Today I preach at one of the churches in our circuit that isn’t in my pastoral charge. It gives me an opportunity in the sermon to use one or two favourite pieces of material when it comes to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and to make the odd point that will be familiar to long-term friends or readers. Still, whether you recognise some of the content or not, I hope you enjoy this sermon.
A friend of mine had a book of cartoons about the different approaches Christians have to sharing The Peace at Holy Communion. In one of the cartoons, a worshipper approaches another man, only to be rebuffed from sharing The Peace with the words, “No thank you, I’m C of E.”
In our reading today, the risen Jesus says, “Peace be with you” three times to his disciples. They don’t reject the offer of peace like the “No thank you, I’m C of E” man, in fact I’m sure they need it – one of the things that has struck me repeatedly this Easter season is just how scared the disciples were. Not just at the thought of arrest by the authorities, but the genuine fear they experience when they encounter the angel, the empty tomb and finally the risen Lord himself. They need peace!
But I am also struck in this reading – and it’s one of my favourite passages in the Bible – how the repeated gift of peace is accompanied each time by another gift.
The first gift is joy. The first time Jesus appears behind locked doors, says “Peace be with you”, shows them his hands and side, and ‘then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ (verses 19-20).
Not only is this a favourite passage, I also have a favourite story that I love to tell. It concerns the first Christian missionaries to the Inuit people of the Arctic. They were translating the Bible into the local language, but hit a problem when they came to these verses, and in particular, ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ Their difficulty? There was no Inuit word for ‘joy’ and its related words. What could they do?
One day, a missionary went out with the Inuit hunters and their dogs. Upon return, the hunters fed the dogs with meat, and the missionary observed the evident happiness of the dogs as they tucked into their feast. He thought, “There’s a picture of joy. I’ll ask them what their word is for that.” As a result, the first Inuit translation of John’s Gospel reads at this point, ‘Then the disciples wagged their tails when they saw the Lord’!
Jesus is alive. He brings peace. That fills us with joy. Normally you cannot miss the sense of joy at Easter, can you? We have been through the self-sacrifice of Lent and the ever darkening shadows of Holy Week, only for light to burst forth on Easter morning and fill our hearts with joy.
Why are we joyful? Biblically, it isn’t that this is the ‘happy ending’ to the story – in fact, this is more like the beginning than the end. Nor is it only the promise that there is life after death and that we shall be with him forever after death. And as someone who lost his own mother just two months ago, believe me I don’t belittle that hope.
We are joyful because the resurrection shows God’s new world. As the Father has made his Son’s body new by the Spirit, so he is making all things new. It is the first event in the work of new creation. It is the foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth. You could say it is heaven on earth. Rejoice! God is not leaving things as they are. The resurrection says otherwise.
Look at it from the disciples’ point of view, before you get to any subsequent New Testament scriptures that make this point, such as Revelation 21. Think about how those good Jewish disciples expected the resurrection of the dead to happen at the end of history as we know it, when everyone would be raised back to life, either to blessedness for the righteous or judgement for the wicked, as Daniel 12 taught them. Well, suddenly this end time event has happened in their midst – a resurrection! Therefore God is bringing heaven to earth, and this is reason for great joy.
Let us also rejoice this Easter, because the life of heaven is coming to earth. We do not have to wait until death to experience at least a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
The second gift is mission. The second ‘Peace be with you’ is a preface to Jesus saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (verse 21), and is followed by his [prophetic? Proleptic?] gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 22).
Mission makes sense after joy. We cannot keep quiet about the joy of knowing that God is bringing heaven to earth. God isn’t simply doing this for us, he is doing it for the whole world. It must not only be the subject of Joy, it must also be shared. Resurrection people are good news people.
And furthermore, it makes sense to talk about mission only after having received the peace of Christ. For how many of us get nervous about mission? It is a challenge, but Jesus offers us peace so that we may exercise the gift of mission.
But – what is this mission? Is it the much-feared door-knocking and button-holing? Before we make assumptions, let’s remember how Jesus described it. ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you,’ he said. Which begs the question: how did the Father send Jesus? And for that we have to go back from John 20 to John 1, to a verse we often read at Advent or Christmas, but which we need to hear all year round: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).
In other words, Jesus’ mission was not hit and run, however much he sometimes moved from place to place. It involved being with and living in the midst of the people to whom he was called. His life was visible to them, as well as his words and mighty deeds.
Likewise, we are not called to hit and run mission. We are called to costly involvement with the people among whom we live. We are meant to be present for the long haul. We are meant to be known for the kind of people we are as a result of our faith, sharing God’s love unconditionally, so much so that people want to know what it is that makes us tick. And that gives us the opportunities to talk about Christ. Most mission, Jesus style, is among our neighbours. If we know the peace of the risen Christ, then it is a natural act of gratitude to pay it forward by pouring our lives into the communities where we are situated, demonstrating God’s love and looking for the chance to speak about the One who leads us this way.
Not only that, our peace-based mission is exercised in the same power as Jesus. Here he tells his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit. We’ll put aside this morning the question of how we relate this command to receive the Spirit with the delay until Pentecost in Luke’s writings, for which there are various explanations. But let us note that this is another case of doing mission just like Jesus himself. His public ministry did not start until he received the power of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Similarly, we are to seek the Spirit’s power in order to engage in his mission. There will be no signs of heaven coming to earth through our ministry in our own strength. We too must rely on the Holy Spirit. Too often we look for the latest techniques in order to revitalise our churches. These are dead ends. The only revitalisation will come from the life of God himself, and that means looking to the Spirit.
The third and final gift of peace is faith. When Thomas is present a week later, again Jesus turns up suddenly in their midst out of nowhere. Again, the disciples need to hear his greeting, “Peace be with you” (verse 26). This time, what follows is the invitation to Thomas to check him out and to believe.
It is of course from this story that we get the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’. He has said that he will not believe unless he examines for himself the wounds of the crucifixion in Jesus’ body.
But why do we regard Thomas as worse than the other male disciples? Is he really so different from the other apostles who doubted the women’s initial report of the resurrection according to the other Gospels? They too wanted strong evidence. I think my father was the first person to say to me that Thomas had had a rough deal from the church over the centuries, and I am inclined to agree with that assessment. The other men had no reason for a superiority complex: they had held the same attitude.
I don’t therefore see Jesus being any more censorious with Thomas than he was with any of the other apostles. He has just offered peace, after all. Yes, he points to the greater blessedness of those who believe without seeing him, but he still gives Thomas the gift of faith. And if early church tradition is to be believed, then although we don’t read of Thomas in the Acts of the Apostles, he most likely founded Christianity in India, where to this day there is a denomination named after him – the Mar Thoma Church.
I suspect that if we compared notes among us as a congregation, we would find a wide range in our experiences of faith. Some of us may find faith quite easy and serene, and others only find deeper faith after much wrestling with deep questions. And some of us individually oscillate between serene faith and questioning faith in different phases of our lives. The good news of peace from the risen Christ is that he invites us all on the journey of faith and trust in him, whether that comes easily to us or only with much struggle. The resurrected Lord comes to all his disciples, those who find it easy and those who don’t, with the gift of his presence and the bestowal of his peace. Just because you or I may be wrestling with some deep questions about God does not preclude us from the gift of his peace.
And because Christ still offers his peace to those who think they are bumping along the bottom of belief, that very gift can make the difference which allows faith to flourish and to be exercised with boldness. If the traditions about Thomas going to India are true, then maybe that is what happened to him. Did the peace of the risen Christ invigorate his faith, not only in the Upper Room but for the rest of his life? It is certainly possible for him, and it is for us, too.
As we conclude, then, let’s come full circle back to our ‘No thank you, I’m C of E’ man. There are people in our churches who don’t like The Peace. Maybe some present today are uncomfortable. But regardless of what we think about it as a formal practice, we cannot receive and keep the peace of Christ as solitary Christians. Since his peace brings joy, that most naturally overflows to others. Since his peace leads us into mission, that leads us to share Christ’s peace in word and deed with others. And as his peace leads us to deeper faith, we observe that is something that cannot solely be exercised in isolation.
This Easter season, then, let us say ‘Yes please’ to the risen Christ’s gift of peace. And may it enable our lives as disciples to grow and flourish to the praise of his name in the church and in the world.
Here is today’s sermon. It’s slightly shorter than usual, because it was preached in an all age communion service. I have left in the references to where the PowerPoint slides fall. If you would like to see the PowerPoint, please email me via the contact page.
There’s one word that stuck out for me in the Easter story this year. It’s not a word you would expect when Easter usually makes us happy.
[SLIDE 2] The word is ‘fear’. What makes us afraid? Suggestions?
There are two groups of people who are afraid in the reading. The soldiers are afraid when the angel appears, rolls away the stone and perches on top of it (verse 4). And the women who go to the tomb are afraid when they arrive (verse 5) and afraid when they leave (verse 8).
Today we’ll think about those two groups of people – the soldiers and the women – and why they were afraid. This will help us understand the importance of the Easter story for us.
Firstly, the soldiers. You can’t blame them for being afraid, can you? It’s not every day that an angel shows up at your place of work and undoes everything you are trying to protect.
Think about what the angel did. In the verses of Matthew’s Gospel just before today’s reading, we hear how the religious authorities asked Pontius Pilate to make the tomb of Jesus secure so that the body could not be stolen. Pilate agrees, and as well as posting some soldiers to guard the tomb, he has a seal put on the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).
We need to think about that seal. What kind of seal was it? Was it this kind of seal? [SLIDE 3]
No: it was a wax seal, like this one [SLIDE 4]. It was the seal of the Roman Emperor, rather like the way even today we put wax seals on legal documents. The seal of the Roman Emperor was not to be broken. Effectively it said, “No-one should tamper with this – on pain of death!”
Well, it’s a good job angels aren’t too worried about the laws of the empire and the penalties for breaking them. And the fear of the guards isn’t just their fear at this sudden, unexpected supernatural act. It’s the fear of empires. It’s the sign that governments and powerful institutions need to fear the kingdom of God.
What do I mean? Well, all sorts of organisations and institutions behave as if they have the final say in the world. Dictators. Governments. Armies. Powerful companies. The media – television stations, newspapers, Internet giants. They think they run our world. They think they can’t be stopped.
[SLIDE 5] Kim Jong-Un can do his worst in North Korea. He can even send his henchmen into a London barber’s shop that mocked his instruction that all men have to have the same haircut as him. But one day he will answer to God.
[SLIDE 6] Rupert Murdoch can run his media empire. His journalists can listen to people’s private mobile phone messages, and his newspapers can print photos that degrade women, but one day he will have to bow down to the God who bursts open sealed tombs.
You name them. If they have power in this world – even and especially big power – then the angel at the tomb reminds them that their power will not last forever. They can do all sorts of things now, but on Easter Day we laugh at their power, because we know who has ultimate power and who gets the last laugh.
Secondly, the women. They are afraid, too, but unlike the soldiers, the angel says to them, ‘Do not be afraid’ (verse 5) and he invites them to view the tomb. He hasn’t rolled away the stone for Jesus to walk out: he has rolled away the stone so the women can go in and realise that Jesus is risen. When they leave, their fear isn’t completely cured, but it is at least mixed with joy (verse 8). [SLIDE 9]
You can’t blame the women for being completely weirded out by the movement of the stone, the presence of the angel, and the absence of Jesus’ body. They never expected any of this. Now they are completely spooked.
But they get to hear the good news: ‘Do not be afraid.’ The resurrection might be bad news for the powerful, but it’s good news for those who follow Jesus. The women get to be the first witnesses of the resurrection. [SLIDE 10]
And you have to stop and think for a moment about how amazing that is. The women are the first witnesses. That might not sound remarkable to us, but two thousand years ago that was revolutionary. Women were not allowed to be witnesses. Only men. In fact, if you want another sign that the Easter story is true alongside what we heard in the Question Time sketch after the reading, this is an additional piece of evidence.
Don’t be afraid, says the angel to the women – people who don’t count in their society, people on the margins, people that the powerful would rather were invisible. These invisible people get the call to take on the most important job on the planet – being witnesses to the risen Jesus. [SLIDE 11]
Yes, before anyone else they get to learn that the risen Jesus will go ahead of his followers – a great promise when we do not know what lies ahead. They get to know that the risen Jesus will meet his followers – the promise that we are never alone in this world.
And it gets even better. The risen Jesus makes them jump out of their skin by suddenly meeting them while they are on their way to tell the disciples (verse 9).
The resurrection, then, turns our world upside-down. [SLIDE 12] Sure, we have to be aware of the powerful, but we don’t need to pay them the respect that many do, because the angels of the risen Jesus are rolling the stones away from their places of death. And when God one day raises all the dead from their graves, their time will be up. Let’s not pretend that the powerful have the last say in this world.
Instead, Easter entrusts the good news to the nobodies. Those who will never gain political power. Those who will never found a multinational company. Those who will never have influence in the media. They get to know that the risen Jesus goes ahead of them and with them. They get to tell the whole world this good news.
I want to tell you about a book I have just finished reading. It is one of the best I have read in many a year. It isn’t one of the academic theological books I read. It’s one I want to recommend to my congregations. Unfortunately, I can’t wave my copy in front of you, because I read an electronic version on my Kindle. I could wave my Kindle at you, but that wouldn’t make much sense.
The book is called ‘Resurrection Year’, and it is by an Australian author called Sheridan Voysey. He is a successful radio presenter who has achieved his dream of broadcasting a talk show about life and faith across his native land. But his wife Merryn, a medical statistician, longs to start a family. It is their unfulfilled dream. The opening chapters of the book are a journal of ten years in their marriage when they hope to have a child. They are told they are exceptionally good prospects as adoptive parents, but no phone call about a child to adopt ever comes. When they tell the adoption authorities they want to try IVF again, they are told they cannot remain as potential adopters.
Several rounds of IVF fail. They take one last chance, and all the tests indicate that Merryn is pregnant. They tell their friends and family that a baby is on the way. But it’s one last false dawn. Yes, a gestational sac is growing, but there is no foetus. They have to let their dream of having children die.
The rest of the book chronicles their questions and struggles in faith. God never answers their ‘why’ questions. It also tells how they rebuilt their lives with new hopes – their ‘resurrection’.
For many of us – perhaps most, possibly even all of us – the life of faith bumps up at one or more times in our lives with broken dreams. We hoped for something big. It never happened, or it did but it was taken away from us. Since Mum’s death six weeks ago, our daughter has been asking question after question about why God couldn’t have done things differently for Nanny, or why we will have to wait so long before being reunited with her in Heaven.
I am sure you can add your own examples. In some cases, I know what they will include. For others of you, I do not necessarily know.
But of this I am sure: the Bible knows of this very dilemma, and we do so in today’s Gospel reading as Jesus approaches Jerusalem. The death of Lazarus is a broken dream. And Jesus just seems to make it worse. He knows Lazarus is ill, and he stays away. Not much of a pastoral visitor, was he? Lazarus is a friend. Mary and Martha are friends (verse 5). But still – in a culture where medicine was so primitive – he stays away two more days (verse 6).
So the first thing I want us to appreciate this morning is a painful, yet hopeful truth: Jesus is involved in our broken dreams. Broken dreams do not mean the absence of God, even if they do mean a loss of hopes. We do not understand why Jesus’ work in our broken dreams is what it is – Mary and Martha don’t really receive much of an explanation – but that doesn’t change the fact that he is still here.
It’s rather like the Book of Job. Lots of people are under the misapprehension that the story of Job gives us an explanation for the existence of suffering and of a good God. But it doesn’t. Job only answers one question: ‘Is there such a thing as innocent suffering?’ Its answer is ‘Yes’. When Job finally comes before God towards the end of the book with his questions, God doesn’t answer them. In fact, God more or less says, ‘Where were you when I created the world?’
If Jesus is still involved in our lives when he doesn’t answer our prayers for the fulfilment of our dreams, then what is our response? In one respect, our response is simple, but probably not what we want to do. We simply hang on to him in the disappointment.
That can be tough. But if it is, then remember these things. When we are screaming at God for not bringing to pass the things we have cherished in our hearts, we are not complaining from a position of unbelief. Rather, we are like the child beating their fists against their father’s chest, all the while being held in his arms. God is still holding us in our pain. He may not be answering us for reasons that are inscrutable to us, but he is still holding us.
And moreover this: when God is holding us, his grip on us is stronger than our grip on him. When our world has fallen apart, we may well feel like we cannot hang onto God. But he is stronger than us. As we cry out in our agony, he does not intend to let go of us. He wants to hold us close to him, even if that does mean we punch him in the chest. Remember how many of the Psalms are written by people calling out to God when life is dark. Like Jesus using Psalm 22 on the cross, saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, we have that sense of abandonment but we can still call the Lord ‘my God’.
And this links with the second thing I would like to say from the passage: the faith we exercise is faith in Jesus. I know, I know: this is another of those times when I say the obvious in a sermon. But that’s what happens for Mary and Martha: when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, called by some ‘God’s favourite place on earth’, he hears them both say, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (verses 21, 32).
But there is a difference in their responses. Mary, who is held up as the paragon of faith in Luke’s Gospel for sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him, is not the faith-filled one here. Martha, whom Luke depicts as distracted and frantic, is the one who shows glimmers of faith in this story. Mary doesn’t say any more – although we should note that Jesus is not judgemental about this, he is moved by her tears (verse 33).
But Martha does. Listen again to her exchange with Jesus:
20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
She still believes Jesus can do something for her. Her faith is still at one level that of a typical devout Jew, believing that the resurrection of the dead will happen ‘on the last day’. You know and I know that her faith is about to be elasticated, but there is basic faith in God and in Jesus going on here.
And sometimes that’s all we need. That is the raw material God uses to make something beautiful that we had never imagined.
It all puts me in mind of Rolf Harris. It may be contentious to mention him now, given the criminal charges he is facing, but his many talents were a large part of my childhood. An LP of his greatest hits was the first record I bought with my own money (actually a Sunday School prize), and we always watched his television shows. I am sure you recall his catchphrase when he was painting something: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ What looked like a few random brush strokes was the beginning of a work of art.
When our dreams are broken, the only faith we may be able to offer Jesus might be just a few random brush strokes, just some basic faith. But God too is able to work with that and create something beautiful.
And that leads on to the third and final strand of what I want to say this morning. Jesus can transform our broken dreams. Mary and Martha wanted their brother Lazarus healed. It didn’t happen. When he died, Martha could still at least believe God would answer Jesus, and that her brother would be raised at the last day. But what Jesus actually did was far more than they could ever have imagined. He goes to the tomb, has the stone rolled away, defies the retching stench, and says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (verse 43) He has promised Martha she will see the glory of God (verse 40), and in this miraculous sign she does. He told her he was the Resurrection and the life (verse 25), and now she knows he is.
But the thing about resurrection is that it comes after a death. For Jesus himself to be the resurrection and the life will have to follow his crucifixion.
Yet this does at least mean that if our dreams have died, then the stage is set for new life. Death is not the end for us. It is the end of one act and the curtain closes, preparing us for the next.
Sheridan and Merryn Voysey never did get to have children. And their ‘resurrection’ involved not only the death of that dream, but the burial of Sheridan’s radio career in Australia. They came to the UK, where Merryn was offered a job at Oxford University, and new opportunities began to present themselves to Sheridan in writing and speaking – but not yet in radio again, I believe.
In my own life, I could think about some of the dreams I had for ministry when I set out that have never been fulfilled. Ordination has never opened up doors to the new vistas I hoped it would. Early in my ministry, I was a seminar speaker at two big Christian conferences, but that side of my calling has never taken off. Sometimes ministry has been less about my dreams and more about my nightmares. But at the same time, I have found myself doing other things that I never imagined I would. Things that I never thought would bring me contentment and fulfilment do indeed bring those blessings.
So I want to encourage you this morning if you have broken dreams in your life. Consider today an invitation – an invitation to bring those broken dreams to the altar of God. Remember that an altar is a place where living things are placed in order to be sacrificed. I dare to invite you to lay down your dreams to die, to place what questioning faith you have in Jesus, and enter into your grieving.
But wait for God to bring new life from the tomb. It is what he promises, and it is what he does. You may be tempted by the thought that laying down your unfulfilled dreams on the altar will lead only to a future filled with regret, but we believe in the God who makes dry bones live, the God who brings life out of a cave used as a tomb.
In short, we believe in a God whose Son said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
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?