In the time from Margaret Thatcher’s recent death to her funeral last Wednesday, I have been involved in three funerals. We hosted a funeral at the church, prior to a burial at Brookwood Cemetery, because the chapel there was in too distressing a state for the family. We have had the funeral of a church member’s mother. I am preparing for another funeral tomorrow, too: I had taken an elderly lady’s funeral a year ago, but when her daughter died younger than most, her children asked for ‘the minister who conducted Granny’s funeral.’
None of these three people was famous, and certainly not like Mrs Thatcher. Yet they all share one thing in common with her, as we all do. Death comes to us all, as today’s reading in Ecclesiastes reminds us:
All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. (Verse 2a)
The same destiny overtakes all. (Verse 3)
“Lying here, she is one of us,” said the Bishop of London in his address, and while the trappings of a ceremonial funeral seemed designed to separate the grocer’s daughter of Grantham from mere mortals, death remains the great fact and great equaliser.
When you are younger, you may live as if you are immortal. As you grow older, reality dawns on you. It may come in the death of a friend or loved one; it may come as you notice signs of decay in your own body. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes invites us to ask this question: how do we live well in the certain knowledge of death? I offer two main thoughts this morning.
Firstly, live life well. This seems to be the Preacher’s main advice in the passage:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Verses 7-10)
You could easily interpret this along the lines of, ‘This life is all there is, so you might as well make the most of it.’ Even if you substitute the word ‘temporary’ for the word ‘meaningless’ as I’ve suggested in previous weeks, you would still be talking about ‘this temporary life’ and ‘all your temporary days’. It might boil down to little more than, ‘God has only given you this life, so get on with it.’
But that’s rather worrying, isn’t it? And this is one of those Old Testament texts where the Christian has to bring in the New Testament for a fuller understanding. Left on its own, this passage is not fully Christian. It needs filling out with New Testament revelation. Ecclesiastes reminds us of the finality of death and that we need to live life well before dying, rather than just wait for death. However, the story of Jesus Christ reworks this into a fuller picture.
What is that fuller picture? Simply put, it is one word: resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is far bigger than a promise of eternal life for all his followers (although I do not deny that!). It is the promise of a new world to come, a new creation where God makes all things new, just as he made the body of his Son new after crucifixion. It is the foretaste of new heavens and a new earth.
In other words, we are not dealing with some ethereal life, floating on clouds, playing harps. If harp playing is a requirement, then only one person in this congregation has an eternal future! Rather: it is a physical and material future, seen in the way the Risen Lord cooked and ate fish.
Therefore, to eat and drink, to love and to work well, as the Preacher suggests, are appropriate preparations for the life of the age to come. When we enjoy God’s good creation with thankfulness, we tune in to the coming age. When we love and when we work hard, despite the struggles they involve due to the presence of sin in this world, we tune into the life to come.
Sometimes we are tempted to think in life that what we are doing is worthless or pointless. ‘Why am I giving myself to this?’ we ask ourselves. We might even ask God the same question. However, that is where one of Paul’s greatest insights into the meaning of the Resurrection comes into play. It’s a verse that some of you know came to be very important to me during an extremely hard season in my life. It’s the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Just when many of us would expect him to point at the climax of his argument to God’s glorious future, he instead brings us back to this earth with a practical application:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Aligning yourself with God’s will ‘is not in vain.’ Death will not destroy it. Somehow it will be taken up in the work of building for God’s kingdom. If God has given you a task to do, there is an eternal purpose to it. If God has given you something to enjoy, then do so with gratitude and generosity, not with greed, for that generosity and gratitude is the grain of the wood in his kingdom.
But what is true is this: one day, the opportunity in this life to build for that kingdom will be gone. We have limited time, and as the Preacher says at the end of the passage, ‘no one knows when their hour will come’ (verse 12). So take the opportunity. Do you have an opening to good or to celebrate God’s gifts? Take it! Remember the slogan from the Robin Williams film from 1989, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’; ‘Carpe Diem’ – seize the day. In the face of death but with the hope ofresurrection, that is what the Christian will do in order to live life well, in a manner that pleases God.
Secondly, prepare for death. On the day of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, Giles Fraser had an excellent piece in The Guardian entitled, ‘How to bury Margaret Thatcher’. If you saw a title like that by a left-wing clergyman like Fraser in a paper like the Guardian, you would probably expect something vitriolic. Not so. Fraser spoke how when he was on the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘Operation True Blue’, the plans for Mrs Thatcher’s funeral arrangements, were on the books all the time he was there. We know that Mrs T had made certain requests about her funeral, as indeed many more humble people do. But I am not talking about leaving a list of requests for the service – although I have to say that if you do so, it is helpful to your relatives after you have gone.
No: I am talking about preparing for our deaths in squaring our relationship with God in Christ, and all the consequences of it. Fraser tells of how last Sunday, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Mark Oakley, told a story in his sermon about the funerals of Habsburg royalty in Austria:
As the funeral procession approached the closed doors of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, a voice from inside would ask, “Who is it?” The grand chamberlain would read out a long list of grand titles. The voice from the church then replied: “We know him not.” The chamberlain would try again, with a shortened version, and received the same reply. Finally, the chamberlain knocks on the door. Again comes the question, “Who is it?”, and this time, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, he answers: “A sinner in need of God’s mercy.” “Him we know; enter,” comes the reply.
Here is how we prepare for death: as ‘a sinner in need of God’s mercy.’ The Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes here as if there is nothing after death:
Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
5 For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
6 Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun. (Verses 4-6)
However, as I’ve already said, the Christian has received further revelation, the revelation of an empty tomb, and we believe in a life to come, preceded by a Last Judgement. We do not intend to present ourselves before God, clutching a eulogy to our lives that exaggerates our good points and airbrushes the bad bits. We are not to be the Pharisee at the temple, telling God how well we have lived for him, but the publican standing at a distance, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Is that to be morbid and to be miserable? Is that to engage in what I once heard somebody call ‘worm theology’ – ‘O Lord, I am but a worm’?
No. It is to cast ourselves on the grace of God. I’m sure you know the old mnemonic for the word ‘grace’: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. In other words, we are forgiven through Christ’s death on the Cross and made new in his Resurrection.
Or put it this way. Here is a slogan I saw the other day on Facebook:
Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection.
We prepare for death by remembering that we are sinners in need of God’s gracious love in Christ. We are, as the late Brennan Manning called himself and all of us, ‘ragamuffins.’ If we come boasting of our good deeds, we shall only be exposed as the hypocrites we are.
There is no room for cover-ups. In his book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Manning tells of being in a group for alcoholics with a man who kept presenting his drinking problem as not too bad. However, the counsellor practised tough love and ruthlessly exposed his lies and deceit, even to the point of having left his daughter in a car on her own during freezing weather while he went on a bender for hours. The daughter developed frostbite and permanently lost her hearing. Only when the man had been brought to honesty about his sins and had put away his egregious attempts to present himself in a good light could redemption come.
It is the same with us before God. If we try to come as good people, decent people, valued pillars of society, God will not be impressed with us. But if we present ourselves as sinners needing forgiveness, and sinners willing to be transformed by the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then just as the imperial chapel was opened to the dead body of Habsburg royalty, so the court of heaven is opened to the deceased pilgrim in Christ.
On the way back in the dark from my welcome service in this circuit at Walton in September 2010, we got to a mini-roundabout in Chobham where I was convinced from one or two sorties already that you turned right. Unfortunately, we should have turned left – and then right at the following roundabout.
The result was – that with one or two other mistakes I made – we ended up stuck up a narrow cul-de-sac, surrounded by flooding, needing a difficult reversing manoeuvre to get out. Let’s just say that Debbie is far better at reversing than me, and with children crying that they would never get home again, she took the wheel and offered me some – er – ‘words of encouragement’.
‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ ask the men dressed in lightning. ‘He is not here; he has risen!’ (Verses 5b-6a)
It isn’t because the women have gone to the wrong tomb; they knew which tomb Jesus was buried in. And if they had gone to the wrong tomb, then seven weeks later when the apostles preached the Resurrection at Pentecost, the enemies of the Jesus movement would have gone to the right tomb and produced a decomposing body.
No: the women’s problem is stated in the next words of the men:
‘Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words. (Verses 6b-8)
The first quality we need, then, as disciples of the Risen Jesus, is that of remembering. My failure to remember a route got our family in a pickle that dark night two and a half years ago. The women didn’t remember the promises of Jesus.
Now in one respect it’s unreasonable to be hard on them. When Jesus predicted his resurrection, he was prophesying something their existing beliefs didn’t expect. Many Jews expected the righteous to be resurrected at the end of time, according to Daniel 12, but not in the middle of history. And the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection at all. So the beliefs the women already had made it difficult for them to take in what Jesus had said.
Yet that is what disciples of Jesus are meant to do – remember his words above the beliefs and values of our culture. His words often clash with the beliefs we have inherited. We need to strain to hear them, but they are important, and he doesn’t always shout them.
And most of all, we need to remember that he is risen. Because it changes everything in life and death, and in how we live as a result.
The second quality that disciples of the risen Jesus need is listening. Sometimes when we’re in a supermarket, Debbie will slip into the shopping a celebrity magazine, or at very least one of those similar magazines where readers tell their gory real-life stories for money. I smile politely, but inside I’m thinking that these publications are the spawn of Satan. I have no problem with light reading; I have every difficulty with trashy, celebrity gossip.
When the women get back from the tomb and speak to the Eleven and all the others, the men dismiss their evidence, ‘because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (verse 11). ‘Idle tales’, some translations say. Rather what I think of the celebrity mags.
I wonder why the men reacted this way. Was it because their beliefs, too, prevented them from believing in the resurrection? Or was it because the testimony came from women? This was a society where women were not allowed to give evidence in a court of law. And so, at a tangent, if you wanted to make up the Easter story then, you wouldn’t have chosen women as your central witnesses.
But the Resurrection means we have to listen to unlikely sources, not least because Jesus himself chose unlikely followers. Would you have picked the same disciples as he did? Probably not. Yet these people – some of whom were on the margins of society (the women most likely were) – are those who have the testimony we need to hear.
This Easter, don’t just listen to the words of a preacher like me. Listen to the testimony of a quiet Christian who would not stand at the front like I do. Maybe you are that quiet Christian. You, as much as anyone else, have a story to tell of your encounter with the risen Lord. Do not deny others the joy of hearing your account.
Here’s the third element of being a disciple of the risen Lord. Many years ago, my home circuit ran a day when different people in the circuit could have a stall to advertise Christian resources they found helpful. My Dad took a stall to promote some material for house groups.
A man from another church in the circuit took one look at what Dad had to offer, and sneered at him: ‘We don’t need any of that rubbish.’ The man made it plain that he was beyond the idea of learning more about his faith.
Contrast Peter. His reaction to the women’s story is that he runs to the tomb and investigates for himself (verse 12). He isn’t complacent. He doesn’t belittle the women. He checks it out for himself. The third quality, then, is one of learning.
I’m fond of the story about the elderly grandmother who regularly read her Bible, to the bemusement of her grand-daughter. ‘Granny, why do you still read your Bible?’ asked the little girl.
‘Because I’m studying for my finals,’ said the old lady.
If we believe in something as mind-blowing as the Resurrection, then surely we get the message that there is always more to know and learn. God always has more that is beyond the current horizons of our minds. We do not have to be academic, but we do need a commitment to continual learning about Jesus and our faith as Christians. In fact, we can’t be a true disciple without it. The word ‘disciple’ means ‘learner’. It’s a matter of definition! No learning, no discipleship.
So I want to challenge KMC this Easter Day. To read in our worship questionnaire a few months that a high percentage of us only engage with the Bible during Sunday morning worship tells me that we as a church have a low level of discipleship.
Learning is not all about Bible study, of course, and one of my nastiest critics in a previous church was someone who was diligent in daily Bible reading. Learning about Jesus involves not only studying but also doing – putting into practice what we discern.
The Church Council has decided we need to promote house groups, so come and talk to Chris Lowe or me about that. We can also help you find other modes of Christian learning.
But whatever we do this Easter, let us commit ourselves to learning more about the Jesus who has stretched our horizons, and who continues to do so.
Our final section in 1 Corinthians 15 today is the passage designed for the church crèche:
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed. (Verse 51)
More seriously, to get into Paul’s thought as he brings this glorious chapter to a conclusion, we need to appreciate something of the way the typical Hebrew mind made an argument. It was different from ours. We tend to argue in a straight line: point one leads to point two, leads to point three, et cetera, and on to a final conclusion.
But for the Hebrew you have to think less of the straight line and more of the circle. Think more of a stone being dropped in a pond, and the ripples going outwards. That is what Paul does here. His central point is – well, central. It’s in the middle of the section, and the implications are ripples around it. So rather than explore these verses from beginning to end, I’m going to start at the centre for the main point and then ripple out to the implications and eventually the conclusion.
Firstly, then, where does Paul drop the stone in the pond? I suggest to you that it comes in verses 53 and 54:
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
What we have in this central pebble-drop is the image of clothing: the perishable clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. But this isn’t just any old getting dressed: to put one new set of clothes over an old set implies something bigger. It implies a particular kind of dressing up. In short, it implies an investiture. The resurrection of the body, says Paul, constitutes our investiture.
An investiture? Yes: in the resurrection of the body God confirms our royal status as his vice-regents in the kingdom of God. Just as in Genesis 1, humans bear the image of God to look after creation on his behalf, so now in the new creation we are invested with royal status to tend the new heavens and the new earth. Anyone who believes that the life of the world to come is simply one of singing around the throne of God is mistaken: there will be work to do, good work, as we care for the new creation to the glory of God.
Our receipt of a resurrection body is symbolic of this, for it is the clothing fit for the new heavens and the new earth. God has already promised us this status as his vice-regents in the new creation. Think of it as rather like the ways in which Prince Charles became Prince of Wales. He was actually created Prince of Wales by Letters Patent on 26th July 1958, but he was not invested and did not have the coronet placed on his head until the actual investiture ceremony at Caernarfon Castle on 1st July 1969. So today we already have the promise that one day we will reign with Christ in the new creation. But the day on which we receive our resurrection bodies will be our investiture. It will be the public sign that we have the authority to exercise delegated power in the kingdom of God for ever.
You may feel insignificant now. You may count yourself unworthy of the attention of Rupert Murdoch’s army of phone hackers. Hello magazine may never ask to do a photo spread of your beautiful home. Count yourself blessed! For in God’s kingdom the disciple of Jesus is the most significant human being apart from Christ in all eternity. No wonder it was that earlier in this epistle Paul told the warring Corinthians that ‘we shall judge angels’. The resurrection says that our investiture is coming.
This is where it all ripples out from, then: our clothing in our resurrection body constitutes our investiture as God’s vice-regents in his new creation. What, though, are the implications? I offer two implications, and then an important conclusion.
The first implication is that of change. Remember the crèche quote –
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed?
Hear that reference to ‘change’ which applies to everyone, and then hear what Paul says immediately afterwards. When and how will that universal change happen?
in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (Verse 52)
The resurrection of the body means complete, instantaneous change. Throughout our Christian lives we labour in co-operation with the work of the Holy Spirit to see our lives change, and to see our changed lives affect our world for the better. To our frustration, we do not see all the change we long for – either in ourselves, or in our world. But when we put on our resurrection body, the formal clothing of our investiture as God’s vice-regents, we are fully changed. This is the Good News of our future hope. As Paul put it in Philippians 1, God has begun a good work in us, and he will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.
As a teenage Christian, I was bemused by a song written by the Christian singer Randy Stonehill called ‘Good News’. It said, ‘Good news, Christ is returning’, when I thought that the Good News was that Christ has died. Now I see that the promise of Christ’s return is the promise to complete the good news he has begun in us.
The story is told of the enthusiastic Christian who found himself sharing a railway carriage with a bishop. Being suspicious of these bishops – you never could be sure whether they were truly Christians – our enthusiastic friend asked this particular bishop, “Are you saved?”
Wisely, the bishop replied, “Do you mean ‘have I been saved’, ‘am I being saved’ or ‘will I be saved’? Because all are true.”
And the bishop was right. Being saved is more than the forgiveness of our sins. It is the transformation that then begins in this life but which will come to a climax in the resurrection of the body when God will complete the work he has begun in us, and when he will also transform all of creation. Salvation is comprehensive.
None of this is a reason for complacency now. Rather, it is a vision that inspires us now to see more of that change before we are clothed with our resurrection body. Let us anticipate God’s great future now, and let that be a sign to the world!
The second implication is of confirmation – confirmation, that is, of Jesus’ victory over death. Death is beaten, yes, but it isn’t just that death is conquered – it’s about who has conquered it:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Verses 54-57)
The point is this: people have wanted to cheat death or deny death for centuries. At funerals, I sometimes get asked to read dreadful prose which contains lines such as ‘Death is nothing at all’, or ‘I did not die’. Russian Communist authorities kept treating the publicly displayed corpse of Lenin as if to suggest he was not really gone (and – ironically – to encourage veneration, despite their attacks on religion). Wealthy Westerners pay for their bodies to be cryogenically frozen, so that one day they might be cured of the disease that killed them. And it’s all rank nonsense.
Except over Jesus Christ. And because he has conquered death, we shall have victory over it too one day when our bodies are raised and clothed with immortality. Or should I say, not ‘Jesus Christ’ but the phrase Paul uses: ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘Our’ – because he is over his pilgrim people, the church. ‘Christ’ – because he is the fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes. And ‘Lord’ – because he is, and Caesar is not, and the whole world must bow to him. All must acknowledge him. And when we do, the fullness of God’s kingdom comes. His humble servant reign is everywhere to be experienced. The sorrows and injustices of this world will dissolve.
But it only happens with the embrace of ‘our – Lord – Jesus – Christ’, risen from the dead, who will raise us, too. No political schemes will bring in the kingdom, much as we must care about politics. No violence and superior firepower will bring in the kingdom. No pious hiding from the world will do it, either. But we anticipate our resurrection bodies, following the One who has already conquered death.
So – the pebble in the pond caused by our investiture as God’s vice-regents in the new creation as we are clothed with our resurrection bodies has led us to two significant ripples. One is then anticipation of change, in the completion of a comprehensive salvation. The other is its confirmation as the victory over death won solely by our Lord Jesus Christ means that all must bow the knee to his benevolent reign, and in this we shall see the fullness of the kingdom.
What conclusion should we draw from all this? Many Christians would end on a note of future hope of glory. Let’s look forward!
Not Paul. His conclusion, his application, is for the here and now:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (Verse 58)
The resurrection is the great doctrine of hope. Do you ever feel like jacking something in? Do you feel like giving up? This verse is for you. If you are plugging away at kingdom of God things, says Paul, then nothing is wasted. Death will not obliterate it. God will bring what you have done into his new creation, in a transformed way.
Maria Muldaur, the singer perhaps best known for ‘Midnight at the Oasis’, once recorded a gospel album. The track I always remember from it was called ‘Is my living in vain?’ If we’re honest, some of us Christians feel like that sometimes for a variety of reasons, some of them personal, some of them public or social. It just doesn’t feel worth it. A dark cloud descends and envelops us.
But Paul says, ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain’, and hence why he urges his readers ‘Always to give [themselves] fully to the work of the Lord’. The Resurrection is what will make it worthwhile.
And if I may speak personally, I want to tell you that this verse has been a life-saver for me. I have told some of you how my last appointment in the ministry was a terrible misfit. I wondered why God called us there. I still don’t have an answer for that. But what I do have is a promise here: ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ Whatever the reason was that God took us there, he will take it up and make it new in his kingdom. He will do the same for you as you cling on to him in your darkness.
But let me end with some beautiful words. My sermons in this series have been inspired by a book on 1 Corinthians by a favourite scholar of mine called Kenneth Bailey. In writing on this verse, he quotes a certain Bishop Bill Frey. And Frey’s words seem a fitting end to this sermon and to this series:
Hope is hearing the music of the future; faith is dancing to it today.
1 Corinthians 15:35-50
My church youth group friend Elaine used to say she thought the prospect of heaven sounded short on excitement levels. “I mean, you can only last so many years sitting around on a cloud plucking a harp before you’re bored,” she used to say. (I’m only glad she didn’t say ‘bored to death’ – that would have been inappropriate.)
And you know what? I would be, too. It’s not as though I can even play a musical instrument, let alone a harp.
But then, sitting around on a cotton-wool cumulus bears so little resemblance to the Bible’s teaching about life after death that I don’t think Elaine needed to worry. And nor do I need to spend money on harp lessons.
The trouble is, we have imbibed so many images of life after death that have nothing to do with the hope Jesus and the apostles taught, and indeed many of them are downright contradictory of orthodox Christian faith. Several of our popular concepts about life after death themselves deserve a good burial. Our passage today from 1 Corinthians 15 is prime evidence to that end. I hope that by the time we have finished this morning’s section of the chapter we shall have a clearer idea of the hope the New Testament gives us.
Firstly, Paul teaches us that the resurrection hope is a bodily hope, even if it is a different kind of body. I want us to think here of the typical things we say when someone dies, like, “It’s only the body that has gone, not the real person.”
“Their body may have died, but their spirit lives on.”
“It doesn’t matter whether we bury someone or cremate them, because the real person has gone to be with the Lord.”
Now there are partial truths in all those statements, but the danger behind them is that we get to think that the body doesn’t matter, only the soul or the spirit does. The trouble with that thinking is that it isn’t what Jesus or Paul wanted us to believe. The idea that only the soul matters does not come from the Bible, but from Greek philosophy where the body didn’t matter. Christianity (and Judaism) can’t have anything to do with such an idea that only the soul matters, because we believe in a God who made his creation good. We also believe in a God who is remaking his creation, and the Resurrection of Jesus is the ‘first fruits’ of this, as last week’s passage said.
So we get in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection clear evidence that Jesus has risen bodily. There is no body in the tomb. When Jesus appears to his disciples, he shows them his hands and his side. He breaks bread at a meal with the disciples walking to Emmaus. He cooks fish on the lakeside. It’s all physical. Jesus is bodily raised. The body matters.
Now Paul tells us here in verses 35 to 41 that we are talking about a different kind of body, and that is affirmed by the Gospels, too. Remember how Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of the disciples? That isn’t what a normal body does? But he is still bodily. The Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul – that is Greek philosophy, not Christian faith. Our hope is ‘the resurrection of the dead’. That means a new, but a different body.
We’ll come on in a moment to the implications of the resurrection body being different, but at this point I just want us to dwell on the thought that our future hope is physical. It isn’t disembodied spirits floating in space. It’s resurrected bodies in a new creation, the new heavens and the new earth. The God who made all creation good and who is sorrowful at the damage caused to all things physical by our sin is the same God who intends to renew this material creation, and that includes our bodies. So when the question comes up of whether we will be recognisable to one another in glory, the answer is ‘yes’, even if we find it hard to imagine how.
And this truth of a physical resurrection body is a sign that we should be concerned for the physical dimensions of life now. It is why we should be concerned with supporting the Food Bank here. It is why we should support campaigns for justice. It is why we should care about healing. We know not all of these things will be put right in the here and now, but we live in resurrection hope of the day when God himself will renew all these things and make them right. We anticipate them now as we long for the hope of bodily resurrection.
Secondly, then, how different is the resurrection body? Paul gives us a series of contrasts in verses 42 to 49, between the body we have in this life and the resurrection body. Perishable and imperishable. Dishonour and glory. Weakness and power. Physical and spiritual. Earth (or dust) and heaven. Clearly there is a vast difference with the resurrection body. Perhaps the key statement is in verse 44:
It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
Now some people take this all wrong. They see the word ‘spiritual’ and overlook the word ‘body’. They make a leap into thinking that the resurrection is not bodily. But ‘spiritual’ and ‘body’ go together here. Instead of a body animated by physical things, we have a body animated by the Holy Spirit.
And that’s where the good news is here. Instead of human life being expressed in a body whose desires and appetites are often led by the wrong things, in the resurrection our new bodies will be led by the Spirit of God. Whereas in this life we struggle to follow the will of Christ, even though the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within the disciple of Jesus, in the resurrection of the dead that problem will be overcome. No longer will it be a battle to do what pleases the Lord. Our resurrection bodies will be fit for the kingdom of God.
No wonder, then, that Paul also uses words like ‘glory’, ‘power’ and ‘heaven’. For just as God is preparing a new creation with new heavens and a new earth, so he is preparing new bodies fit to live in that renewed dimension of existence.
Which one of us is not frustrated with the way we live here? We struggle to do what is right. Often we don’t even want to do what is right. Even when we do, it’s a battle. We know we are forgiven, yes, and we see signs over a period of time that God is changing us by his Spirit. But which one of us would settle for the life we have now as also being the life of the world to come? Not one of us, I think.
But the resurrection body is animated by the Holy Spirit. God is making all things new. That will include us.
How does that help us now, while we remain embroiled in the battle to do good? For one thing, it gives us hope. It will not always be like this. For another, it gives meaning to the little victories we have now. When we do align ourselves with God’s kingdom, when we do conquer the forces of evil in the name of love, we are working for the kingdom, we are anticipating the kingdom, we are giving a sign to the world of what is to come for those who will follow Jesus. It encourages us to open ourselves even more to the work of the Holy Spirit now, so that we can be foretastes of God’s kingdom, colonies of the new creation, in the midst of the mess. That is worth doing.
And that neatly leads us into the third and final point I want to make about the resurrection body: it shows the way to God’s kingdom. Hear again the final verse of our reading:
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (Verse 50)
My parents were never wealthy by the usual standards of life in the UK. However, my father had one luxury he used to indulge: he had his work suits made to measure. Not like me, where I know my jacket size, my waist size and my inside leg and I then go around a menswear store trying to find trousers and a jacket that match within that combination, Dad used to have a tailor come to the house and measure him up for his suits. The tailor would arrive by appointment of an evening, take all the precise measurements and go away. When the suit was ready, he would phone to arrange a return visit. Even then it was not certain Dad would buy the suit: the tailor checked very carefully that the suit fitted my father in every way.
What I am saying here is that in the resurrection of the body that is to come for all disciples of Christ at the end of time, God is precisely fitting us for his kingdom, like a master tailor.
I was tempted to lift the line from ‘Away in a manger’ that says,
And fit us for heaven
To live with thee there
Except that it isn’t quite accurate theologically. Heaven is not where we spend eternity, if you read the New Testament carefully. (I’ll pause while the shock sinks in.) Heaven is where we wait ‘asleep’ in death for the resurrection of the dead. When we have been raised to new life, then we live eternity not in heaven but in the new creation, specifically the new earth. So I would rather more generally say that God is fitting us for the kingdom than fitting us for heaven. If, as Paul says here, ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’, then the implication from the context is that the ‘spiritual body’, the body animated by the Holy Spirit can and will inherit the kingdom of God.
In our resurrection, then, we shall come into our inheritance, which is to live unhindered in God’s kingdom. It’s something we greatly look forward to as we muddle our way through Christian living now, even with the help of the Holy Spirit.
But the great thing is that we know this is what we are going to inherit. We know that unhindered kingdom living is what awaits us when God has raised us from the dead, pronounced us innocent at the Last Judgement because of Christ and welcomed us home.
So the question arises, how do we know that will be our inheritance? After all, you may know what you are going to inherit from your parents when they die, because they have told you what is in their will, or you may even have seen a copy of the will and know where it is lodged, ready for the fateful day. What is the sign from God that we shall inherit unfettered kingdom living, where all will be healed, where relationships are characterised by reconciliation, peace and justice?
The answer is the Resurrection of Jesus himself. It’s a case of going back to that language last week of first fruits. The fact that God has already raised him is the guarantee of what he will do for us. The fact that he already has the resurrection body animated by the Spirit shows what God will do for us.
Jesus is the pioneer. He is the prototype. When Paul went on to write 2 Corinthians, he would say that all God’s promises find their ‘yes’ in Christ. This is true here, too.
In conclusion, then, this morning is not so much about a rousing call to passionate action. It is about thinking differently. It is about rejecting the idea that the body is merely a shell for the soul, and instead valuing the bodies God has given us, because he will one day give us new ones.
This morning is also not about being told off but about being encouraged to see that the coming resurrection body, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gives us a vision of living for God’s kingdom now – even if we mess up with some degree of regularity.
And this morning is also about anticipation. The kingdom is coming. We have an assurance of that fact in the Resurrection of Jesus himself.
Be filled with hope. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
This Easter season, we are currently preaching through 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Here is the passage that falls to me today:
We know that line from childhood, even if raw adult experience teaches us that it isn’t always true.
One of the problems we have at Easter is that we think ‘They all happily ever after’ is what the Resurrection means. We see the Resurrection as no more than a happy ending to the story after all the horrible stuff about Jesus dying.
But it isn’t. Do we all live happily ever after now, because Jesus has risen from the dead? No. I know that in one sense the Resurrection does point us towards a ‘happy ever after’ destination at some point in the future, but that isn’t what it means now. And the Resurrection has deep, central meanings for our faith even now, before death.
So much so that even though I initially entitled this week’s sermon ‘The Certainty of the Resurrection’ it might better be entitled ‘The Centrality of the Resurrection’. I want to show from our reading three areas of life and faith where the Resurrection is central, if not the foundation.
Firstly, the Resurrection is central to salvation. We so tie salvation into the death of Christ – ‘Jesus died for our sins’, and so on – that we overlook the place the Resurrection has in salvation. Indeed, this whole chapter has started with what Paul says is the Gospel as passed down to him – not only that Christ died, but that he was buried, raised and appeared to his disciples. The Resurrection is part of the Gospel message of salvation. But in what way?
Here’s what Paul says essentially in verses 12 to 19 of today’s reading. We affirm that Christ died for our sins. His death rescues us and we are forgiven. All well and good. But since the Bible speaks about death as the penalty for sin, death itself must be conquered if we are truly and fully to be saved from our sins. Hence why Paul says that preaching is useless without the Resurrection (verse 14), that we are liars if there is no Resurrection, because death has not been defeated (verse 15), that faith without the Resurrection is futile and leaves us still lost (verses 17-18) and that we are pitiable without that message (verse 19).
Moreover, Paul implies, everything we assume about life and salvation assumes the Resurrection. How can we affirm we are forgiven if the penalty for sin is still in force? If the Queen pardoned the offences of a criminal but he was still sent to prison, what kind of pardon would that be? It would be nonsense. So it is with sin against Almighty God, says the apostle. Say all you like about the Cross being the source of our forgiveness because Jesus died in our place, and that is true, but unless the death sentence is removed from us there is no practical benefit to that forgiveness. Hence the Resurrection is as much a part of our salvation as the Cross is.
But of course we all expect to go through death. The conquest of death for us remains in the future, when we shall be bodily raised, just as Jesus was. And it’s this future hope which is the important thing here, for there is a parallel with forgiveness. The forgiveness we receive through the Cross is an assurance that in the future, at the Last Judgement, we shall be pronounced ‘not guilty’. And our Resurrection to eternal life will be the sign that confirms the Judge’s merciful verdict on us.
One scholar, Kenneth Bailey, puts it like this:
The resurrection affirms that sin and death do not have the last word. At the cross the finest religion of the ancient world (Judaism), and the finest system of justice of the ancient world (Rome), joined to torture this good man to death. These were not evil forces. They were the best institutions the ancient world had to offer, and yet together they produced the cross. But that was not the end. After the cross came the victory of the resurrection. After the cross, no form of evil surprises us, no institutionalized brutality amazes us, because we have been to the cross and we know that beyond it is the resurrection. We have stood at the cross … and have witnessed the empty tomb …!
All this, then, makes the Resurrection much more than a happy ending. It makes it far more than any idea that the Cross was all bad and the Resurrection kissed everything better. When we look at the empty tomb and believe in the Risen Lord, we have the assurance of salvation. Believe in the Easter hope and know the promise of salvation.
Secondly, the Resurrection is central to the kingdom of God. In verses 20 to 28, Paul talks about Christ’s resurrection as being the first fruits of the general resurrection of the dead, leading to everything being put under God’s feet. While we wait for that time, Christ reigns until every enemy has been put under his feet.
In other words, God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit shows that God reigns, because he even conquers death in his Son. However, much opposition to that reign remains. Just as a human authority can be in charge of a country despite there being opposition to that person or government, so Christ reigns over creation, despite opposition to him.
It’s within that framework that Paul uses the image of the ‘first fruits’. Judaism celebrated two harvest festivals: as well as the full ingathering of the crops around the end of the summer or beginning of the autumn which corresponds to what we understand as a harvest festival, they also celebrated the appearance of the first fruits in late spring. We have a name for that ‘first fruits’ festival: we call it Pentecost. The first fruits guarantee what is to come, the full harvest. In kingdom terms, Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of God’s reign that promise the full victory over death in the ingathering harvest when the general resurrection of the dead happens.
Meanwhile, as we await that complete conquest, Christ reigns. Just as a Roman colony (such as Corinth) anticipated a day when the Emperor (who had the status of a god) would come and visit them, so Christians anticipate the future coming of our triumphant risen King. And just as the Roman emperor rewarded the retired soldiers who fought to win that colony for him, so our coming King will reward those who have served in the cause of his kingdom.
But there are bigger implications. It’s not just that you can draw imperfect parallels between the risen King and earthly empires, it is also a matter of contrast and conflict between the kingdom of our Risen Lord and the kingdoms of this world. Kenneth Bailey again:
When Paul wrote, “We have one Lord, Jesus Christ” (8:6), he was not only confessing his faith, he was also making a political statement. If Jesus is kurios (Lord), then Caesar isn’t. In like manner, here in verse 24, even though Paul was writing about the climactic end of the age, he was at the same time de-absolutizing the rulers, authorities and powers around him. It was dangerous to even think let alone proclaim such things anywhere in the Roman Empire. But to write this kind of subversive literature and send it to the largest Roman city outside Rome was extremely risky. The apostle as much as announces that one of the goals of the resurrected Christ was the setting aside of eternal Rome. Paul was intimidated by no one, and by committing his vision to writing he surrendered control over who would discover these views.
The Resurrection, then, proclaims the kingship of Jesus at the expense of the rulers of this world. Now the latter, of course, won’t like that. They expect our allegiance. The Resurrection puts us on a collision course with them and we may end up suffering, because we retain our allegiance to our Risen Lord ahead of them. We respect the earthly authorities as much as we can, but the time comes when we have to choose between obeying God and obeying human beings. It is the Resurrection that leads us to make that choice in favour of Christ. For it shows that he truly reigns and it promises that his kingdom will come in all its fullness. Furthermore, if we do suffer, then the Resurrection promise that life conquers death fortifies us in our eternal perspective.
Thirdly and finally, the Resurrection is central to our lifestyle. We’re into verses 29 to 34 here. And what on earth is all this stuff about being baptised for the dead? We can perhaps appreciate the idea of Christians such as Paul risking their lives virtually every day, because we can read the accounts of their tremendous courage in service of the Gospel. But baptism for the dead?
It has puzzled readers down the ages. There are something like forty major different explanations lying on the scholars’ table. Fear not, I won’t take you through all of them, but I will just briefly mention one famous interpretation. The Mormons have a particular take on this. Since baptism is connected with salvation, what happens to those who have died without being baptised, they ask? So Mormons volunteer for some kind of proxy baptism on behalf of the dead to assure their salvation, and they use this text to justify that practice.
However, that is almost certainly a wrong approach. Much more likely in the view of scholars I trust is this scenario: in the early years of Christianity, some followers of Jesus died, and their loved ones – who may not have embraced the faith – feared that they might not be reunited in eternity. Therefore the surviving relatives were ‘baptised for the dead’, that is, baptised for the sake of their beloved deceased family members, in the hope that such baptism would see them through to the reunion after death that they desired.
Now that may sound like a bizarre practice, but the point Paul is making is that those who went in for it could only make sense of it if there was the resurrection of the dead. If there were no resurrection, they could not be reunited with their loved ones after death. The game was up.
And similarly, and more seriously, was the courage that Paul and the other church leaders showed in the way they proclaimed the Gospel in the teeth of opposition. Why risk their lives every day? Because they knew that even if they paid with their lives, resurrection would one day be their destiny. Therefore they would not be deterred by the worst the world could throw at them. But without the promise of resurrection, such courage would make no sense. There would be no point to that kind of risk-taking, and you might as well indulge yourself to the fullest extent and be done with worrying about living in a good and godly way.
But if you want to know why Christians see a point in living ethically and in holiness, it’s the Resurrection. If you want to have a reason for Christians to do the right thing even at great cost, it’s the Resurrection. It gives meaning and purpose to right living.
Having lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war and through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, I understand the affirmation “I die every day.” This is the speech of someone who goes out each day wondering if it will be his last. Included in this is the never to be forgotten feeling at a rogue checkpoint when stopped by heavily armed militiamen. On such occasions one is convinced, “I will not be alive five minutes from now.” The fall of 2009 I was privileged to meet Mr. Paul, the senior manager of “Hotel Rwanda” during the massacres that took place in Rwanda in 1994. For the three-month period of the massacres, Mr. Paul “died every day.” It was the look in the eye. We understood each other. Paul the apostle breaks into very strong language, indeed the language of oath taking, as he declares, “I die every day.”
But the Christian can ‘die every day’ when we live in Resurrection hope. The Resurrection is the reason we can and do live differently from the world. The Resurrection is fundamental to our salvation. It points to the coming kingdom of our Risen Lord. It makes sense of life and faith.
Let us live in the light of the Resurrection.
Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Verses 25-27)
I was never going to have time for a long sermon today. Hence why the one I posted last night was brief by my standards. I had two opportunities to preach it: once at 8:30 am at Addlestone, then at the 10:00 Knaphill service. The Addlestone service had to be an abbreviated communion so I could make the twenty-minute drive back to Knaphill. It then also had to be brief in the later service, because that included a baptism and we were also keeping the Junior Church in for the whole time.
I wrote the sermon earlier in the week, but I kept it up on screen for days, worrying at it, making the odd minor change but mostly leaving it untouched. I had been uneasy about it all the time. I never could let it settle, even when I printed it out. Was I unhappy with the content? Not really. I can’t explain publicly why I was uncomfortable, because it was more about how it might accidentally be perceived. But it was all I had, so I took it with me.
By the time I got to the 8:30, I had already got through an outdoor ‘sunrise’ service at 7:00 am. Not much sunrise, with complete cloud cover and persistent drizzle, but you know what I mean. As we read John 20 there, and as I listened to my church treasurer give a beautiful reflection, some different ideas formed in my head. I turned some of them into the intercessions that followed the talk Chris gave. When I got to Addlestone, I jotted them down , ditched my prepared sermon and gave an informal, if untidy talk on them. Whether people appreciated it I don’t know, because I had to depart during the final hymn, leaving Richard our deacon to pronounce the blessing.
As I drove to Knaphill, I for once switched off the iPod and prayed about whether I should do the same there. The thought came rapidly that I should.
Ditching a carefully prepared sermon is not usual behaviour for me. I do not subscribe to the view that the Holy Spirit only inspires preachers in the moment of preaching. (And hence I do not hold with the nonsense that only extempore preaching is Spirit-led.) I believe the Spirit is present in the struggle of prayer and study that goes into preparation. I am self-aware enough to know that if I have carefully thought through what I am going to say, it is usually unwise of me to depart from it radically on the day, because the replacement words will not have been carefully considered and may lead into some traps.
So far, so very ‘J’ in Myers Briggs terms. There is a big part of me that likes things planned and mapped out. My wife will tell you of a time when we were on holiday, touring the Isle of Wight on a bus season ticket, when she spontaneously wanted us to catch a different bus from Newport Bus Station to another destination, and I panicked. This all fits.
But I’m actually borderline ‘J’ and ‘P’ in Myers Briggs. There is also a large part of me that can be spontaneous and unplanned. So if the J part of me was fearful, the P part was excited. On this occasion, I’m glad I tore up the script. By way of summary, I said the Resurrection was for four groups of people:
Firstly, it is for those who are looking into tombs. Mary comes to the tomb, yes, to do the last thing she can in honour of the man she followed, but also I believe she comes as a way of coping with her disappointment and shattered dreams. Many of us have broken dreams, or we are staring into tombs. We may be bereaved. A loved one may be dying. We may be terminally ill. Or we are metaphorically staring into a tomb. Easter is for all such people. Beyond the unanswered prayer of Holy Saturday comes the hope of Easter Day.
Secondly, it is for people who are struggling to understand. I kept some of the original sermon here. The disciples don’t expect the Resurrection – as good Jews they either believed it would happen at the end of time or they didn’t believe in it at all. They were not gullible ancient simpletons. They do not immediately understand, but they have an encounter. Easter encourages those who are struggling with faith and questions still to walk the way with Jesus. We do not have to wait until we have everything sorted in our minds.
Thirdly, it is for people who need to hear Jesus speak their name. Jesus says, “Mary.” Chris told a wonderful story at the 7:00 sunrise about a British journalist from the Sunday Telegraph flying to South Africa to interview Desmond Tutu. At the end of the interview, Tutu changed from interviewee to witness. He had surmised that the journalist was a lapsed churchgoer, and reminded him that God loved him just as he was, because God only makes masterpieces. The question of hearing Jesus call you by name was pertinent to a baptism service, as we formally recalled the name given to the baby. Many of us need to know that Jesus addresses us personally. It is his word of love and affirmation, in contrast to the way we are misaddressed and abused in the world. Easter gives us that hope. Jesus is back from the dead to do this.
Fourthly, it is for people who need the challenge to be a movement, not a monument. I find the words of Jesus to Mary, “Do not hold onto me” puzzling, until I see that he is pointing her to the future. He will be returning to the Father, and she has a task to tell the disciples. Easter sends us forward in mission. The trouble many of us have with great spiritual experiences is that we want to build an edifice or an institution instead. We want blue plaques for our spirituality. As Simon Peter garbled at the Transfiguration about building booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so we want to have a fixed, static reminder rather than hear the challenge to move forwards and outwards.
And at that point I ended – like I said, there was no neat conclusion, because it was a late rethink.
Was it worth the change? What do you think?
I want to begin with one of my all-time favourite stories for Easter Day.
There once was a man who was convinced he was dead. He told his wife he was dead. He informed his work colleagues he was dead. He said to his friends, “I’m dead, you know.” He told the neighbours he was dead.
Everyone became concerned about him, and his friends and family arranged for him to see a psychiatrist. The man agreed, and at their first session the psychiatrist showed the man all sorts of learned medical literature which proved that dead men don’t bleed.
Eventually, having read book after journal after book, the man agreed. “All right, I believe you,” he said, “Dead men don’t bleed.”
At this point the psychiatrist suddenly took a lancet and jabbed the man in the arm. Watching with horror as blood spurted from him, the man gasped, “Good Lord! Dead men do bleed after all!”
Such is the problem with people who will not let the evidence change their minds. Yet that is one of the charges that many of the militant ‘New Atheists’ level at people of faith. In the case of some Christians, it is sadly true.
But the Christian faith is founded on an incident where people of faith did change their minds due to the evidence. That incident is the Resurrection.
It’s not unusual to hear that it must have just been gullible ancient people who came to believe in the nonsense of Jesus coming back from the dead. They talk about myths of gods coming back to life, and assume that’s what the Christian belief in the Resurrection was – desperate and distraught disciples lifted these myths and applied them to Jesus.
But that couldn’t be more wrong. The first witnesses of the Resurrection were all Jews. There is very little about life after death of any kind in their Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The only solid text is in Daniel chapter 12, and Daniel is a book that only found its final form in the mid-second century BC. Any kind of belief in resurrection was relatively recent in Judaism, and even then not all Jews believed in it (the Sadducees didn’t) and those who did believe in resurrection only thought it would happen at the end of time, when God judged the world. Not a single one of Jesus’ followers would have been expecting a resurrection in the middle of history.
We get a feeling for this in our reading this morning. Mary Magdalene’s first reaction is to say to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’ (verse 2) An empty tomb doesn’t mean resurrection to her. When Simon Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb, the other disciple does believe (verse 8) but immediately after that John says, ‘They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead’ (verse 9). When Mary does encounter the risen Jesus, she thinks he is the gardener (verse 15). These people may not think scientifically in the way that many people today do, but they are not gullible idiots who will either fall for any old nonsense or who will invent an account to support a set of lies. Why? Because they don’t believe in resurrection in the middle of history.
Something changes them. They have to change their beliefs – and they do so because they become convinced that they have met the risen Jesus. Nobody, friend or foe, doubted that Jesus died. Roman soldiers were expert executioners and knew they would suffer the death penalty if they failed to ensure that the prisoners entrusted to them died. Therefore Jesus could not have merely resuscitated in the tomb. If the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body were elsewhere, an opponent of the Jesus movement could soon have produced the body. The resurrection appearances are not easily explained as hallucinations, since hallucinations are usually solitary and several of the resurrection appearances are to groups. Furthermore, there is a sense of expectation about hallucinations, and as I’ve already said, they weren’t expecting it. And if this were a concocted story, it’s an odd decision to make women major witnesses in a culture where women were not allowed to give evidence.
So in fact here is a group of religious people who find that the evidence does make them change their minds. And that evidence is the Resurrection of Jesus.
The Resurrection makes us change our minds in all sorts of ways. ……
We change our minds about hope, because now we have a sign that death is not the end.
We change our minds about the present, because that hope of God renewing all things makes it worth us working for goodness, love and justice now. Indeed, it’s the best reason. Richard Dawkins says that the universe reflects exactly what you would expect if there is no Creator – he says it reflects a sense of ‘pitiless indifference’. Can you live by pitiless indifference? The Resurrection says no, there is meaning and purpose in this world and it’s worth working to change things for the better.
We change our minds about the way we live, because the Resurrection shows us God’s future. It makes sense to align ourselves with that. We have a word for that particular change of mind. There is a Bible word for a change of mind that leads to us living differently. It’s the word ‘repentance’. The risen Jesus calls us to think again about the way we live our lives.
But – what we have here that leads to our change of mind is this. We have evidence, not proof. We have the best explanation for what happened, and with it the best explanation for life. What we don’t have is watertight proof. Nobody has that, whatever their view of life. We have evidence, rather than proof, because God shows us enough on which we can trust him. If he gave us outright proof, there would be no room for proof and no sense of relationship with God.
This Easter, then, let’s consider the possibility that there is enough evidence to lead to a change of mind in every part of our lives and a relationship of trust with God through Jesus.
I’m not preaching in my own churches or even circuit tomorrow. We have a visiting minister at Knaphill, taking a missions Sunday, and I am filling one of his pulpits. Hence you may recognise the odd little bit of content here that you’ve seen previously from me.
Legend tells of Ian Paisley preaching ferociously about the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that we hear about in this and a couple of other parables in Matthew’s Gospel. As he described the torments awaiting the ungodly in Hell, one elderly woman spoke up:
“What about me? I’ve only got dentures!”
“Teeth,” replied Dr Paisley, “will be provided!”
For those of us who have a cosy image of Jesus and his parables, the ending to this one is a shock. We shall come to think about that shock in the final part of the sermon, but for now let me just say that we have become so used to the parables that we miss their shocking nature. The Good Samaritan is a shocking story. A Samaritan helps a Jew? Whatever next? A terrorist helping a wounded person in New York?
And the Prodigal Son? There’s nothing fluffy in that story. Jesus’ listeners would have been appalled when they heard that the father looked out for his errant son and then ran to meet him. Culturally, the father should have been waiting inside the house for the younger son to return crawling on his hands and knees, grovelling for all he was worth – which wasn’t much.
I would say it is a key to understanding many of the parables: look for the shock. With today’s parable, I venture to suggest that the ending is not the only scandalous part. And I think that in this parable of mission, Jesus needs to shock us into recognising key aspects of God’s mission, in which we share.
Consider, firstly, the initial invitation. This should be routine, shouldn’t it? The servants go out ‘to those who had been invited’ (verse 3). These people are expected to come. We might think with some justification that these are the people who would fall into the natural orbits of the two families about to be joined together. While social conventions are different today, we know that there are certain groups of people from whom we naturally draw the bulk of the numbers when we are issuing wedding invitations. Family – starting with the closest; friends – from school or university, from church or work or social circles related to our hobbies and pastimes. And so on. Most wedding couples don’t spring massive surprises with their guest lists, other than the usual difficulty of deciding where the cut-off point is.
And similarly, perhaps, with our strategies for mission. There are certain people whom it seems right to connect with first, if we hope to touch people with the love of God in Christ with our words and deeds. There are particular groups of people who we shall naturally invite to join us at church. There are those who once used to come, but then dropped out. They may be relatives of existing church members. There will be people associated with groups that hire our premises. Perhaps this list might include uniformed organisations. We might think of people who show a certain affinity with us, even if they do not yet share our commitment to Christ. If you have come across Back To Church Sunday in recent years, that is a strategy directly aimed at those who used to go to church, but who retain more of a sympathy for the church than we might commonly imagine.
Indeed, for a long time now, our mission strategy has been based on an appeal to ‘come’, and in generations when churchgoing was much more natural than it is today, that approach had certain degrees of success.
But there are a couple of dangers.
One is that the religiously sympathetic are not always the most likely to commit themselves to the radical step of following Jesus. Just as the natural invitees to the wedding banquet in the parable ignored, mistreated or killed the second wave of servants that was sent to summon them, so religious people can be those most inoculated against the Gospel. And could it be, given the way the king in the parable sends his army against those people who reject his invitation (verse 7), that God is less impressed with the religious and the respectable than we are?
The other danger is that the natural constituency for this approach is shrinking fast. If we do step out in mission, we want to be as comfortable as possible about it, so we only reach out to people we feel safe with, and furthermore we only do it in locations where we feel at ease – such as our own church buildings.
Secondly, let’s consider the second group that the king invites. The king sends his servants to invite ‘anyone [they can] find’ (verse 9), and this leads them ‘into the streets’ where they [gather] all the people they could find, both good and bad’ (verse 10).
What might this mean for us in terms of the call to Christian mission? Clearly in Jesus’ own day he is indicating a message that will ultimately go beyond the Jewish community to the unconscionable Gentiles. When those we might humanly expect to respond to God’s redeeming love do not do so, God has a way of pushing us out to the least and the last, to those least likely – at least in our eyes.
Before I studied Theology and candidated for the Methodist ministry, my prior work was as a civil servant, working in Social Security. As some people said, that was certainly one way of seeing life. During my first year in the civil service, I had my final family holiday with my parents. We went on a Methodist Guild Holiday. One devout Methodist we met on the holiday asked me what my work was. I explained that I worked in Social Security. Back came a response I have never forgotten: “At least you are on the right side of the counter.”
Obviously, I have never forgotten those words for all the wrong reasons. Apart from the fact that in my work I knew full well that the great majority of those claiming benefits were honest people who didn’t want to be in the situations they had found themselves in, there is also the fact that this parable shows us how the Gospel is for those who are ‘on the wrong side’.
Could we not do with a challenge in the church sometimes to this effect? Who are the people whom we would not naturally consider, but who are loved with an everlasting love by God through Jesus Christ? Are there those he is calling us to reach in word and deed with his love?
Might it be that we just have a problem in the church with being that little bit too comfortable that we need reminding God sends to ‘anyone [we can] find’? Might this be to do with the same fear we hinted at in the first point that leads us just to operate our mission in places where we feel at home? We base our concepts of mission on attracting people to where we are already. However, while we want to bring people into the Christian community, could it be that in a day when – as I said – the number of people for whom it is natural to come onto church premises is shrinking so fast – that we might need to change our primary verb from ‘come’ to ‘go’?
Indeed, might Jesus be saying to us, look at how I embraced the Father’s mission? I am the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among you. I did not wait for you to come to me, I took the initiative and brought the Father’s love to you. And since at my Resurrection I said I sent you as the Father sent me, then do you not hear? Your call in mission is not to say, “Come to us”, but to go to the world, to anyone you can find.
Thirdly and finally, let us consider the intruder at the wedding.
Our own royal family knows all about intruders. Whether it’s Michael Fagan getting into the Queen’s bedroom, a comedian dressing up as Osama bin Laden or protestors from Fathers For Justice landing inside Buckingham Palace, they tend to suffer spectacular intrusions every few years.
I’m not sure whether the word ‘intruder’ is the right one here, but it will have to do. What I’m concerned with is the shocking end to the parable where the king finds a man who has managed to get into the wedding banquet without wearing wedding clothes. He suffers a cruel fate as the king orders him to be bound and thrown out. What could explain such an apparently harsh reaction?
When you attend a wedding today you normally dress up. I remember conducting a wedding in my first appointment and wearing my customary suit and clerical shirt only for a guest to complain that the minister ‘had no sense of occasion’. He was expecting a robed Anglican and got me!
They dressed up for weddings in the ancient world, too. Although a wedding feast could begin at almost any time, there was the tacit understanding that you had time in between receiving your invitation and the wedding beginning for you to find appropriate attire and put it on. There was also a tradition where a king would provide guests with festal clothing. Either way there was no excuse: if you come to the wedding, you will be dressed appropriately. To do otherwise was to bestow a grave insult upon your host.
Now we can understand what was so wrong about the man who was not in wedding clothes. He has insulted the king. Either he had the chance to dress properly and he didn’t bother or the king offered him clothes and he had the temerity to turn him down. The man has enjoyed the invitation but he has not accepted the responsibility that came with it.
Hence this is a powerful picture to challenge the way we respond to God. We may not be like the religious people who refuse the need for grace – indeed we may know only too well that we are entirely dependent upon grace in order to enter God’s presence.
But some of us stop there. We know that Jesus accepts us as we are, but we then coast along complacently. We do not accept the obligation to change – to be clothed differently.
The old saying is that Jesus loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. In other words, he provides new spiritual clothes. He expects us to be different. The dirt must go and a clean, holy lifestyle replace it. What else is appropriate as a thankful response to the King for inviting us to his Son’s wedding banquet?
Tragically, some of us are just not serious about living a holy life. God offers us the new clothes – that is, he himself makes it possible for us to be transformed. He does this by the power of his Holy Spirit whose work is to make us more like Jesus. Think of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – is that not a description of Jesus’ character? This is what God offers us.
But some of us are happy just to wear the same old dirty clothes. I have to admit that too often my wife has to remind me when my suits need to be dry cleaned. I don’t notice the marks on them. Part of my function as a minister is to hold before us all the need for a spiritual dry-clean. We need the reminder that we have got dirty again and we need to be cleaned up.
What does this have to do with mission? Quite a lot, to be honest. The Gospel is the Gospel of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is one of free grace that accepts us as we are. However, God is calling us to be community that is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of what is to come, and that means transformed lives. This too is part of our witness. Our call to mission is not only to go into the streets and gather anyone we can find, it is also to be dressed in our wedding clothes.
Are we playing our part in getting ready for the great wedding?
Doubting Thomas: if ever anyone got a bad press from a pithy nickname, it’s Thomas. Today I want to join his rehabilitation campaign, and suggest to you that we might see some positive approaches to faith in the story of him coming to believe in the Risen Christ.
Firstly, we need to remember his context. There are a couple of previous references to him in John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, he shows himself to be a disciple who is doggedly committed to following Jesus. He encourages all of them to go along with Jesus to Jerusalem, if necessary to die with him. This is not a coward or an unbeliever: this is a courageous disciple. Let’s remember that when he is cheaply vilified.
Not only that, he was a disciple with honest question, as we see in chapter 14. Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for his friends, and Thomas honestly says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Lord, if you don’t give me the destination, how can I sort out a route? I need the address, Lord! I think you have to applaud a man like Thomas who has the honesty and integrity to ask Jesus the question that perhaps was in other disciples’ minds, but which they didn’t have the courage to voice.
And we should be glad he did, because it leads to Jesus’ famous reply, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” Would we have heard those words, but for the honest, questioning faith of Thomas?
As well as these two previous references to Thomas in John’s Gospel, one other piece of context is to compare him with the other disciples. It’s all very well that the others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” (verse 25), but it isn’t that long since they too doubted. When the women returned from the tomb, the male disciples didn’t initially cover themselves in glory. Why believe a woman? But they had had a personal encounter with the Risen Christ, just as Mary had in the garden, and just as Thomas is about to have.
So setting everyone else’s faith against Thomas’ doubts is unfair. He simply hasn’t had the experience of meeting his risen Lord yet that they have had. Perhaps today we can appreciate a dogged, honest disciple. It isn’t enough to say to some people, ‘Be quiet and just believe’. God is big enough to cope with our questions. We have a Bible filled with books like Job, and with plenty of Psalms where ancient Israel sang her painful questions in worship. If Thomas is an example to us, it is about church being a safe place for people with their questions, not one where they are shouted down.
In suggesting this, I’m not advocating unbelief, because unbelief is very different from doubt. Unbelief is a refusal to believe at all, but Jesus says Thomas was ‘doubting’ (verse 27). Os Guinness has a helpful definition of doubt: he calls it ‘faith in two minds’. Doubt isn’t the absence of faith that unbelief is, it’s faith in two minds.
There’s one other context to Thomas that I haven’t mentioned, and it’s not in the Bible. There is a strong early tradition that Thomas is the apostle who took the Gospel as far as India. There is even a Christian denomination in India called the Mar Thoma Church, which claims to trace its founding to him. If that is the case, then is it not a good thing to give someone the space to wrestle with their questions? If like Thomas they come through to a deeper faith, who knows what they might achieve in the name of the Risen Christ?
Secondly, then, I invite us to remember his questions.
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Verse 25)
What is Thomas’ problem, apart from the fact that – unlike the others – he hasn’t yet met the Risen Christ? As I said, he isn’t an unbeliever. He is far from being a sceptic. In fact, you could say that he was deeply biblical. Like most pious working class Jews (but unlike the wealthy Sadducees) he believed the ancient prophecies that one day, at the Last Judgement, God would raise all people from the dead – some to the reward of eternal life, and some to judgement. He would likely quote Daniel chapter 12 in support of this view.
What they didn’t expect was that God would interrupt the middle of history with a resurrection. You get a flavour of that in John 11, where Jesus turns up at the tomb of Lazarus, four days after the death, and speaks with Mary and Martha. They say they are waiting for the great resurrection at the end of time.
However, Thomas’ willingness to state his question baldly sets the stage for another appearance by Jesus, this time for his benefit. John sees this next appearance, a week later, as a follow-up by Jesus. Again it is in the midst of locked doors because the disciples who are so full of enthusiasm about the Resurrection are still nevertheless afraid, so this isn’t just for Thomas. This is to bless them all.
But in Thomas’ case, his devout biblical faith is now stretched and expanded by meeting the risen Christ. And often, that is what God wants to do through an experience of doubt. It’s not there to destroy our faith, but to expand it. In a profound talk he gave last year on the place of doubt in Christian faith, an American Old Testament scholar called Peter Enns said this:
When you go out into the world and say “it’s not working,” maybe that is a signal. It’s not God who no longer works, it’s your idea of God that needs work. Maybe you are for the first time being called, as C. S. Lewis put it so well in the Narnia books, to go “further up and further in.” That’s where doubt plays a powerful role.
But where does Thomas have his doubts expanded into greater faith? It’s in a context of fellowship. He is with the other disciples this time, and I think that makes a difference. Classically, one of the ways Christians have defended the truth of the resurrection against charges that the disciples experienced hallucinations is to point out that hallucinations are rarely group experiences. They are more commonly solitary in their nature. So by Thomas having his experience of the Risen Christ in the presence of the other disciples there is an assurance here that this is real and true, not a fantasy.
And in doing so, I believe it points up the importance of fellowship when we have our doubts. What do we do when we face a crisis? Some of us, like me, restore our energy from within ourselves. Others gain energy from being with others. However, much as I renew my energy from within and generally alone, if I spend too much time just on my own at a time of doubt, it can all become morbid and increasingly negative. It becomes a downward spiral. I have seen people facing a crisis of faith take a major step away from church and fellowship for a period of time, and all that really happens is that the negative thoughts are reinforced.
Now, granted, the other disciples may not be the most helpful to Thomas in his doubt, but the fact that they had met the risen Jesus and that he appears to them in that context, is a sign, I believe, that it is worth persevering with Christian fellowship when we have our doubts. Our faith is not solitary. It involves being part of God’s people. Even if at times all our brother and sister Christians give us is a set of trite answers to our questions, nevertheless that is a major arena where we experience Christ.
So I would counsel people facing doubts to stay within the fellowship of the church, to find it a safe place to ask the hard questions, and to be encouraged that in that very place God may well expand and deepen your faith as a result.
Thirdly, I invite you to remember his confession. The other disciples had to see Jesus alive before believing in the resurrection. Thomas wanted that, and more: to touch the wounds. And Jesus offers Thomas what he says he wants. I think he just wants to know for sure, and he expresses it in this black and white manner.
But when the risen Lord stands in front of him, I’m not sure Thomas takes him up on the invitation to touch his hands and his side. Just meeting Jesus is enough, and he says to him, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28)
‘My Lord and my God.’ That’s the point to which Jesus wants to get Thomas, and us. And yes, this is one of those Bible verses the Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t explain, because Thomas clearly attributes full divine status to Jesus.
But it probably also had huge implications for the first readers of John’s Gospel. If, as most scholars think, John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century AD, then it is quite possible that the emperor ruling the Roman Empire was Domitian. He wasn’t the nicest of chaps. He may well have been responsible for the persecution of Christians that is reflected in the Book of Revelation. And what did he require of his subjects? That they worship him as ‘Lord and God’.
The confession of the risen Lord at which Thomas arrives through his doubts is not just intellectual. It is one that has practical consequences for daily living and, indeed, dying. Later followers of Jesus who read these words will be those who have sufficiently come through their doubts that they are prepared to make a confession that puts them in opposition to the prevailing values of the society in which they live.
And perhaps this is a major reason why Jesus wants to meet us with our doubts and expand our faith – to make us strong in faith to stand against some of the major forces at work in our world today.
Last week we sang Stuart Townend’s Resurrection Hymn, ‘See what a morning’. It contains the lines,
One with the Father, Ancient of Days
Through the Spirit
Who clothes faith with certainty
Do we have certainty – a certainty with which to face the world? We have a certainty that Christ is risen. We have an assurance of God’s love. To quote U2 for a second consecutive week,
It’s not if I believe in love
But if love believes in me
(from Moment Of Surrender)
Whatever our doubts may be, the Resurrection means that love believes in us. And in the light of that, our confession of faith in our risen Lord and God can be a rock to stand firm in the face of a world that is devoted to values vastly different from his.
Perhaps one of the most notable Christians for steadfastly not bowing down to the values of the world in the last century was Mother Teresa. Her care for the poor and those generally thought not worth bothering with and her freedom from wealth and acquisition made her admired by many, as we well know. After her death in 1997, reports emerged about the severe doubts she expressed in her personal journal. In the lecture on doubt by Peter Enns that I mentioned earlier, he quotes this story about her:
There is a wonderful story of Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh. In 1975 he went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer about how best to spend the remaining years of his life. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. And he answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
Jesus brings us to a confession that may or may not have clarity. But at its heart is trust. That, it seems, took Thomas to India, and the effects of his faith are still felt today.
What if we had trust – deep trust – in our risen Lord? Would he take us ‘further up and further in’? Where might the effects of our faith be felt?