Body and Nephesh

Sunday 12 in Year A

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This year the last few Sundays seem to have been inviting us to reflect upon the very essence of who God is, how we stand in the presence of God, how we make sense of the nature, the quality of God. Last week, the Apostles were first named as such: they were sent out to go and to be the bearers of the image and the love of God into that community at the time. They were sent out in pairs; sent out to go and announce this wonder of God’s love. And then we get this little packet of part of that teaching, part of the instruction that Jesus gives to the apostles as they go out, no longer just disciples, no longer just learners, but now they are being sent. 

Three times he has to tell this little band of followers: Do not be afraid, because this seems to be the first experience that so many of them have and so often we’ve had that experience too. When we grew up, that sense of a God who was so awesome – that fear seemed to be the natural response and part of that is good. Part of that is okay – to have that sense that God is so immense, so amazing, that the natural response to a God of such power, such majesty is to be a little bit afraid. To have that deep sense of awe and wonder, we might say in the presence of God, but to have that sense of being afraid because we fear we might be punished by God. That is, when we often move into territory that’s certainly outside of the full experience of the scriptures. 

The full experience of the church over the centuries as they’ve pondered how to be in the Presence of God – how to have an appropriate response and relationship with God. But God reveals himself, particularly in the person of Jesus as someone who’s inviting us into the trust of God, inviting us into the wonder of God, a God who is love, not just that love is one of his attributes, or one of the qualities that God has, but the very essence and nature of God is love. 

And if we then live in that presence of love, then, naturally, fear doesn’t have a place, as the evangelist John will tell us in the first of his letters, as perfect love drives out all fear, and so Jesus invites us into this experience. 

But in the middle of the gospel, there’s this kind of odd statement, and I think we need to really unpack it a little more, he says: Don’t be afraid of people who merely kill the body, but fear him – and it’s not exactly clear in the text who Jesus is referring to – fear him who can throw both body and soul into Gehenna, into the valley of Hinnon just outside of Jerusalem. The garbage dump, which was the only place the Jesus referred to that we translate as hell. But it was a physical place, a place where there was the constant fires burning; the wild animals who would come and eat the refuse that was around the edges so you would hear the gnashing of teeth. You’d hear the growling, you’d hear the rumbling. 

There was a place that stank of course, that is what garbage dumps do! It’s not a very pleasant place, but that’s the image that Jesus has of people being thrown into this place of punishment. Now we get a distinction then between the body and the soul. Now one of the dramas, one of the problems is that we translate that Greek word, psyche as soul, but with a sense of all of the baggage that Greek philosophy brings – particularly in the writings of someone like Plato. For Plato, Soul was the very essence, like the prisoner trapped inside the machine. 

The soul was the essence, the core. The reality of the person and the body almost didn’t matter. It was the soul that was significant. But that’s not in any way the Hebrew understanding; it’s not the way that the Jewish authors and thinkers – Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, as a person who was brought up within this Jewish worldview, thought of it. Not in that sense of the real essence of some. The Hebrew word is nephesh and the literal translation of nephesh is your neck, your throat, you know, because they knew that something’s very significant was happening here in the throat that if there was an injury to your throat, if you began to cough or if you were choking. That something happened and the person died. If the neck was or the throat was cut, they knew that the person would die. So something clearly is significant about the throat. The neck. 

And so they would say, you know, that there were 33 nephesh in the family of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Or if someone was a murderer, they would say that they’re a nephesh slayer. So nephesh wasn’t incorporeal. It was the very sense of life itself, the very person would have life because you had nephesh. Nephesh was the essence of what it was to be alive, and the Hebrews understood that when someone died, their nephesh was still there, but it was a dead nephesh . The essence was no longer there, so it’s not something that we bring as Greek thinkers to the scriptures of something that’s not able to be touched.

Hebrew spirituality, Hebrew understanding is very grounded, it’s very physical and practical, and so clearly Jesus isn’t talking about this essence of someone who can kill both body and your eternal spirit. He’s talking about taking away the very essence of what it is to be human, and so that’s worthy of fear. Certainly. 

But I think that this passage has often been misunderstood and misinterpreted because we bring an idea that’s just completely foreign from what’s there in the scriptures. And bring this other ideas that were developed much later when the church moved into the Greek world and began to unfortunately take so much of that Greek understanding into the experience of what it is to be Christian. 

So what is the essence that Jesus is wanting us to experience? Well, it is this fear and this, this sense of awe and wonder in the presence of God. That’s certainly Jesus wants us to have that sense of a God who is so magnificent, so wonderful, so powerful, so beautiful. The natural response is to have a certain sense of respect and awe and. Under and I think some of that has been lost often in the post Vatican II church. We haven’t had that strong sense of a God who is just so amazing and so able to be worshipped. 

So redeveloping that cultivating that is one of the steps that I think we need to continue to work on as a church and as a community. But also to know that the essence of that God is of love, a God who is inviting us and calling us into life, inviting us to have courage, inviting us to be people that do have that desire to share that good news, to share the love and the wonder of God with those around us. And sometimes that will be uncomfortable. 

And so Jesus is acknowledging that within the gospel tonight, that when we step out, when we say yes, I am a believer. Yes, I am someone who loves God, who know myself to be loved by God, that when we speak that into the world, that there will be pushback. At times there will be people who. Won’t be able to understand or hear that message, and yet we need to continue to offer that as well. We need to continue to speak the wonder of the God. 

Who has his eye on the sparrow – the God who is able to hold and sustain us with such intimacy and such amazing detail that he’s able to see the deepest needs that we have and the wonder of what we require. And he’s able to bring and address all of those needs. A God who is calling us and inviting us. Always just more deeply. Into life, into wonder, into the goodness of. And that’s this wonder that we can respond to. 

That’s the way that we can step forward and say yes, even though there is fear, even though there is uncertainty, even though there is sometimes confusion in the midst of all of that, I’m going to let the God of love see me. I’m going to let the God of love hold me and into that. I’m going to allow God to speak life into my into my whole, into my existence. 

I too am able then to bear witness to the wonder of God, that I’m able to speak the truth of God’s love into the world. Today we are invited once again to respond to God and to his love, and to let that love be the one essence that calls us and carries us, and then speak. That into the lives of those around us during the week ahead.

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