By way of the beginnings of definition, if something is virtual, it is almost or nearly as described but not completely so according to a strict definition. Virtual reality is not nothing, but it’s also not fully real. Virtual reality possesses certain virtues, hence the word virtual, but it’s not the whole reality.
In contrast perhaps to the claims of virtual reality, the Gospel writer Luke states in today’s gospel reading that “Jesus himself stood among [the disciples] and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”
Jesus himself, not a representation, not a facsimile, not an image and voice on Zoom or FaceTime, not a hologram, or some other incarnation of virtual reality. No, it was Jesus himself. The fullness of who Jesus was.
The disciples were startled by Jesus’ presence in this manner, thinking indeed that they were seeing a ghost, that is, something other than what is really real, a phantom presence.
The disciples’ startlement resulted in Jesus saying, as Luke reports, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 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.”
“I myself.” Another reflexive pronoun, like "Jesus himself.” A reflexive pronoun reflects back on the subject, in this case Jesus, as if to emphasize and draw more attention to the subject – Jesus himself, and not another.
The reflexive reality in this passage from Luke’s Gospel has everything to do with flesh and bones. Flesh and bones – that’s what it is for Jesus to be himself.
Moreover, the flesh of Jesus was the flesh that was wounded in the course of crucifixion – hence the focus on Jesus’ hands and feet which received the piercings of the nails. “Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus says, “see that it is I myself.”
The resurrected Jesus is not just any flesh and bones, but the very body that was dead on the cross and now alive again in the disciples’ very presence.
In response to this marvel, the disciples disbelieved for joy. I love that phrase in this passage – disbelieved for joy, as if to say, too good to be true.
Here’s another favorite moment in the passage which I take to be an occasion of humor in the scriptures. Jesus says, “Have you anything here to eat?”
As if to cut through the tension of the moment, and to demonstrate Jesus’ flesh and bones physicality. Then Jesus ate in their presence the piece of broiled fish that they had given to him, revealing that this Jesus was not a representation of some virtual reality.
Let’s return now to our own day. Again, the dilemmas and opportunities of our contemporary age cause us to consider and struggle with what is really real. Just what kind of reality is technologically mediated virtual reality?
Added to these more philosophical considerations are the abuses we are seeing in relation to questions of reality – fake news and conspiracy theories and carefully curated realities created on various media and in advertising, where image is everything, where the medium is the message, where we can fake it until we make it.
All of this weighs us down. We can count our own ways in which life in front of a screen saps us of our energies. Too much screen time can contribute to increased levels of depression and anxiety.
Take, for example, Zoom fatigue. While Zoom has been a great blessing to us in our life together for occasions to meet and even to worship, too much of Zoom can be exhausting, in large measure because the two-dimensionality of the images of each other don’t convey enough of the fullness of body language to reassure our human spirits at a very primal level.
That’s one example of how virtual reality burdens us. And on our lists can go.
Take a moment now to consider ways in which virtual reality may diminish your quality of life….
To a world burdened by the seductions and overstated claims of virtual realities, we Christians proclaim real presence, Jesus himself, in flesh and bones who eats fish on the beach with his disciples.
We even proclaim real presence in relation to the Eucharist, a meal in the context of which we confess that blessed bread and wine convey Christ’s bodily real presence.
If there is anything apparently virtual in Christian teaching, it would seem to be Christ’s real presence conveyed through bread and wine!
But this sacred meal is not and cannot be reduced to the elements of bread and wine. It takes a whole assembly of real people gathered by the Holy Spirit and the word of God in scripture which Jesus himself opened up for his followers to understand centuries ago, and which we continue to open up even today guided by the Spirit of Jesus. Holy Communion is not just the bread and wine. The fullness of Eucharistic reality involves the whole assembly of people, embodied together in person.
Which is why we in our congregation have not experimented with so-called virtual Communion online as some churches are doing.
In Christian assembly, as an integral dimension of Christ’s real presence to us, we are also real presence to each other and before God, real people gathered in the flesh. We, like Jesus, are happy to eat some broiled fish on the beach. In fact, our social occasions when we eat together are reflections of Jesus’ own times of eating with others, as when we recently enjoyed an Easter Breakfast outdoors of coffee and baked treats.
The real presence cultivated in our embodied assemblies, in flesh and bone, brings us to faith and awakens our faith when we grow cold, especially when there’s too much screen time in our lives.
I confess to you in frank honesty my weariness of delivering my sermons to the tiny, illuminated dot of a camera lens on my laptop. I’ve engaged this practice for over a year now, and it’s not gotten that much easier.
In contrast, my spirit and body are quickened when we gather in person outdoors for our brief worship services. Those gatherings make all the difference personally, emotionally, spiritually and theologically. For such gatherings in the flesh are really real, where Christ himself sojourns with us, where we ourselves encounter Christ in each other as we are gathered in the Spirit around the word.
It’s the really real that awakens our faith. It’s the really real that also makes for the healing of the world. Whether they know it or not, people hunger for the kinds of embodied communities which the Spirit routinely, in normal times, assembles in the church, as church is the body of Christ broken in ministry and mission for the sake of the world.
God quicken our spirits to be poised and ready to offer the gift of real presence, Christ’s and the church’s, as the body of Christ, for the healing of all people and all nations. Amen.
And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:
- Examine your life and routines to become aware of the claims of virtual reality on you in ways that are life-giving and in ways that burden you.
- Recall and give thanks for occasions when you have known divine, real presence in the flesh and bones gatherings of the church.