The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Body Never Dies

The Body Never Dies

An eternal view

In the Christian tradition, there is a lot of language around the body. That might be an interesting thing to hear when we consider some of the history the Christian Church has had with thinking about the body. For example, we can look at records of how various branches of the institutional church has approached dance – the heightened expression of the body – across time to find contention, dismissal, and embrace (with guidelines of course). Nevertheless, Jesus came in a body. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, two key activities in the life of a follower, are things that happen with our bodies. The body is also the metaphor that Paul uses in his letter to the followers of the way in Corinth.

Paul could have chosen a number of other possible metaphors – nature (the ecosystem) or family (human relationship), for example. He did not. He chose the body, and spends significant time developing the metaphor. Generally speaking, Paul describes that the gathering of believers should function as a body. There are different parts, for example, neither one thinking itself more important than another and all required for the body to function well. He also offers guidance about what to do with the parts of the body that we don’t like or find unseemly – cover and honor.

The metaphor of the body does a few things quite powerfully. Namely, it connects the idea of interpersonal relationship with the physical and individual. We all have physical bodies. A key part of our individual lives is establishing how we relate to our bodies. How do we take care of them? How do we navigate their needs? How do we live with the bodies we have? This is one of the first relationships we have, and it is deeply personal. Each of our bodies is unique. It is ours. It is not someone else’s. While we may compare notes with others, share activities, even attempt to share our bodies, our bodies remain our own.

Yet, here comes Paul saying that the body is a good way to think about a gathering – a community. Notably, the gathering itself was physical. Without phones, or video, there was no telecommuting. People had to physically gather if they wanted to connect with each other. They had to expend energy – to move their bodies – to make the gathering happen. They often ate during the gathering – replenishing the body. In these ways the gathering reflects our own relationship with our bodies. Want something to happen? We have to spend energy – to move – to make it happen. And, we regularly engage in activities to replenish our bodies. We have to learn, as the gathering did, the rhythms of expenditure and replenishment – the management and regulation of our energies. Yet the gathering was not individualistic. It was interpersonal, with many people. Here the metaphor invites us to imagine a greater body. Not just our own, but the body of a people.

Whatever organization of humanity you might be thinking of – a church, a company, a tribe, even a family – the metaphor of the body can be helpful. The metaphor of the body can help us envision how we might be with one another, organize for action, and even rest together. The metaphor can help us work out how we see one another, our different roles, and the reconciling of differences as they are sure to arise between members of the same body. What I’ve been thinking about most recently, however, is how this metaphor can help us – if at all – when a member of the body passes away.

As a tap dancer I had to deal with death early on in my life. The first funeral I went to was for Lon Chaney (not the actor, but the tap dancer). I was around 12 or 13 years old. Such an early encounter with death – the loss of people, friends even, key to the craft I was immersed in – helped me develop an intergenerational mindset. Here was tap dance – this thing that I was immersed in, that my friends were also immersed in, that they gave to me in a way only they could. And now they were gone – and continued to go away. Jimmy Slyde was fond of saying, “They haven’t left you. They’ve left something for you.” My mind was set on the idea that I was tasked with applying what they left for me to my current context while maintaining their values and ideas. Why maintain their values and ideas? Because it was their values and ideas that informed their dancing – and by extension my own. There wasn’t so much of a separation even – their dancing and my dancing. Rather, we shared a connection to dancing by adopting a particular set of values and ideas.

When they began to pass away, the reality of my own responsibility to the values and ideas they had given me hit hard. Was I ready? Would I do a good job? The responsibility was high – it still is – but there really is no other way. Either I work out the responsibility or abdicate it. Values and ideas are only really as good as the output that comes when applied in real life. If I wanted my friends’ effect on my life to be evident, I had to engage their values and ideas in my dancing (if not my life as a whole). These weren’t ideas I could claim to know simply by memorization or recitation. I had to live them out.

I think it’s the same in every other area of life. If we believe something, we should be willing to act on it as if it were true. As we act, we will likely find ourselves part of a particular body that has been forming for a long time. If we are the first ones in our circle of people to happen upon a value or idea (through a book, a video, or our own experimentation), maybe we are the first part of the current body we are in to instigate change – the beginning of a rebirth perhaps. Regardless of our position or the age of the body we are a part of, we reap the benefit of the life of that body. The spirit that energizes every part of that body (and has over time) flows through us. Regardless of what part of the body we might be, the blood of that body now fuels our life.

Our individual lives occur on a timeline. Our bodies experience aging. They will, ultimately, come to an end. In aging organizations it is common to hear things like, “We need some new blood around here,” or, “What are we doing to rejuvenate our organization?” In the institutional church world, there is even language around dying churches – those with dwindling membership. In aging organizations, the intuition towards youthful vigor and new life is natural. We somehow inherently know the cycle of life – from birth to death to new life – is required to keep the organization going. In the body – not just my own, but the one of the gathering – this cycle is also necessary. It is necessary for individual transformation and communal transformation. It is necessary for a vision of the eternal. It is necessary for the intergenerational livelihood of the gathering.

This intergenerational livelihood is key to the ongoing manifestation of the belief of those who gather. Without the cycle of birth, death, and new life, the gathering would come to an end. But, in the case of Paul, the life which fuels the gathering is the life from above. It is life from a spirit that never ends. If it is, why would the body – especially the one of the gathering – ever die? This may be a radical proposal, but I don’t think the body dies. Reborn, yes. New life, continually. But death? No. If the Spirit of God that is to take hold, dwell in, and enliven every believer does so, in every generation, then the gathering of believers – the body that Paul speaks of – should never end. Individual members will pass on, but the gathering remains, as new members come to life in the body. This cycle of life, because of the Spirit in the gathering, should be eternal, never ending.

This isn’t to say that every relationship and every gathering of believers will last forever. But I think there is a necessity in aiming for the right vision here. Is our vision fueled by a sense of time that is eternal, or is it grounded in the matter of the temporal. If eternal, then life is unending. This is not to undermine the real hurt losing a loved one can cause. For anyone reading this who has ever experienced loss, the separation is real. The grief and pain of the separation is real. And, the separation in this vision of life is counted as temporary. Of course, many more important questions come up as we scratch at this idea, and they should be thoughtfully addressed. For now, maybe sitting with the idea of an eternal body is enough to start.

A note on the alternative: What is the alternative? That every gathering ends. That death wins. That the ultimate separation has the ultimate last word. No. That’s not the way. In this proposition of reality (the one exemplified in Jesus Christ – and his body), the ultimate separation doesn’t have the last word. It doesn’t even carry a sting. That’s the vision of the life from above, lived out from the here and now, into the ever after. Imagine that.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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