Posted July 10, 2020
15th Sunday of the Year (Yr A)
In today’s second Reading (Romans 8: 18-23) St Paul envisages a future event when we shall be set free and transformed in glory (he calls it the ‘redemption of our bodies’). We human beings, he says, will not be the only beneficiaries of this liberation. For the material universe too will somehow share in our freedom and glory. ‘The creation’, he says, ‘was subjected to futility’, but it will be ‘set free from its bondage to decay and be freed into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’ This is a strange idea to us, for we are not used to thinking of salvation as having anything to do with the material universe; indeed, many Christians tend to suppose that salvation has nothing to do with our bodies, only with our souls.
Where did St Paul get these ideas from? Similar ideas can be found here and there in Jewish literature before and during St Paul’s lifetime, but what brought them together for St Paul was, I think, his first experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road. It was there that he first convinced himself that the risen Lord was the beginning of a transformed humanity: that Christ was the ‘new Adam’, the apex of a new creation. In other words, St Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord took him back to the story of Adam and creation in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. The parallelism between Adam and the risen Christ, the old Adam and the new, occurs frequently in St Paul’s epistles, sometimes explicitly, but more often allusively, as when, for example, he calls the risen Christ ‘the image of God’, a clear reference to Adam, whom God made in his own image; or when he says that the God who made his divine glory shine on the face of the risen Christ was the same God who said, in the Book of Genesis: ‘Let there be light!’
This helps to explain certain elements in today’s second reading that otherwise must remain obscure. Why does St Paul say that the material creation was ‘subjected to futility? He is surely thinking once again of the story of Adam in the Book of Genesis. You will remember that God cursed the ground because of Adam’s disobedience. ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’ St Paul understands this ‘curse’ rather more dramatically than the Book of Genesis. The ground that is cursed is not just the ground that we stand on, but the whole of the physical world. As a result of Adam’s sin the physical world was ‘subjected to futility’. For the physical world is caught up in Adam’s destiny. You see, long before people started talking about ecology, the Bible understood that the fate of the material creation is tied up with the destiny of humankind, and vice versa. The two are linked in indissoluble solidarity. Man (adam, in Hebrew), and the soil (adamah, in Hebrew), that is, the material creation, stand or fall together. When Adam falls, so does the whole of the material creation. Creation was ‘subjected to futility’: robbed of a future; rendered pointless; destined only to be frustrated, and to frustrate.
And when Adam is raised in glory? Well then the whole of creation goes crazy. Yearning to share in the glory of the new Adam, the whole of creation, St Paul says, eagerly awaits the revelation of the glory of God’s children, that is, the glory of those who share the transformed humanity of Jesus our Lord. Creation itself will be set free from the bondage of decay into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. ‘If anyone is in Christ’, St Paul says elsewhere, then he is a new creation: the old things have passed away; look! all things have become new.’ So wonderful is this transformation of Adam that creation itself cannot bear to miss out on it. It concentrates all its energies in pressing forward to share in it. In this, the material creation imitates us, who, having received the first fruits of the Spirit, yearn for the ‘redemption of our bodies’, that is, for our persons in their entirety to experience God’s utter freedom.
As I have mentioned, St Paul’s understanding of salvation is strange to many Christians, for they tend to think of heaven as a pretty disincarnate affair, inhabited by free-floating souls. At least, that’s the way I was brought up. The message I got from the excellent Sisters who taught me as an infant was that when I died I would become a holy soul. This prospect did not excite me. I mean: How can you drive an eight-wheeled fire-engine if you are just a soul, holy or otherwise? The idea of disembodied souls would not have excited St Paul either. You will have noticed that he describes salvation not as redemption from our bodies (as many understand him to be saying) but as redemption of our bodies. Salvation is not release into a bodiless existence: it is the marvellous transformation of the bodily existence that we experience here and now. ‘This mortal body shall put on immortality’, St Paul says in First Corinthians. He does not say: ‘This mortal body shall become a holy soul.’
There is something about St Paul’s vision of things that makes it vitally relevant to ourselves. It has to do with the way he understands the relationship between this present world in which we live – indeed, this present body in which we exist – and the next world; between this life and what the Gospels call the Kingdom of God. When St Paul speaks of the transformation of our humanity and of the whole of creation, he means that nothing that is lovely in this present experience of ours will be annihilated. Instead, it will be kept intact, taken up, transfigured in glory, liberated from the inevitability of disappointment and the awful finality of death. As one of the Prefaces of the Mass for the Dead puts it: ‘The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.’
Salvation is not the annihilation of our bodily existence or of the material universe in which we live. It is not the end of relationships involving our total human persons. The Bible frequently likens heaven to a banquet. Of course, that is not to be taken literally. Nevertheless it does suggest a full-blooded human companionship. Salvation takes up and transforms all that is good and beautiful in this humanity of ours and sets it free from what St Paul calls the ‘bondage of decay’. When our risen Lord takes to himself all that is ours, nothing is lost except the tears, and all in the end is harvest.
But we must allow God to sow the seeds of his harvest in the often rugged and recalcitrant terrain of our hearts, here and now, urgently. Let us yield our hearts to what is good and noble and lovely in our humanity: avoid everything that is negative and hateful; do nothing to sully or disfigure the beauty we already have, in our experience of the body and in our use of the material creation; so that even in this life we may begin to experience the bountiful fulfilment that God intended when God created Adam, and recreated Adam in Christ.
Fr Tom Deidun