“The DNA of God” Sermon By Emily Boring ’18 | 19 April 2015

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “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.”And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

-Luke 24:36b-48

Emily Boring '18
Episcopal Church at Yale student Emily Boring, Yale class of 2018

When I was in 8th grade, I decided that I would grow up to pioneer a field called “theo-biology”. My first and foundational book would be titled, “What is the DNA of God?”

This proclamation usually received a predictable response. “What on earth is theo-biology?” Let me explain. I’d long observed, through lessons about Darwin and Galileo, that science and religion seem to be at odds with one another. Theo-biology, in my mind, was a simple solution to get around the conflict between fact and faith. It was a pairing of two of my favorite things: biology, with its hard evidence and steadfast methods, and a search for the “big questions” of religious faith.

My middle school self was a little ambitious. I thought I’d start by tackling the idea that Jesus entered the world through Immaculate Conception and is truly the Son of God. The fact that some people doubt this miracle was, in my mind, simply a problem of insufficient evidence: In the early days of the Roman Empire, we hadn’t yet invented paternity tests. My faith and enthusiasm were enough to convince me that if Jesus’s DNA were passed though gel electrophoresis and sorted to determine its genetic makeup, the result would not match the genes of Joseph or any other earthly man. What is the DNA of God? We’d clearly see an image of heavenly hereditary material– or maybe the machine would simply go haywire. Either way, such a test would decisively prove the miracle of Christ’s birth.

One of my favorite quotes is related to this questionable line between reason and faith. A climate activist once said this: “People sometimes ask me if I “believe in” climate change. I often reply, do you “believe” in gravity? Climate change is a scientific fact, not a religion. You can disbelieve in gravity, but you’re still going to hit the ground hard if you jump off the roof.”

Climate change is a scientific fact. It’s not a religion,” she says. But what does that imply about the line between religion and fact? Was my 8th grade self right to try to pair them? Is it relevant, or appropriate, or helpful, to think of these things together?

It is through this lens of evidence and faith—of proof and belief, and the whole mess of applying one to another—that I want to examine today’s Gospel reading. In this passage, Luke puts words to one of the greatest miracles of the Christian faith: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name. You are witnesses of these things.”

Let’s pause for a moment and let these words sink in. The language is so familiar, such a central part of our Christian faith, that it’s easy to let the words wash over us without pausing to appreciate them. But imagine that you are one of the disciples hearing these words for the first time. You’ve just been told of the ultimate miracle: Christ has done the physically and humanly impossible: He has died, and after three days, He has risen from the dead. And you are called upon to be a witness.

So what does it mean to be a witness? What should we make of our calling to be witnesses to something as huge and significant as Jesus’s return? Words like proof and testimony—legal words, concerned with fact and logic and proof—come immediately to our minds. And this is where the theo-biologist in me kicks in. Taken at its surface, Luke’s passage seems to be an invitation to scrutinize the miracle of Christ’s resurrection through the lens of a scientific mind. How can we be sure that the man who has returned is not a ghost? How can we validate the miracle before our eyes? How can we explain?

Let’s pretend, once again, that you are one of the disciples in the room that day. Jesus walks in—a man whom you know to be dead—and begins to speak. Of course, he anticipates your reaction. “Why are you frightened?” He asks. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

As human beings, we have many ways of dealing with doubts. We gather evidence about our surroundings with 5 go-to methods: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. Sure enough, the disciples try sight first. “Peace be with you!” Jesus announces. They look… and they assume they are seeing a ghost. Well, that’s predictable. Vision, as we all know, can very deceptive. Have you ever seen a mirage on a hot street or looked at the way a straw bends in water? We’re skeptical of vision. We can be face-to-face with a miracle, but dismiss it as an illusion.

So mere sight will not be enough to validate this miracle. What, then, should be our next attempt at “witnessing” the return of Christ? Jesus gives it to us in his own words. “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.”

Ah. Touch. All of a sudden, Luke takes us from a lofty world of huge miracles and deceptive vision, and he grounds us in the language of physicality. “Touch me and see.” The visceral. The mundane. The human. As I read Luke this week, this concept of “touch” stood out to me. I spent some time sitting with it, inhabiting it, thinking about what this word means.

Our sense of touch is our route to intimacy and connection. Have you ever spent a good amount of time looking at your hands? If not, I’d like to invite you to do so now. Marvel at how gentle and soft they can be, while holding the key to everything you know about texture and sensation. Trace the mountains and valleys of your knuckles, the veins of your palms, and notice their similarity to the veins of a leaf. As humans, we use our hands to explore, to trace, to feel, to know the world outside of us. To touch is to be profoundly human, profoundly connected to the physical world.

And yet, there’s also something about touch that inevitably brings us the world of the Other, the world of the Divine. In this way, it is the opposite of vision. When we see, we feel obligated to explain. “That man who my eyes say stands before me is not really Christ, He is an illusion.” “That strip of DNA is a machine error, it can’t possibly belong to God.” But when we touch, it is difficult to deny that we are entering into some sort of deeper, undeniable Truth. We use the word “touch” to describe a story that moves us deeply, or a song that reaches in and tugs on certain wells of emotion. Every child learns touch to enter into wells of belonging, tenderness, warmth, and love. Touch is also the sense through which we experience pain and move through it. Think of a moment in which you felt lost, broken, empty. Think of how sometimes, the only consolation is to be embraced and held.
At the highest moments of human intensity, words become silent. Then, the language of touch gets a chance to speak.

What exactly is the language of Christ’s touch trying to say? The theo-biologist in me wants to conclude that this Gospel is a victory for the pairing of religion and scientific fact. In the face of a miracle too huge and mysterious to comprehend, the disciples reach out to confirm their world through physical evidence. Luke provides undeniable visceral proof that Jesus has returned and taken a human form. But I’m not only a theo-biologist. I’m also a person who has hands and “feels” the world and was just “touched” by the music of the choir and the words of our prayers. Because of this, I have to believe that Christ’s touch offers a little bit more.

Of the senses, Touch makes us most simply and surely human. We see here that Jesus uses it to reinforce his humanity—to “stand among” the disciples in unity and equality. And yet of the senses, Touch also leaves the most room for mystery and the divine. What does it mean that Christ shares this capacity? It is affirmation of his miraculous duality. He can arise from the dead, and He has hands and feet like we do. Christ is human, and Christ is divine.

But I think there’s one more thing to be drawn from the language of Christ’s touch. It shows us that, at His core, Jesus is the essence of relationship. His touch affirms his basic desire to form connection—with the disciples, with strangers, with every one of us. In the weeks following the Resurrection, Jesus appears on Earth many times. Each time, he must choose a way to reveal himself. Does he return with the sole objective of making people “believe” in his miracle, offering concrete proof? No. He chooses to come through touch. Of all the ways He could have appeared, He chose the universal symbol of comfort and closeness. ‘Look,’ he tells us. ‘I am here. I am among you and within you. I am in every foot and hand. I can eat and drink and be in your midst.’ And because of this, he invites us into an eternal relationship with Him, with God, and with each other.

So what does it mean to be witnesses of God? Should we take up our DNA kits, as my 8th grade self wanted to do, and go about using the evidence of Christ to “prove” our miracles? Or will we accept Christ’s touch as the invitation to intimacy that He intended it to be?

Being witness gives us a clear calling to walk through our days with openness and intention. It means attuning our hearts to Christ’s essence moving between us and within us. In our dorm rooms and dining halls and families, His touch is present. As we look at our palms and embrace our friends and reach out to those in need, He inhabits every thread of connection. To be a witness is to reach out with our hands and step into the comfort of God’s eternal intimacy– that our faith may be bold, our love deep, and our hearts generous, as we go forth to build the relationships that Christ’s touch has shown.