Longing for Change and Communion
Bigger than my fear of all that is shifting in this difficult year is the fear that, when everything is said and done, all will be the same.
By Jerusha Matsen Neal
“I will tell you a mystery … the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” 1 Corinthians 15:51–52
My cousin John was a gift given to my aunt and uncle after many years of trying to have a child. He had a wide smile and bright, curious eyes, making anyone to whom he spoke feel important. He fought the demon of heroin addiction for 10 years before finding the will to live clean, and he was free for two years after that.
During that sweet, fragile season, John was my proof that positive change in the world was possible — which is, of course, an unfair burden to place on any human being.
John died from an overdose this August.
As a teacher of preaching, I work with bodies. I attend to what Kristine Culp, in her book Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, calls the “vulnerability and glory” of human communities and persons. To have a body is to be vulnerable to sin and suffering, but also vulnerable to transformation and hope. Bodies bear witness to a Word that lives, and in so doing, they bear evidence that we are not alone. Perfection is not that evidence. Change is that evidence — an ambiguous assertion, as change is no simple matter.
Change and Imperishable Life
The past seven months have been saturated with change. Pandemic protocols have wiped clean our calendars and scattered our communities. Changes in our education systems have privileged the wealthy and the well. Changes in our worship have silenced our singing, veiled our faces, and left our Eucharistic tables empty. Pastors have been adapting weekly, learning the shifting secrets of video edits and live streams. They have found sacramental theologies to meet the day. God bless them. They are tired.
These changes have not felt glorious or transcendent. They have felt like the tearing of a cloth already frayed or a weight carried in the gut. They have felt like fearful knots of masked families standing at the edges of open graves.
I do not call these changes “good.” That would be cruel and dangerously naïve. Change is regularly twisted to serve the ends of insatiable markets or co-opted to distract a weary populace from its leaders’ deceits. Too often, change brings grief in its wake.
My cousin’s death has been one of too many deaths this year, in a world already reeling. Given such dizzying loss, when I turn to Paul’s resurrection promise in 1 Corinthians 15, I’m tempted to cling to his description of “imperishability” as a promise that one day, change will be no more. I imagine a resurrected body that is static and solid — suspended in time and impervious to struggle. But the scriptures have a different sort of imperishability in mind. Paul describes human transformation as an eternal joy, moving from “glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Jesus’ imperishable body held scars, ate fish, and broke bread. Flesh that does not change is dead. To live is to move, to respond, and to love.
I do not know the mysteries of resurrected bodies, and I will not speculate about them here. But I do know that change — in and of itself — is not that body’s enemy. Change is a function of relation. For all of its dangers, change signifies that we are alive, connected to the world and the One who made that world. To live autonomous and unaffected is to live as stone — and perish as stone.
Imperishability requires something more.
Change and Enjoined Life
If the pandemic of the past year has taught us anything, it is that we live enjoined. Our lives are dependent on the well-being of our neighbors. If my child’s teacher does not have adequate health care, my family is at risk. If the worker who scans my groceries cannot stay home when she is sick, my body is vulnerable. To recognize the relatedness of bodies is not socialism; it is science. More than this, it is the created testimony of a gracious God who refuses to leave us invulnerable to life.
Truly, it is not this year’s changes that have broken my heart. It is the intransigent solidity of all that seems immovable. The videos of police violence against unarmed Black bodies are not new; they are wearying and old. Even after a summer of protests, they recur. The indecency of wealth in the face of suffering, the bold-faced lie of the politician, the ease with which God’s people trade integrity for power — none of these things are new.
Many things could be said about John’s relapse, not least that he was fighting his addiction hard the last month of his life. He did not want to die. But he was not only wrestling the demon of addiction; he carried on his back the weight of living poor. His story is not unusual. He cracked a tooth last summer and had no dental insurance. He was living with chronic pain. He had a job but was laid off because of the slow results of his COVID test — negative, in the end. He was worried about the medical bills for his new baby, born with special needs. He spent the week before his death trying to find an open bed at a rehabilitation center.
In short, it was not the changes of these past seven months that weakened John’s resolve. It was the unflinching sameness of our health care policies, economic priorities, and judicial resources that left him vulnerable to addiction’s lie.
Bigger than my fear of all that is shifting in this difficult year is the fear that, when everything is said and done, all will be the same. We will forget our vulnerability and our dependence on each other. We will forget that the suffering of one is carried in the body of the whole.
Change and the Mystery of Communion
One of the hardest honors of my life was preaching John’s funeral. The funeral home’s chapel was fuller than it should have been in the present pandemic, but John’s community wouldn’t stay away. Church members who had prayed John through his 10 years of addiction sat beside those who were still in addiction’s grip. Faces were masked and hymns unsung. We sat rigidly in the pews, willing ourselves to keep from touching.
But here is the mystery. Even as I prayed “I believe, help my unbelief” to a glory-veiled God, I heard the moan of a trumpet. Its promise was not that all would be as it had been. And its promise was more than the assurance that John was being changed even now, in the presence of Jesus — a hope I claim.
It was a promise that we would be changed: by John, by each other, and by the God who does not leave us alone. A God who chooses to live enjoined to us.
We were made for more than autonomy and self-justification. We were made for more than quarantined purity and complicit resignation. We were made vulnerable to glory, which means we were made vulnerable to each other, regardless of the risk. We were made to bear the tenderness of communion.
Communion may seem a promise too small. For those who clutch at the privileges of power, communion — and the change communion would require — seems a cross, not a resurrection. But in a nation sinking in a quicksand of fear, bound by shackles of pretense, crafting nationalistic idols and impermeable borders — such change may be exactly the cross we need.
I have been thinking about the tenderness of communion lately, perhaps because I have been fasting from my regular Eucharistic practice. At the Table, time and space are bent, the present becoming permeable to an unseen future. And in that future’s light, we become permeable to each other and to God.
My hope is that the losses of 2020, for all of their heart-sore ache, mark us with this humanity. The resurrection of Christ does not call us to permanence. It calls us to imperishability — a more fragile, relational business. Imperishability means letting go of permanence for the sake of love: bearing change — and even making change — for the sake of life.
My cousin died in Louisville. On the afternoon of his August funeral, the streets were filled with protests demanding justice for Breonna Taylor. Many cities in the United States have seen similar protests this year — with particular names chanted in memory of particular losses. I do not call this blood-seeded grief “good.” “Goodness” would be sons and daughters returned to their families’ arms. “Goodness” would be justice that did not require the shedding of innocent blood. May there be no more names to chant. May justice flow like waters.
And yet, with lament and fury, these marches witnessed to an unseen future breaking open like bread.
A month has passed, and communion seems very far away. Louisville is convulsed with news that no officers will be held responsible for Breonna Taylor’s death. The hoped-for Table is instead a familiar tomb. I tell you a mystery. Even now, there is a trumpet that sounds a greater truth. In life and in death, we are not alone. We are enjoined. And we are being changed.
Jerusha Matsen Neal is assistant professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. Her new book, The Overshadowed Preacher: Mary, the Spirit and the Labor of Proclamation (Eerdmans), calls preachers to leave behind the false shadows haunting Christian pulpits and be “overshadowed” by the Spirit of God.