The Third Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2024

March 11, 2024 | by Paul Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Psalm 4 1 John 3:1-7 Luke 24:36b-48 Acts 3:12-19

The Gospel lesson appointed for this Third Sunday in Easter is Luke’s account of how the Risen Jesus appears to his disciples on Easter night, after the women have found the tomb empty, and after Jesus has appeared to two disciples on the Emmaus Road. In this story, Luke places a heavy emphasis on the bodily nature of the Resurrection. The Jesus that appears to the disciples when they are together is not a ghost, not a shade, not a haunting – but he is really alive, he has flesh and bones, he can be touched, he can show them his hands and his side, he can eat a piece of broiled fish, he can be with them in the time and space they occupy.

Modern speculative thought has a problem with such a concrete resurrection; our scientific and biological knowledge about how bodies work make us reluctant to accept simply at face value this story about a body that was dead and then was alive again – not only alive, but in some senses even more alive than before, inasmuch as, according to the stories, this body has a more flexible and free relationship to time and space than normal bodies do, able to appear where doors are locked, able to disappear from sight, able to prevent or grant recognition at will, able to open other minds to understand what before was beyond their understanding. Luke’s hints about the nature of this resurrection body are tantalizing and intriguing – and at that same they are a challenge to our interpretive frames of reference.

One way we might approach that challenge is to ask about Luke’s own interpretive purpose in this passage. Why is it so important to Luke to depict the Risen Jesus as fully embodied, fully enfleshed, no ghost or spirit but a fully living person? What is at issue in insisting that the Risen Jesus is risen in the flesh?

Part of that answer certainly has to do with proclaiming that the Risen Jesus is capable of maintaining relationships with the community of his followers. For human experience as we know it, the body is the locus and instrument of all our relationships. We meet, we gather, we shake hands, we hug, we touch, and these bodily contacts are the bases of relationship. We speak, we listen, we sing, we watch each other’s facial expressions, we hear subtle cues and clues in vocal tone, and these verbal and visual relationships are carried by senses functioning in our bodies. Even the more abstract components of relationships—thoughts, words, emotions, hopes, ideals, hurts, reconciliations – are grounded in bodily responses and expressions. Even long-distance relationships, like those maintained through computer contacts and video chats, are grounded in bodily realities. Though many aspects of human relationships may transcend what we think of as “the merely physical,” it is true that the body is the place and the how of all our relatedness.

And this was preeminently true of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples during his earthly ministry. It was in concrete acts of relationship, located and expressed in bodies, that the disciples came to feel and to know that Jesus was God-with-them. Jesus touched people to heal them, Jesus spoke words for the physical hearing of the ears, Jesus broke bread for those who were hungry, Jesus broke down barriers of exclusion and shame in actual occasions of table fellowship with the poor and the marginalized and the outcast. Even the more abstract aspects of Jesus’ teaching and ministry were always also embodied in forms of relationship that, while always more than merely physical, were never less than physical. In the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the real content of Jesus’ mission could never be “boiled down” to abstract precepts or propositional statements, but had to be experienced in concrete moments of embodied divine-human relationship, concrete moments of the reigning of God.

The core of the witness to the resurrection is the disciples’ continuing awareness of Jesus’ presence and relationship with them even after his death on the cross. And what is important in this witness is the insistence that this continuing relationship is real and active and vital – it is not shadowy or “spiritual” or confined to a mere memorial of the past. But if ongoing relationship with Jesus is real, and the locus and instrument of all real relationship is the body, then that must mean that the Risen Jesus’ relationship with his disciples is mediated through a real bodily presence. So Luke arranges the elements of his story of Easter night to emphasize the real physical presence of Jesus in a resurrection body.

In this connection, it is especially significant to note that Luke depicts the Risen Jesus continuing with his disciples the same central features of his earthly ministry: he touches them, as he’d touched countless others for healing; he eats with them, as his table fellowship had signaled the coming of the Reign of God; he opens their minds to understand Scripture, as he’d taught both disciples and multitudes before. If the insistence on bodily resurrection is meant to underline the continuity of relationship between the earthly disciples and the Risen Jesus, then the continuity of Jesus’ positive acts of ministry is part of the meaning of that bodily presence. The disciples continue to experience Jesus’ ministry – indeed, they are empowered to continue and expand Jesus’ ministry – and the locus and instrument of that continuing relationship is the bodily presence of the Risen Jesus.

A process-relational reading of this Gospel story thus helps us to see the insistence on bodily resurrection as depicting the importance of ongoing relationship. But this approach might also help us with the speculative problem of how to conceive of a “resurrection body.” For process-relational thinking, what makes a body a body is not simply that it’s made out of a certain kind of stuff, not simply that it is a particular substance. Body is the name for a kind of complex, multi-leveled, self-regulating set of relationships. A body is a certain sort of society of occasions, not a certain sort of thing. The “resurrection body” of Jesus might be conceived of as a set of relationships that includes those relationships that make up “normal” bodies, but that also transcends them and is open to other forms of relation as well. For process-relational thinking, the insistence on bodily resurrection is not so much about the resuscitation of a corpse, as it is about the continuation (and expansion) of patterns of relationship that re-present a personal identity in concrete connectedness with others.

Some may find such speculation interesting (as I do); however, the heart of this Gospel story is not in speculation about the nature of the resurrection body, but in its witness to real and vital continuing relationship with the Risen Jesus. It is that continuing relationship – first mediated by the bodily resurrection appearances, and then internalized in the gift of the Holy Spirit – that empowers the disciples to their own ongoing work of ministry. As Peter says in the lesson from Acts, it is not by their own power or piety that Peter and John healed the lame man, but by the faith that is through Jesus, that is, the empowerment of continuing relationship with Jesus. And as John says in the Epistle lesson, “we are God’s children now,” through relationship with Jesus; “what we will be has not yet been revealed…when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is,” as that relationship with Jesus continues and expands in the Holy Spirit. Here again, it is the continuing relationship with Jesus that is the hallmark of the New Life.

The Good News for this Sunday is that the Risen Jesus continues in real and vital relationship with the community of those who follow him, a real and vital relationship that transcends the limits of death and that continues to be manifested in concrete acts of ministry, healing, teaching, learning, community compassion, and outreaching love. It is the pattern of relationship that makes the New Life, the pattern of relationship that embodies Resurrection.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest, whose theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of religion and science, spirituality and liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action and natural action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Midwest.