In the first reading today, Paul is dealing with people who, like us, don’t understand what “resurrection” means. We say “we believe in the resurrection of the body” every Sunday at church, but do we know what that means? Like the Christians in Corinth, our mental furniture comes from a Greek worldview that separates body and soul, leaving the body at death to decay while the soul is “saved,” that is, goes to heaven. Many of us may well be thinking, “Yeah, what’s the problem with that?”, but Paul has to combat that model in favor of what resurrection is really pointing to. That kind of body-soul dualism has lurked at the edges, and sometimes at the center, of Christianity from the beginning, originally in Gnosticism, then in Manichaeism, later Albigensianism, and on into neo-Thomism in our times, but always fearful that our physicality, with all of its urges and weaknesses and messiness is taking us away from what really matters, that is, the spiritual stuff. The whole point of the Incarnation, though, is that God is to be encountered precisely in this messy world, not out there in a cosmos that tries to leave this world behind.
The Jewish anthropology that Paul, as a Jew, is using sees the person as an integral unit, not splittable into body and soul, so that it is the totality of the person who is to be raised on the last day. He realizes the dangers of taking any image too literally, so he goes on later in this chapter to anticipate people’s questions: “But someone may say, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come back?"” He asserts that this resurrected body will not simply be a resuscitated corpse, any more than Jesus’ resurrection was simply resuscitation. Rather, it is a transformation, but it is a transformation of the entire person, even as he struggles to find analogies that make any sense.
Why is any of this important for us? Resurrection as a symbol points us beyond any overspiritualizing notion of salvation being something that only happens to our souls. We know how easily such a model can lead us to denigrate the tangible world around us – if only people’s souls are to be saved, perhaps their bodies and their world don’t matter so much. This kind of model, which has had a fair amount of traction through the centuries, is behind much of Marx’s infamous critique that religion kept people from striving for the kind of social change that needed to happen. We know from reading the news that our world in all its physicality is crying out, “groaning” as Paul puts it, for redemption, and that’s what resurrection points to for us: the renewal, the transformation, of all of creation. We can’t ignore people’s bodily needs, the unjust political and economic forces that impact their lives, the use of torture or sexual assault, the damage we are inflicting upon the natural world – all of that is part and parcel of the salvation that Paul makes clear has come. Our faith demands that we anticipate and participate in a transformation of all of reality, which makes salvation a truly social and cosmic reality, not an individualistic or self-concerned one.