Sunday, October 30, 2016

Who shall change our vile body

This was part of the epistle reading for today at church, from Philippians 3:

17 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.18 (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:19 Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

Just above that, the Apostle Paul has warned the Philippians against those who preach that Gentiles must be circumcised. But he doesn't sound too worried. The Philippians, unlike the Galatians, don't seem to have been inclined to follow that particular teaching.

This passage makes me think that the more I read Paul, the more I think of the "old perspective" on Paul. I gather one of the points of the "new perspective" is to avoid all this talk of "going to heaven" and talk instead about "covenant relationship." Well, there's nothing wrong with covenant relationship, but Paul was all about going to heaven, and never more so than in Philippians. In fact, one of his emphases here is that the false teachers he is warning against are too focused on this world; he wants his followers to be thinking more of the next world, the afterlife, and the second coming of Jesus.

Not that this is at all a gnostic, anti-physical emphasis. On the contrary, part of what Paul is emphasizing is that in the end we will have new bodies, like Jesus' glorious resurrection body. The phrase "vile body" is translated in more modern versions by phrases such as "lowly body" and "body of our humble state."

I don't know what all the things were that the Apostle Paul had in mind when he thought of our "vile body" or our "lowly body," but it occurs to me that one of the annoying things about being in this earthly state is the sense that one is constantly distracted and unsure precisely what one should be doing. The times when one transcends this, the times of pure focus, are (I believe) precursors of the heavenly state. So athletes and musicians when they are "in the groove" or a man sunk in reading a great book, feeling that he is really there as the action unfolds, are freed for that time period from one of the most annoying aspects of our "humble state," and especially our modern "humble state"--that never-ending twitter of the voices in the head telling you that, whatever you're doing, you should maybe be doing something else. "Distracted from distraction by distraction," as T.S. Eliot said. Only, for those of us with an overdeveloped sense of guilt, one doesn't enjoy or even really want that distraction. Instead, one feels guilty about it.

It is one of the wonders of the story of salvation that the Almighty God can and does use poor creatures like ourselves as tools in his plan. Even when not actively malicious, we are twitching little piles of worries, neuroses, sense data, conflicting impulses, and selfishness.

It might be easy to think that the problem is that we are embodied at all, that it is the body with its sensory inputs, its passions, and its desires that distracts us from a pure focus of mind and will--on God or great thoughts, for example. But that isn't true. For one thing, some of the greatest moments of focus come through the bodily senses, with music being a prime example. An insuperable theological objection to the idea that the body is the problem is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. In our end-state, the state for which God always intended us, we will be both embodied and enjoying the beatific vision. So the problem lies not with "the body" per se, meaning any body, but with the specifics of our embodiment, with our feebleness and insufficiency in our current situation. But one day, that will all be different. Our Lord Jesus suffers from no such feebleness and insufficiency, and one day we shall be like him.

This is a very great promise. God knows our state. He remembers that we are dust. He knows what it is like for us to be fretting about conflicting duties, unsure that we are "doing the best thing," finding it difficult to rest easy and confident and to focus on the task in front of us. And he promises that part of our glorified state is that we will be saved from all of that. Our Savior Jesus Christ will return and, at the resurrection, change the body of this lowly state to make us what we were intended to be--strong, focused, confident, perfected, and loving God with all our hearts, minds, and souls.

So let us look toward heaven and await that blessed hope.

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