When I first start talking with a couple who plans to be married, I typically ask what brought them to Wapping Community Church for their wedding. Usually, that question inspires a fairly simple, straightforward answer. Every once in a while, however, a couple will lay out a fairly elaborate story.
Perhaps they thought about a destination wedding to some tropical paradise, but that plan turned out to be expensive and too impractical for the guests so eventually someone vetoed the idea. Then they thought about getting married at an offsite venue somewhere in Connecticut. But as much as they were enthralled by the idea of an outdoor ceremony in a garden or a gazebo or a state park, they didn’t like any of the “plan b” options if the weather didn’t cooperate.
The stories that warm my heart are the stories that conclude with a couple pursuing a whole series of other wedding options and sites before finally coming back to Wapping church. Not because this church is a compromise choice. But rather after weighing all the other possibilities, there is something about this place that is irresistible.
Maybe the trump card is the fact that the grandparents and the parents of the bride and groom were wed in this sanctuary and getting married here feels like an important family tradition. Maybe the bride or the groom were baptized here or confirmed here or they met each other in a youth group here. Or maybe this church was the place where the groom or the bride learned something about the grace and the love of God…something they wanted to remember and hold onto on the day of their marriage.
When I hear stories like this one, it’s not so much the building of Wapping Community Church that seals the deal for a couple. Which isn’t to say that our church and surrounding grounds aren’t beautiful. What it means is that couples usually want to get married here for reasons that go beyond the physical structure. In the end, it’s about how this church makes a couple feel rather than how this church looks…
Centuries ago when the New Testament Gospels were written, people of faith felt really strongly about sacred buildings. Jerusalem was the hallowed city in ancient Israel and right in the middle of the city was the temple. Jewish people from all over the ancient world used to take long pilgrimages just to get to that temple. It was considered the holy of holies. It was the place where God dwelled. Therefore, the closer you were to the Jerusalem temple, the closer you were to the presence of God.
Tragically, around the year 70 of the Common Era, the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. And suddenly for Jews across the ancient world, the destruction of the temple provoked a faith crisis. The moment the temple crumbled to the ground, there was no longer a visible, tangible sign of God in one place. Gone was the focal point, the central edifice around which Jews came together.
For the earliest Christians, on the other hand, the ones who were born and raised as Jews until they started to follow Jesus, there was no equivalent to the temple in Jerusalem. As a result, Christians came together not around a singular, sacred building. Instead, the first Christians survived because they tried their best to follow the life and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
As a result, unlike their Jewish brothers and sisters, the ultimate faith crisis for those early Christians did not involve the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It involved the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on a cross. Just as ancient Jews lost their sacred center when the temple was flattened, so too the early Christians lost their sacred center when Jesus died on Good Friday.
This morning’s Scripture lesson unfolds against this historical backdrop. With the writer of the Gospel of Luke addressing the question of what happens when you lose your sacred center. What were those early Christians to do when the sacred center, the focal point of their faith, was no longer alive…?
When Jesus appeared to his disciples in today’s vignette near the end of Luke’s Gospel, they thought he was a ghost. Jesus showed them his hands and his feet and then invited them to touch him. Eventually, Jesus told them he was hungry, which is an odd detail. So the disciples gave him a piece of boiled fish to eat. Also a bit odd.
Not quite so odd in context, though. Knowing that he was writing on behalf of a group of people who had lost their sacred center, it was important for the Gospel writer to make it clear that this post-resurrection Jesus was not a ghost or a spirit, but rather an actual physical being.
Today’s story near the end of Luke is all about reaffirming the humanity of Jesus. For all those followers of Jesus who were disoriented in the wake of the crucifixion, the point of today’s lesson was that Jesus came back to life in flesh and blood. For all those followers who assumed Jesus had gone on to a spiritual realm that was far away from the earthly world, the Risen Jesus showed them his hands and feet and then ate some boiled fish. It doesn’t get any more down to earth than that…
Christianity has a long history of prioritizing spiritual matters while denigrating physical matters. For generations, people were taught to ignore their pain and suffering here on earth because what was really important was the condition of your soul and winding up in God’s heaven when your earthly life was over.
Unfortunately, that facet of Christian history is not always good history. Over the years, the Christian church has perpetuated the idea that the spiritual and the other worldly is what matters, not what happens here in this world. In the 19th century, for example, that kind of theology was taught to slaves in churches by their white masters. If slaves kept their eyes on the prize of heaven, then maybe they wouldn’t rise up and revolt as a result of the abuse and the degradation they suffered day to day on the plantations.
Even today, the legacy of promoting the spiritual at the expense of the physical continues in churches. Have you ever heard anyone say to you that they go to worship to get away from everything that’s going on in the world? There are any number of people who sit in pews on a Sunday and would rather not hear about issues of war and peace, wealth and poverty, justice and injustice. For them, the church should stick to what is spiritual and leave all that other stuff outside the church doors.
But in this morning’s Scripture lesson, Luke makes it clear that the physical, earthly, flesh and blood world we live in is valuable. So valuable, in fact, that God chose to inhabit this world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and in the person of the Risen Christ. Anyone tempted to talk about the resurrection as God’s way of taking Jesus out of the world ought to read this morning’s account. Where Luke goes out of his way to put the Risen Christ right back in the world…
Amazingly, there are only two stories in the Bible about Jesus being touched while he was alive. The woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair. And Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. To be sure, Jesus touched many others, but during his lifetime, only two people physically touched him.
Now after the resurrection, all of the stories seem to involve Jesus being touched. Touch my hands. Touch my feet. Get in touch with the nail holes. Feel the place in my side where I was pierced by a spear. Notice the physical scars on my body. I think God uses broken things to help us get in touch with Jesus…broken bread, broken bodies, broken relationships, broken hearts.
This morning’s Gospel lesson also serves as a reminder for us to be in touch with one another. Just like Jesus encouraged his followers to touch him in the flesh, in all his brokenness, so Jesus encourages us to do likewise…
As much as you and I may love and admire this beautiful building we call Wapping Community Church. As much as we might love all the programs and activities that go on around here. God always intends to draw us back to the sacred center. The saving, sustaining, flesh and blood life and love of Jesus Christ who is alive and well among us in this Easter season.
After the resurrection, Jesus told people to touch him. And in this season of Eastertide, whenever you and I touch one another in the places in our lives where we hurt, we are in touch with Jesus anew. Amen.