+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This sermon gets a little heady, so I thought I’d start with a reflection on something a bit less daunting- namely, television. Many of you know that we don’t have cable, but I still try to keep somewhat in touch with what is going on in the zeitgeist, and I’m fully aware of the ascendancy of reality television as a phenomenon. Some years ago I heard about a program called Ghost Hunters, in which a team calling itself The Atlantic Paranormal Society (or TAPS) investigates old buildings rumored to be haunted. I’ve looked up some clips online from time to time, and, as you will have already guessed, I find the program to be more-than-a-little silly.
You may think this is an example of the pot calling the kettle black, since some of you know that I quite like scary movies, but I find Ghost Hunters especially silly because it presumes to be based in reality. That said, the show has been a phenomenal success in terms of ratings. It’s no wonder, since polls have shown that nearly one-third of Americans believe in ghosts (I am, by the by, among the two-thirds that don’t, but I suspect – simply because of the statistics – that not everybody here agrees with me).
I bring all this up, because I’m afraid that the popular view of the afterlife is more like a ghost story than the traditional, orthodox teaching of the church. The view of American folk Christianity, which has progressively found its way into the mainline, historic churches, is that at the moment of death one’s soul leaves one’s body behind, springing from these ugly bags of mostly water, the husks which contain our essential being until freed by death.
But this is about as far from the Christian view of the Resurrection as one can get. Consider this morning’s Gospel reading. The disciples were terrified because they thought Jesus was a ghost. So, Jesus has them touch him, and see that he is as much a flesh-and-blood person as they. To make the point even stronger, Jesus asks for food and eats it. A ghost doesn’t need breakfast, but a man certainly does (preferably with bacon, but broiled fish will do).
We are told over-and-over in scripture, that our Resurrection will be like our Lord’s. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans writes:
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
In the First Epistle to the Corinthians he writes that at the last trumpet blast the bodies of the dead shall be raised incorruptible.
Likewise, look to the Old Testament. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones doesn’t have ghosties flying around, but bones and sinews and flesh and skin coming together.
Or take the Fathers of the Early Church for that matter. For example, the following is excerpted from Justin Martyr’s treatise on the Resurrection from A.D. 153:
Indeed, God calls even the body to resurrection and promises it everlasting life. When he promises to save the man, he thereby makes his promise to the flesh. What is man but a rational living being composed of soul and body? Is the soul by itself a man? No, it is but the soul of a man. Can the body be called a man? No, it can but be called the body of a man. If, then, neither of these is by itself a man, but that which is composed of the two together is called a man, and if God has called man to life and resurrection, he has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body
Examples from both scripture and Christian tradition could be cited ad nauseum, but it should suffice to say that orthodox Christian belief unequivocally rejects body-soul dualism and affirms the bodily Resurrection not only of Christ but of all believers.
Two questions remain. First, if this were the case, why have so many Christians got it wrong? Second, why does it even matter?
The first question is easier to address. It seems to me that the Christian insistence on a bodily resurrection requires more explanation than the dualistic approach to be pastorally satisfying. I am often asked if a departed loved -one is now in the presence of God, and I can say “yes” in all sincerity, but it requires more explanation. We have not yet heard the final trumpet blast nor have we seen the bodies rise from their graves, but this is a function of our human need to experience reality as chronological. The passage of time is a constraint neither of the mind of God nor of the life of His Kingdom. So, while from our perspective our loved-ones are now plainly dead, resting in peace awaiting the Resurrection, from God’s perspective they can already be said to be alive. For this explanation to be emotionally satisfying, it requires us to think philosophically. It is much easier to say “yes, Aunt Myrtle’s soul just sprung from her body, and now she’s a ghosty living in the clouds.” It’s a rather lazy approach, and patently false, but I suppose it’s one way of comforting a person.
The second question is “So what?”. Why does this matter? Well, believe it or not, it matters a great deal. The sort of dualism which claims that the body is nothing more than a shell in which the soul resides suggests that the material world is somehow lacking. It ignores God’s declaration in the Creation story that His Creation was good. We start to see our bodies as prisons and the world we inhabit as inherently bad.
Our bodies and the rest of the material world are not crude shadows of the real. God made them and called them good. God reaffirms this truth in choosing to raise us from the dead with bodies real enough to touch and to eat and to do everything else a body is meant for. God reaffirms this truth in choosing not to consign us to some cloudy never-never land but rather to create a new heaven and a new earth on the last day.
When we fail to see this, there are serious implications. When we see our bodies and the world as temporary hindrances rather than gifts, we abuse them. We abuse Creation by polluting it, because deep down we believe it’s bad and it has no effect on that dull world inhabited by clouds and harps which we created out of whole-cloth without consulting Scripture and Church Tradition. When we start to see bodies as aberrations, violence (against ourselves and others) stops being so shocking.
Doctrine has moral implications. Bad theology can lead to poor morals. Take, for example, the homophobic hate-group Westboro Baptist Church that pickets military funerals. Good theology, conversely, can lead us to moral maturity. So, if this romp through the theology of the body does anything, I hope it helps us start to treat our bodies and the rest of creation with love and respect. Christians of all stripes haven’t done a bang-up job of this all the time. We, however, have the added benefit of knowing that God is with us. He has promised to restore to fullness whatever has been broken by human sin. He has promised to restore our bodies and our earth, making them whole once again on the last day. How we act as stewards of these gifts now, though, is of eternal significance. Thanks be to God that we have His Word and Sacraments to sustain us in this task. Pray that we may rise to so great a challenge.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.