Body and Soul

Sunday 7th November 2004
Year C, The Third Sunday before Advent
St Nicholas', Saltdean
Luke 20:27-38

Even though we know from experience how imperfect holiday brochures are, we still can't do without them: we want an approximate idea of place and price; we want to find or avoid a town with teeming night life or, alternatively, a sleepy cove with a pocket handkerchief beach and one cafe/bar. Everybody knows that brochures try to make the best of everything and often leave out inconvenient facts, so what you usually see on television, which specialises in bad news, and from friends who ought to know better, are the tales of so-called holidays from hell where the reality fell far short of the brochure: the hotel was unfinished; the beach was in the shadow of an oil refinery; and, for goodness sake, the cafes insisted on serving local rather than British food; and most people didn't speak English. Incidentally, if that was hell there would be quite a few takers.

Luckily, and I think typically, my experience has been rather the opposite. Just thinking back to one holiday in the Pelopponese, I had forgotten to imagine the lemon trees at dusk, the birds roosting, the bustle of the square as people settled down for leisurely dinners, the sharpness of the Ouzo, the strange feeling of the Crusader fort dominating the beach, the pleasure of moving from hot sand to cool water, the wonder of the first cold beer of the day.

All right, I'll stop there for today but I hope you get the idea. You can't grasp the reality from the brochure; no matter how hard you try, your imagination will fail; but this is good because you will then be wonderfully surprised.

Now if you think the brochures for the Mediterranean are bad, the brochures for Heaven are much less reliable. In today's Gospel the Sadducees, who were a Jewish sect that believed in bodily Resurrection, were deep into that typical male preoccupation of "Who gets the girl?" and Jesus had to tell them that it wasn't going to be like that. It isn't going to be everything you like on earth but writ large; champagne without end served by unbelievably gorgeous angels of either sex. And, as a music lover, I have to thank God that it isn't going to be endless harp music. In other words, what it isn't going to be is some outrageous, bombastic extension of the more decadent manifestations of earthly life.

If heaven was going to be an extension of all the best in earthly life it would be a place of perseverance and sacrifice, of love against the odds, of sorrow borne, of private triumph with, perhaps, the occasional mega religious feel-good happening thrown in; it certainly wouldn't be the Ritz perched on a cloud!

The problem with these ways of looking at things is that they all start from us instead of from God. We can't help thinking of Heaven as earth perfected instead of thinking of it as our own selves perfected in our one-to-one, face-to-face relationship with God.

Still, the Sadducees had a point which is reflected in our Creeds where we regularly affirm our belief in the Resurrection of the Body and life everlasting. Do we mean this; or do we simply think that in some way unknown to us our souls will commune with God in a mysterious but totally fulfilled way? Have we, in other words, grown out of the belief set out in the Creeds and, if we have, what are we saying?

A good start to answering these questions is that we don't really know but we do have at least three very powerful pointers.

First, Christianity, unlike some other religions, is fundamentally a religion of the body. You may not like the size and shape of that thing you can't get away from, particularly when you're on the beach, but it is who you are; it is not some alien clothing for your true self which is your soul; without your body you don't have a soul. And how do I know this? Because God's only son, Jesus Christ, chose to take human flesh to live amongst us so that we might be saved. He didn't have to; God could simply have sent down a message through his Prophets to say that everything was sorted out, the slate was clean; but that would only have left to us God the all powerful; but the God we also need and have found in Jesus is God the vulnerable, the weak, the suffering, who triumphed over the cruelty of earthly powers. So be very careful not to be sucked into this rather beguiling, Puritanical, Pagan view of existence which says that the body is a horribly imperfect mirror of the soul and that to be perfect is to escape from the body.

Secondly, and crucially, Jesus Christ our Saviour, after the Resurrection, took on some kind of human form and was Himself taken up into Heaven at the Ascension. It seems so obvious now; we can't imagine Him doing anything different; but the physical statement of the Resurrection and Ascension is absolutely central to how we are  Christians.

Thirdly, God shows us in the Assumption of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, into Heaven that she, who was without sin, the most perfect human being that ever lived, second only to her Son who was both perfect human and divine, should rejoin Him in Heaven in some kind of bodily form. After all, if God had wished it, Mary would have died quietly in her bed and been buried here on earth; but she wasn't; she was so perfect that there was no need for her to wait.

So, the incarnation, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Assumption into Heaven of His mother are all events which form a synthesis which we cannot fully understand between the bodily and the spiritual, the earthly and the divine, and all to the credit of the bodily and the earthly.

Or look at it this way; if you think for a moment about what we are doing here today, about the unity of the Word and of the Sacrament, you might say that in the Word our humanity is reaching out to understand the divine; and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Divine is stretching out to nourish the human.

So when you go on holiday, don't be ashamed of your body, give it a good airing and remember that your soul needs it, that you can't have one without the other.

Which leads me back to the brochures. Imagine that you are flicking rather disconsolately through pictures of tower blocks and crowded beaches when you get a phone call from your very best friend, the person you trust above all others on this earth; and the friend says to you: come with me on a surprise holiday. You've been faithful to me in a crisis, above and beyond ordinary friendship, and I have the means to thank you. I promise you that it will be the holiday of a lifetime and all that you need to do is bring yourself? Well, of course you would go through the process that we go through of wondering whether to accept a gift because we are, sadly, not very good takers which is, in turn, a pretty bad lookout for givers. But would you trust your best friend and accept with confidence and joy? If you wouldn't accept, I would have to wonder about the depth of your friendship; but if you accepted, that is what heaven is like. It is accepting an offer from God, the best friend you have ever had and will ever have, to join Him in what He defines as the best place for the two of you to be at one. If you can't trust God about Heaven, his very own state of being outside our world, you can't trust Him about anything.

So, keep on reading the brochures from St. Paul and the Evangelists; and, unlike commercial brochures, read them with the reverence and respect they deserve; for behind them lies the mystery of Heaven.