Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 17, 2019
Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. We recite these words in church almost every Sunday we gather … and when we don’t, we usually recite the Nicene Creed instead, which says basically the same thing. In so doing, we join a Christian tradition stretching back to the very earliest days of Christianity, when all new converts to the faith memorized and studied the Apostles’ Creed, the teaching of the Apostles distilled into its purist form. We believe in the Resurrection. We believe that Christ died, and descended to the place of the dead, and that he was resurrected. He rose from the grave not just in spirit but in body. In flesh and blood. And we believe that when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, all the graves will open and all those who have died will be raised. All people will be resurrected, not just Jesus, and enter God’s kingdom in bodies purified and made whole by God. Resurrection happened first for Jesus Christ, but it will come for all of us.
At least, that’s what’s in our faith statements. How many Christians actually believe it … I don’t know. We tend to think of heaven as some ethereal place, spiritual, not physical. Lots of Christians believe that when you die your spirit goes to be in heaven with Jesus, leaving behind all fleshly matters. It’s a very old way of thinking about things, and it comes straight out of pagan Greek philosophy. And it’s what Paul was arguing against in our reading from Corinthians. “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” In a nutshell: Salvation comes from Christ, who died and was raised from the dead and in so doing destroyed sin and death. If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and all of Christian teaching is false. You can’t have just one resurrection, in Paul’s view. Either resurrection is impossible, and nobody has ever been raised or ever will be; or resurrection is possible, and Christ was raised from the dead, and we, too, will be raised from the dead some day when Christ comes again. As Christ was raised, so too will we be.
To get why this is so important to Paul, you have to understand a little bit about the way Jewish people think. In Greek, as in English, there are separate and distinct words for body and soul, because we think about them as two separate things, as if human beings are ghosts who just happen to walk around in meat suits. In Hebrew, however, there is no word for soul that doesn’t include the body as well. When you read an English translation of the Old Testament, and you see the word “soul,” the actual Hebrew word is usually “נפש” which means your whole self, personality and body and spirit and heart and guts and all the things that make you who you are. The word most Old Testament translations give as “spirit” is “רוח” which literally means breath. The Holy Spirit, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is literally God’s breath. In Genesis, God breathes on the primordial chaos and the world comes into being. There is a connection between the spiritual and the physical. One cannot exist without the other. There is no concept in the entire Old Testament of a spirit or soul separate from a physical body.
Because of this, physical things matter. Evil and sin come through physical means—eating the forbidden fruit—and are manifest in all the many ways human beings abuse one another and themselves. But you can’t ever forget that all good things come through physical means, too. The Garden of Eden was a physical place. It was a garden, filled with plants and animals, in which humans and God walked side-by-side. The Old Testament is very earthy. Condemnation is being trapped in a world where humans hurt one another and where the soil is rocky, thin, and full of weeds. Blessing is a world where humans reconcile with one another and the soil is fruitful and easy to work. Creation, like humans, may be marred by sin and death, but first it was a good gift from God. And, so, it is not just souls that need to be redeemed, but bodies too, the whole self, and all of creation. And that is what Jesus Christ came to do.
On the other hand, the Greeks hated the physical world. Or, at least, they didn’t trust it. Pagan philosophers as far back as Plato (and possibly even earlier) had decided that the realm of spirit and the realm of flesh were two completely separate things, and obviously anything to do with the flesh or the physical world or the body was inherently bad and disgusting. This is why they believed rich people were better than poor people—work required physical effort, and doing things, and that was degrading. The only good things in the world were sitting around, thinking deep thoughts, and contemplating art. And so when Paul converted Greek people, they brought with them this idea that there is a separation between body and soul, and that flesh is inherently bad and spirit is inherently good. Some of them even thought that Jesus hadn’t been a real flesh-and-blood human being at all, just a divine spirit sent to bring enlightenment. (This is a heresy called Gnosticism.) Even the ones who accepted that Jesus had been human before his death often thought that Jesus hadn’t really been resurrected, he’d just appeared to have a physical body, and that when Christians died, they would be freed from the prison of flesh and brought into a realm of spirit. Which, uh, isn’t that far from what many Christians today believe.
And then we come again to Paul: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who died, and one day we too will be raised. We are not ghosts piloting meatsuits, we are whole people—body, mind, and soul—and Christ came to save all of us, body and soul together, along with all of creation. God created the world to be good—God created us to be good—and even the worst that sin and death can do doesn’t change the fact that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. God has been at work in the world since the very beginning, bringing light and truth and calling people to live in the world according to God’s good plan. God has been working to bring life and healing and renewal and reconciliation even in a world that keeps turning away, and God keeps calling us to participate in that work. And one day, when Christ comes again, all will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. All that is broken will be healed, all that is destroyed will be made whole, all of creation will be made new. The work that God keeps beginning in us will be completed. And we will see God face-to-face.
Bodies matter. The more we learn about the way bodies and brains work, the more connected we realize they are. Our bodies influence our brains in a multitude of ways great and small, and our brains influence our bodies just as much. Those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood human nature far better than the Greek philosophers did. When we focus too much on the spirit alone, we forget about the body, and we forget about the world we live in. We pray for peoples’ souls while ignoring the ways in which their bodies are suffering. We are flawed, sinful, fleshy people living in a flawed, sinful, fleshy world. We live in a world in which sin and death have done unbelievable damage to people and communities and to creation itself. But we believe in a God who triumphed over sin and death, a God who will make all things new, a God who became flesh and blood like us, who died and rose again, and who will raise us to life again. Thanks be to God.