You may be familiar with the recent film, “Never let me go,” or perhaps the beautiful book it is based upon by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is a strange story. In a somewhat forgotten, out of the way English boarding school, there are students, who turn out to be very special. They seem like normal students. They laugh. They play. They hurt each other. They fall in love.
But it turns out that they are actually clones—they are genetically engineered and are meant to live only for their usefulness, as organs are harvested for what is perceived to be the “greater good” of society.
There are art classes at Hailsham and the young people take great pride in what they create. But later in the story, it turns out that the whole reason for the art classes was the teachers’ attempt to show the State that the students (the clones, really) actually possessed souls. The effort fails.
The story raises the question: What is a soul?
What does a soul look like? Can it be seen? Can it be felt? Can it be studied? Is the soul just that part of us that responds to God? Is it that part of us that helps us feel emotion or have compassion for someone else? What, exactly do we mean when we talk about a soul?
Those of you who are familiar with my preaching will have noticed that sometimes, when I get stuck for an idea, or need a little help thinking about a particular word, I look at the writings of Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a writer, preacher, and sometime Presbyterian minister, and he often cuts through my ordinary sense of a word to help me notice something deeper.
And so, in his little book, “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC,” I looked up the word, “soul.” This time Buechner provided no definition. Instead there are cross-references. Under the heading, “soul,” Buechner writes, “see Spirit, Healing, Sex.”
Right there, Buechner reminds us of what St. Paul was trying to convey in so much of his writing—that the Greek idea of a spirit and body split might be helpful for philosophy, but it doesn’t describe what we know of ourselves. It doesn’t describe how God has created us. And it doesn’t even begin to describe what happens when we die.
The popular notion that the body dies and turns into dust while the soul floats up into the arms of God is not a Christian understanding of death. Body and soul cannot be separated so neatly. Scripture tells us that we die totally in this world, body and soul die. But then, in God’s mystery and miracle of new birth, both are raised to new life again.
Whatever is uniquely “John” about me in this life—the way I look, the way I move, the way I hurt, the way I rejoice— all of that will die but be raised up again. I don’t know if I’ll have gray hair (prematurely gray hair, mind you) in heaven, but I think there will be something about me that you’ll recognize there and say, ahh, yes, that’s John over there.
Like Buechner says, the soul includes spirit, healing, sex, and it includes so much more—taste and smell, and sound, and movement, and feeling, all that we are is formed and informed by our soul. In tonight’s Gospel Jesus promises a day when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God. They will hear their name, they will see the Good Shepherd, they will embrace everyone they’ve ever known, and be received into the arms of God. These are physical things, only possible with a body, what Paul calls a “spirit-body” but a new kind of body nonetheless.
On All Souls’ Day we remember those who we have known and loved who have died. But even as we remember them, even as we miss them, we give thanks that we will see them again. We give great thanks, and we can take great joy in the reality that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died … but they are at peace . . . in the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever.”
Thanks be to God for the giving us souls to love and rejoice and live for ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.