Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Habeas Corpus: You Have the Body?

Third Sunday of Easter Year B

Down through the centuries Christians have always confessed with the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe…in the resurrection of the body” or in some other translations, “the resurrection of the flesh.” This affirmation of faith in the resurrection is grounded in faith in Christ’s resurrection. A major purpose of the latter resurrection was to make possible the former; thus they are both of the same nature. The two doctrines are therefore interdependent. Our belief in the resurrection in the body would collapse if it was not tied to our fundamental belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Yet the notion of the bodily resurrection of Christ has been the subject of controversies right from the very beginning. The problem in the resurrection isn't so much in agreeing that Jesus rose but in how He rose. It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?  Sounds macabre! In spite of the historic church’s unwavering belief in the resurrection of the flesh, there are those then as there are those today who refuse to accept the bodily resurrection of Christ. The Romans discredited it, the Jews denied it and the Gnostics couldn’t stomach it.  For more than two millennium the Church has been fighting off the throngs of heretics who deny much or all of the Symbol of Faith, but there are few truths that exasperate the world more than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Chief among the deniers and disbelievers was a sect generally known as Gnostics, who had a dualistic view of the universe. 

Gnosticism and Greek philosophy in general commonly distinguished between two worlds, the world of the spirit, of thought and ideas, and the world of matter, the universe around us including our physical bodies with all their senses and passions. According to this Greek view, the world of the spirit is the higher and more perfect world, the material world being inferior, less perfect, or even positively evil. Man’s present problem, according to this view, is not that he is a sinner, separated from God by his sin and rebellion, but that his spirit is at present trapped within the prison house of the body. Redemption, according to this view, consists not in the forgiveness of sins and union with God in Christ but in the release of the human spirit from its imprisonment within the physical body. It is no wonder that those holding such views therefore looked forward to death and embraced it readily (even to the extent of taking their own lives) believing that in death the spirit would be freed from all imperfections. For such, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is a patent absurdity.

This heretical thinking is not just a thing of the past. It has been passed to our modern world with the recent interest in such writings as the so-called gospels of Judas and Thomas, both Gnostic writings.  More specifically, Gnostic thinking has filtered into the conscious and sub-conscious of our society through the host of New Age spiritualities and materialist philosophies that sprouted in Europe in the post-enlightenment period.  These theories, most notably in Marxism and its various off-shoots, promote the idea that the only truth that exists is that which is empirically verifiable, or, that that which can be observed.  Therefore, any revelation, especially such dogmas of faith as the Incarnation and Resurrection, are not believable because there is no scientific evidence of them.

One may be tempted to think that this is making a mountain out of a molehill. So what if we deny the bodily resurrection of Christ, what difference would it make? What many fail to see is that the denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ does more than just deny the resurrection, it strikes at the very core of our Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus is a fundamental and essential doctrine of Christianity.  The resurrection of Jesus is so important that without it Christianity is false.  St Paul said in 1 Cor. 15:14, “and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain… and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”  To deny the resurrection of Jesus is to deny the heart of Christianity itself.

That is why today’s gospel text makes this important point, in recording Jesus’ invitation to his disciples to “touch” and “see” for themselves, so that they will be certain that he is not a ghostly apparition because “a ghost has no flesh and bones.” The body that emerged from the tomb on Easter morning was seen (Matt. 28:17), heard (John 20:15-16), and even touched (Matt. 28:9) on many occasions after the Resurrection. To stress the point further, he asked for something to eat. In fact, Jesus ate food at least four times after the Resurrection (Luke 24:30; 24:42-43; John 21:12-13; Acts 1:4). The Christian church, therefore, has from the beginning confessed that the same physical body of flesh that was laid in Jesus’ tomb was raised immortal.

Following the apostolic testimony, the church down through the centuries has confessed its belief in “the resurrection of the flesh” — both that of Jesus in particular and of humanity in general. St Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) said plainly: “The resurrection is a resurrection of the flesh which dies.” As for those who “maintain that even Jesus Himself appeared only as spiritual, and not in flesh, but presented merely the appearance of flesh: these persons seek to rob the flesh of the promise.” Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-230) declared the resurrection of the flesh to be the church’s “rule of faith,” saying it “was taught by Christ” and only denied by heretics.

But the point of the resurrection is the final defeat of sin, death, and the grave.  And, to do that, you must have a body that crosses over the threshold of death, but then returns victorious. In other words, for God to prove that He has defeated death, He has to have a body to show for it. Literally, a divine writ of habeas corpus – “do you have the body?” That’s why we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  That’s why the resurrection of the body is so important.  That’s why Jesus had to rise again. That’s why we believe in the resurrection because we know that we live now, we live beyond the door of death, we live in eternity, we will return with Christ, we will live in the presence of God on the new earth, in the new Jerusalem, beside the River of Life, shaded by the Tree of Life, where there will be no more tears, and Death will be finally and forever defeated. We believe in the resurrection of the body because we believe in the God who gives life.  So, those who have died before us will rise.  Those whose physical bodies have decayed and been corrupted will rise.
Modern man is not much different than the ancient one.  Today, we live in a world that doubts everything about religion and tradition, especially the Resurrection.  But because of the Resurrection we know for sure what the Church Fathers  knew: that man is the image of God and that we will be destined to become “gods” one day, to share in the eternal beatitude of the Trinity. But this is only possible in and through the Resurrection. We will appear before our Judge and Maker, not as disembodied spirits, but in new glorified bodies, taking after the fashion of the first fruit of the resurrection, Christ Himself. As C. S. Lewis writes, “we will all have faces and the God who called us by name here on this earth, will call us by name again.”

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