Our Prayer becomes "We" – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Luke 20:27-38

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Which betokeneth concorde.[i]

The poet T. S. Eliot once paid a visit to the little English village of East Coker, the home of his distant ancestors. It was a kind of pilgrimage, and in an open field with the remains of an ancient stone circle, he imagined a simple, peasant wedding, and a bride and groom long since dead dancing around a fire,

Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.[ii]

Eliot searches the distant past in this particular place for a glimpse of his own identity, his own history, and for a glimpse of the underlying order connecting all things, the “still point” at the center of the circle and the cycle. He finds these glimpses elsewhere in his master poem, Four Quartets, but he does not find them here in the quaint and irretrievable past: “The houses are all gone under the sea / The dancers are all gone under the hill,” he writes.[iii]

“I believe in the resurrection of the body,” we intone boldly, scandalously, irrationally in a poem of our own.[iv] The rhythmic praying of words worn smooth by repetition in church may diminish or attenuate the bold scandal, the verses running together as we leap over a chasm without looking down. But then there are readings like today’s that, in the circle dance of the lectionary, bring us back to this unreasonable and utterly central and wonderfully mysterious truth of our Faith. It is the Paschal fire that never dies, round which we dance in the open field of Time.

The Saduccees, who do not believe in the resurrection, have their own verses to quote. Their cynical chorus forms less a question than an intricate verbal entrapment, a riddle with no answer. In a hypothetical scenario reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy tale, there were once seven brothers and one wife but they produced no heir. The fruitless repetition of marriages is a cycle with no harvest, a tragedy from the viewpoint of the Levirate marriage laws set forth in Deuteronomy. These set forth clear imperatives: bear progeny, perpetuate the tribe, ensure the continuity of the lineage. For the Saduccees the belief in a resurrection is preposterous, because it is a reality inconceivable without the Laws of tribe and lineage and the social institutions that hold them together, such as marriage. It’s important as contemporary North American readers to note that a mutual covenant of love and partnership is not the salient characteristic of marriage pertinent to the Sadducee’s line of questioning here.

Jesus’ reply is significant, because here in Luke, and its parallels in Matthew and Mark, we find the only words placed in the mouth of Jesus about what the resurrection of the dead will be like. It is significant as well because it demonstrates clear continuity with the beliefs of first-century Judaism, and because it’s one of the only moments when we find Jesus and the Pharisees in striking agreement. His intricate response distills some essentials: There is indeed a resurrection. In light of that reality, we are not primarily begetters of progeny – rather, we are begotten, children of God. It is not primarily our place in time as recipients of the past and perpetuators of the future that matters to God, though this is a part of our human work as God’s people. Rather, it is our destined place in eternity – like angels, who know neither death nor limitation by time’s circles and cycles. It is not primarily the Law and observances of Torah that matter to God, though these were significant for Jesus. It is rather the immediacy of God’s self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush, from whence the Law and Covenant follow, that should inspire a living relationship. Finally, our ancestors in the faith are not held only in pious memory, but held in the embrace of a living God, to whom they are alive in some mysterious way we cannot fully grasp.

Jesus twice repeats his assertion that we are children: “children of God, children of the resurrection.” In speaking of — or preaching about — the resurrection of the dead, this is most especially true. Inspired by the clear testimony of the earliest followers of Jesus and guided by our own deepest experience of Christ’s risen Life, we are nonetheless children, using the earnest, sincere, though sometimes fuzzy logic with which we are equipped to speak of the world of adults – in this case, of our divine Parent. The scripture passage that rings most true for me, both in its visionary faith and in its grounded humility, is from the First Letter of John:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.[v]

What do we envision, and imagine, when we encounter the word “resurrection”?  It’s an undoubtedly churchy word, and like all churchy words it acquires a circumscribed collection of automatic synonyms over time unless we pause to ask ourselves, “What do I mean when I say this word? And what do we mean?” We hear the phrase from John’s gospel, “I am Resurrection and I am Life,” invoked powerfully in our funeral liturgy, and think almost instantly of heaven. Often the sheer mystery of heaven causes the vision to end there. Resurrection into a personal experience of a heavenly eternity with God can become the end (and beginning) of the salvation story. But there’s a sequel to that story. [vi]

Jesus, along with the Pharisees and most Jews in the first century and today, held that the human person is an essential unity of body and soul or spirit. The two belong together and the person is incomplete without their complementarity intact. The Pharisees – and, it seems, also Jesus – believed that at a person’s death, he or she did not cease to exist or go down to a shadowy semi-existence called Sheol but that the intrinsic unity of body and soul fell asunder. While the body remained a corpse, the spiritual dimension of the person was simply “alive to God,” dis-embodied but waiting. However, at the end of time, in the resurrection of the dead which ushered in “the age to come,” the body was raised in an utterly new form which nonetheless manifested some continuity with the old, and body and soul were rejoined in a new, deathless world. In contrast to the Greek Platonic view, which has here and there insinuated itself into the Church, the body will not simply be discarded as a worn-out husk at death, liberating its soul fruit. There remains the bold and scandalous promise of a re-embodiment, a re-union, a Great Marriage. For us as Christians, this is a resurrection of all made possible by the resurrection of Christ, and in every way identical to his bodily resurrection – with the exception that we have longer to wait. The earliest Christians maintained that our bodies, however unfathomably changed, have a role to play in eternity as fundamental as the role they play here on this side of time, generation, birth, death, sexuality, aging and illness. The unmarried, childless, crucified and very dead body of Jesus was made, by the power and victory of God, the resurrected and reconciling Body of Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom. We are made participants, partakers of his Body, equally in body and soul.

We often struggle in a culture simultaneously obsessed with the cravings and liabilities of our bodies but also tragically, schizophrenically disembodied as we are increasingly cut off from the natural world in its immediacy. So few of us know, in any real way, what our ancestors and Eliot’s ancestors knew with a real, bodily, incarnate knowledge:

The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts.[vii]

Actively recollecting and meditating on the ancient, traditional Christian belief in the resurrection of the body can yield many new discoveries for our individual and corporate life in Christ. The Church is still living into these discoveries or re-discoveries and their implications: The reality that the soul needs the body as much as the body needs the soul; the belief that the two are not arranged in a hierarchy but are truly interdependent; and that our physical death is not the end of the story, even if a happy ending in Christ, but merely the beginning of our fleshly body’s cosmic fulfillment in His Body.

“They without us, and we without them, could not be made perfect.”[viii]  This may be Fr. Benson’s most concise insight about our relationship with the communion of saints gone before us. That innumerable cloud of witnesses are ever present, waiting for us to join them. We will be raised up, ripened, restored to unity and brought to consummation as a single Body, drawn by an invisible, magnetic tug homeward. God will be all in all. “Marrying and being given in marriage” will no longer apply, but not, as some in the early Church suggested, because marriage or sexuality here in the world is inferior to a celibate, single life. We will become like angels, but not because they dwell in a sexless purity into which we must be initiated. Rather, as author Ronald Rolheiser suggests (with perhaps a scandalous twinkle in his eye), “All will be married to all…We are built to ultimately embrace the universe and everything in it.”[ix] The two-way interchange of human marriage will give way to the omni directional interchange of the Lamb’s Marriage Feast, the “ceaseless interchange of mutual love” uniting the Persons of the Trinity.[x]

On the brink of a national election in which hope and fear run so tremblingly deep and the order of the world feels so trenchantly locked in conflict, alienation, and estrangement, the cosmic unity of such love feels like such an unreasonable and scandalous hope. The circle and the cycle feel like futile repetition, and history simply a failure to learn from the past wounds of the Body politic, the Body planetary, and the Body universal. But as we each live and dance, pray and vote ever further into a reality beyond “they” and “us,” a love that marries and dissolves all that we put into either of these categories, we are, in Eliot’s words, “folded in a single party.”[xi] Our prayer becomes the one word We, and in that prayer—and perhaps that prayer alone—we will be raised up, ripened, and restored.

[i] T. S. Eliot. East Coker I, second of Four Quartets. From Collected Poems, 1909-1962, p. 182.


[iii] Ibid. p. 183.

[iv] Apostle’s Creed, Book of Common Prayer, p. 96.

[v] I John 3:1-3.

[vi] A thorough guide to the following is the The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N.T. Wright.

[vii] T.S. Eliot. East Coker I from Four Quartets.

[viii] Fr. Richard Meux Benson (1824-1915), one of the primary Founders of The Society of St. John the Evangelist.

From his collection of retreat addresses, Followers of the Lamb, p. 3.

[ix] Richard Rolheiser. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. c. 1999. Doubleday.

[x] Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. From Chapter 21, “The Mystery of Prayer.”

[xi] T.S. Eliot. Little Gidding III , from Four Quartets.

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  1. Rick Porter on October 22, 2020 at 08:16

    I am moved to thank Brother Keith and those who have commented on his incredible sermon. My understanding went a step deeper into the reality that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ right now and for all eternity. Our earthly disagreements, while being meaningful in a temporal sense, so often blind to us to the reality of our loving filial relationship to one another and to our common Father who has and does love each of us eternally.

  2. Ruth West on April 5, 2018 at 23:05

    Br. Keith, this sermon could very well be one to convince the intellectual atheist to take a second look.
    Your vocabulary is stunningly rich! I would love to sit in a class with you and hear you teach and evaluate again the scriptures re: the resurrection. It is the deepest of theology, but also simple belief as taught by our Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles. I truly believe that the Christians’ belief in the resurrection is the separation point between us and the other so-called great religions of the world.
    Thank you for this.

  3. John G. on April 5, 2018 at 14:00

    What a marvelous, erudite, imaginative sermon you have written, Brother Keith. I like that it gives the lie to the Platonic separation of body and soul for eternity. To me, the resurrection implies the reunion of body, soul, and spirit. The question for me has to do with how long we have to wait to be raised. Your sermon suggests that those who have died will have to wait for awhile. But this answer does not satisfy me. I look to the urgency of the Gospels, particularly Mark, in declaring the coming of the Kingdom of God. The message: hurry up and repent before it’s too late. I look to St. Paul’s letters for words about how we shall all be raised “in the twinkling of an eye.” I hope the latter are closer to the truth than those who believe the embodiment of our souls and spirits is a long way off. John G.

  4. Cara Alfieri on April 5, 2018 at 12:34

    Br. Keith–Thank you for tackling this difficult & mysterious subject with such discernment. The T.S. Eliot poetry you included was wonderful.

  5. JGIBSON on April 5, 2018 at 02:31

    It’s pretty hard to follow either Keith or Eben here, though they both say things of interest. I wonder why it seems so hard for people to spell out exactly what they mean? Is it because they can’t be spelled out? Is it because they fear making a mistake or misleading people?

  6. Eben Carsey on November 20, 2016 at 22:05

    Thank you, brother Keith, for this wonderful sermon regarding the “bold and scandalous promise” of a resurrection of unity of body and spirit, a denial that either of the two can exist apart from the other. When we better understand resurrection, we better understand what it means to be alive, before and after death. To paraphrase Teilhard de Chardin, spirit not only supports matter, it is born of matter. In 1Cor. 15:44, Paul speaks of the resurrected body as a spiritual rather than a natural body. What might this mean? In , Ilia Delio speaks of quantum resurrection. According to her, “a person [before or after death] is a constellation of relationships… throughout space-time…. To my mind, this spiritual or relational body exists throughout the material world, human and non-human, even after our natural, localized, concrete body has disintegrated. At that point, we become even more integrated into and continue to interact with, the body of God, which is the universe, and the Body of Christ, the Church.

    Yes, “They without us, and we without them, could not be made perfect.” The communion of saints continues to consciously and unconsciously perfect us. And as we continue to re-member and pray for them, we continue to perfect who they have been for us in our life together.

    I hope that we may one day continue this discussion through the Fellowship of St. John.

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