03/28/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Does Matter Matter? Reflections on the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

"Regardless of what actually happened to Jesus' body on Easter morning, the important point of the resurrection story is that God is the one who renews all things."

As I walked to the A train, I started thinking about my priest's closing statement to his homily, which was titled "A Different Way of Looking at the Resurrection." His message invited us to think about the resurrection stories as metaphors about enlightenment.

A risen Jesus is a bit of a stretch, I thought to myself. The Easter story is so much less embarrassing if we can focus only on its metaphorical significance.

I tried to put aside the issue of the resurrection as history, choosing instead to think about the resurrection as meaning. In other words, was the point of the resurrection story the actual resurrection, or the meaning of the resurrection?

I thought about the Bible. Both Jewish and Christian Scriptures contain metaphor and hyperbole; surely not every narrative is meant to be taken as a literal event. When Jesus heals a blind man, is the point that Jesus can do magic, or that he can open our spiritual eyes? When he cures a leper, what are we to think: that Jesus is a first century wizard, or that he can heal our uncleanness?

Maybe it was this way with the resurrection. Maybe the Easter stories exists to teach us all about the resurrection that happens to our spiritual bodies when we are awakened to the goodness of God. What happens when the disciples' hearts are strangely warmed and they are reminded of the continued presence of their teacher? What happens is Easter.

I began to wonder if the church had focused too much of its energy on arguing over every non-essential jot and tittle of Scripture, while at the same time disregarding weightier matters like justice and compassion. Had we devoted so much energy arguing for a bodily resurrection that we forgot about the physical bodies of homeless people? Do we neglect to care for the earth preferring instead to make a persuasive case for the empty tomb?

As I ducked into the subway, I decided it would be best if I left behind such a childish interpretation of the Easter stories and focused more on the metaphorical spirit in which they were intended. Whether or not Jesus actually walked out of his tomb, I would live my life within a resurrection ethos.

But what exactly is a resurrection ethos?

Is the resurrection God's way of reminding us that we can spiritually overcome a world of hatred if only we renew our minds? Or is it God's reminder that he plans to literally re-form this broken world?

Judaism and Christianity taught me that the material world God created is good -- indeed, very good. And yet, sadly, it's also very bad and evil and ugly.

A resurrection that only deals with a spiritual state of mind does not even begin to deal with the real mess of the world. Teenagers are sold into prostitution, children are forced to be soldiers, women are abused, men kill each other in the streets: these are physical phenomena, and groan for physical redemption.

The Torah begins with the words, "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth." Many years later, John would begin his Gospel in a similar way: "In the beginning..." It's as if John was announcing that the world was about to be re-created, that Israel's God was working through this Jesus who was going around claiming the desire and authority to renew all things. This is why Jesus' miracle of turning water into wine is the first one mentioned in John: the writer is setting up Jesus to be not only a miracle worker, but a man with the power to create.

And then there's that one minor, curious detail that John casually tosses out in his resurrection narrative. When Mary Magdalene talks with the risen Jesus, she doesn't recognize him -- she thinks he's a gardener.

Yes, a gardener: sleeves rolled up, fingers in the earth, reminding us that God has not abandoned this physical world, that he is here with us refashioning the planet lily by lily.

To me, the Easter stories -- no matter what kinds of metaphorical glosses they offer us -- are always, in the first place, stories about a dead body that came back to life. Or actually, a dead body that went through death and came out the other side.

If the resurrection is purely a spiritual event, then the physical world begins to fall out of focus. If Christians believe that salvation concerns only a state of mind, then what does it matter if we feed the hungry, or take care of animals or practice chastity? If we believe in a God who is eventually going to whisk us away from this evil world and do nothing to set things right, then why waste our time creating art or fighting global warming?

A Jesus whose physical body remains in the grave gives me no hope for a physically broken world. But a Jesus who comes out of his tomb, who breaks bread with his disciples, who offers his wounds to Thomas to feel, this is a Jesus who reminds me that God cares about this world, and has begun the arduous task of re-creating every single atom.

There are many ways to read and enjoy the Easter stories, but we must always keep this in mind: at the heart of the Easter narrative is a man who doesn't merely teach us how to live, but promises us that God has every intention of healing our physical world.