Body & Soul

Sunday 21st March 2010
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Lent
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Philippians 3:8-14
John 12:1-8

There are times when we quite properly wonder what it's all for. What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of our own lives? What, in the apparently absurd question posed in Monty Python's Flying Circus, do we mean by "mean"?

For the Christian, the concept of meaning is considered within the context of our existence as creatures of our Creator; and at no time is that context put under more pressure than during the next twelve days, traditionally known as Passiontide, between the Messianic anointing of Jesus by Mary, sister of Lazarus, and the anointing of the body of Jesus by that same Mary. In that time we walk with Jesus on the final stage of his journey to Jerusalem and then join the crowds which hail him on Palm Sunday and hear his preaching in the Temple precincts, take part in the first Eucharist, fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, first abandon and deny him, then watch his death in the dark distance.

Let us remind ourselves, then, of some of the tantalising words of our first Reading: "... I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection ... if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead". The passage, not in our Reading concludes as follows: "He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory ...".

In a way, this is the wrong sermon to preach on Passion Sunday - it might be better preached during Easter - but today's Gospel reading talks both of the embalming of Jesus and the revival of Lazarus; and surely this second theme is highlighted by John to say something about our own revival which links with the passage I have just read from Philippians.

We have just said the Creed; and I wonder how closely we considered the phrases: "The Resurrection of the body and life everlasting". I suspect that we are pretty comfortable with "life everlasting" in some mystical way but what about "the resurrection of the body"? And why does it matter?

Since almost the beginning of Christianity we have been plagued, as I have reminded us before, by the heresy of dualism which separates the spiritual from the physical and ranks the first above the second. This dualism was at the heart of the Gnostic philosophy which assaulted the Church of the Fathers; it was the force behind the fanatical asceticism of the Middle ages; it was one of the key drivers of the Reformation, particularly embodied in the Puritans; and it still exercises a baleful influence on contemporary Evangelicals. That is why we so frequently think of ourselves as "body and soul"; and why we are so obsessed with, and so harsh about, our own physical behaviour. We might be justified in this if we were still living under the rule of YHWH but we are Christians whose core belief is in the incarnation of Christ, the belief that God took our human flesh to confirm the love and faith in humanity initially realised in physical creation. We are here to be physical and Jesus was here physically. And, even more significantly, when he rose from the dead he was not a wraith but was in some way physical, in a way that was understood by the Apostles who walked with him to Emmaus and ate with him at the lake side.

Looking at ourselves in the mirror, we can immediately relate to the idea of the soul being superior to and separate from the body. We are not, as they say, pretty pictures; but to think that we should be is to misunderstand. We are vulnerable as children for caring, we are beautiful for mating, we are solid for rearing and we are frail in our period of wisdom and reflection, thinking of what is to come. We are quite properly torn between contemplating the eternal life but not wanting to plunge into it quite yet. We are made to choose and the choices we make are different at different times of our lives; but all the choosing that we do is in pursuit of building God's kingdom here on earth; we are not in heaven's ante-chamber, we are in the Church Militant, united already with the Church Triumphant which we will ultimately join.

But how will we join? All that I have said earlier leads us back to the Resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. You will remember the rather daft hypothesis put by the Sadducees to Jesus, of the woman who had several successive husbands; which one,  they asked, would get the wife in heaven? A similar question that is often asked is in what bodily state will we exist in heaven?

Here we are up against a mystery. The Resurrected Jesus was bodily but not as he had been before his death on the Cross. We cannot be certain but our only marker is that we will be the same but different.

Now I realise that these are not very satisfactory reflections but we must hang on to the essentials. The Resurrection of Jesus and the inspired theology of Paul, confirmed in the Nicene Creed, all point to our bodily Resurrection and our enjoyment of everlasting life. It is so difficult to bring ourselves to recognise the wonder of it because we are trapped in the mechanics; but we need to make the effort because the ultimate end of our religion of love is to live within the immeasurable love of God. In the meantime, while we build God's Kingdom here, tangled with the options to love, like the wheat and the tares, are the options to turn away from love. And in the agony of our choosing we live within the pattern of Christian remembrance which brings us every year to the agony of Jesus which should remind us of two critical points: first, it reminds us that we do make wrong choices, among them the choice, as the human race, to put Jesus to death; but it also reminds us, above all else, that no matter how badly we have behaved, we shall be saved; not even our murder of Jesus can impair God's love for us.

That is why, out of the terror of the Passion, we will survive to enjoy Easter; and that is why, after the turmoil and suffering of our own lives, we will experience our own Resurrection: the resurrection of the body; and life everlasting. Amen.