Two Natures

Our monthly pastoral circuit meeting was today, and the topic of discussion (I can’t really call it a study, though there were elements of that as well!) was the two natures of Christ.  This is something that people have been struggling to speak faithfully about for nearly 2000 years.  There have been several notable failures, and millions or billions of smaller failures.  It’s one of those areas where we find that the less we say, the better off we are. More specifically in this regard, it’s best to just repeat what God has told us rather than coming up with our own ideas and explanations about things!

For Lutherans, this issue of the two natures of Christ was solved by the early Church in condemning various heresies that went too far in one direction or the other.  But for Luther and the original Reformers, the issue was resurrected in terms of Holy Communion and the Eucharist.  Were the later Reformers right in saying that because Jesus is physically at the right hand of the Father in heaven, He cannot truly be present according to his human nature in the bread and the wine and so He is present only by his divine or spiritual nature?  Luther rejected this.  But he also rejected the Roman Catholic insistence that there was a substantive change in the elements – that the Words of Institution were transformative so that the bread and wine were gone and what remained was only the body and the blood.  For Luther, when Jesus says “take and eat this is my body…this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-27), what matters is the “is”.  Whether we can explain it or not is secondary to the fact that our Lord says what is.  Jesus as the Word of God made flesh, the Word through whom all creation came into existence (John 1:1-3) knows what He’s saying.  If He says something is, then gosh darn it it is.

All well and good historically speaking.  There was a lot of consensus around the table today that this issue is far less of a problem for many inheritors of the Reformed tradition today.  But what struck me is the matter of the two natures of Christ still is very pertinent today in another realm – the realm of what we look forward to as resurrected disciples of Christ on the Last Day.

It was brought to mind as one of our brethren (whom I deeply respect and appreciate!) made a comment in his sermon  about how Jesus went to the trouble of eating fish after his resurrection as part of his effort to demonstrate to his disciples that He truly is resurrected.  He said that Jesus didn’t need to eat the fish, because Jesus is God.

Now, his assertion may be true.  But if it is, then it seems to throw the whole delicate balancing act of the two natures off kilter.  Is Jesus truly and completely man as well as truly God or not?  And is his resurrection from the dead (according to his human nature) truly that?  Does Jesus remain truly human after the resurrection, or does He just appear to be truly human?  If He’s truly human then eating remains a necessity for him.  He does it in part to assure his disciples, but at some level, He does it because He’s truly man.  Resurrected man.

Someone quipped that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness and survived, and therefore He obviously doesn’t *need* to eat.  But I’m not so sure about that.  First of all, what does fasting mean in this context?  Absolutely no food or drink at all?   Abstaining from certain foods or drink?  The text doesn’t address any of these things.  Luke 4:2 indicates that He didn’t eat anything during the day, but perhaps He ate in the evening/night  (as Muslims do during Ramadan)?  If this is supposed to be a miracle, then why tell us that He was hungry (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2)?  The implication seems to be that Jesus does indeed need to eat, does indeed suffer hunger.  This is why Satan chooses to tempt him.  He’s weakened.  He’s hungry.  He’s physically vulnerable.

How do we as Christians talk about our future?  We talk about eternal life but what does that look like?  I suspect many Christians see it as a spiritualized eternal life.  Not physical.  More like angels, floating around on clouds with harps.  Certainly nothing so crass as actual eating and drinking.  Good grief, would that mean that we’d have to use the bathroom after our resurrection?  Or will our digestive systems be perfected so that there is absolutely no waste to be disposed of?

But the Biblical imagery is quite physical and material.  It’s not simply a Revelations thing either.  Repeatedly in Scripture our life to come is described in earthly ways.  Isaiah 65:17ff is pretty explicit about this.  It isn’t that we leave here and go somewhere else to become something else.  Rather, we remain creatures within a creation.  But perfected creatures within a re-perfected creation.

So Scripture repeatedly uses the imagery of banquets and feasting (including wine!) to describe the age to come when all is perfected.  Jesus himself uses this language.  It’s physical language.  I don’t think that the Biblical imagery is only figurative – an attempt to describe what we’re going to feel like even though we aren’t really going to be at a feast.  God created us as creatures who eat, and I think we’ll retain that in the resurrection.

People need to hear this.  They need to consider the two natures of Christ and what they mean to us.  Either Jesus is truly man and truly God or He’s not.  If He’s not truly God then I can’t trust that his death and resurrection truly takes away my sins.  If He’s not truly human, then I don’t know what God is up to by going through the motions of being human.  If He’s not really human, the resurrection may be theologically significant but meaningless in terms of helping me understand what I’m looking forward to eternally.  Christianity is quite unique in its affirmation of the physical and material.  Creation is good, God declares in Genesis 1.  The incarnation of the Son of God is further demonstration that the physical and material is good – worthy of justification and sanctification, not something to be discarded or treated as a hindrance.

This issue comes out frequently when  I’m asked about burial options – whether it’s more Christian to bury or cremate.  I don’t see this as the main issue.  What I see as the main issue is what is communicated about our belief about the hereafter and our eternal hope.  What is communicated should be consistent with what our faith and hope is.  I believe that a Christian can give good testimony to their hope in the resurrection whether they choose burial or cremation.  However  I remain opposed to the eco-trend that suggests burying a person or their reduced remains essentially in a burlap sack with a seed inside that will grow into a tree.  I dislike the imagery communicated – the person is not dead, they’re alive in that tree!  Isn’t that beautiful?

No, they aren’t.  No, it isn’t.

People laugh when I say that, and point out that if you’re buried or your ashes are disposed of, you’ll end up being absorbed as nutrients into a tree, so isn’t it the same thing?  No, it isn’t.  There’s a difference between acknowledging that our bodies die and decay and trying to pretend that this is the normal and natural flow of things, that it’s even necessary.  They aren’t spiritually dead, but rather physically dead and spiritually with Christ even though their bodies have died.  They have not transformed into a tree.  They never will transform into a true.  They wait for something far better!  In Christ, we look forward to being perfected not just morally but physically.  We look forward to a material, physical eternity in a body that is free from all the defects it now suffers from.

Death is an intruder.  Death is unnatural and we all recognize this at one level or another. .  Death does not belong!  God created trees and they were growing despite nothing having died to fertilize them!  My hope is in Christ, not some sort of New Age, Lion King sort of circle of life fantasy.  My redeemer lives – physically and materially not just divinely.  And as He lives, so shall I!

This is what the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ show us, and it’s worth holding on to and being careful talking about.  Because Jesus is truly and fully human we can see in his resurrection a foreshadowing of what kind of resurrection we will have.  Physical.  Recognizable.    The Son of God’s assumption of our humanity – his dual nature – is God’s means to free us from the dual nature we deal with now – that of sinner and saint.

 

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