Souls: Our Nature Under the God of the Living

Wednesday of the 9th Week of Ordinary Time (Memorial of Saint Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs): 2 Timothy 1:1-3, 6-12, Mark 12:18-27.

Today’s readings present an incarcerated St. Paul, sincerely encouraging Timothy even as he faces his ultimate fate, and the gospel reading shows Jesus telling the Sadducees that they are “greatly misled.” Together, these readings shed light on what makes us who we are, especially as Christians baptized in the Holy Spirit.

What a lovely opening to the 2nd Letter to Timothy. Paul, writing what we believe to be his final letter from the prison in Rome, sweetly greets his old friend Timothy and blesses him from afar: “to Timothy, my dear child: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” What follows is an incredible statement of surety and courage from someone who is at peace with his relationship to God. We must remember the trials that St. Paul has faced by this point: a lackluster acceptance by the mother Church in Jerusalem that is dominated by Jewish converts to Christianity, beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, attempts on his life, and even witnessing the backsliding of the Christian communities he founds, some of which will completely fail. It’s fair to say that most of us would have been discouraged, if not in despair, that is, if we had not given up long before. But not Paul, for he is a man who lives in and with the Spirit, who graces him with legendary perseverance in spreading the Word of God and confessing the nature of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the World. He is like one possessed, but this possession is a strengthening and lifting of his character, not a diminishing of his person. He is an incredible example for us of someone who singularly does God’s will, and in so doing is transformed into something greater. 

St. Paul in Prison (1627), Rembrandt | Wikimedia Commons.

No, he does not express despair but instead thankfulness: “I am grateful to God, whom I worship with a clear conscience as my ancestors did.” This is a pattern we will see through the ages: saints who exhibit serenity, peacefulness, and gratitude while accomplishing the work of God, especially as they approach their own deaths. And this work never ends as they submit their own will to God; Paul has a clear exhortation to Timothy in this passage: “I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” Let’s dig into this for a moment. He clearly references Timothy’s baptism in water and the Spirit — the same baptism we all share — and reminds him to “enkindle” or “stir into flame” the “gift of God” that he received through his baptism. Two things we might note: we, like Timothy, must do something, must engage with and “stir into flame” the gift given to us at our baptism. Second, Paul tells us that the gift is God Himself. He doesn’t speak of various “gifts of the Spirit” like he does in other epistles, nor should we take him to mean specific charisms, talents, or skills. He reminds Timothy that we receive a share in God Himself as we are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, as we are anointed and initiated into God’s saving plan for us. God dwells within and works within us, but as Paul says, we must stir this gift into flame.

Paul goes further to characterize the spirit of God that is the gift within us: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” When I heard this, the first thing that came to mind were the several historical fiction shows I watch on Netflix and Amazon about Christians and Vikings in the middle ages. Perhaps it was the close proximity of the words “cowardice” and “power.” Images of Christian soldiers fighting (and hating) pagan enemies come across my mind. Sure, it’s cinema, but we know from documents surrounding the Crusades and historical records throughout Europe that Christians conflated their insistence on the truth of their faith with the peacekeeping efforts of secular powers. In fact, there was little separation in many countries between the secular power (king & queen) and the religious hierarchy (bishops). Let’s be clear: the loser in this equation has always been the faith. Secular interests like expanding a country’s power in the region work in direct opposition to what Christ taught. The sad result for the faithful is that they see their faith as an instrument of power or their religion as something that demands respect and authority. How off-kilter is this from what St. Paul tells Timothy today? Paul writes that God’s gift is not “a spirit of cowardice,” but this does not mean an aggressive attitude towards others; rather, it is a way to encourage Timothy not to hide and be quiet in the face of persecution. He tells Timothy, “bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God;” this is the opposite of cowardice. Paul also writes that our baptismal gift is a spirit of “power and love and self-control.” The “power” can only refer to the indefatigability of the eternal Word as well as the eschatological power of everlasting life. It is not earthly power as measured in swords, treasure, and territory. The other two nouns used by Paul accompany this type of heavenly power: love and self-control are not things typified by battlefield berzerkers but by kindly saints. I’ve always struggled a bit with the “Church Militant” terminology and perspectives like a “muscular” Christianity. Proponents of this terminology are tempted to relate spiritual warfare with the devil to secular warfare with non-Christians. Spiritual warfare is a very real internal struggle to uphold the purity of our souls, not an external campaign to wipe out anything non-Christian in the world. I simply think that military metaphors are overplayed in some religious rhetoric, and in the light of today’s example that Paul gives us, we should instead have a model of the suffering but persistent saint, unfazed by seeming earthly failure, serene in proclaiming the Good News, non-violent, and filled to overflowing with the Spirit of love and self-control. Our model is this man who writes, “I am not ashamed, for I know him in whom I have believed and am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day.”

St. Paul at His Writing Desk (1629-1630), Rembrandt | Wikimedia Commons.

What kind of person is this saintly Christian? What kind of person does not define himself or herself based on accomplishments, wealth, property, or children? This is someone whose focus is unrelentingly God-centric. This is what we are called to be. Yet how much of the time are we unrelentingly God-centered? 5% of the time? 1% of the time? We should be exhorting one another to “stir into flame” our baptismal gift, just as Paul writes. 

It seems to me that St. Paul demonstrates how he has located his own soul here at the end of his life. He is intimately in touch with that “gift of God,” the spirit that anointed his soul when he himself was baptized. He has gotten to know, prioritize, and hold up for all to see the spiritual aspect of his human person. How thoroughly absent this is in our contemporary lives! We relegate this type of spiritual person to the cobwebbed corners of our society — perhaps the bearded monk blissfully praying away in the monastery or the chaste nun slaving away in the inner city. We settle with a laughable concept of “spiritual” that winks at us in mindfulness exercises or New Age retreats. Meanwhile, we revere the intellectual and the physical: scientists with Spock-like logic and rationality are seen as one type of paragon while athletes are seen as another. I’m not suggesting that intellect and physicality are unimportant parts of who we are, but if we want to be Christians, we have to be serious about our souls as the most important part of our person.

To my mind, Jesus says just as much in today’s gospel reading. The Sadducees, a powerful political and religious group among the Jews, do not believe in resurrection; more specifically, they don’t believe in the immortality of the soul, which rules out resurrection. This is why they become one of the primary enemies to the early Christian Church, which proclaimed Jesus resurrected. They attempt to challenge Jesus with a tortured question about whose wife a woman would be in the afterlife after successive remarriages. Jesus points out this ridiculous line of questioning from the get-go: perhaps “you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?” He poses. First, He points out that there is no marriage for those risen from the dead because they are “like the angels,” united with God in a bond more significant and profound than any marriage. This is a point-blank insistence in the immortality of the soul, contrary to the Sadducees’ beliefs. Further, Jesus pulls an example from Exodus, a book in the Pentateuch that they revered and read literally. He points out that God identifies Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in other words, patriarchs who were hundreds of years dead. Jesus seems to be saying that God was not just mentioning the patriarchs as a memory of ones once alive but as ones alive and dwelling with Him. Indeed, Jesus completes his answer by stating, “He is not God of the dead but of the living. You are greatly misled.” Some have commented that Jesus is frustrated in this passage or that he rebukes them, but I think that this is a great example of self-control and plain truth spoken by our Lord. He doesn’t call them fools or tell them that their question is stupid. Instead, he hears their question, as duplicitous as it may be, and re-directs the conversation to the fundamental question that needs to be addressed with the Sadducees: that of the immortality, the ongoing life, of the soul.

The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus (Les pharisiens et les saducéens viennent pour tenter Jésus), 1886-1894, James Tissot | Creative Commons, Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Let’s consider the importance of this teaching. At the heart of it is who we truly are and who our God truly is. We are promised to be “like the angels in heaven,” where even fundamentally important human relationships like marriage no longer matter as we come face-to-face with the Great I AM. Our God is the God of the living, not of the dead. What part of us participates in this rising from the dead? The Church teaches that it is our entire being, body and soul, although we hear St. Paul emphasize over and over in his letters the importance of the soul and detachment from the worldly. This is significant not in order to discount the rising of the body, but to elevate the importance of that invisible part of us, easily overlooked and ignored. As Jesus insists here in the gospel reading and as St. Paul demonstrates in his serene encouragement of Timothy, we are made of something that is immortal, that communes with our God of the living, and that thing is the soul. It is the organ that is perceptive to the Spirit and most in communion with God. Elsewhere, Jesus notes the importance of the soul for our true, everlasting lives: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). This instruction to his disciples is right in line with today’s first reading from Paul, albeit more ominous in tone. Do not be ashamed or afraid of earthly trials, instead focus on the One who can preserve your soul in everlasting life.

I am left reflecting on how much I may or may not be “dwelling in my soul” rather than in my mind and body, and what that might even mean. I think it must start with a desire, a thirst for God; a desire to connect that invisible part of me with the invisible God. This is the seed of faith, and my goal is to water that seed with prayer, study of divine scriptures, and loving action in the world. This last bit — the loving action — I have the feeling is the true soul-expander. 

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