The undoing of death…
Please note this is an abridged version of a 30 minute talk!
Almost 4 centuries before Christ, the pagan Greek philosopher Socrates was teaching his students about the immortality of the soul. His belief was that the soul existed before it took on this mortal flesh and that it would continue to exist afterwards… He reasoned that this soul/mind bit of you is the ‘real’ you, and that your psychological (soulish) life is your real life. This body that we happen to inhabit for a few years isn’t what or who you really are, and once it is discarded you are liberated to fully realise your potential as a human being (Socrates thought you could become divine, so that’s quite a lot of potential really!). It’s amazing how prevalent his ideas remain even 2,500 years later.
As Christians though we have to emphatically reject the idea that our bodies aren’t who we really are, and that I become more real if I can just escape this body. The earliest chapters of the Bible teach us that we are created as body. This physical part of me isn’t an optional add-on, still less a prison that stops me realising my potential. This is who I am. If you take it away, I’m not fully me!
That’s why we have been thinking about Paul’s discomfort at the idea of being away from the body – even though that means he will be with Jesus. He is eager to be with Jesus, but he is aware that while he is ‘away from the body’, he will be incomplete, less than who and what he truly is. Paul wants to be delivered from this body of death, not so that he can enter into some spiritual, body-less existence, but rather so that he can be clothed again with a resurrection body of righteousness and glory. He looks forward to being more physical, not less.
Any such diminishing of our bodies per se should be undercut by our consideration of Jesus, who not only took a human body in His incarnation, but then reclaimed it from death in His resurrection. His highest plane of existence wasn’t minus His body. It was His resurrected, human physicality.
This resurrection future pioneered by Christ has always been the hope of the Church (I Sam.2:6; Is.26:19; Dan.12:2 etc.). It was a key part of the Apostle’s doctrine (Acts 24:15), and has been confessed by generations of Christians in the most fundamental creeds and as part of their worship. We were created from Dust, and yes, we return to dust – but we will also be raised from the dust (Dan.12:2).
Christianity has no problem with human physicality. It does have a problem with the way our bodies, tied into the structures of this fallen creation, have become polluted with sin and infected by death. But human bodies redeemed from the curse, imperishable, glorious, powerful and shaped by the life of the Holy Spirit… that is the great Christian hope! To know that this body will be resurrected and in that process be utterly transformed is the longing of every Christian.
There remains the question of why this all matters to me. At one level it underlines the reality of what it means to be human. If our future was body-less, then it would call into question our physicality here and now. We would end up where the pagan philosophers landed, marginalising and even lamenting our physicality as a prison to be escaped from; it would warp our whole thinking of what it means to be a human being. Our belief in the resurrection future of this body gives great dignity to our physicality. I will be judged according to what I have done while in the body. This is the body I will be for everlasting ages. Our belief in the resurrection prevents us from an inadequate view of discipleship that reduces the complexity of life to a handful of ‘spiritual’ pursuits. It allows us to confront the fact that everything we done in the body will carry eternal significance, whilst also recognising that in their current state those bodies are deeply flawed.
Celebrating our physicality while recognising it is foundationally unsound, enables us to navigate the tension of being a part of this world but in a radically relativized way. It frees us to take risks, and endure suffering, and to make the hugely sacrificial decisions we need to for the sake of the Gospel, and for our own growth. The early Church’s realisation that Jesus had vanquished death (and that we would share in that triumph) triggered a revolution. It may be that our own spiritual powerlessness is linked to our loss of the vision of our resurrection future. People often mock the Christian hope: ‘so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use’. We may discover paradoxically that it is only those who are ‘heavenly-minded’ who are any earthly use.
Our hope in the resurrection future is incredibly personal, but it isn’t private, or individualistic. Jesus teaches that the scope of his victory over death is not limited to a few human-sized and human-shaped bits of creation. The whole of creation needs to be resurrected. This will be our focus next week.
Read Eccl.7:2-4. What do you think we are being taught here? Do you think it wise teaching? Why / why not? How could you put this into practise?
Have a look at Matt.27:51-53. What do you think is happening here, and why?
What is the best argument that you have heard about why Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? How would you respond to it?
Reflecting on Session 5:
In what ways does the teaching of pagan philosophers like Socrates continue to shape our culture’s thinking about and engagement with death? What other common ideas are you aware of? How important is it that as Christians we are able to repudiate these kinds of ideas?
What would you say to someone who said they were a Christian, but whose vision of the future was not physical? How different would our faith be if we didn’t believe in a physical future?
Do you think resurrection is something they believed in during Old Testament times?
Does a passage like I John 3:2-3 nullify our attempts to understand what the resurrection body is like? How does our hope motivate us in our discipleship?
Read any of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus (Matt.28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20). What can we learn about the experience of resurrection from the example of Jesus’ resurrection? In what ways do you think our resurrection will be like Jesus’, and in what ways will it not be (if any)?
How significant is the doctrine of the resurrection to you? Would you agree with John Bradford that the prospect of our resurrection is, of all God’s blessings to us, the greatest? Why / why not? Can you think of any passages from the Bible that might confirm or deny Bradford’s claim?
What do you make of the Bible’s use of the language of ‘rewards’ with regard to judgement? Do you think our experience of the New Creation will be different depending on our faithfulness here and now? How does this fit with the idea of being saved by grace?
Further Reading (John 11:1-44):
(we’ll be coming back to this passage each week throughout the course)
In what ways do you think our culture is good or bad at grieving?
Is it possible for a Christian to grieve too much? How can we know if our grief is ‘normal’ or if it goes too far? Is there such a thing as ‘normal’ grief?
How does having hope affect the way Christians grieve (I Thess.4:13)? How do you think Martha’s belief in the resurrection (v.24) affected her experience of grief?
Do you think Mary and/or Martha are angry with Jesus (see vv.21 & 32)? Do they blame Him for Lazarus’ death? What can we learn from Jesus’ response to the sisters?
For personal reflection: When I stand before Jesus, what do I want Him to say to me? What changes do I need to make in how I live now to make that possible? What support do I need to make those changes?