5th Sunday Lent

S. Lent 5.23 “Resurrection” John 11:1-45

Do you believe in the immortality of the soul? I don’t. The prophets, apostles, and Luther don’t. Because the holy scriptures don’t teach it. Plato and Aristotle (pagans!) did. And Thomas Aquinas (pagan fanboy) imported the pagan idea of the immortality of the soul into a “Christian” [sneer quotes are correct!] system blending philosophy, paganism, and Christianity. It took the bold, biblical teaching of Martin Luther to see these (and many other scholastic teachings) as Gospel and faith destroying errors, to call the church back to what the scriptures actually teach: which is not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the dead, a very different doctrine!

Of course, as you can see, Luther’s biblical teaching did not inspire the majority of Christendom (to say nothing of the pagan world!) in his day, nor in ours. His teaching hasn’t even captured the majority of the members of the “Lutheran” Church. But hey, it’s OK. Jesus says the narrow and difficult way to heaven is traversed by only a few adventurous types—who don’t mind being a despised minority with long odds against them. “The only thing about the Zombie Apocalypse, when it comes…” well, you know how to finish that sentence.

So what is the difference between the teaching of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead? That’s a great question and we will answer it today from our OT and Gospel texts (and a couple others). In a nutshell: the immortality of the soul is the view that humans are compromised of two parts: the physical body and the immaterial soul. The body is subject to death, by nature (not by sin. Pagans don’t believe in sin, original or unoriginal. I think you should always strive to be original 😉 

For pagans, the soul is immortal, not subject to death, according to the original Greek teaching of the immortal soul (a nice summary of which you can find in Plato’s Phaedrus) which also sees the body as a useless temporary vessel that only keeps the soul from winging its way heavenward. Greeks viewed the body the way Jack Handy views a set of keys dropped into a river of molten lava. “If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, just let ‘em go. Because, man; they’re gone.” The “keys” here being our bodies, and the “river of molten lava” being death. 😉

But, for pagan teaching, the soul is impervious to death; it’s immortal, immaterial. How our souls got trapped in physical bodies was, for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, a disaster, akin to the Zombie Apocalypse, actually. They thought all mortals are, basically, zombies until death lets our souls fly away, free.

(They said all the philosophy I read and zombie movies I watched were useless? Ha! They’re wrong about algebra too—I never use it. 😉

What Aquinas did in the 13th century was to wed the incompatible doctrines of the immortality of the soul with the resurrection of the dead as if they are basically the same thing (which they aren’t) and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were secret, proto-Christian apostles (which they weren’t). 

Aquinas took over the pagan anthropology of the immortal soul and the material (essentially useless) body and said: when we die, the body vanishes and the soul wings its way heavenward, as Socrates teaches in the Phaedrus. Why God married soul and body is a mystery to Aquinas (as most real Xn teachings are for the not-so-good doctor), perhaps a mistake, maybe a test? But at the Last Day, God will raise all the dead and put our immortal souls back into our old (or perhaps brand new?) bodies and take the good people to heaven for fun and games and send the bad people to hell for an eternal time out. 

And so you’ve probably heard at many a “Christian” funeral service.

What the holy scriptures actually teach is the resurrection of the dead. Human beings aren’t 2 separate things that can live apart from each other—but 1 embodied spirit. Ezekiel shows the picture in our OT reading. God takes the dead bones of Israel and puts them back to together, with sinews, flesh. But without the “spirit” they are just… mannequins with no life. On the other hand, without the body, the spirit has no tangible, physical reality for us. As Luther rightly says: in the biblical view, our bodies don’t live without the spirit, and our spirits don’t live (as we understand life) without the body.

Ps. 104 teaches this biblical anthropology beautifully (a favorite of Luther’s and the source of his table blessing). “These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”

Now, a quick Hebrew lesson: the Hebrew word that is translated as “breath” in Ezekiel 37 and Ps. 104 v. 29, but as “Spirit” in vs. 30 of Ps. 104 is the same word ruah [or ROO-AHKKK! as it’s pronounced, much more beautifully, in the original Klingon] 😉 and is also translated as “wind”, sometimes; ruah goes into Greek as πνευμα which is also wind, breath, spirit. Personally I always translate ruah and πνευμα as “spirit”. It’s essentially divine—Spirit—and makes you see wind and breath aright.

Ps. 104 is clear (as Ezekiel’s vision is clear): without the spirit of God breathed into us, we are just bags of blood and bone with no life. The body without spirit is just inert matter. And the spirit without the body is something we humans cannot see or grasp. God is spirit, and his life is not ethereal or unreal. But unless it is put into a body, we can’t grasp it. And so even God himself, our Lord Jesus, the Son of God, took on a body at Bethlehem and he rules the physical universe through his 6ft, 165lb body. Always has. Always will. 

God “inspirited” Adam at creation, with his own divine Spirit—as he did not put himself into the animals. Since scriptures don’t explain the difference, neither can I. (I just know all dogs—and some cats—go to heaven 😉 That “spirit” which gives us life is never really ours. It’s borrowed, loaned by God, breath by breath that we take. When God withholds his spirit, we die and collapse back into nothingness. When he sends forth his Spirit, we are created anew.

We see this with Lazarus and his death which only shows the glory of God (like the man born blind!) And the glory is something like this, I think. God is constantly gifting and re-gifting his spirit to us. As he called Lazarus from the grave, so God does by his Word, constantly gifting, re-gifting us life.

Scriptures teach God created everything ex nihilo—“out of nothing”. Greeks think matter’s eternal and God’s just a technician. Christians know God as Creator—and our lives a dance on the edge of the abyss—each breath expelled is a little death; and each breath taken in is God creating us out of nothing. Death is God withholding our breath, massively, so that the sin infecting us (embodied spirits) can finally be suffocated and we can be resurrected—sinless and holy, rebooted, if you will.

This is the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Every breath you take, as a Xn, is really creation ex nihilo—a little death and resurrection. By Word and Sacrament, through faith in Jesus, we’re always dying and being resurrected. And, at the Last, Jesus will shout his “Come forth!” to all of us; and, like Ezekiel’s dry bones, like Lazarus walking mummy-like from his tomb, we’ll be created from nothing, again. In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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