on the body’s excesses and addictions. We must reclaim the incarnation as the beginning point of the Christian experience of God. Our bodies are God’s dwelling place and God’s temple (see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
So, resurrection is about as flashy a message as God ever sent. The body is alive. Your bodies, which I created, are full of my life. I keep you alive with my very breath. Now live!
Back in the second century, St. Irenaeus, known for battling heresy in the early church wrote this poem, translated and adapted by Scott Cairns, “Capable Flesh:”
The tender flesh itself
will be found one day
to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full
capable of embracing
the searing energies of God.
Go figure. Fear not.
For even at its beginning
the humble clay received
God’s art, whereby
one part became the eye,
another the ear, and yet
another this impetuous hand.
Therefore, the flesh
is not to be excluded
from the wisdom and the power
that now and ever animates
all things. God’s life-giving
agency is made perfect,
we are told, in weakness—
made perfect in the flesh. 
 Adapted and translated by Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Paraclete Press: 2007), 5-6.