Thursday, February 21, 2019

February 24, 7 Epiphany, What We See #7: Our Dying Bodies

Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38

When I was a child, my mother would put my brother and me to bed, and she would talk with us and pray with us, and I learned my faith from her. I was very young when she told us about eternal life, and I was terrified. I didn’t tell her so, I kept it a secret, but I hated the whole idea of immortality.

I was an overly-sensitive little boy, and the thought of my mind going on forever and ever, endlessly, kept me awake at night. I would lie there sleepless, sweating, with stomach cramps, and I remember praying, Please God, you can give eternal life to Hank, but please just let me die at the end.

Years later I was happy to learn that the Old Testament does not teach the immortality of the soul. It is nowhere in the Torah and the Prophets, despite the Israelites having lived in Egypt for 400 years, a nation obsessed with immortality. The Torah assumes that our souls are just as mortal as our bodies.

Neither does the Old Testament teach that we go to heaven when we die. Heaven was no place for people! What the Israelites hoped for was to inherit the land, as it says three times in our Psalm. They were a people often exiled, wandering, and their hope was the Promised Land and life in Shalom, in peace and quiet prosperity, and to pass that along to their children’s children, who would remember them and bear their names. Being remembered was all the immortality they asked for. In their stories God remembered them, and they prayed, “Remember us, O Lord!”

The first hints of resurrection are in the last of the prophets. This was how God could keep that promise of the Promised Land. Too many Israelites had lived and died in exile, and not received God’s promise, so they would be raised again someday, and gathered back to Israel, there to live a second round, but this time in Shalom. This resurrection was for inheriting the land, and not for going to heaven, nor was it for humanity in general, but for the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. 

So the sudden resurrection of the Lord Jesus was a great surprise for all involved. No one was expecting it—that was not the plan. Just one man, and not the whole nation? And only glimpsed and not explained, his resurrected body loosened from the laws of nature and the limits of creation, and then his departure into heaven, in his physical body? How could that be? What for?

It was hard to believe for the Corinthians. The Hellenistic inhabitants of the Roman Empire were brought up believing in the immortality of the soul. They were taught by Plato that their bodies were the prisons of their souls, and their best hope was to cast off their bodies when they died to free their souls to live forever in disembodied bliss. The resurrection made no sense, either as a fact or as a metaphor, either the resurrection of Jesus alone or a future resurrection for all of us.

St. Paul quotes their two typical questions. “How are the dead raised?” It’s impossible. And, “With what kind of body do they come?” It’s inconceivable. It’s so inconceivable that it can’t be possible.

St. Paul doesn’t answer the first question, and in fact the Bible never does. The Bible never explains how the Lord Jesus was resurrected or how we too shall be. It’s the second question that St. Paul answers, to establish its conceivability, and he says, You fools!

You dummies, you see the intimations of it all the time, every day you work in your garden. You take for granted that when you plant your seeds they will transform into the plants you want, and do you doubt that’s possible? Look at the seed, how dry and hard and inert it is. It doesn’t move, it doesn’t change, it doesn’t grow. You keep it in storage for years, like a stone that’s dead. And it bears no visible likeness to the green and growing thing it will become. You find that conceivable! And therefore possible! Resurrection is the same, you dopes.

You know that modern biologists still cannot explain the mystery of life in seeds. How a thing that shows no signs of life, even for centuries, with just a little bit of moisture can suddenly spring to life. No other substances can do this, not even substances created in the laboratory with the same proportion of elements. With all of our marvelous science we have never been able to generate life from dead matter.

But that must have happened four billion years ago, to get life started on this planet. Ever since then the molecules of certain kinds of matter have passed some code down to other molecules to make that matter come alive, but we humans have proven unable to introduce that code when it is not already there. All of life today is descended from that primeval life that was once for all generated out of dead matter, for which we may even indirectly hold God responsible, and if God can bring life to what is dead, then why not to your own dead body?

But how is that possible after many centuries of being dead, or maybe cremated? How does God find all the scattered molecules? Maybe God doesn’t, and we conceive of other possibilities. Maybe God remembers your DNA plus the bar-code of your life! DNA is mostly information, and how much information can be kept in a digital file too minute for eyes to see, and you can show a whole movie out of that. Maybe God will reconstruct you from the information that God has on you, for God remembers. All you need to be resurrected is that God remembers you!

Last week I asked you to believe that your body has the capacity for resurrection. I should have said it better. Your body does not have that capacity, because of the corrupting power of sin, until it dies first, and God resurrects it with that capacity. But even today your body is a miracle of God, a wonder. As weak and frail as we are, and hardly as agile as many animals, yet the human brain is one of the wonders of the universe, of impossible complexity and capacity, and the seat of this miracle we call the human mind, that can imagine eternity and even meditate on God. Your body is both a wonder and a sign, in which you can read that God has purposes for you, and God remembers you.

This is the last of my sermon series on epiphanies, on manifestations, on physical revelations of God, and this week’s manifestation is your body. Look at your bodies here, what do you see? Can you see past mere observance, can you see with the eyes of faith? Look at your bodies as something like seeds of what God will resurrect us into. How different will we be?

If the Lord Jesus is our image, then less different than a plant is from its seed, a chicken from its egg, or a butterfly from its caterpillar. Maybe we will differ only as an elf differs from a human in The Lord of the Rings, but as in the book, not the movie, without that bad hippy hair and those ridiculous ears. Maybe our difference will be more moral than physical. Certainly at least that, which is the take-home for today: The promise of the future resurrection directs your moral lives today.

Why else would you do what the Lord Jesus says to do in the gospel? “Love your enemies, do good, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return.” That’s nuts, if for this life only, but if you are planting seeds of good for God to harvest in God’s time, then you can do it. In our dying bodies what happens in the present determines the future, but you live in terms of your future resurrection, so that your future determines what you do in the present.

I invite you to see your moral life today as planting seeds within the world. And already now, in God’s pleasure, a good measure of moral harvest, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be given to you. And, in God’s time, even more.

My own body is dying, and I am closer to my death than to my youth. I still courteously dislike immortality, and I hope that eternal life will differ from the immortality I fear. Recently I have learned to answer the immortality that I fear with the resurrection I believe in. How that makes eternal life any different and thus more bearable I do not know, because the resurrection is offered to us as mystery as much as fact. I have to suspend my judgment, for my judgments must die too, and for its nature and its goodness I have to trust in God and in God’s purposes for us. The thing I know for sure about eternal life is that its atmosphere is love, a love so perfect that it casts out fear, and that what God has for us when God remembers us is whatever would agree with love.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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