Scenes from The Jungle Book (2016).
Third Sunday of Easter
I watched the new Jungle Book movie recently. In addition to being stunned by the visual effects — having a movie where animals’ mouths move that isn’t cheesy clearly means that we live in the future — it was also interesting to revisit a story that I loved so much as a child. There were several aspects that I did not remember from the 1967 animated film, including the wolf code. The wolf code is often repeated by the wolves in liturgical form, ingraining it into their identities:
“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky, And the wolf that shall keep it will prosper, but the wolf that shall break will die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Unlike most of the other characters in the story, the wolves are dependent on one another. Individual wolves appear in the story as themselves, but they always connect back to the pack.
It’s not exactly true in practice, but at least in my experience, there are two ways to read almost any story, including The Jungle Book and those in the Bible: be overly spiritual and individualistic about it, or read it communally, with a lens of humanity, realizing that if we believe that anything resembling this story actually happened, the people involved experienced it much the way that we experience our own lives, with an equal amount of surprise and awe and irritation and other real emotions that real people have.
That this is a story from a people to a people, and in the case of today’s Gospel reading, from the pack of the disciples to (at least for today) our pack here in the Christian church in 2018.
If you overly spiritualize it and think about what it means to you and your individual belief, it’s rather boring. Yes, Jesus eats in this passage so that each of us knows and believes for sure that the disciples didn’t just see a ghost, but Jesus, alive. And you know he’s alive because he’s got a body that still bears his fatal wounds, except that he’s alive, and we know he’s alive because he needs food. Ghosts don’t eat, and according to popular culture, zombies only eat brains. I guess. Moving on.
So if you’re concerned with individual belief, that’s the heavy theology you can do with that passage, and it’s important.
But there’s also much more there on a much more relatable and human level that has much more to say about us together. Individual belief is important, but so is our communal life: “for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Some background on resurrection accounts in Luke: after the crucifixion, where Jesus dies and is real dead, the women go to the tomb on Sunday morning to find Jesus’ body not there, but some angels tell them they he’s been raised. They freak out, like you would when a dead body simply disappears, and run to the male disciples and tell them about it, and Luke says, and I quote, “it seemed to them like nonsense.” Peter, however, runs to the tomb and finds it empty, and walks away wondering what had happened.
Then it happens to two of the male disciples on the Road to Emmaus — Jesus appears to them, but they don’t recognize him. They think he’s just some guy asking them about everything that’s happened to them. They tell him, “Man, you must be the only one in all of Jerusalem that hasn’t heard this story.” They invite this random guy to their house for dinner.
But when they’re at the dinner table, and Jesus breaks the bread, they immediately recognize him. I like to say that Jesus loved meals so much he became one, and it was there, when he was with his people at the table eating and drinking, that they finally said, I assume, something like: “Oh my God — it’s you!”
This is where we arrive at today’s Gospel passage. They’re all standing around talking, probably arguing, about this, when Jesus is all of a sudden among them, saying “Peace be with you.”
And the disciples LOSE. IT. Luke puts it mildly: “they were startled and frightened.” That sounds decent and in good order. Like they jumped a bit. I imagine something a lot more dramatic, like Thomas jumping a clean two feet off the ground because a formerly dead Jesus is RIGHT NEXT TO HIM, Peter running into the next room, and four out of eleven disciples immediately spilling their wine and five more wetting their tunics.
I imagine that Jesus thinks the greatest loss in the recounting of the Gospel stories is the loss of humor. I cannot imagine a world in which the Son of God does not have a wicked sense of humor. You’re talking about the inventor of platypus faces here.
Luke recounts Jesus’ words as “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” I imagine Jesus saying something more like “Why you jump? I told you I’d be back. Did I stutter?”
A few years ago, I became obsessed with a ridiculous joke choral anthem called “Christ Cometh to My House and He Eateth All My Food.”
Well, after Christ shows them his wounds, he’s interested in mealtime again. No one says, “Lord, didn’t you just eat with the Emmaus guys,” because you don’t shame revenants for their appetites. We just assume that coming back from the dead is hard work.
Then he spends the rest of this little episode eating with them all together and talking to them about everything that had happened. He gathers the pack and appears to them all at once to explain everything.
I think that one of Jesus’ most important messages is that we are to be one body, in relationship with one another. A pack. Here to hold each other up and feed one another and welcome new people in as they want to join us. To celebrate and mourn together. To dedicate our lives to one another and this place for as long as God has put us here together.
While individual spirituality is important, I believe that God calls people to travel in packs. None of us gets to be more special than another; Jesus reveals himself to us.
Last weekend, I was here for Bruce’s funeral, as we all came together with Bruce’s family and made something happen that could not have happened without all of us: we managed a ton of people in this space, organized them, and fed them all. We worked — hard — to be hospitable, to honor Bruce, and to hold each other up as we mourned together.
Then, in the afternoon, I went to symphony hall in Springfield to see our member Dan’s Lego Master Builder presentation. Dan had the kids build bridges with Lego, instructing them carefully to cover the seams. Then, each of the bridges was tested as Dan suspended each bridge between two towers and put hand weights on each bridge. One bridge, I believe, held 50 pounds, while Chris, Dan’s son and also a Master Builder who was seated behind us, told us that the record was well into the 200s.
I felt like I was seeing two sides of the same lesson. Our bridge had been tested that morning as we held together, covering one another’s seams to form a strong bond, supporting one another as we said goodbye to a beloved brother in Christ, honored him, and supported his family and friends. And that support, among many other things, is what Church is for.
The world is a scary place, with strikes on Syria and investigations galore and the chaos on the news and in our own lives making us crazy. But then, the world has been a scary place for a long time, and traveling in packs makes things easier and less scary.
Like it was for the disciples who first saw the resurrected Christ, church is for questioning together and being startled together, for being uncertain and scared together, for laughing together and crying together, for eating together and opening the Scriptures together. And may we always come to the table together with joy, recognizing Christ in the breaking of the bread.
We are given to one another for love and support and growth — and of course, as Bruce himself would tell us all — a good meal.
May we continue to be nourishment and strength for one another.
“As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Amen.