A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 4.16-5.4 and John 6.37-41
by the Rev Dr Anthony Bash
given at St Cuthbert’s Church, Durham, 10 June 2013
I first met Gerald about seven years ago. Our meeting, characteristically, was at an 8am service of Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer, a service which Gerald loved and cherished.
Each year, the word ‘concupiscence’ comes up in one of the lectionary readings for that service of Holy Communion.
Once a clergyman read the lesson in which the word ‘concupiscence’ occurs. Gerald was serving, as usual. In the vestry after the service, the clergyman admitted to Gerald that he did not know the meaning of the word ‘concupiscence’. Gerald offered the clergyman a learned definition, setting it in its context in the thought of St Augustine. The clergyman went away the wiser. Later that same day, Gerald gave the clergyman a book and an article (both of which Gerald had written) that touched on St Augustine’s views about concupiscence.
I am that clergyman, in this very church, formerly ignorant of the meaning of the word ‘concupiscence’, and now much, much wiser for Gerald’s explanation.
For those of you who do not know what ‘concupiscence’ means, it is this. ‘Concupiscence’ refers to powerful feelings of physical desire, especially when set against the longings of the Spirit. Gerald himself wrote that, in St Augustine’s thought, ‘concupiscence’ means ‘general moral weakness’.
Given Gerald’s scholarly interests and his Christian faith, it is not surprising that today’s carefully chosen readings also point us to the Christian view of the human body, the flesh and blood which we inhabit. They also point us to the Christian view of the body’s weakness, of the body’s frailty and of the body’s tendency to compromise with what it knows it should do and be. Indeed, our first reading implicitly points to our tendency to concupiscence. This tendency is inevitable, because we are in the body, and so made of flesh and blood that are frail and tend to sin.
In our first reading, St Paul says we inhabit a ‘tent’ as our earthly home. In the tent, St Paul says we groan and are burdened. He mixes metaphors: the tent, he says, is ‘wasting away’ and ‘transient’. To use modern jargon that Gerald would eschew, that tent – our bodies – is time-limited and has built-in obsolescence. This is why we groan: our bodies are mortal. They will decay and fail. So we long, says St Paul, to be away from the body, not so that we can exist ‘naked’, as bodiless spirits, but (also as St Paul says) so that we may be ‘a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’.
Gerald is now out of his earthly tent, in which he groaned and of which he was tired. St Paul would have us celebrate the guarantee of the new body that will be Gerald’s – and the new bodies that in due time will be ours too.
How do we know that a new body is not mere aspiration but both promised and guaranteed?
We know and can be sure, St Paul tells us, because, as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise with him all those who by faith are his, that is, ‘in Christ’ and not ‘in Adam’. The events of the first Easter Sunday morning are the ground of our confidence that we will have resurrected bodies, and that we will live resurrected lives – with no groaning, no sighing, no obsolescence ... and no concupiscence.
Our second reading, from the Gospel of St John, also takes us to the human body. St John tells us that the resurrected body is eternal and it will be raised on the ‘last day’, which in the Gospel of St John is the Day of Judgment.
What is the resurrection body like? Is it a cleaned up version of the last vestiges of our human form? Will it be an old body that, like a car, has had a service and MOT, for example?
To keep the metaphor of a car, it will not be a reconditioned body. For, though we have continuity of identity in the life to come, there is discontinuity of form. St Paul in I Corinthians 15 puts it this way: the resurrected body was formerly sown as a perishable, physical body but it is raised, transformed, as a spiritual body. It is sown in weakness – with concupiscence! – but raised in glory.
This means that we will not be in heaven with our physical blemishes. Rather, though our identity remains the same and though we remain physical, our form will be radically discontinuous from what it is now.
St John tells us in the second reading that the ground of our certainty that these things are so lies in the will of God, undertaken and completed by Jesus through the Spirit. Everyone who believes in the Son – the Son who came from heaven to do the Father’s will – is kept safe for God and will be raised up with a new body on the Day of Judgment.
This is what we celebrate today. Not principally the life of a husband, father, grandfather and scholar. (After all, he left strict instructions that there should not be a eulogy or encomium at his funeral.) Rather, we celebrate the loving Father in whom he believed. We celebrate the Son who gave his life for all humanity. We celebrate the Spirit whose life and being are the essence of our resurrected bodies. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As we sang earlier, ‘God is Three, and God is One’. The Three and the One are our celebration today. They are our vision and hope, as they were Gerald’s, and as we sing in the last hymn. Thanks be to God.