The Resurrection of the Body
March 27, 2016
by John Henry Newman
A sermon on the integrity of the human person and on the nature of Christian immortality.
“Now that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when he calleth the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For He is not a God of the dead, but of the living; for all live unto Him.”
~ Luke 20:37-38.
These words of our Saviour show us how much more there is in Scripture than at first sight appears. God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, and called Himself the “God of Abraham”; and Christ tells us, that in this simple announcement was contained the promise that Abraham should rise again from the dead. In truth, if we may say it with reverence, the All-wise, All-knowing God cannot speak without meaning many things at once. He sees the end from the beginning; He understands the numberless connexions and relations of all things one with another. Every word of His is full of instruction, looking many ways; and though it is not often given to us to know these various senses, and we are not at liberty to attempt lightly to imagine them, yet, as far as they are told us, and as far as we may reasonably infer them, we must thankfully accept them. Look at Christ’s words, and this same character of them will strike you; whatever He says is fruitful in meaning, and refers to many things. It is well to keep this in mind when we read Scripture; for it may hinder us from self-conceit, from studying it in an arrogant critical temper, and from giving over reading it, as if we had got from it all that can be learned.
Now let us consider in what sense the text contains a promise of a resurrection, and see what instruction may be gained from knowing it.
When God called Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He implied that those holy patriarchs were still alive, though they were no more seen on earth. This may seem evident at first sight; but it may be asked, how the text proves that their bodies would live; for, if their souls were still living, that would be enough to account for their being still called in the Book of Exodus servants of God. This is the point to be considered. Our Blessed Lord seems to tell us, that in some sense or other Abraham’s body might be considered still alive as a pledge of his resurrection, though it was dead in the common sense in which we apply the word. His announcement is, Abraham shall rise from the dead, because in truth, he is still alive. He cannot in the end be held under the power of the grave, more than a sleeping man can be kept from waking. Abraham is still alive in the dust, though not risen thence. He is alive because all God’s saints live to Him, though they seem to perish.
It may seem a paradox to say, that our bodies, even when dead, are still alive; but since our Lord seems to countenance us in saying so, I will say it, though a strange saying, because it has an instructive meaning. We are apt to talk about our bodies as if we knew how or what they really were; whereas we only know what our eyes tell us. They seem to grow, to come to maturity, to decay; but after all we know no more about them than meets our senses, and there is, doubtless, much which God sees in our material frames, which we cannot see. We have no direct cognizance of what may be called the substantive existence of the body, only of its accidents. Again, we are apt to speak of soul and body, as if we could distinguish between them, and knew much about them; but for the most part we use words without meaning. It is useful indeed to make the distinction, and Scripture makes it; but after all, the Gospel speaks of our nature, in a religious sense, as one. Soul and body make up one man, which is born once, and never dies. Philosophers of old time thought the soul indeed might live for ever, but that the body perished at death; but Christ tells us otherwise, He tells us the body will live for ever. In the text He seems to intimate that it never really dies; that we lose sight indeed of what we are accustomed to see, but that God still sees the elements of it which are not exposed to our senses.
God graciously called Himself the God of Abraham. He did not say the God of Abraham’s soul, but simply of Abraham. He blest Abraham, and He gave him eternal life; not to his soul only without his body, but to Abraham as one man. And so He is our God, and it is not given us to distinguish between what He does for our different natures, spiritual and material. These are mere words; each of us may feel himself to be one, and that one being, in all its substantial parts, and attributes, will never die.
You will see this more clearly by considering what our Saviour says about the blessed Sacrament of His Supper. He says He will give us His flesh to eat.1Cf. John 6:51. How is this done? we do not know. He gives it under the outward symbols of bread and wine. But in what real sense is the consecrated bread His body? It is not told us, we may not inquire. We say indeed spiritually, sacramentally, in a heavenly way; but this is in order to impress on our minds religious, and not carnal notions of it. All we are concerned to know is, the effect upon us of partaking this blessed food. Now observe what He tells us about that. “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53, 54). Now there is no distinction made here between soul and body. Christ’s blessed Supper is food to us altogether, whatever we are, soul, body, and all. It is the seed of eternal life within us, the food of immortality, to “preserve our body and soul unto everlasting life.”2“In the Supper of the Lord there is no vain ceremony, no bare sign, no untrue figure of a thing absent; but as the Scripture says, … the communion of the Body and Blood of the Lord, in a marvellous incorporation, which by the operation of the Holy Ghost … is through faith wrought in the souls of the faithful, whereby not only their souls live to eternal life, but they surely trust to win their bodies a resurrection to immortality.” J.H. Newman, Homily on the Sacrament, Part I. The forbidden fruit wrought in Adam unto death; but this is the fruit which makes us live for ever. Bread sustains us in this temporal life; the consecrated bread is the means of eternal strength for soul and body. Who could live this visible life without earthly food? And in the same general way the Supper of the Lord is the “means” of our living for ever. We have no reason for thinking we shall live for ever unless we eat it, no more than we have reason to think our temporal life will be sustained without meat and drink. God can, indeed, sustain us, “not by bread alone”; but this is His ordinary means, which His will has made such. He can sustain our immortality without the Christian Sacraments, as He sustained Abraham and the other saints of old time; but under the Gospel these are His means, which He appointed at His will. We eat the sacred bread, and our bodies become sacred; they are not ours; they are Christ’s; they are instinct with that flesh which saw not corruption; they are inhabited by His Spirit; they become immortal; they die but to appearance, and for a time; they spring up when their sleep is ended, and reign with Him for ever.
The inference to be drawn from this doctrine is plain. Among the wise men of the heathen, as I have said, it was usual to speak slightingly and contemptuously of the mortal body; they knew no better. They thought it scarcely a part of their real selves, and fancied they should be in a better condition without it. Nay, they considered it to be the cause of their sinning; as if the soul of man were pure, and the material body were gross, and defiled the soul. We have been taught the truth, viz. that sin is a disease of our minds, of ourselves; and that the whole of us, not body alone, but soul and body, is naturally corrupt, and that Christ has redeemed and cleansed whatever we are, sinful soul and body. Accordingly their chief hope in death was the notion they should be rid of their body. Feeling they were sinful, and not knowing how, they laid the charge on their body; and knowing they were badly circumstanced here, they thought death perchance might be a change for the better. Not that they rested on the hope of returning to a God and Father, but they thought to be unshackled from the earth, and able to do what they would. It was consistent with this slighting of their earthly tabernacle, that they burned the dead bodies of their friends, not burying them as we do, but consuming them as a mere worthless case of what had been precious, and was then an incumbrance to the ground. Far different is the temper which the glorious light of the Gospel teaches us. Our bodies shall rise again and live for ever; they may not be irreverently handled. How they will rise we know not; but surely if the word of Scripture be true, the body from which the soul has departed shall come to life. There are some truths addressed solely to our faith, not to our reason; not to our reason, because we know so little about “the power of God” (in our Saviour’s words), that we have nothing to reason upon. One of these, for instance, is the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. We know we eat His Body and Blood; but it is our wisdom not curiously to ask how or whence, not to give our thoughts range, but to take and eat and profit thereby. This is the secret of gaining the blessing promised. And so, as regards the resurrection of the dead, we have no means or ground of argument. We cannot determine in what exact sense our bodies on the resurrection will be the same as they are at present, but we cannot harm ourselves by taking God’s declaration simply, and acting upon it. And it is as believing this comfortable truth, that the Christian Church put aside that old irreverence of the funeral pile, and consecrated the ground for the reception of the saints that sleep. We deposit our departed friends calmly and thoughtfully, in faith; not ceasing to love or remember that which once lived among us, but marking the place where it lies, as believing that God has set His seal upon it, and His Angels guard it. His Angels, surely, guard the bodies of His servants; Michael the Archangel, thinking it no unworthy task to preserve them from the powers of evil.3Cf. Jude 9. Especially those like Moses, who fall “in the wilderness of the people,” whose duty has called them to danger and suffering, and who die a violent death, these too, if they have eaten of that incorruptible bread, are preserved safe till the last day. There are, who have not the comfort of a peaceful burial. They die in battle, or on the sea, or in strange lands, or, as the early believers, under the hands of persecutors. Horrible tortures, or the mouths of wild beasts, have ere now dishonoured the sacred bodies of those who had fed upon Christ; and diseases corrupt them still. This is Satan’s work, the expiring efforts of his fury, after his overthrow by Christ. Still, as far as we can, we repair these insults of our Enemy, and tend honourably and piously those tabernacles in which Christ has dwelt. And in this view, what a venerable and fearful place is a Church, in and around which the dead are deposited! Truly it is chiefly sacred, as being the spot where God has for ages manifested Himself to His servants; but add to this the thought, that it is the actual resting-place of those very servants, through successive times, who still live unto Him. The dust around us will one day become animate. We may ourselves be dead long before, and not see it. We ourselves may elsewhere be buried, and, should it be our exceeding blessedness to rise to life eternal, we may rise in other places, far in the east or west. But, as God’s word is sure, what is sown is raised; the earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, shall become glory to glory, and life to the living God, and a true incorruptible image of the spirit made perfect. Here the saints sleep, here they shall rise. A great sight will a Christian country then be, if earth remains what it is; when holy places pour out the worshippers who have for generations kept vigil therein, waiting through the long night for the bright coming of Christ! And if this be so, what pious composed thoughts should be ours when we enter Churches! God indeed is every where, and His Angels go to and fro; yet can they be more worthily employed in their condescending care of man, than where good men sleep? In the service of the Communion we magnify God together with Angels and Archangels, and all the company of heaven. Surely there is more meaning in this than we know of; what a “dreadful” place would this appear, if our eyes were opened as those of Elisha’s servant! “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
On the other hand, if the dead bodies of Christians are honourable, so doubtless are the living; because they have had their blessedness when living, therefore have they in their sleep. He who does not honour his own body as something holy unto the Lord, may indeed revere the dead, but it is then a mere superstition, not an act of piety. To reverence holy places (right as it is) will not profit a man unless he reverences himself. Consider what it is to be partaker of the Body and Blood of Christ. We pray God, in our Church’s language, that “our sinful bodies may become clean through His body;” and we are promised in Scripture, that our bodies shall be temples of the Holy Ghost. How should we study, then, to cleanse them from all sin, that they may be true members of Christ! We are told that the peril of disease and death attends the unworthy partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Is this wonderful, considering the strange sin of receiving it into a body disgraced by wilful disobedience? All that defiles it, intemperance or other vice, all that is unbecoming, all that is disrespectful to Him who has bought our bodies with a price, must be put aside.4Cf. 1 Cor. 6:20 Hear St. Paul’s words, “Christ being raised from the dead, dieth no more … likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin … let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof” (Rom. 6:9-12). “If the Spirit of Him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His indwelling Spirit … If ye, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:11).
Work together with God, therefore, my brethren, in this work of your redemption. While He feeds you, prepare for the heavenly feast; “discern the Lord’s body” when it is placed before you, and suitably treasure it afterwards. Lay up year by year this seed of life within you, believing it will one day bear fruit. “Believe that ye receive it, and ye shall have it” (Mark 11:24). Glorious, indeed, will be the spring time of the Resurrection, when all that seemed dry and withered will bud forth and blossom. The glory of Lebanon will be given it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon; the fir tree for the thorn, the myrtle tree for the briar; and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before us in singing. Who would miss being of that company? Wretched men they will then appear, who now for a season enjoy the pleasures of sin. Wretched, who follow their own selfish will, instead of walking by faith, who are now idle, instead of trying to serve God, who are set upon the world’s vanities, or who scoff at religion, or who allow themselves in known sin, who live in anger, or malice, or pride, or covetousness, who do not continually strive to become better and holier, who are afraid to profess themselves Christians and take up their cross and follow Christ. May the good Lord make us all willing to follow Him! May He rouse the slumberers, and raise them to a new life here, that they may inherit His eternal kingdom hereafter!
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman is one of the most important Catholic thinkers of recent centuries. After years as the Anglican vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford, a Fellow of Oriel College, and a leader of the “Oxford Movement” within Anglicanism, he converted to the Catholic Church, was ordained an Oratorian priest, and was ultimately made a cardinal. His influence amongst Catholics, particularly in the Anglophone world, has been immense, indelibly marking the lives and intellectual formations of J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, and Fr. Ronald Knox, to name but a few, and his legacy was widely felt at the Second Vatican Council. The patron of numerous academic societies, Bl. John Henry’s thought continues to be an inspiration for theologians, philosophers, and all concerned with the life of faith in late modernity. He was beatified on September 19, 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI at a Mass in Birmingham, England.
This sermon is taken from a collection written and preached between 1825 and 1843, which is to say before his reception into the Roman Catholic Church. It appeared in Volume I of the eight-volume set Parochial and Plain Sermons, published by Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1907. Newman’s works can be found online at the Newman Reader of the National Institute for Newman Studies.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Cf. John 6:51.|
|2.||↑||“In the Supper of the Lord there is no vain ceremony, no bare sign, no untrue figure of a thing absent; but as the Scripture says, … the communion of the Body and Blood of the Lord, in a marvellous incorporation, which by the operation of the Holy Ghost … is through faith wrought in the souls of the faithful, whereby not only their souls live to eternal life, but they surely trust to win their bodies a resurrection to immortality.” J.H. Newman, Homily on the Sacrament, Part I.|
|3.||↑||Cf. Jude 9.|
|4.||↑||Cf. 1 Cor. 6:20|