16.5.15

Believing Bodily

I have begun to read a book, prompted by my Fulcrum friend Ephraim Radner's blog review. This book is helping me to explore further my pet worst heresy: Gnostic dualism between body and soul.


I have only read the beginning of this book, I am after 'time,' which is of late hard to find and seems to be hiding from me.

The words of the book have so far struck me with their liveliness.

Much of the book is autobiographical and there are touch points (we are to actually engage with our bodies, prayerfully), there is also a lectio divina approach to the scriptures.

At times there is deep theological reflection to complement what is otherwise a lightness of touch. The gnostic tendencies that we all seem to have are exposed and scrutinised but not without one feeling as though one is always being treated gently for falling into such confusion.

"What we see in the creeds, what we read in these early affirmations of our church ancestors, is an insistence on the particularity of Jesus (he lived at a particular point in history, he was fully God and fully human), the unity of the Trinity and—something that seems to have gotten tucked away in the folds of history—an unflinching belief in the physical resurrection of our bodies when the kingdom of God comes in fullness."

The author explores "Gnosticism [which] purports that matter—the stuff our universe is made of—is inherently flawed and, to more ascetic factions, evil... the heritage of believing our bodies to be painfully incapable of certain types of redemption cripples us to the possibilities God has for the whole of us, bodies included."

Last Thursday we celebrated Ascension. I had cause to think again on flesh and this time, Christ's and how his was a bodily ascension into heaven. I am interested in the ramifications that this has for us as Christians and as I preached, suggested members of the congregation might continue such a theological exploration with me regarding how the ascension impacts discipleship and our feelings about ourselves and one another. Here are my first thoughts: 

The Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. There is a sense of finality lent to his time amongst us in a particular way – God is doing another new thing, it would seem. We actually know very little of what heaven, the place to which Jesus ascended, is like, the book of Revelation gives us some idea. That he returns there to dwell with the Father is however, very important because in doing so it is not as if his being human ends, it is instead that he is glorified. 

Wrapped up with this, there is a being glorified that is ours: one of the consequences of the Incarnation is that this Jesus having become human, has now taken our humanity with him into heaven.

This is attested in Article IV of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Of the Resurrection of Christ this article is called and states—

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.

That he ascended with bones, flesh and all things surely has astounding ramifications for us as Christians. He is 'able to sympathise with us in our weaknesses ... has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. (Heb. 4).' The humanity of Christ that identifies with our humanity never ends, Jesus continues to be the human Jesus as well as the divine Christ.

Paul Fiddes – a contemporary theologian, writes about our participation in God – if you think on Reblev's icon, there really is an empty space at the table for you and I. It does us good spiritually to really understand that in Christ's ascension in his full humanity, there is a taking of each of us, in all our humanity, with him: you dwell also in the heavenly places by virtue of your identity as those who are 'in Christ'. You are in him and he is in you in that mutual indwelling that is described so perfectly by John's verb dwell or abide, those verbs that dominate his gospel. Therefore in Holy Communion (the Eucharist) might be less about Christ's coming down to dwell in bread and wine and more about our being raised up to dwell with him in the heavenly places. Of course the Eucharist is a great mystery but note echoes of the ascension heard in such words as 'Lift up your hearts' and 'we lift them to the Lord.'

Will all of this not also impact how we bear ourselves as his disciples in the world? 'Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:1-3).'

This is a profound statement of our Christian identity. A little like the Ludo boardgame, one counter is already home with Christ (your identity already subsumed in his in the heavenly realms where he has taken you, remember our God is outside time and space). The other counter, the earthly you, is trying to catch up with your heavenly perfected self, made perfect already by the work of Christ on the cross – yours is a slate that has been wiped clean, remember.

This is attested to over and over again by the scriptures – this truth – that our minds can conceive through the simple analogy of the Ludo game: ‘God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,’ we hear in Paul's letter to the Ephesians (2:6).

And so if Christ is in Heaven – what hope for the earthly us here, even if there is a dimension to us that is already secure because 'In Christ' in heaven.

Well, if Christ is only in heaven and has left us here on earth alone then there is a great deal to be concerned about – we are helped hugely by understanding that in Heaven his job is to intercede for us who dwell here still on earth and as the prayer book of 1662 repeats every Sunday – 'If any man sin, we have an advocate in heaven, Jesus Christ the Righteous '– thank God for that... but even so the thought of being alone is not easy. Thank God again then that the particularised Christ who once dwelt in physical time and space, Palestine 2000 years ago, and could not be everywhere then, who is now, it would seem in Heaven, can, thank God, - be present everywhere, by his Spirit. 

We move now to Pentecost – ten days lie before us for us to work all this out and if this stuff might still need a good deal of working out come and have tea with me at the vicarage where we can finish the conversation – but we have ten days now to prepare ourselves for that great celebration that is both the birthday of the church and the coming of the Spirit – it is him for whom we now wait. Of course, by virtue of the first Pentecost he is already present with us but there is always upon us a hope to recognise this and appropriate this afresh. 

May we re-appropriate the Spirit, come to know that it is by Him that Christ is now present on earth. This should have profound consequences for his church – let the journey to Pentecost advance. 

I guess in saying what I said above, I then return to Spirit, Holy Spirit, but made manifest in flesh again, our flesh as we become the body and breath of Christ here on earth and so the body/spirit dualisms and convergencies continue to play themselves out. I am not done thinking through all the ramifications of this - only that I am keen to practise and preach a 'believing bodily' for my own sake and the sake of others. 

To be continued....




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