“Alleluia, alleluia. The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of bread. Alleluia. I am the Good Shepherd: and know my sheep, and am known of mine. Alleluia.”
“Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”
The only way that St. Paul could have written to the Romans, that “the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into glorious liberty,” was the fact that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was “made man: And was crucified… for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures.” It is because God, who is Spirit, Truth, and Love was “incarnate by the Holy Ghost,” made of the very stuff that created things are made, at least the created things of the visible universe – namely matter, material, stuff of weight and volume. But not just any matter, he was made of the very material that you and I are made – to be precise, a body of flesh. Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas both defined matter in the same way: matter is that which has the capacity to take on form. Wood can take on the form of a table, a chair, a house or a cross. Stone may take on the form of a saint, a baptismal font or a foundation for a new home. Metal of various kind – copper, steel, silver, and gold, may be formed into surgical equipment, hard nails, guns, a wedding ring, or an altar cross. Flesh may take the form of a snake, a lamb, a lion or a man. And the human body may, with the proper nutrition and exercise, take on the form of an athlete or by scourging and crucifixion the human body can be broken, lose it life-giving blood and take on the grotesque form of horror. God who is Spirit, Truth and Love cannot be formed at all because he is God and he cannot be limited by form; but the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son of the Father humbled himself to become flesh – God stooped to become an instantiation of his own material creation. And it by God becoming a specific material instance of his creation that Paul can state with the utmost confidence that “the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” But we have to be very clear that all of this is contingent upon not only the Incarnation, but also the death and resurrection of Christ which is first specific instance of a portion of the material creation being delivered “from the bondage of corruption into glorious liberty” that is the destiny of all creation. And that is why St. Paul and the Church were so confident that the whole material creation was on its way to being saved from death and corruption. But to get this, to really understand it one has to realize exactly what the Church believed about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and why the doctrine of resurrection sharply distinguished Christian from pagan.
Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans from Corinth in the middle to late 50s. In AD 49 the Jews had been expelled from the city of Rome and a good many of them settled in Corinth and among the Jews who left Rome and settled there were a husband and wife team of business owners we know as Aquila and Priscilla. Along with Paul they became founders of the first Church in Corinth, which consisted of several house churches and between 150 – 200 parishioners. By the time Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans Aquila and Priscilla had returned to the City of Rome and either established or re-established a house church there.
The Christians in the Roman and the Corinthian Church were made up of a cross section of the city – wealthy and status-seeking gentiles and Jews, trades people, merchants, slaves and former slaves. There were social and ethnic factions among Christians throughout the empire and the resurrection that St. Paul preached and the resurrection they all talked about became the mother of all factions in Corinth. How do we know that the resurrection had become a source of division? Because Paul had to deal with the breakdown in Corinth before they not only tore the Church apart, but also because the source of the divisions was a rejection of what the Church actually believed about the resurrection:
“Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
I Corinthians 15: 12
There were some of the little house-church leaders who had come to the conclusion that the resurrection as St. Paul preached was not possible. Why would they think that? They thought that the resurrection Paul preached meant the resurrection of the body, the physical, material body. And they were right, that is exactly what Paul and for that matter the whole company of the Apostles knew to be true. Paul even cited the Apostles and the original Church in Jerusalem as his source of authority on the resurrection of Christ:
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep…”
I Corinthians 15:3-6
When Paul stated here that what he had preached to the Churches concerning the resurrection of Christ was “first of all,” by that phrase he meant that it was of first importance. The resurrection of Christ was not some ineffable truth that was beyond history. This little creed was given to Paul probably when he was baptized which was about three years after Jesus was crucified, 14 years ago. He passed on to the Corinthians exactly what he had received: This is of first importance. According to this formative creedal statement Jesus died for our sins, he was buried, and he rose from the dead and a whole string of witnesses not only saw him but spent time with him after his resurrection. Furthermore Paul underlines his point, in light of such abundant apostolic witness:
“… how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
I Corinthians 15: 12
Here is the point that Paul is making. The whole of Chapter 15 of 1st Corinthians is St. Paul’s insistence upon the resurrection of the body, the physical, material body against those in the Church for whom that belief was intellectually unsound. But this is the very point that I want to make: the chief heresy in Corinth in Paul’s day is the chief heresy in the Church today and it is either ignorance of or outright denial of the resurrection of the body. But Paul makes the point even stronger he writes, “egegertai nekron:
We have that translated, “resurrection of the dead,” but even that trims back the objectionable content for our ears. A more accurate, and pointed translation would be “the resurrection of the corpse.” To the Greek that notion was repulsive. The material, physical body was capable of many wonderful things like athletic wonders and strength, poetry, sexual pleasure, taste and song. But the human body was also undisciplined and it grew weak with age and disease and when life left the human body, it rotted. The very thought of living eternally in a body of weakness, appetite, and endless desire was not attractive to the Greeks or the Romans. But the idea that resurrection might mean the survival of the human spirit free from the prison house of the body made a great deal of sense to them and so these well-off, well-educated Corinthian Christians reinterpreted the meaning of the resurrection. But that interpretation is so destructive a heresy that Paul simply says that if it is not the case that Christ was raised bodily from the dead then Christianity is worthless.
It is impossible for us to pass on the real Christian faith to the up and coming generations of Christians without being crystal clear that our belief in the resurrection of the body is absolutely not equivalent to some kind of generalized belief in the survival of the soul after death. To deny the resurrection of the body is to deny the importance of the material creation and yet we know that the material creation “shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into glorious liberty.” Our flawed and hungering bodies happened to be loved by the Creator of the universe. Our contingent, sagging flesh will one day yield up the ghost but that is not the end of our bodies of flesh because our finality involves the resurrection of our bodies and our liberation from corruption and decay. Furthermore this groaning creation that we inhabit also figures into God’s finality of the resurrection and deliverance from corruption and decay. I have made this point repeatedly in our study of Romans: when we dismiss God’s finality for his creation, and the rejection the resurrection of the body is one example of such a rejection of God’s finality, we replace it with our own finality. As I have said, right in the middle of Romans Paul sums up our story as a history of pain made manifest in the bleating and groaning of God’s creatures who have gone from being worshipped to being our entertainment, to being our dinner, and finally to being our garbage. The sense of place evoked by mankind’s final cause for creation is the supermarket, the shopping mall, and the futility of the city dump.
Flannery O’Connor comments on the three great miracles in the life of Christ:
“For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified.”
It is astonishing that the Church’s great hope is in the resurrection of the flesh and not merely the survival of the soul after death. She waits and groans in solidarity with creation, as she anticipates the victory of God and the redemption of the material world. The Church awaits the “redemption of our bodies,” because there is no eternal vocation apart from our bodies. The material world is not our enemy, nor is it a prison – it is our home. We sigh, we groan together because there is an oneness, a unity between us; we are very much at home in the material world. This sense of oneness with the creature is sorely impaired, but our longing is profound and we have a revelation from God affirming the truth of that intuition. And so Paul gives us a vision of our destiny as children of God that includes the destiny of this earth – from whose own soil and substance God sculpted our bodies in the beginning.
As soon and in proportion as a Christian believes that Christ was raised bodily from the dead, he will experience detachment from human affairs and the birth of true morality. I do not mean that he will not love or care for people, but he will not be controlled by them nor will he be controlled by desire or fear or a sense of helplessness. In fact he will love more and he will love better. His sense of self-regard, of protecting his share in the pomp and vanity of the world will fade. He will see clearly how to live beyond bias and drama. He will learn to live patiently and wisely, lenient toward others, kindhearted and forgiving. As soon as a Christian believes Christ was raised bodily from the dead form in him sobriety, discretion, moderation and gentleness – he will care not so much for self-regard as self-mastery. May God grant us such growth as the years roll on and we await the great Day of the Resurrection.
“Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”