Last February, Heaven is for Real – a book about a little boy’s near-death experience – reached #1 on the best-seller list. Proof of Heaven, a much more complex book written by a neurosurgeon, has sold more than two million copies since it was first published last year. These two books are not the only best-sellers about near-death experiences and the afterlife, because all of us are drawn to the perennial question: What happens to us when we die?
Today’s Scriptures raise the same question:
For the Sadducees and Pharisees, it was an ongoing debate – is there a resurrection, or not? The Sadducees said ‘no’; the Pharisees said ‘yes’ – and now, they wanted to know, what did Jesus think? (Luke 20:27-38)
For Job, it was an affirmation he clung to in the midst of his suffering: ‘I know that my Redeemer lives, and in my flesh I shall see God.’ (To hear Handel’s inspired rendition of Job’s affirmation, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyHeUdBQDxQ )
To us, ‘flesh’ means the body, distinct from the spirit. But to Job, to the Hebrews, the flesh – the body – the person – were all one being. A person is not just a body; and the real person is not just the spirit. A person is a whole human being, body and soul together. When Job says, ‘In my flesh I shall see God,’ he means ‘I myself, my whole self, shall see God.’
In Hebrew thought, the body is never separate from the soul. God breathed the breath of life into human beings and so they were alive; God had created the whole person, and God would give continued life to the whole person.
In early Christian thought, death did not banish the soul into a purely spiritual realm, leaving the body and the material world behind. As the Jews before them, Christians believed God created both body and soul, and would give continued life to both. The resurrection of Jesus, and the ongoing presence of Jesus’ Spirit in their communities, proved this for them. In every resurrection appearance, Jesus has changed in form – every time they meet him, his body is not the same body they first knew – and yet they know him as still the same person.
But today, Western culture blends the Biblical witness with Greek ideas about body and spirit.
Like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Greeks argued about eternal life. But unlike the Jews, the Greeks did not think of human beings as whole persons, with bodies and souls united in one self. They thought of body and soul, matter and mind, flesh and spirit, as two separate realities.
Plato thought the purpose of life is to liberate the soul from the body – at death, the soul would survive, but the body would disintegrate. Aristotle thought the life of the soul depended on the life of the body – when the body died, the soul would die as well.
In the end, Plato seems to have won the day: Most Americans, if they believe in life after death, think they will leave our bodies behind to dwell in a purely spiritual reality. But this is not what the Scriptures, or Jesus, are telling us about resurrection life.
In her little book about the Creed, In Search of Belief (a book we may be reading here at St. Benedict’s next year) Sister Joan Chittister tells how she came to a new understanding of what resurrection means.
Joan’s friend Mary Louise was born with muscular dystrophy. When Joan met her, she had been in a wheelchair since she was four years old. But even without muscles that moved at her command, even without a voice that spoke clearly, even without hands that could write, Mary Louise was not just an unmanageable body crumpled into a wheelchair. Mary Louise was a personality, with great abilities and gifts to share with those around her. Joan writes, Mary Louise taught me that human beings are not torsos who cease to exist when the frame that shapes us fails to function… we are persons.
And part of Mary Louise’s personality – indeed, one of her gifts to the people who knew her – came from the life she lived, even a life lived with a crushing disability. Mary Louise’s life had a purpose, and a strength, and a grace that came from the very material circumstances in which her body was caught.
Joan says, Through Mary Louise… I began to understand that resurrection does not imply a return to earthly life. What we mean by resurrection is that life has a purpose and a quality that does not end in the grave. We mean that the God who created us does not abandon us, but brings us finally, somehow, home to the fullness of life.
Has there been a Mary Louise in your life? Someone who taught you what life is really all about? Someone whose body, feelings and personality were part of what made them who they are?
Joan Chittister wonders, What if life is about growth – growth in body, in mind, in spirit, in personhood? What if life is a constant growing into God? And what if resurrection is simply another part of the process of growing into God?
She concludes, The Creed’s call to resurrection stretches our vision of life. Like an idea become a song, like a seed become a flower, like a match before a flame, we will someday come to a new kind of life, eternal in spirit, changed in form. And how can we be so sure of that? Because God has planted the proof all around us, if only we could see. It is metamorphosis, change into otherness, that is the very nature of life…. Life is a becoming into the fullness of the self that knows no boundaries, that grows in form, that lives in the spirit of the Spirit, that has no end.
What do you believe?
Preached on November 10, 2013
at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos