1 Corinthians 15:35-39, 42-50
February 24, 2019
We’re going to begin our reflection on the scripture with a brief body awareness exercise.
- Get comfortable
- Awareness scan
[Here is a video of a 3-minute body scan practice.]
According to Genesis, our bodies are part of the Divine creation—part of the creation that God called “very good.”
Our Christian faith is an incarnational faith—we believe that God became flesh. And Jesus, who we seek to serve and follow, spent a great deal of his ministry on earth healing people’s bodies.
And yet, Christianity has a problematic tradition of elevating the “spiritual” over the “physical.” New Testament professor Carla Works explains that moral philosophies of the first century tended to denigrate the body, and it’s not too hard to understand why. About half of children died before they were ten. The majority of the population struggled to have enough food to eat. Illness, injury, and disease were rampant. The promise of an escape from the human body must have been quite appealing to most people in the first century, as it was for the Anabaptist martyrs in the 16th century, as it is for many people today.
Yet this tendency to privilege the spiritual over the bodily can lead us to significant problems.
- A lack of care for people’s physical well-being can cause suffering. In fact, sometimes people have intentionally caused themselves—or even others—pain in an attempt to reach a higher spiritual plain.
- Because female bodies menstruate and sometimes give birth, women have historically been thought of as “bodily” while men have been considered more spiritual—and thus this hierarchy of body and spirit has formed a comfortable basis on which the church has been able to rest its patriarchy and sexism.
- And we cannot ignore the role that this body/spirit dichotomy Christians have set up has contributed to our attitudes toward the rest of God’s creation—if the physical world is lesser, then we can use and abuse it as we wish.
So, a lot of harm has come from Christianity’s tendency to elevate the supposedly “spiritual” over the supposedly “physical.” But biblical Christianity does not denigrate the body or set up some hierarchy between the physical and the spiritual.
In the Believers Church Bible Commentary on 1 Corinthians (Herald Press), Dan Nighswander points out the problematic way a particular Greek phrase is often translated: soma psychikon. “Soma” is body, but psychikon is trickier to translate. The NRSV translates the phrase as “physical body.”
So 1 Corinthians 15:44 in the NRSV reads: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”
Nighswander argues that this translation suggests a body/soul dualism that Paul was actually teaching against.
Which is why I asked Sheryl to read the 1 Corinthians passage from a less familiar translation–the Jerusalem Bible translation. (btw, JRR Tolkien was one of the collaborators for this version.)
In this translation, verse 44 reads: “When it is sown it embodies the soul, when it is raised it embodies the spirit. If the soul has its own embodiment, so does the spirit have its own embodiment.”
So here, psychikon is not “physical” but is “spirit.” The soul has an embodiment and the spirit has an embodiment.
Feminist theologian Claudia Janssen* writes: “To exist means bodiliness, being defined and conditioned, a lack of freedom. . . . The splendour of God’s power, which will transform all things, shines through the beauty of bodies.”
“To exist means bodiliness.”
This is what Paul is trying to explain to the Corinthians. He writes: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” Then he proclaims a rather emphatic: “Fool!” Or, my favorite translation: “You nonsense person!”
I’m trying to figure out why Paul thought this was such a ridiculous question. And I wonder if Paul imagined that those asking the question had visions of the zombie apocalypse. Of corpses clawing their way out of their graves and stiffly shuffling through the streets of Corinth.
Or maybe Paul is simply frustrated with their insistence on details. Isn’t the truth of the resurrection enough? Why do they need to know how the dead will be raised and what kind of body they will have?
But, despite his frustration, Paul tries to answer the question. He uses an analogy of plants to explain that just as we have bodies suitable for earthly existence right now, in resurrection we will have bodies suited for heavenly existence.
I heard a comedy clip recently from Julia Sweeny talking about someone who was trying to “bring her to faith.” “When you die,” they told her, “you’ll get to go to heaven and your body will be restored. Like if you lost an arm on earth, you’ll get your arm back in heaven.”
“What about my uterus,” asked Sweeny. “I had a hysterectomy. Will I get my uterus back?”
“But I don’t want that thing back! I’m so much happier without it!”
It gets weird, right? When we try to figure out and explain exactly what happens after death. While some people might hold to this idea of “restored” heavenly bodies, Paul is saying something very different here. He is saying that our eternal heavenly bodies will not be these same bodies. They will not even be made of the safe stuff as these bodies.
But, we will have heavenly bodies. We will not merely be disembodied spirits floating in the ether.
Here’s the truth: I don’t know what, exactly, I believe about our life after this life. I believe God’s love is with us and within us and around us forever. Beyond that, I am starting to agree with Paul that it is rather ridiculous to try to figure out all the details. Because we can’t know. And even if we could know, we probably wouldn’t understand.
And here’s something else I believe is true: That God created these physical bodies that we have. This physical world we live in. That God not only created them, but lived within a body within this world. And it is GOOD.
The physicality of our bodies is good.
The stuff of this earth is good.
Whatever the future holds, we have these good things to love and care for right now.
* “Bodily Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)? The Discussion of the Resurrection in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dorothy Solle and Contemporary Feminist Theology. Journal for the Study of the New Testament. January 1, 2001.
Journal for the Study of the New TestamentDate: January 1, 2001