The Resurrection of the Body

Sunday 5th May 2019
Year C, The Third Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Isaiah 38.19-20
John 11.27-44

When I first went to America in 1973 I arrived at Harvard a few days early to make a variety of arrangements, including buying a portable television, which only took up part of each day which explains why I found myself watching Sesame Street on day-time television; and very soon Oscar the Grouch became my favourite character with his tireless refrain of "nothing's going wrong!" A very Christian theme, it seems to me.

Until the time of our First Reading from Isaiah 38 the Chosen People had plenty to complain about: at that time they worshipped an abstract God and, apart from the intrinsic merit of doing so, they saw that nothing good would come of it. No matter how well they lived, no matter how minutely they obeyed the Law, no matter how often they went beyond their legal obligations; it would make no difference. But after the Exile, when the later Chapters of Isaiah were written including that of our Reading, the perception arose that there might be life after death, which explains the attitude of Martha when Jesus arrived after the death of her brother, Lazarus. When Jesus says that Lazarus will "rise again" she acknowledges that this will happen "on the last day". On that basis, then, the Chosen people had much more to live for.

The raising of Lazarus from the dead is a perfect prequel of the Resurrection of Jesus: first, there is the delay of two days which Jesus allows so that his powers will be better understood; then there is the removal of a stone and the removal of the grave clothes; and later Mary anoints the feet of Jesus which he recognises as a burial ceremony. As such, this episode deliberately prepares us for the Resurrection of Jesus but it apparently had little effect on the followers of Jesus whose state of shamed bewilderment presented a difficult barrier to the angels and even to Jesus when he appeared to them. But,  as time went by, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, the early Church grew in self-confidence and self-understanding and two decades after the Resurrection Paul could write his famous Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians which is, for us, inextricably bound up with Handel's music: "And the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible" in which we are told that we will indeed be raised in some way in a bodily form because there will be a final unification between heaven and earth, God's realm, and our realm; and further, Paul says, if we don't believe this, we might as well all pack up and go home and not bother.

So, as Christians, what is there to be miserable about? Well, nothing, if we believe in what Paul has written but most Christians don't and they haven't since the time of Paul for, shortly after he had written, the doctrine of Gnosticism, or Neo-Platonism, took a strong grip in the Graeco-Roman world. Put bluntly, Gnosticism held that only our souls could be saved because all bodily things were intrinsically corrupt, an idea which, unfortunately, insinuated itself into the theology of Saint Augustine who understood Genesis Chapters 1-3 as an account of "The Fall" not as the exaltation of humanity to a status where it could choose freely to love God. The idea weakened in the Middle Ages with some help from Saint Thomas Aquinas but the hopelessly gnostic and individualistic Reformation put the clock right back to Augustine from which we have never fully recovered. Gnosticism is the deepest and longest-lasting heresy to ravage the Church and its effects are still seen in terms such as "The Cure of Souls" or "Her soul has gone to heaven".

At one level this is perfectly understandable: human bodies are not particularly inviting when they are sweating in sub-tropical heat having not enjoyed water for some days but any such experience should be fully countered by the discoveries we are still making about the wonders of how we are who we are which is why, incidentally, the notion that humanity will be overwhelmed or even overthrown by artificial intelligence, is a load of nonsense: not all the science in the world can yet teach a robot to catch a ball; and eleven years of investment have not produced a robot that can fold a towel!

But, still, in spite of all we know from Paul, all we affirm in our Creeds, and all we learn about the wonders of ourselves, most of us just don't believe that we will be bodily resurrected, in spite of the Lazarus prequel, the Jesus main event and the post Easter understanding. And the most striking way of measuring is this: if we really accepted the "Resurrection of the body and life everlasting" as the Creed would have it, we would be much less grumpy, much more anxious to share the good news and perhaps even a little less worried about the idea of dying.

Setting the grumpiness aside, spreading the good news is much easier if we know what it is. There is a striking difference between saying: "because Jesus rose from the dead you will enjoy eternal life" and saying "because Jesus rose from the dead your soul will go to heaven". Sadly, this second, heretical view is much more prevalent in our Church than the first, orthodox view.

And, on the subject of dying, it is much more difficult for us to say goodbye to our bodies if we think we are not going to meet them again, if we think that we are going to be wraiths.

This is one of those remarkable and unusual occasions when the reality is better than the fantasy, where the unification of "heaven" and "earth" as the one Kingdom of God which we will physically inhabit is more exciting than the prospect of our disembodied selves, or so-called "souls" are in some sort of communion with a disembodied God. That is the whole point of the incarnation. God could readily have engineered other ways to enable us to be spared from the negative consequences of the exercise of free will but the chosen method was to affirm the union of God and man, the timeless and the historic, the powerful and the vulnerable, the loving and the venal, the spiritual and the physical. Jesus frequently restored those with sick minds to mental health but the Lazarus miracle as a prequel to the Resurrection, affirms our eternal physicality.