We have heard on our news in recent times that a mass grave has been discovered in the north east of France near the place where the Battle of Fromelles was fought in July 1916. This was the first action that Australian troops saw on the Western Front in Europe. The attack was foolish, badly planned with the enemy in a superior position. The troops had to cross a wide ‘no-man’s land’ in broad daylight. One survivor wrote, “The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat, crisscrossed lattice of death. Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid”. Over five and a half thousand soldiers were killed in just one day. One hundred and ninety-one were hurriedly buried by the enemy and it is this grave that is about to be opened, the remains of those soldiers identified and reburied in a new memorial cemetery.
The lives of these men were brought to a violent end in a stupid and foolish battle that was a complete defeat for the Australian and British troops. Why is so much effort being put into the exhumation and reburial of those who died so long ago? This is not an easy or inexpensive task. Why do we need to honour what is left of these men, treat those remains with so much dignity and show respect?
We could answer saying that these men gave their lives in the service of their country and deserve this kind of dignity. No one would argue with that.
What is more, this will certainly bring closure for some families who have wondered all these years where their loved one is buried.
The fact remains, however, that retrieving these remains won’t bring the person back. These remains are all that’s left of a life.
Whatever our religious convictions may be deep inside we know that our body is special and so we treat it in a special way even after it has died. When we attend a funeral we give honour and respect to the body, or what’s left of it (as in the case of those soldiers), and treat it with dignity.
Our bodies are miracles. In fact, the body we have was designed and created by God, and carries the mark of his genius. Just think of what our body can do, how complex and balanced, how strong and yet how capable of fine control.
Think about the brain and everything that it does and controls without any effort on our part.
Think about our eyes, ears, heart and lungs that are all so complex and amazing and do such marvellous things and we hardly give them a thought as we go about our daily tasks.
When one part is injured in some way, the body has its own repair mechanism. Our bodies are more than the result of an evolutionary process and are so wonderful and amazing that it’s not hard to believe that we are what we are because the hand of God the Creator made us.
The Bible sees human beings as one of God’s miracles. We are body, soul, mind, spirit, personality, DNA, flesh and bone, all wonderfully and mysteriously integrated and knit together, working in complex harmony. Think of a smile. You can’t separate the different components of a smile and if you were able then it would no longer be a smile. Muscle and bone and spirit and mind and personality all combine in one of the most powerful yet subtle things we can ever experience – a smile.
The psalmist wrote this to express how wonderfully made our bodies are, “You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb. When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother’s womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there— you saw me before I was born” (Psalm 139 13,15-16).
God made Adam and Eve with his own hands and intended them to live forever in happiness and harmony with God and the world in which he placed them. As we know that all changed when sin entered the world and our bodies became infected with all kinds of sickness and the process of aging began. However, even though we are marred and disfigured by sin, this doesn’t diminish the uniqueness of our bodies one bit.
God didn’t put us in this world simply to grow old, wear out and die. He made us to live forever. And in faith, we say as we confess what we believe – ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’ – yes, my body will live forever.
Today we hear, as we have heard since Easter Day, how Jesus appears to his disciples in his resurrection body. To say the least the disciples were terrified. When someone is dead they stay dead. And so Jesus went to lot of effort to show them that he is not a ghost or a spirit or figment of their imagination but the flesh-and-blood Jesus they have known when they walked and talked together as they travelled around Galilee. This is the same Jesus who has real skin; skin that now bears scars from nails and a spear and who eats and drinks in the same way he did when he ate with Zaccheus or with the disciples at the last supper. He says, ‘Look at my hands and my feet and see who I am! Touch me and find out for yourselves. It’s me Jesus’.
The New Testament tells us that our resurrection too (following the pattern set by Jesus) will be a resurrection of the body. In today’s second reading, John says that when Jesus is revealed at the last day ‘we will be like him’ (John 3:2b).
There are some popular ideas about what happens to us after death that are so wrong.
One that raises its head every so often is the idea of reincarnation, that is, after we die we come back in another life. There are even some Christians who have expressed this idea to me. There is nothing to suggest in the Bible that we come back to live another life on this earth again. In fact, I don’t find this a particularly attractive idea compared to the joy of heaven.
Neither does the Bible talk about the dead hanging around as ghosts, or spirits, or forces or whatever.
Neither does the Bible say that we become angels when we die.
What the Bible does say is that the body that is capable of so many wonderful things is a creation of God and that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are redeemed body and soul. That means that eternal life involves our bodies. This teaching about the resurrection of the body is something unique to the Christian faith.
You see, when Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead he didn’t do all this to save just our souls. He gave his body on the cross to save us in our totality. He has made us, body and soul, holy and right with God. We believe that this weak clay pot of a body will one day be transformed into the likeness of the perfect and eternal Son of God himself, nothing less. Yes, we will be like him.
Paul tells us that, like Jesus, our old body that is now so riddled with faults and weaknesses will be made new and perfect and eternal and beautiful and healthy and strong in every way. I’m not just talking about the physical side of our bodies which on this earth suffer from all kinds of ailments but also our personality, our character flaws, our selfishness and all the dark blots that spoil and hold us back, that trip us up here in this life where sin still hangs on to us.
Our will and our minds will be made new. We will know God’s will perfectly and so be in complete harmony with God and with everyone else. All these things will be made new and beautiful and we will be finally what God has always wanted us to be. We will be the beautiful and lovely person that God has always known we would one day become. In fact, that’s not to say that God doesn’t love us now. In Christ, we have already been new and clean because of the blood of Jesus, but while in this life we will always have to deal with sin and sickness and aging.
Paul uses the illustration of a seed that is planted in the ground but rises from the ground as a lush green plant with heads of grain. When you look at a daffodil bulb there is nothing attractive about it. Wrinkly, dry, brown, so ugly but when it is planted and rises from the ground there are green leaves and on the tall, straight stems are the most beautiful flowers. Listen to what the apostle says, “This is how it will be when the dead are raised to life. When the body is buried, it is mortal; when raised, it will be immortal. When buried, it is ugly and weak; when raised, it will be beautiful and strong” (1 Cor 15:42-43).
This is great encouragement and comfort for us as we struggle with aging and illness.
These bodies that wear out in a few short years and leave us creaking and groaning with pain and losing our mobility are headed for complete and radical renewal. No arthritis, no heart problems or diabetes or cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.
No fear of that day when one of these will finally catch up with us and we die.
What a great encouragement and comfort all this is when we must sit at a deathbed or attend the funerals of family and friends.
In Christ and only in Christ is there the hope that beyond death there awaits a new life, a new body and a new home for all those who trust in Jesus as their saviour.
One day all of us will go through the dark valley of death.
We don’t know what our bodies will go through along the way.
We don’t know when this will happen.
We don’t have a precise description of what our new bodies will be like. After all how can you describe something out of this world with worldly words?
But what we do know is that when Jesus is revealed, we will be like him.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy