When Stephen Hawking died last year, I noticed a debate surrounding depictions of him in the afterlife. Regardless of his personal beliefs, people chose to depict him walking in heaven. Since Professor Hawking used a wheelchair due to ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), he was now, in death, shown walking again. It’s a normal instinct, I think, to imagine the afterlife in this way. Even the book Heaven is for Real (which was popular a few years ago), imagined heaven being the place where we are our “best self.” This “best” is usually described as meaning we’re physically on point while in the afterlife. If we wear glasses on earth, then heaven should be a place where we all receive the best laser-eye corrective surgery. If we suffer physical ailments today, heaven is the place where those ailments no longer limit us. And if we are confined, disabled, or struggling in this life, eternal life should be the opposite of that. We imagine heaven being the place where we are physically whole and this wholeness, we say, cannot include the limitations of our human life.
Paul, in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, was addressing questions about the nature of the Resurrection. In last week’s reading, Paul wrote that our faith and hope rested in the reality of Christ’s Resurrection. Without it, the followers of Jesus might be following a great guy but they are not following a savior. Today’s reading continues by expanding on why the Resurrection should matter to each of us. Through our baptism and faith, we have been united with the new thing that God has started in the world. As I often say in funeral liturgies, we have not only been baptized into his death but we also have been united into Jesus’ Resurrection. Our experience of the human story is no longer the limit. God has another chapter planned for each of us. And that chapter is rooted in the Resurrection that involves, on some level, an actual body. No one really knows what Paul meant by “spiritual body.” Paul did not believe or teach that we have an immortal soul that is separate from our human body. Paul, instead, believed that our identity as human beings is always embodied. We are who we are because of all our thoughts and experiences. And these experiences are generated, recorded, and handled by a real body.
The Resurrection, to Paul, wasn’t about gaining a new body that is perfect. Rather, Paul wrote that the next chapter of our story will be a brand new reality. Paul had no idea what we’ll look like in the afterlife or during the Resurrection (the only model we have is Jesus as described in the gospels who is still wounded). But Paul knew that we will be living eternally as only God can imagine us to be. Heaven, the afterlife, and the Resurrection isn’t about living as our best selves. Instead, it’s about becoming fully who we are because we will be experiencing Christ’s love fully face-to-face.
This is a reflection published in Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, 2/24/2019.