This series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
The church does not believe that our flesh is a cage for our soul.
It happens just before the start of each funeral we conduct at my church. Someone — a family member, a friend, a person from the funeral home — brings the coffin or the container of ashes into the church. The priest greets it at the door, drapes it with a beautifully-embroidered cloth, and then prays. Only then are the remains of a man, woman, or child moved into place.
Those gestures are a mark of respect. They reveal that we do not treat the body as a discarded husk that once contained a soul; rather, we recognize it as flesh that God has created, that God has loved, and that God has even worn himself. To the faithful Christian, to be a human being is to be an incarnate soul, both in this world and in the next.
And yet, from the beginning, Christianity has been plagued by a Platonic dualism that encourages us to believe that we are really our souls, that upon our death we will just be spirits floating among the clouds, that this body is a trap and a source of temptation, not integral to who we truly are.
A lot of this confusion comes from St. Paul, who spoke of mind (psyche), flesh (sarx) and spirit (pneuma), words which get even more confusing when they are translated. So we get passages like this one: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:5-6) Yikes!
The catch is here to realize that St. Paul’s “flesh” (sarx) is not the same thing as the body. “Flesh” is a metaphor that comprehends everything in us that rebels against the will of God. Thus, Scripture defines flesh as including both bodily sins (gluttony, fornication) and spiritual ones (quarreling, jealousy, envy). The spirit (pneuma), meanwhile, includes all things that embrace God’s will, things both of body and of soul. Love, joy, peace are all things of the spirit, but so are giving money to the poor or feeding the hungry or nursing a hungry child — things which are of the body.
Once we wrap our minds around this, our discipleship takes on a whole new meaning. Our work is not to punish our bodies and eradicate their basic needs (like those saints in the Middle Ages who tried to live for years without eating food); rather, it is to bring our whole selves to Christ and to use everything that is in us to love and serve God and one another.
That’s why the church proclaims the resurrection of the dead as a bodily resurrection: because to be human is to be incarnate, in this world or in the next. But that will be the content of my next posting….
For now, I’d like to leave you with an image. It’s an image that comes from the pages of history, and from the front pages of our newspapers this week. The historic image, which you will mostly likely recognize, is Florence Nightingale, “the Lady with the Lamp.” She was the founder of modern nursing, a woman who went to the battlefields of the Crimea and brought to that bloody carnage the tender and effective care of the shattered bodies of the soldiers. The image from today is the nurses who are caring for the victims of ebola in Africa, many at the cost of their own lives, and of the men who are burying the dead, even though their own families are so frightened of the disease that they refuse to allow them to return home.
Did those stories stir your heart? If they did, it’s because you recognize, at some deep level, that you are flesh, that at some point in your life, the kindest thing someone might do for your soul is to give you a cup of cold water, or a warm blanket, or to hold your hand when you are frightened. We are one thing, one whole creation, bodily flesh and spirit intertwined. One thing which God loves. Thanks be to God.