We can only grow in our understanding of the real presence of the Risen Jesus if we are clear what we mean when we use words such as ‘Body’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Person’. Transcript 3116 words
Our Christian faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the body which we say in the Creed, which like a number of other bits of the Creed we trot out and nobody quite ever understands, I think forces us to reassess the significance of ourselves as bodily people. And somehow today this is of very great importance because of the sort of society we live in. One thing is for sure, that we can have a sort of picture that being a Christian means being a very spiritual person. My own guess is we had too much spirituality in our churches and not enough whole person bodily sort of gut stuff, because we are very materialist believers. Anybody who can worship God in and bread and in wine is committed to being materialist and the significance of bodiliness is very important in our faith. But a lot of people carry the picture of a body as some sort of unfortunate material machine which is presently housing a ghost, and once the machine disintegrates then the ghost is freed to go to where it belongs. Well that’s ok as a sort of working model but it’s got nothing to do with Christian faith or Easter faith.
So here are one or two thoughts about being bodily people. And the first is if somebody came to you and said, ‘oh by the way there’s somebody outside waiting for you’, you wouldn’t go to the front door expecting to find a corpse lying on your doorstep. Because in that sense, body, means the whole person. Somebody or anybody, is referring to the whole person from a sort of bodily point of view. In the north if you say to somebody ‘put your good body on the seat’, you’re referring to the whole person in a strange way. (In the south they don’t talk like that because they’re not very literate!) So sometimes in English we use the word body to refer to the whole person from a sort of visible or tangible point of view, but it’s the whole person we’re talking about. On other occasions we try and separate us out. So if you say, ‘do have some more tea, otherwise you won’t keep body and soul together’, that’s what they call a dualism of splitting ourselves into two bits, and actually isn’t very good language. All I’m trying to say is that we use the word body in a lot of different ways. And if you have that over simple idea that body is just the stuff that makes you up, the sort of flesh and bones and bits in your brain and things, then it’s quite certain you cannot understand what the bodily resurrection of Jesus means and you can’t understand what ‘This is My Body’ means in Eucharist. We need a fuller, more wonderful but less satisfactory in one sense, understanding of what it is to be body.
That’s an opening thought, now here’s a second thought. Every single bit of you here tonight, every atom that makes you up at the present, was present at the Big Bang, all those millions and thousands of millions of years ago. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? And it is very likely that all those fundamental bits of you have already been shared by other people down through the ages. I don’t know if that’s a wonderful thought or not, it’s a slightly surprising thought for some people. We are absolutely members of this planet. If the planet was a couple of metres nearer the sun or further from the sun, none of us would be here tonight or would look like we do, because the whole evolutionary story that’s brought you to be who you are has depended on such a fine balancing of things. To be a bodily person is to be members of this planet, in this creation, in this universe. We’re absolutely rooted into being a part of this story, we’re not here, as it were, by accident. And that’s a wonderful thing.
I sometimes like to think that our bodily make up is a bit like having an orchestra. If tonight we decided we were going to meet every week for a year in the hopes of playing a beautiful bit of Brahms or something in a year’s time, we would start off with everything being at sixes and sevens and the violins over there would be out of tune, the triangle at the back has lost its stick and the oboe needs whatever it is. So we’d all be at sixes and sevens, and our minds would only be half present because you’d be wondering, you know, what time you’re going to get home or what’s happening to the kids or whatever. And then slowly bit by bit as we rehearse together and play together, what was at sixes and sevens and all over the place slowly becomes more and more harmonious. All the bits that were disintegrated, become integrated and it happens because of attentiveness to the conductor and the conductor’s attentiveness to the composer in the background as it were. And that discipline over the weeks is far from what a lot of people think, that discipline today means becoming inhuman. In fact this discipline and attentiveness, attentive to the central thing, brings all the disparate parts into harmony with each other, until we come to a point of an extraordinary freedom, we can now play music without being worried about it, without having to be anxious about it. Everything has come into harmony with a central point, and we attain a freedom which we never had before and a certain peace which we never had before and didn’t know we could have.
And that’s for me a sort of metaphor in a way for what happens in our human bodily make up. But because of our conditioning and our upbringing and our history and all the rest of it, our emotional selves and our understanding, which are all rooted in our bodily condition, are all over the place. But if over the years we attend to the central things, to the central art of loving, to the central art of listening to the One who can speak to us, slowly, bit by bit over the years what has been at sixes and sevens comes into a harmony together. And our self transcends itself, we find a freedom and a lack of anxiety, a freedom from fear. For Jesus the enemy of faith wasn’t sin or being naughty or any of those things, the enemy was fear. And so we journey into becoming integrated people instead of disintegrated people. But to say that this is our spirit at work in spite of the mess, is totally to misunderstand what’s happening. It’s like saying that the orchestra in coming into the freedom of being able to play beautifully has at last freed itself from all the messy business about having instruments and violins and all the rest of it, and has come into some spiritual world of its own. Isn’t that nonsense, absolute nonsense? But it’s also nonsense for us to say we’ve become so spiritual we don’t need our bodiliness.
When Paul talks about these things, and he really thought through a lot of these things, he says that before death we have a sort of fleshly body and then we have a spiritual body. I remember as a kid and teenager and junior monk I could never make out what he meant by a spiritual body. Either you’re body or you’re spirit but you can’t have a spiritual body. Is that how you wonder? I hope it is. What he means is, we now have a body that is totally infused by the spirit; it’s become a transcendent reality, so the whole thing has come into a harmony and a freedom and a peace and awareness of the presence of God, and that that’s our human journey. Now the final stage of that can only be brought about by God in resurrection. Your death will be a step towards it, but finally it’s only when you’re a risen human being in the presence of God that that final fulfilment of your humanity will occur. And this is the great mystery you see, we as Christians are so optimistic about human nature, I can’t tell you how optimistic, we’re far more optimistic than any humanist can ever be. And yet people accuse us of being pessimists - we’re always talking about sin - well we are actually but at least we’re realists, but the final picture is full of optimism.
Now quite obviously if you attend a funeral, you’re going to be alarmed and I hope most clergy are alarmed, certainly Catholic clergy ought to be (I don’t know the words used in other churches) when our prayers say ‘this body which is lowered into the grave is going to rise again’. I think all that language should be rewritten because it gives the impression that we believe, or we’re expected to believe, what none of us do believe, is that the actual stuff that’s lowered is going to be the stuff that is raised. Well nobody believes that, Paul didn’t believe that. The fact that we have bodily resurrection in the future in God’s time doesn’t mean that stuff. I mean for one thing all the stuff that makes you up now wasn’t there seven years ago and all the stuff that makes you up in seven years’ time isn’t here at the moment; you are a constant process of things moving through you. And to be you and to be bodily you, doesn’t mean that the same stuff has got to be there. Just as the members of an orchestra during the year could in fact be handing on, changing and getting new violins and things. I hope I’m not just talking to myself, or am I? I hope you are going to have a troubled night tonight thinking about some of these things. I do think we have to rethink a lot of our things we haven’t actually thought about, if you see what I mean.
Now here’s another thing to think about. And I think we can understand this today in a way that the early Christians couldn’t. Although extraordinarily Saint Paul could, and I think Thomas Aquinas could, but in my knowledge they’re almost the only great Christian writers who began to understand this and they understood it for reasons; I mean we have better reasons to understand it now.
One of the great gifts God has given us in the last hundred and fifty years, is to understand our planet and our world and ourselves, not as living in a static planet, but an evolutionary planet. In other words we are part of an ongoing story that involves the whole material, planetary world we live in. We’re part of that story and who I am today is part of the genetic story of living beings and planets. There’s a very real sense in which I am a genetic cousin with every other living thing on the planet including the grass on the lawn outside and things. Because if you trace the story back far enough, you’ll find that the genes that make the grass have got the same sort of make up as us; that’s wonderful, it’s not an insult to us, it’s wonderful. And the same for Jesus - you’re genetic cousins of Jesus because you are part of the evolutionary story. Now obviously people have slight problems with trying to sort that out with Genesis 1 and so on. But the authors of Genesis would have said good heavens you’ve got a most wonderful gift of understanding creation. If you’re going to write Genesis 1 in your age then you write it with the understanding of creation that you’ve got, and your knowledge which is much, much more profound than what we’ve got. But hang on to the important things, that God is God, there aren’t two Gods a good one and a bad one. Hang on to the fact that he creates all things. Hang on to the fact that human beings have a special place in the story that they are specially like God, in a way that no other creatures are. In other words, hang on to those important things which are as true in our day as, but rewrite it in the wonderful knowledge you have now got.
Well back to the story of which we are a part. We are so much an integral part of the story that I want to suggest to you that you will not achieve your full and final end until the story of the planet finally achieves its end. You will die and you will go into the presence of God, but the traditional late Jewish and Christian belief in what’s called the general resurrection is that you and I will have to await our final resurrection until the whole story finds its conclusion. And this is why, although Jesus is raised to life and is the first born of those who will then follow, he’s made resurrection possible for everybody else. In our case we have to await the general resurrection until we come fully into what we’re meant to be all along. So your story cannot be a private independent one apart from the story that God is telling in the lives of people and our world and our planet. You’re essentially part of that wider story. And that’s a wonderful thing, not like discovering you’re an extremely important part in the drama of Hamlet and that the final significance of your life will be the part you have played in that wider story, rather than you as an isolated individual just ploughing your own way, God and you, and then trying to be a nice loving person in the process. Essentially our story is a part of the whole. And Christians haven’t always been very good at understanding that, not surprising because it does take a bit of understanding doesn’t it, but isn’t it wonderful?
I ought to mention, because nowadays in ecumenical things we don’t dumb down the different beliefs within Christianity, but we just acknowledge them frankly, that certainly in our Catholic faith, and it’s not just Catholics, that Mary has a special place in this whole mystery and the early tradition about Mary’s assumption was that because of who she was, death couldn’t claim her in the same way it claims the rest of us, and that she also shared in the risen resurrection life of Christ.
[Comment on the original tape: Are you alright? You sound terribly quiet and that can either mean that I’m talking to myself or that it’s way beyond you or that you’re so stunned at who you really are, that you’re going to need a bit of time to get used to it all.]
I’m going to leave you with one sentence. I came across this many years ago and anything else I read for the following few weeks meant absolutely nothing to me because this sentence kept coming back to me again and again. It’s from a famous work at the beginning of the last century, just after the first world war, in a small essay he wrote about what does it mean to be a human bodily, Teilhard de Chardin has a sentence where he says: “That which I call my body is not part of the universe that I possess totally it’s the totality of the universe that I possess partially.” Now if before tomorrow morning you can understand what that means drop me a card or something. It’s one of those amazing things; when I read it I felt two things - one is I know that must be true, and the other was I haven’t got the faintest idea how it can be. But what he is trying to get at, you see, is that we are, as bodily people, totally part of this planet and the universe we are living in. And of course, this is what a lot of people are trying to say to us today, that our lives are bound up with our planet not only with each other but with all living beings in our planet.
Now why do I say that Paul would have understood that? You read Romans Chapter 8, where he says that the whole of creation has been waiting and it can’t achieve that which it’s intended for, it can’t achieve its own ends, it’s got a sort of frustration built into it, until the children of God are revealed. And how the children of God are revealed, who are also longing for this fulfilment of the whole story, they are revealed by the resurrection of the body. It’s an extraordinary phrase and people mis-read what he said. The RSV translated that as being set free from mortality and then the revised RSV went back, because obviously people had said that’s not what Paul said, and said ‘the resurrection of our bodies’. And this is Paul’s whole faith you see. It’s why bodiliness is so important to Christian faith.
Ok. We are now going to finish and I want to read to you as a sort of final conclusion for our long journey that we’ve made together a passage from a sermon of a man called Gregory of Nyssa who lived in the fourth century and is one of the great preachers of that day and of ours. So listen to this and make a sort of prayer of it as a conclusion for our time together.
“On this Easter day he said is created the true human person who was made in the image and the likeness of God. For this is the day the Lord has made, it’s the beginning of the new world. This day destroyed the pangs of death and brought to birth the first born from the dead. I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God, he said. Oh what wonderful good news that is. He, who for our sake, became like us to make us brothers and sisters with himself now presents to his true Father his own fulfilled humanity in order to draw all his kindred, his brothers and sisters, you and me and people, to draw all his kindred, after him into that same place.”
That is our Christian faith. Amen.