The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
Dearly beloved: we are gathered here today to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The word in Greek is anastasis, which means, literally, “to stand up again.” It’s a reference to the fact that on Good Friday the enemies of Jesus knocked him down, they nailed him to the cross, they hung him up to die, they laid him in a tomb, but “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” he stood up again. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels said to the women. “He is not here, but has risen.” That’s the word of the day. That’s what we’ve come to celebrate.
But that’s not all.
Today’s epistle reading is from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s famous “resurrection chapter,” in which he argues that not only Jesus, but also all of us who belong to him, will be raised from the dead. He argues so passionately and so persuasively that the resurrection of the body, rather than the immortality of the soul, became the official doctrine of the early church. In the Fourth Century Christians began reciting the Nicene Creed, which says, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.” The Apostle’s Creed, written sometime later, makes it more personal. It says, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body.” Even now, the idea that our physical bodies will someday rise is the orthodox teaching of the church, but that doesn’t mean that everyone believes it.
The question of bodily resurrection came up after one of my sermons a few weeks ago, when I talked about the Hebrew word nephesh, the one that is most often translated as “soul.” Tim Mackie from the BibleProject.com says, “That’s unfortunate, because the English word soul comes with lots of baggage from ancient Greek philosophy. It’s the idea that the soul is a non-physical, immortal essence of a person that’s contained or trapped in their body to be released at death.” But that is not the biblical view. According to Mackie “The Hebrew word nephesh refers to the whole person. When the life-breath goes out of a person, the nephesh remains. It’s just called a dead nephesh, that is, a corpse. So in the Bible, people don’t have a nephesh; rather, they are a nephesh—a living, breathing, physical being.”[i]
One person came looking for me as soon as church was over, saying, “Wait a minute! I’ve always heard that when your body dies your soul goes to heaven, but you’re telling me something different.” I said, “I’m only telling you what the Bible says.” Someone else wrote to me later that week with the same kind of concern. When I said, again, that the immortality of the soul is not the biblical view he wrote back and said, “Well, it’s the one I feel most comfortable with, so I’m keeping it.” I didn’t say so, but I was thinking, “Are you going to believe things that aren’t biblical, just because they’re easier?” I wondered what was so hard about believing that when we die we are completely dead, and that when God is good and ready he will raise us up? And that’s when it hit me that the hard thing for this man, and maybe for most of us, is time.
Let me use a personal example. My father died a little more than seven years ago. My mother died a few years after that. The two of them are buried on my brother’s farm, on a beautiful hillside in West Virginia that faces the rising sun. Their tombstone says, “In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, here lie the mortal remains of James and Mary Rice Whiting Somerville.” You could ask me, “Do you believe your parents are there, in those graves?” and I would say, “No! I believe they are with the Lord.” “But what about this tombstone, that makes it sound as if they are just lying there, waiting for the sun to come up on the Day of Resurrection?” Well, here’s what I believe, but try to stay with me, because it’s complicated:
I believe that the clock started ticking on the first day of creation, when God said, “Let there be light.” And I believe that someday the clock will stop ticking, and time will come to an end. If you stretch out the time line in space it might look like this [pulling hands apart as if pulling a string, to a distance of about two feet]. But God is bigger than time [drawing a large oval around the time line]. That’s how he could be with Moses on Mount Sinai and with Jesus on Mount Calvary at the same time. But we’re different. We are stuck on the timeline. We are slaves to the ticking clock. Slaves, that is, until we die, and when we do I believe we step off the timeline and into the presence of God (which may explain why Jesus could say to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”). One of my seminary professors put it like this: “The only thing that separates the day of your death from the day of your resurrection is time [holding a pencil between his palms], and when time drops out of the equation [dropping the pencil] the two come together, like this!” [clapping his hands]. He clapped his hands together so loudly some of us dropped our own pencils.
I know this is hard to grasp. None of us has ever lived outside of time. So, here’s another way to think about it. Imagine that all of us are on our way to the Promised Land, like those Hebrew children of long ago. We’re walking on a wide road that winds through the wilderness. We’re singing old hymns as we go. But then, every once in a while, someone falls to the ground and dies. It just happens. But when it does an ambulance comes, only it’s not blaring that awful siren, it’s playing, “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder.” The paramedics get out, load the body gently into the ambulance, and then drive off toward the Promised Land, ahead of us. When we finally get there, weary from our travels, there they are!—those saints who went before us—standing on the other side of the Jordan, alive and well, smiling and waving and welcoming us home.
That hymn, “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” was one of my mother’s favorites. Near the end of her life she suffered from dementia; she couldn’t remember much of anything. But one day I took her for a drive in the country and I started singing that hymn. She sang it right along with me. Do you remember the words?
When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound
And time shall be no more (!)
When the morning breaks, eternal,
Bright, and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather
Over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder,
I’ll be there.
My brothers and I sang that hymn at my mother’s funeral, wiping tears from our eyes while her simple pine casket rested under a cedar tree, but I think if she could have spoken she would have said, “Oh, children! I have been there and done that! I’ve got the T-shirt! Only it doesn’t say, ‘When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there,” it says, ‘When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be here!”
My mother believed in the resurrection of the body, and so do I. But in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul anticipates our next question. He writes: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’’ People have asked me that question. Especially when a loved one has been cremated people want to know how bodily resurrection works when there’s not much of the body left. I usually say, “I don’t know how it works, but I trust the God who made the first man out of a handful of dust to re-make your loved one out of a handful of ashes.” That’s what I say. But Paul (who must have skipped that class in seminary where you learn how to be gentle with people) says, “Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.”[ii]
It’s an analogy, but a good one. I can still remember how disappointed I was, as a boy, to buy a packet of seeds at the hardware store with all those brightly colored flowers on the front and then open it up to find only those dry, brown, shriveled-up seeds. But my mother helped me plant them and water them, and in a few weeks’ time there were flowers in my back yard more beautiful than those on the seed packet. It really is a miracle, isn’t it? Paul simply claims that what happens to the bodies we bury in the ground (or reduce to a pile of ashes) is no more, but certainly no less, miraculous than that.
It’s an analogy: a way of comparing something we don’t understand with something we do understand in an effort to make sense of it. Jesus did it all the time. The author of John’s Gospel tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word (meaning Jesus). The Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.” But then the Word became flesh and almost immediately the Word had a problem: how do you explain the wonders of heaven in the words of mere humans? It’s hard. You have to use similes, analogies, metaphors, and parables. That’s what Jesus did. He told his hearers that the Kingdom of Heaven was like a mustard seed, for example, or like finding treasure in a field. “He did not tell them anything without using a parable,” Matthew says.[iii]
He didn’t have a choice.
Maybe Paul didn’t either. In 2 Corinthians 12 he says he knew a man who was taken up to “the third heaven,” which seems to be a modest way of talking about one of his own spiritual experiences. What did he see while he was up there? We don’t really know, and when Paul tries to talk about those things he, too, has a hard time putting them into words. He opens his mouth in a parable.[iv] He says that our resurrection bodies will be like the beautiful flowers that grow from a handful of dry, brown, shriveled-up seeds. In that same chapter he says, “Lo, I tell you a mystery! We shall not all sleep (that is, die), but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and [those of us who are still alive] will be changed!”[v]
Do you know what he’s talking about? I don’t. And anyone who tells you they know what happens to you after you die, or what kind of resurrection body you will have, or when all of this is going to happen, is probably someone you should avoid. It’s a mystery. But recently I had an experience that seems like a good analogy, one the Apostle Paul may have used if the Apostle Paul had used a smartphone. Because here’s what happened:
My phone was dying. I’d had it for five or six years and the battery just wouldn’t hold a charge anymore. I’d charge it up overnight, take it with me to work, and by noon the battery would be down to ten percent. Plus the memory was nearly full, which is another way of saying that, like me, my phone was having trouble remembering things. I put it off for as long as possible but on my birthday I ordered a new phone from Amazon. Well, not a new one (and this is what makes this such a good analogy). I ordered a renewed smartphone: one where they had taken an old phone and brought it back to life again, with a new body, and a new battery, and an upgraded operating system.
It was delivered that same day, and when I took it out of the package it was charged and ready to go. The instructions said that if I wanted to transfer the data from my old phone to the new one, all I had to do was put the two side by side and let modern technology work its magic, so I did, and about an hour later my new phone was ready to go. And here’s the amazing thing: when I picked it up and turned it on there was my grandson’s face looking back at me. How did it know? How did this phone, that had been renewed in some distant factory, and delivered from some random warehouse, know that was my grandson? And how did it know me? Because when I started looking through the apps there were all my photographs, all my contact information, even my daily Bible reading plan was up to date.
It seemed like a miracle.
But what a good analogy of the resurrection body! Because my new phone has a battery that lasts practically forever, and my new phone has more memory than I will ever need, and my new phone can do things my old phone could never do. I want a resurrection body like that. I want a resurrection body that will download all the information from my old body, but make it new. And if Paul could talk to me now I think he would say, “It’s coming. It’s at the factory now. It will be in the warehouse soon. But when the time comes, it will be waiting.”
Frederick Buechner says, “The thing that God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of a human being but a new and revised version of all the things which made him the particular human being he was and which he needs something like a body to express: his personality, the way he looked, the sound of his voice, his peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense his face.” [vi] And more than his face, I suspect: his arms. Her arms. Arms that can hug you and hold you and welcome you home. Why would you settle for a disembodied soul when you could have all that?
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, “Soul,” BibleProject.com (https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/nephesh-soul/)
[ii] 1 Cor. 15:36-38
[iii] Matt. 13:34
[iv] Psalm 78:2
[v] 1 Cor. 15:51-52
[vi] Frederick Buechner, “Immortality,” Wishful Thinking (https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2017/9/2/immortality).