What no one told us about our bodies

No one told us we’d need a solid theology of the body if we’re going to live a bold and fearless life.

No one told us how important it would be to understand how the physical attaches to the spiritual. Mostly we have been taught how the physical works against us. When we were kids, we were given all the guilt-producing reasons why our bodies could hurt our relationship with Jesus. It was that Sunday school teacher or that parent or that youth pastor who told us how our bodies work in ways that create shame. Some of us were raised by functional Gnostics and their message screwed us up.

No one told us that God loves our bodies and that bodies matter in the Kingdom of God; that understanding them might actually change the way we approach every single other area of our lives.

That is why Paul the Apostle stuns me … yet again. In the course of coming to know and trust Jesus and in the course of an incredibly oppressive ministry, Paul absorbed the remarkable gift and grace of God’s design for the human body. Seeing the world from the Kingdom down, Paul wrote a theology that helps us understand what God intends for our bodies now and for eternity.

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Paul asks. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And this, from a man whose own body suffered every violence. In the middle of being beaten and stoned and shipwrecked and left for dead, Paul figured out that God was actually using his body to prove the Gospel. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul describes all he has been through. He has been hungry, thirsty, in every possible kind of danger. He has been flogged and exposed to death, not to mention chronically stressed by the intensity of his work.

He shares all this anguishing pain, then somehow moves seamlessly into the story of an intense, personal experience with Heaven. Paul writes (in third-person language, so humbled is he by the revelation) that he has been transported to the “third heaven.” Overcome, he can’t be sure where his body was in the process, but you get the sense that he suspects he was all there, body and soul. And now, compared to this experience everything else pales. The sufferings are redefined, the “surpassing great revelations” are worth it all.

And then, as if drawing a giant bell curve from the physical to the spiritual and back to the physical, Paul transitions his narrative back to earth, announcing that God has given him a “thorn in the flesh.” This weakness (whatever it is) serves as a kind of anchor, keeping him rooted in his physical reality after such a stunning encounter with the unhindered Kingdom of God.

Paul’s story flows from suffering to glory to weakness, mapping out a spirituality that affirms the physical, weaving it together with the spiritual to make a created whole. Because he has seen the eternal while still existing in the physical, Paul can say with confidence that the potential for resurrection is built into the very fabric of creation. Because Jesus has erased the dividing line and conquered death, the seeds of resurrection are embedded into everything. Everything we touch, everything we experience, every choice, every relationship bears the seeds of resurrection. And this life we live now is not counter to the life we will have in eternity; it is just the beginning. Redemptive continuity draws an unbroken line from prevenient grace, through justification and sanctification to glorification. We don’t “jump tracks” to enter eternity. All we have now draws us toward what we will have then.

Josh McDowell says that how we understand the resurrection of the body impacts all our decisions, and indeed the trajectory of our lives. It impacts our choices. We discover that our bodies matter. What we do with them matters, whether we are talking about health or sexuality or suffering. Our bodies bear the seeds of resurrection and are daily being redeemed by the resurrected Christ. To the extent that we ignore those seeds, they will lay dormant and bear no fruit. To the extent that we feed and water them, they will grow and bear the fruit of a resurrected life.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere

I’d just finished a memorial service when a man I’d not met before walked right up and said, “I know just what you were talking about up there. I couldn’t hear a word you said, even though I have my hearing aids in (at which point his wife said, “But no batteries”), but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have been there. I have seen him.”

I said, “Seen who?”

“Jesus.”

“Really? You saw Jesus? For real?”

“Yes. Eight years ago, I died in a car accident. The medic cut a hole between my ribs and stuck an oxygen tube into my collapsed lungs and I died. Jesus met me. I didn’t see his face but I know it was him because I saw the holes in his hands. I have seen things we can’t even imagine on earth.”

“Like what?” I said, because I’ve just preached a funeral and times like that, these conversations seem less crazy, more relevant. I’m not about to let him go without finding out what he has seen.

“I saw a light,” he beamed, “that was about ten times brighter than the sun, but it didn’t hurt your eyes to look at it. You know how you can’t look directly into the sun? Well, you can look directly at this light but it doesn’t hurt. And it was golden. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

“Did you see any other people?”

“There was one person at the end of the tunnel.”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know. I never got there.” And then he waved his hand in the air as if directing someone to turn around, and he said, “Jesus sent me back here before I got to the end of the tunnel.”

“Why do you suppose you got sent back?”

“He didn’t say, but I think it was because my mother was sick and needed me to care for her. I can tell you this: I can’t wait to go back. I have absolutely no fear of death now. It is so beautiful.”

I stood there in the doorway of that little chapel and let that conversation sink in. I looked at that man who seemed to glow with faith and I let the truth of Heaven wash over me. I wondered to myself: how many normal, every-day, average people have died from heart attacks and snake bites and allergic reactions, only to see Jesus and taste that golden light before being sent back here to live another life? How many have seen those hands with holes in them? Have been handed the gift of assurance in the form of a car crash they didn’t survive, then did?

I suspect it’s more than we think. As Thomas Merton has said, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.”

How would I react if I died and went to Heaven then lived to talk about it? Perhaps more relevant is this question: would I recognize it if Heaven came to me?

In Luke, chapter nine, there is a line that grabs my imagination and stirs me to look for heaven. Jesus has just been talking with his followers about the connection between his glory and our faith, and now he is heading up a mountain to pray with Peter, James and John. As he is praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appear in glorious splendor to talk with Jesus. They talk about his departure from this earth, among other things. Peter, James and John are sleepy but the story says, “When they became fully awake, they saw his glory” (Luke 9:32).

“When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.”

Meditate on that line for a moment. When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.

I am both educated and exposed by that line. I recognize myself in the state of Jesus’ disciples. What must I be missing, because I’m not fully awake? If I am not seeing God’s glory is it because God’s glory is absent, or is it because (spiritually speaking) I am slogging through life half asleep?

Would I recognize the gates if they were opened to me? Would you?

When they became fully awake, they saw his glory. I dare you to walk through this day looking for the gate of heaven as if it might actually be real, might actually show up. I challenge you to develop that kind of eyesight — the kind that can see corners of the Kingdom exposed for our benefit, our pleasure, to build our faith and prove again that what we talk about is true.

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