A sermon I recently heard (ok, it ended only half an hour ago) affirmed for the congregation that even though the angels announced "Peace on Earth" at the birth of Jesus, that peace isn't really to be found on earth. It's only in heaven after you die, and "in your heart."
I like that -- it makes Christian faith easier. No more working for peace on earth, no more having to put up with violent people who want to hurt me or injure me in some way. I can just kill them, so long as I have peace in my heart. Ain't life grand? Pass the ammunition.
Further, God isn't really trying to do anything in his creation: creation doesn't matter because, well, it's MATTER, and we all know that heaven means shedding this flesh and bone and becoming pure spirit so we can go to a "place" (why "spirits" need a "place" I'll never understand) called "the kingdom of God" that is also "purely spiritual" because "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 15:50), and "this world is not my home," yada, yada, yada.
Uh, no. That is the gnostic heresy all over again -- the importation of Greek dualism into Christian doctrine. Here's what I mean.
You can find one source of these ideas in Plato's separation of "appearance" from "reality" in "The Myth of the Cave." Briefly, all we see around us is "mere appearance," which is NOT the way things "really are." The "real" is in the "realm of the ideals," and the stuff we see around us is "mere shadow" of those "realities" that exist in that "other place," the "realm of the ideals."
Now, this concept is probably valuable as a hermeneutical caveat against taking things around us at "face value." However, when it is taken in the ontological sense, i.e., as a description of "the way things really are," it becomes problematic. Taken into Christianity, it becomes heresy.
Gnosticism rose up out of Christianity in the second century. It took Christian language about "flesh" and "spirit" and interpreted it in terms of Greek dualism. For the Gnostics, "flesh" was always evil, and "spirit" was always good. The two could not be mixed, and any contact with "flesh" would render "spirit" evil. This concept had a number of implications for these "Christian Gnostics."
First, it meant that the true God could not have created this world -- that would be to blame this evil place on him and taint his character. So, Gnostics imagined an extended hierarchy of deities, one emanating from the other, each one "less divine" than the other, until they found a deity far enough removed from the original (and "true") Deity that they could blame creation on him (the lesser deity) without casting blame on the TRUE Deity.
Second, it meant that God's Son, the Redeemer, could not really have "become flesh." That would be to mix spirit with matter and to taint the character of the "True Deity."
Third, since this cosmic dualism extended into the personal realm, the "true you" (or "true me") is not this "shell" we call "the body," but is the "divine spark" within each one of us. So, "salvation" came to be seen as a liberation from this "evil body." The "divine spark" was understood to be the "soul," which is, more or less, a ghost that haunts one's body [credit to novelist Walker Percy for that phrase]. One is liberated from the body by knowing this "truth" about oneself. Salvation, then, is not so much from sin, but from ignorance. Thus, the name of this heresy, "gnosticism," is derived from the Greek work gnosko, which means "to know."
Fourth (and this is the best part!), it has ethical implications. Gnostics went one of two ways here. One way was to denigrate the body, to chastise it and essentially starve it to death because it is flesh and therefore evil. It is the other path that I like best: since the body didn't mean anything, and it isn't even the "real me," my body can do whatever it wants! It's not the "real me" anyway! Is this a great religion or what?
What I heard in the sermon today was that bodies and creation don't matter. If that is true, then my body can do whatever it wants! I'm lovin' it!
But, doesn't the Bible clearly indicate a division between "flesh and blood"? Let's see. Paul certainly uses that language, but we have to remember that Paul was highly trained in the Jewish faith and Rabbinic theology. Therefore we have to understand it as having grown out of that background. Though Paul made use of common ideas and phrases out of the Greek culture, the theology (and therefore the content or meaning of the terms) is out of the Old Testament. Here are a few relevant concepts.
First, God loves this creation, including the "matter" out of which he made it. The creation story in Genesis has God affirming the goodness of all that he made over and over, and even after "The Fall," there is no statement that indicates that it stopped being good or that God stopped loving it. The closest thing to such a statement is in Genesis 6, just before the flood, where the text says that "Yahweh repented that he had made human beings" (my trans.). Certainly human beings had brought sin into the world and had become utterly sinful (see Gen. 6:5), but the "plan of salvation" that God put into motion in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abraham was NOT a negation of what he had made, but a redemption. God is NOT sorry he created (in general), but sorry he had created human beings. When he destroyed them by the flood, he didn't destroy them all and start over with a different kind of being. He left a few humans alive and began the same project all over again! The point of the story is that sin will be a reality so long as there are humans: if you have human beings, you will also have sin and evil. You don't get rid of evil by killing off all the people you think are evil because the evil is right within each one of us. Yet it does not negate the goodness in which we were created, nor does it negate the imago Dei, the "image of God" in which we were created.
Now, take a look at Romans 8:18-25, a passage I like to call "God's Plan of Salvation." What are God's intentions for his creation stated here? Apparently, God intends to redeem it ALL -- ALL of it is "groaning as in labor," waiting for the "birth" of the children of God -- waiting for the FINAL CONSUMMATION of our redemption, in which the entire creation is to share! Salvation here includes (!) bodies ("the redemption of our bodies," v. 23; cf. also 1 Cor. 15 on the resurrection of bodies, and 1 Cor. 6 on our bodies being "members of Christ"). There is no thought here of a "ghost that haunts the body," nor of a "spirituality" that excludes and/or denigrates the body! "Spirituality" actually involves one's body -- or it's not truly "spiritual"!
In fact, the word "soul" as it is used in both Old and New Testaments (Hebrew nephesh; Greek psyche) is a reference not to some "ghost that haunts the body," but to the whole person. Ask yourself this question: Can souls swim? Sounds nonsensical if the "soul" is equivalent to a "personal ghost" or some such notion. But note this: in the story of the flood, the Hebrew text reads that there were "eight souls" (nepheshim) saved in the ark. The New Testament reference says the same thing, but uses the Greek psyche. So: saved from what? Well, didn't the ark save them from drowning? Why? Can't souls swim? Well, if they're "personal ghosts" then they don't have to swim, it would seem (not needing oxygen to survive, etc.). But, since here souls were saved from drowning, it may be that the word "soul" has a different reference, and indeed it does. If you consult the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, a very scholarly source edited by Colin Brown, you will find that "soul" essentially refers to "the whole person." Therefore, most contemporary translations of the Bible will tell you that "eight persons were saved" by the ark.
In other words, there is no "personal dualism" to be found in the New Testament, and no "cosmic dualism." "Salvation" is, therefore, not just a "pie in the sky by and by" kind of thing, and the "peace of God which surpasses all understanding" isn't something we get when we enter the pearly gates, but it is something we both enjoy in the here and now and must live out in the present time!
The "peace" offered by Jesus is also a "here and now" peace -- though it is true that we live in a world of strife and violence. What, then, does it mean for the angels to announce "Peace on earth" to the shepherds -- and to us?
It means, of course, that Jesus is indeed the "prince of peace," and that we, as those who believe it, are called to live that peace in our world. It is not just a "feeling of calmness" in the midst of chaos, though it may be that. But we are also called to BE something: "peacemakers." We are to live as if God is really in charge -- to live out of control because God is in control! We are to live the peace of God's kingdom as lights in a dark world. That is what Jesus did, and we are his disciples. We live our salvation so that others will see it. Some will love it and respond positively. Others will see us as weak and take advantage of us. But that doesn't change our call from God. When the angels announced "Peace on earth," they were speaking a word from God, and God wasn't kidding. Peace.