Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!
I recently had a very stimulating exchange with a young man who had visited St. Matthew’s on occasion – before the Corona lockdown – and who became a faithful follower of our online worship services. His initial question was, when did the idea of a soul (separate from the body) arise in Christianity? And I have to admit that this question totally threw me off. I had never thought about it nor learned about it in seminary. And I instantly was grabbed by this question. Where does this idea of a soul come from?
Today many Christians believe that, of course, there is this mysterious entity within us called ‘soul’, the one part of us that cannot be destroyed – and that it is our soul, separate from the body, that goes to heaven after we die. And so we might think that Christians always believed that. But that wasn’t always the case.
If you look into the Old Testament, there is the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’, which is usually translated with the English word ‘soul’ or the German word ‘Seele’. But what exactly is ‘nephesh’? ‘Nephesh’ encompasses the wholeness of human existence – or animal life in general, for that matter – the body, the intellect, emotions, that divine spark that rests in all. ‘Nephesh’ expresses that there is something holy about life in all its aspects – because God gave us this life and breathed a holy breath into us and all of creation.
So if we, for example, read the line, ‘Bless the Lord, my soul’ in the psalms, it rather means, ‘Bless the Lord, my entire being, all that I am’. And the body is an integral part of that. We don’t hear that God ‘put a soul’ into our mother’s womb when we were created, but rather, ‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb, God. You fashioned my most inward parts’ – the Hebrew literally says ‘you fashioned my kidneys’ here – we get the idea that it’s very physical.
And this physicality is at the heart of the gospels: the Word became flesh, we read. God was incarnated, came into flesh, in Jesus Christ. God is not just an abstract or philosophical concept, but flesh and blood. And emotion. And intellect. And life force. God is ‘nephesh’ in Christ Jesus.
And so we hear the stories about Jesus’ birth by a real flesh and blood woman, stories about how he feels hunger and thirst, stories about his sadness, his anger, his compassion, his need to get away from it all and to retreat in prayer. We hear stories about Jesus healing people by touching them. And we hear the story about his agony in the Garden Gethsemane, his torture, his long way to Golgotha carrying a heavy cross on his shoulders, the moment he gives up his ‘nephesh’ – and dies.
The gospel is very physical – it is the embodiment of God.
And this embodiment continues with the resurrection. The tomb is empty, Jesus’ body gone. Jesus walks with grieving disciples to Emmaus and sits down for a meal with them.
And in today’s gospel story, Jesus appears to his followers – still on Easter day, the Day of the resurrection, although it is most likely dark by now. And even though his followers have heard about the resurrection of their master and friend from the women who have seen the empty tomb AND the two disciples who had rushed back all the way from Emmaus to tell them about their encounter with the risen Christ – they still can’t believe it. They think they are seeing a ghost – something scary, something fleeting and deceiving, something unsubstantial.
But Jesus says, ‘Why are you startled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ Jesus offers his wounded body, again, to his followers. But even that can’t convince them fully that Christ is risen, indeed. And so Jesus does something that shows his physicality even more: he asks them for a piece of fish and eats it right in front of their eyes. He shows them: it is him, the embodiment of God, God’s ‘nephesh’.
Jesus and the risen Christ make it clear: the entire being is important to God. And the earliest followers believed that God cared about them in their entirety as well, body and soul, in life and death.
Now soon the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem to the Greco-Roman world. And this world was dominated by Greek philosophy, and especially Platonism, in which the ‘psyche’ is the one part of human existence that is pure and immortal and far superior to the body – which only weighs us down as we seek enlightenment. This is how the idea of the superiority of the soul – and a soul separate from the body – crept into Christian beliefs. But the early church tried to defend itself against this thought: whenever we confess our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, we say that we believe in the ‘resurrection of the body’. This article of faith most likely was written to say that it is not just the soul that is saved by God. That God cares about our entire being – in life and death.
But the disembodiment of the gospel had begun. More and more, church teachings emphasized the importance of the soul. Asceticism – where people, in order to lead a more holy life, deprived their bodies of things like food and comfort – became one of the highest ideals in the Western church, especially in some monastic orders.
And the teaching of the strict distinction between body and soul had horrendous consequences: during the Inquisition, and later the forced conversion of colonized people, unfathomable pain was inflicted on human beings, their bodies, in the name of Christ – as their souls supposedly were saved at the same time. If the soul is the important thing, why should we care about the bodies?
African slaves in this country were made into Christians, their souls saved, as their masters continued to treat them – their bodies, their intellects, their emotions, their spirits – in the most inhumane way.
And so the disembodiment of the Gospel continued and progressed. We experience it today, in this country – when religion becomes a personal thing and about a personal relationship to my Lord and Savior, a merely spiritual thing. We experience it wherever religion is not the embodied faith Christ calls us to, a faith that deals with flesh and blood and not only the spiritual, but also the physical suffering of our neighbor.
In a recent powerful op Ed in the Mercury News*, the author, Antonio Ingram, a lawyer based in Oakland, bemoans the ‘disembodiment of the gospel’ as he reflects on racism and recent atrocities committed by people calling themselves Christians – especially the shooting of 8 people, 6 of them of Asian descent, in the Atlanta area a few weeks ago. Ingram writes, ‘During this season, the faithful commemorate the oral accounts of the physical resurrection of the Christian Messiah. Christians retell sacred narratives where atrophy is defeated and decay is reversed. The innocent are vindicated. The unjustly killed are restored.
We rejoice that a wounded and beaten body experienced redemption from trauma and violence. Easter exalts bodily integrity and the value of our human corporality and proclaims that the human body itself is worthy of salvation. How can someone like Long (the murderer of those 8 people in Atlanta) grow up in this hope-filled and body-honoring tradition and yet desecrate so many beautiful lives? (…)
The disembodied false Gospel teaches that scripture is silent regarding our lived experiences, stifles protest and offers the same piecemeal spiritual panaceas regardless of the infirmity. In the disembodied Gospel, the commands to love your neighbor, care for the widow and welcome the foreigner are reduced to mere platitudes with no substantive plan for implementation. (…)
It is through this exclusion that human bodies lose their sacredness and become profane and disposable. Long received a gospel that forgot the honor that the story of the physical resurrection of the Christ ascribes the bodies of all people. (…)’
And Ingram concludes, ‘This Easter,…may we reject theologies that excise the parts of the Easter message concerned with our lived experiences, cultures and identities. May we promote faith dialogues that exalt the human body…’
God created us as ‘nephesh’, people of flesh and blood and intellect and emotion and that divine spark in us. As Christ’s physical resurrection shows us: God cares about soul AND body, about our entire being, in life and in death. May we honor God’s gift of our wholeness and treat it as holy. May we honor all of our neighbors in their wholeness and their complexity and treat them as holy. May we care for their souls as we heal and care for their bodies.
May we embody God’s love for all, in word and deed. Amen
*Mercury News, April 2nd, 2021; https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/04/02/opinion-atlanta-killer-never-received-the-message-easter-memorializes/?fbclid=IwAR2CfChbBTbismnjCQvYneMVicF004T1roxeAJvQ2-BEvFSh_lfcIAoeiE8
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