Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Newsletter Article: Body and Soul

What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?
These words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

Sporadically over the last couple of years, I’ve devoted my newsletter articles to various aspects of the historical Lutheran Divine Service, including such matters as why we returned to using the Hymnal’s orders instead of using “Creative Worship for the Lutheran Parish,” as had been done previous to my being named as your vacancy pastor (and later your called pastor), why I follow certain customs many of you may not have seen before, such as making the sign of the cross as a reminder of the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection which are bestowed in Holy Baptism, kneeling or bowing at certain points in the service (such as when we confess together the mystery of God becoming man in the Nicene Creed), and the use of the word Amen at several more points in the service than what many of you had previously been doing.

For this month, however, I’d like to focus on a very small change that many of you probably haven’t even noticed, but which highlights an important part of what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutheran Christians. This small change is found in the words of the dismissal from the table, after everyone kneeling at the rail has communed. Formerly, the dismissal from the table, as printed in our hymnals, went as follows: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting. Depart + in peace.” But in the latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, the wording has been changed so that it says, “ . . . strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting. . . .” Now, there is something to be said for the former wording, “in the true faith,” so I usually add both phrases together, like so: “. . . strengthen and preserve you in the true faith, body and soul, to life everlasting. . . .” Also, some of you may have noticed that I embellish the description of our Lord’s body and blood slightly: “The true body and the most holy, precious blood . . .” That little change in the beginning of the sentence is just an embellishment in the form of a few adjectives that come from the words I got into the habit of using at some point in my ministry (I don’t even remember when I started saying it that way). Maybe I’ll talk sometime later about those adjectives and why they can be a helpful addition to the dismissal, but that’s not what I want to focus on this month.

What I’d like to focus on is the words “body and soul” which are new to us as of the 2006 publication of LSB. The reason the Commission on Worship changed the dismissal in this way is to remind us that eternity is not just a spiritual existence. Being saved, “going to heaven,” as it is sometimes called, is not just a matter of your soul going to be with God. Many Christians, I’ve found, have a somewhat distorted picture of what salvation really means for the whole person who is rescued for eternity by Jesus death and resurrection. Everyone speaks of how Grandma Schulendorffer (I just made that name up, by the way; any reference to any of your relatives is completely unintentional!) is now in “a better place,” and that she is with God. And certainly that sentiment is true. But when we focus entirely on the fact that someone’s soul is with God, I think we miss what is perhaps the most helpful and beneficial aspect of the Scriptures’ teaching on the subject of eternal salvation. It’s not just the soul that is saved. It’s not just the soul that will live forever. Eternity is not some dreamlike existence, as it is often depicted, where we are like “spirits” or “ghosts,” translucent forms that are barely there, somehow less real and concrete than those of us who are still walking around on this old earth.

What the Scriptures really teach is that on the last day all people will be resurrected bodily, and that those who are saved will live forever with God in the new creation bodily, in real human bodies. Perfected human bodies, not subject to aging, illness, injury, or death, and therefore having aspects and properties too wonderful for us to understand while we remain here, but real human bodies nonetheless. As St. Job puts it in chapter 19, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” The physical creation belongs to God. Yes, it has been distorted and will eventually pass away because of the sin we all have inherited from Adam and Eve, but it is precisely the physical creation, along with the spiritual, that God pronounced “very good” when He was done speaking it into existence. And so the physical is not inherently evil, despite what the ancient Gnostics taught, and what many influenced by various eastern religions tend to think in our own day. Both body and soul were distorted and put to death by sin, and both are to be resurrected in perfection. That’s why Christ made a point, several times during the forty days between Easter and the Ascension, of eating in front of the disciples. His resurrection was a renewal, a restoration, of both the soul and the body, not just the soul alone. Eating is, almost by definition, a bodily thing.

Which is also why Christ instituted a Sacrament in which the physical, visible means that He uses to come to us is one of eating. By giving us His body to eat and His blood to drink, He reminds us that it is not just our minds or our souls or our spirits that will live forever before Him. It is our whole created beings, including the body, which is naturally nourished and sustained by eating and drinking. What is true of Christ’s resurrection is true of our own. In fact, it is the entire physical creation which is redeemed. The Scriptures speak of the “new heavens and the new earth.” We could also paraphrase that as the “new land and the new sky.” Both are part of “heaven” in the sense in which we talk about someone “going to heaven.” (By the way, that’s why I usually use the phrase “in eternity” to refer to our blessed existence before His face, rather than “in heaven.” The word “heaven” can refer both to the sky we see above us and to our eternal existence before God’s face, and it can get confusing as to which definition of “heaven” we’re using at any given point. “Eternity” leaves no doubt that we are talking about our existence forever before God’s face, and not some physical place up in the sky.) God calls our eternal destination the new land and the new sky because land and sky are physical, created things. We are saved not only in our souls, but also in our bodies, and this is true of the entire creation. It is Christ’s physical body that we receive with our bodies every Sunday morning, albeit in a sacramental way that is only understood and appreciated by faith in the forgiveness of sins. Why did He give us sacraments that have a physical element? Why, for that matter, is the Word itself given to us in physical forms, pronounced with real tongues and lips, sending vibrations along real air to our real ears (or real hand signals “heard” by real eyes in the case of sign language, or, for that matter, in real letters on a printed page or on some sort of electronic display, that is seen by real eyes, or, in the case of those who, like Tom, read in braille, “seen” with real hands)? Because it is the physical creation that is also resurrected and redeemed.

Sin brought death into the world, as St. Paul reminds us. An existence separated from our bodies is not life, it is in fact the theological definition of the word death. But, as Luther reminds us, with the forgiveness of sins comes life and salvation. Life means soul and body reunited to live forever with Him.

- Pastor Schellenbach

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