Salvation is Found in No One Else but Jesus: Giving an Account of Our Faith Today

Sermon delivered on the fourth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Note: I am indebted to +Tom Wright for the thesis of this sermon.

Here is a little test case for you. How you answer it will give you great insight into your resurrection faith (or lack of it) and help you see what, if anything, you need to work on to grow in grace and faith by the power of the Spirit. It will also help you assess how well you might be able to witness to your faith when called on to do so. If we are to be faithful witnesses to Christ in today’s world, it is critical that we have a solid Scriptural basis for our witness and firmly embrace our story through our actions. After all, if we do not believe our own story, how can we expect others to believe it?

So here’s the scenario. You are at work one day when a colleague of yours, who happens to be an unbeliever, approaches you. He tells you politely but firmly that he has heard you are a Christian and that bothers him because it means you must believe in Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the dead in general—and all that that entails. He tells you he is aware of passages like Acts 4.12 from today’s NT lesson that proclaim there is salvation in no other name but Jesus’ and that offends him, especially because he does not believe in Jesus’ resurrection. He therefore concludes that you basically think he is going to be consigned to hell because he doesn’t believe in the name of Jesus, at least in the way you do. “How can you believe in a faith that puts itself above all others?” he asks you. “How incredibly arrogant and intolerant of other faiths is that? And what about good people like myself who act better than most Christians I know? Are you telling me that they’re in and I’m out? I am offended by that too.” How do you respond to him? Do you know how to respond to him as a faithful Christian?

To help us craft an answer to this challenge to the central tenet of our faith, we need to look at what is going on behind the challenge; and to do that, a good place to start is our NT lesson this morning. Why would the chief priests and Sadducees be so irritated with Peter and John preaching the resurrection of the dead in general and Jesus’ resurrection in particular? As +Tom Wright observes, “Wouldn’t it be simply great to know that God was alive and well and providing a wonderful rescue operation through his Messiah?” Why have various groups throughout history found the resurrection to be so scandalous and offensive—including today’s enemies of the faith who sneer at both the idea of Jesus’ resurrection and those who believe it really did happen the way the NT reports?

To answer this question, we must always remember what the first Christians and NT writers meant when they talked about resurrection and salvation. As we have seen over the last three weeks, when the first Christians talked about resurrection, they had in mind bodily resurrection, not some new form of spiritual existence or survival. They believed this because they also believed that God was going to put to rights once and for all everything that is broken and wrong with his world so that it would finally be the good creation God has always intended it to be, but which human sin and the evil that ensued had corrupted. In other words, they saw Jesus’ resurrection as being the first sign of God acting in a spectacular but unexpected way to bring about his promised new creation where he would rescue us from all that has gone wrong in the world, especially from death. Just as Jesus’ resurrection body was now impervious to death, so it was an advance sign that death would be banished forever when God fully implemented the new creation. It’s critical that we keep this in our minds because in it is our answer to the critics of Christianity with its claim that salvation comes from no one but Jesus.

Similarly, when the first Christians used the term salvation, they meant primarily being rescued from something. That’s what the Greek noun in today’s passage, soteria, means. For the first Christians salvation meant being rescued ultimately from evil, sin, and death, and they saw this being accomplished in Jesus’ resurrection. For the earliest Christians, then, salvation was not so much being saved so that they could go to heaven. It was being saved from all the evils of this world, especially death, and Jesus’ resurrection for them was proof that God had acted decisively on their behalf to do just that. Of course, they didn’t believe that the new creation had come in full, but that in Jesus’ resurrection, God had begun to establish it and they would eventually enjoy it in full, just like Jesus was enjoying it now. We saw this echoed in last week’s epistle lesson from John when he wrote how we would become like Jesus when he reappeared to us to usher in fully God’s new creation.

So what’s not to like about that? Why did the chief priests and Sadducees (and a vast majority of power-brokers ever since) find this teaching so offensive? Because there was no guarantee that in God’s coming new creation they would retain their positions of power, status, and privilege. In fact, if they were familiar with any of Jesus teachings about the kingdom, they would have had every reason to think otherwise. It’s that “first will be last and last will be first” thingy that Jesus had an annoying habit of repeating in some of his parables (cf. Luke 13.29-30; Matthew 19.29-30; Mark 10.30-32). That—combined with Peter and John’s reference of Psalm 118 with its allusions to the Temple and the clear implication, in their minds at least, that Jesus was the new Temple who would make the current one redundant (is this one of the passages Jesus shared with them from last week’s gospel lesson?)—was enough to really make the authorities angry and get the disciples arrested.

To make things even worse, believers in the resurrection have always tended to cause trouble for the authorities of their day because we tend to have this annoying habit (like our Master) of calling into question the things that are wrong with the world and its rulers. We are constantly acting on Jesus’ behalf and under his authority (as Peter and John were in today’s passage when they had healed the lame man) to bring about advance signs of God’s judgment on all the wrongs of this world by seeking to put them to rights, e.g., feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, etc. And if we are killed because of our beliefs and actions, what does it ultimately matter to us? We believe God will raise us from the dead one day so Caesar has little or no leverage on us. The doctrine of the resurrection has always been dangerously subversive precisely because it is a clear signal to the powers and principalities—and those who work for them, either wittingly or unwittingly—that their day is done and their goose is cooked. Let me put it this way. Jesus told us to love our enemies, but first we have to make some. Proclaiming our belief in the resurrection has always been a good way to do that.

Which brings us back to our little scenario at the beginning of this sermon. If you have followed what I have just said, you see the same dynamics at work behind the questions and challenge because the values represented in it reflect the prevailing values of today’s modernist thinking in our society with its rejection of the resurrection and its emphasis on moral relativism and tolerance at any cost. Like the chief priests and Sadducees of Peter and John’s day, these modernist voices, and the forces they represent, are in the driver’s seat and do not want to give up their position of power either, and for the same reasons. There’s no assurance they will keep their current position of power in the new creation and so they seek to silence such talk!

But our answer to our critics must be the same as Peter and John’s precisely because Jesus’ resurrection is unique in history as well as his claims of being the way in which God will establish his kingdom on earth, the new creation, as in heaven. No other religion makes this claim and it is either true or it isn’t. Of course, if we know the risen Lord and have a relationship with him, we know his claims are true. That is why we must do our part to cultivate our relationship with Jesus through regular Bible study, prayer, worship, and fellowship with other Christians so that we can hear his voice clearly as he promised and faithfully proclaim our resurrection hope. After all, just because some Christians have at times misapplied and abused the truth of the resurrection doesn’t mean we have to do likewise or consign its truth to the trash heap. When answering our critics and their charges against us that we are arrogant and intolerant, our response must be the same as it was in the first century: Only one resurrection. Only one Jesus. Who else can rescue us the way in which Jesus has? No one else has made that claim! How is the resurrection and the hope behind it exclusive when everyone is invited to the party?

Make no mistake. This will take courage and grace on our part and we had better be prepared to bear the full brunt of our critics’ fury. As we have seen, the powers and principalities (and those who do business with them) do not like to have their authority challenged and the resurrection does so on steroids. So the first thing we might do before we answer any question posed to us, whether from friend or foe, is to call to mind Psalm 23 and the intimate fellowship with the Lord it promises. Remembering that the Lord is with us will help us to answer questions about our faith with charity and grace. It will also help remind us that we are speaking to others in the power of the Spirit, just like Peter and John did when they were challenged to give an account of their faith.

Of course, if we ever hope to provide a faithful answer to questions about the resurrection from skeptics and seekers alike, we must also know our Scripture and the story it tells, and be able to articulate our own hope of new creation. Like anything else, if we wish to be ready to give an account to anyone about our faith, we had better spend some time thinking about and rehearsing it, both individually and together. If you are not willing to do that, it is time to ask yourself some hard questions about your own faith and about your willingness to follow Jesus by denying yourself and taking up your cross every day. That’s why our answer in the given scenario is such a good self-check for each of us because it helps us assess the state our relationship with Jesus and our knowledge of the most important tenet of our faith. If we don’t know Jesus very well or we really don’t know what to believe or think about his resurrection, we simply will not be effective in talking to other people about it, and talking to them about it is one of our prime directives (cf. Matthew 28.16-20)!

And, of course, we provide an effective witness to our resurrection faith by what we do, which, as John points out in today’s epistle lesson, is the best way we can witness our faith in the risen Christ to others. The Christian faith did not spread like wild fire in the first century because all of Christ’s people were eloquent spokesmen and women. It spread because unlike most of their contemporaries, the first Christians were willing and eager to get their hands dirty and work to put to right the things that were wrong in their neck of the woods. They were willing to show mercy and compassion to unlovable people, and to feed the hungry and visit the lonely, to name a few. They were also fearless in challenging the ruling authorities of their day, especially when the authorities put themselves in opposition to their risen Christ. They did all this precisely because they were resurrection people who embraced its hope and promise of new creation. I think that is the main reason why Christianity has lost its punch today. Many Christians have lost their resurrection hope! But that isn’t going to happen at St. Augustine’s. We are a resurrection people and we act accordingly!

So when you are asked to give an accounting of your faith, how will you respond? How did you respond to the test this morning? Remember, it is not our place to tell anyone who is in and who is out. But as we have seen this morning, that’s not even the question the resurrection addresses with its hope of salvation! Neither are we to use our resurrection hope as a weapon to beat up others or as a reason to act smugly over them because we have something they don’t. No, we are to answer all questions lovingly and with honesty and great humility because we have something that is too good not to share with others. After all, if we love them why would we want to withhold the hope and promise of new creation that Jesus’ resurrection heralds? Does not compute! Given that the powers and principalities are currently in charge, this task will not be easy and we must be ready to bear the cost. But we do not fear because we know the Good Shepherd and believe he is at work in us in the power of the Spirit to guide us (and others) into all truth and righteousness. This is God’s good gift to us and we can rejoice in it because we know that resurrection and its promise of new creation is awaiting not only us but all who decide to put their whole hope and trust in Christ. And that, of course, means we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Eric Metaxas: The Man Who Defeated Adolph Hitler

A wonderful piece on the faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how it made a difference in his life right now. As I said this morning, a real resurrection faith will always do that.

From here.

Bonhoeffer believed the Easter story. He actually believed the extraordinary story of God’s coming to Earth and dying and then rising from the dead to defeat death forever. He believed that because this was true, he need never fear death. All he needed to worry about was doing the right thing and trusting God with the results. And that he did.

Because Bonhoeffer believed these things he had the courage to do what almost no one else around him could do. He stood up for the Jews of Europe and today he is celebrated and cherished, while Hitler, who condemned him to death and who only believed in himself, is reviled as a monster.

Read it all.

Repentance and Forgiveness: Present Signs of God’s Future Reality

Sermon delivered on the third Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4.1-8; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36b-48.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever seen or heard about something and not believed it because it just seemed too good to be true? You know. Like being told my sermon is only going to be 5 minutes long today? Most of us here probably have experienced something like that and it can help us understand what is going on in Luke’s gospel passage this morning. Let the scene arise in your mind. The disciples are still afraid of the authorities and are still in hiding. There have been scattered reports of Jesus’ resurrection and he has even appeared to some of them individually, but not all together. And like us they were realists. They knew dead people aren’t raised to life again, at least not on an individual basis as in Jesus’ case. No, once you are dead, you are dead. That is why, for example, when I was a young man I could never say the line from the Apostles’ Creed that, “[I] believe in the resurrection of the dead.” I mean, really. All you had to do to disprove that statement was to visit any cemetery. The folks there still looked pretty dead to me and nobody ever really explained how this resurrection thingy works.

So it is no wonder that the disciples were startled and terrified when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst, even as they hid behind locked doors. They hadn’t anticipated or expected Jesus to be raised from the dead (and they were quite sure he was dead). Now here he was in their midst and the only reasonable explanation they had was that they were seeing a ghost. Like many of us today, they were not prepared to deal with the reality of a risen Lord. And Luke makes it very clear that Jesus’ disciples were not easily persuaded. Despite seeing and touching him, some of them still couldn’t believe their senses. It was just too good to be true.

And thanks be to God that it was true! Jesus is not some shyster or phisher or fraudulent telemarketer. No, he is our risen and ascended Lord who has conquered death and launched God’s new creation here on earth. As we saw last week in John’s gospel, Luke gives us another glimpse of what our promised resurrection body will be like, a body that will be fashioned after Jesus’ body. It is a physical body that could been seen and touched. He could eat and drink and converse with his friends. But Jesus’ body was also more than just a resuscitated corpse because he could appear suddenly behind closed doors and hide his identity from his followers, just like he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (cf. Luke 24.13-35). It appears that Jesus’ body had been transformed so that it was at home in the earthly dimension as well as the heavenly dimension and most of us are startled at the fact that Jesus’ resurrected body ascended into heaven, not just his spirit.

But of course physicality is part of the hope and promise of new creation. When Christ reappears again to finish the work of new creation that his death and resurrection launched, our soul will be reunited with our new resurrection body. That’s what John means, in part, when he writes in today’s epistle lesson that we will be like Jesus when he appears. Our destiny is not some permanently disembodied existence. It is God’s promised new creation, when the dimensions of heaven and earth are fused together in a mighty act of re-creation and the perishable puts on the imperishable forever. No wonder Jesus’ first disciples and the early church were overcome with joy and wonder, even in the face of severe persecution. They had seen their future arrive in the present and it was a game-changer for them. But first they needed to get their minds right, to adjust their hopes and expectations and address their fears. That is what is going on when Luke tells us that Jesus had to open their minds to what Scripture said about him. I don’t think Jesus had specific passages or proof-texts in mind. Instead, I think he had in mind the entire narrative of the OT which pointed to God’s promise to come once again and live among his people and establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven. But the kingdom, God’s new creation, would come through Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. It’s not what folks of his day (or before or after for that matter) wanted or expected. If we keep that storyline firmly in our minds, we can find references to it all over the place in the OT (and NT). As an aside, if you really want to know Scripture so that among other things your resurrection hope can be strengthened and you can experience the joy that inevitably accompanies it, take your cue from Jesus and start reading Scripture through this lens.

And this is where Jesus’ resurrection and the hope and promise of new creation come into play for us right here and now. As Luke reminds us in both our gospel and NT lessons, because Jesus is alive and is the Lord of all creation, and because through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has demonstrated to us that he intends to redeem his broken world and creatures rather than destroy us, we have a job to do right now. We are called to act in the power of the Spirit and under the authority of the risen and ascended Lord to help him in his work to bring about his new creation, and a critical part of that job is to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t mean we are called to be professional preachers. Instead, we are to do our preaching mainly through our actions and then explain our actions, if necessary, like Peter did in today’s NT lesson and like Jesus generally did.

We are called to preach repentance and forgiveness because as Peter and John remind us in today’s NT and epistle lessons, we are the recipients of God’s radical forgiveness as demonstrated in the cross of Christ. We can almost hear the wonder of it all in John’s voice as he marvels at how much God loves us so that we can be called his children! That doesn’t happen without radical forgiveness offered and accepted, and the healing that results is a telltale sign of new creation. That’s what the healing of the paralytic illustrates. When new creation breaks into God’s world, healing and wholeness inevitably result. Forgiveness is one of the points of the story about Barabbas that all the gospel writers want us to hear—we are Barabbas and we can offer forgiveness in Jesus’ name to others precisely because we know what it is like to be forgiven, even though we are undeserving of it! God will use our work, in turn, to bring his healing love to bear on others, sometimes before they even realize they need of it, just like Barabbas!

Contrast our call to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and the character and lifestyle it demands, with Caesar’s way, the way of the world. We are told to take care of number one—always. We are told to crush our enemies if possible and to win at all costs. We are told to offer no mercy to others because showing mercy is a sign of weakness and we must teach our foes a lesson. We see what happens as a result. Just this past week, for example, in the news we read of a mother who ran scalding hot water over her baby to punish him for crying too much. We see some of our soldiers gloating over the mutilated corpses of their Taliban enemy in Afghanistan. Then there’s the scandals in the GSA and Secret Service,and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the problem. It’s everyone for themselves, baby, and let the strongest survive. And to what result? More suffering, more misery, more degradation, more strife, more alienation, more sorrow, and more injustice, to name a just a few.

This is precisely why we as a church are called to have a voice and to speak out against these dehumanizing ways of living, a voice powered by our resurrection hope and all that it promises. We must, of course, start right here at home, in the church, by how we treat each other. When disputes arise among us, which they inevitably will, how are we going to act toward those who wrong or offend us? Will we be quick to forgive or quick to hold a grudge? Forgiveness is never an easy thing, precisely because it is so costly (we are a proud lot!) and the goal of reconciliation takes a long time to accomplish. But whether we are the forgiver or forgiven, if we are going allow Jesus to use us as his agents of new creation, we must say no to our human pride with its distorted sense of justice and follow our risen Lord’s example instead. Otherwise, we will be forced to admit that our hope in Christ is a farce and we really haven’t accepted God’s radical forgiveness and the hope of new creation that accompanies it. As I look around this room, the good news is that we do this with each other pretty well right now. If people will give us a chance and look at how we treat each other, they will indeed say, “See how those folks at St. Augustine’s love each other! What’s up with that?” Of course, we dare not get complacent in any of this because the enemy is always looking for ways to trip us up. But Jesus is Lord and in him we have an advocate who is much stronger than the powers and principalities, and he will help us persevere against their attacks

But we must also preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to those around us, in our places of work and play, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, and yes, sometimes even in our homes. As we do with each other as members of Christ’s body, we do likewise with those who do not know the Lord to show them that there is a different way, the way of new creation. When we practice what we preach by offering God’s healing love and forgiveness to others, especially toward those who hate us, Jesus can and will use us to teach us how to once again become truly human beings who reflect the glory of God and his healing love out into a world and its people who desperately need it, the true sign of new creation. Never underestimate the power of Christ’s love to produce results when you offer to forgive another, especially when it is undeserved, or when you care enough about the person to explain what needs to happen for real reconciliation to take effect, which of course requires repentance. Only then can we be agents of new creation and only then can we offer real hope to the world and start to turn heads. Don’t misunderstand. This is not easy to do and we can expect tremendous opposition from the powers and principalities because we are a threat to them, to their way of doing business, and to those who follow them. Being an agent of new creation is not for the faint-hearted because it is terribly costly and we can expect to suffer for it.

Of course, we can do none of this if we are not transformed inwardly by the power of the Spirit so that we are able to put to death all that is in us that keeps us proud and unforgiving. Without the Spirit, our eyes will never be opened to see others as real human beings rather than as objects we use to help us achieve our own goals and selfish desires. It is also in the power of the Spirit that we experience the risen Lord and hear his call to us to follow him in the costly work of offering God’s healing love and forgiveness to those who do not deserve it—in other words, those just like us. Again, we do this because we know that Jesus’ resurrection has already inaugurated the new creation and that our future is secure, even as we await its final consummation. If we really believe that God’s future has broken into our present world, no circumstance can overcome our resurrection hope. This is because if we know God’s promises about the future are true, we can therefore trust our Lord to be good to his word about his call to us right now. We also have confidence that he will empower us to act on his behalf to help him continue the work of bringing in God’s rule here on earth as in heaven, just as he promised us he would do (cf. John 14.25-27). And when we have that assurance, we can live our lives with meaning, purpose, and power because we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

God’s Wisdom: The Antidote to Doubt and Disbelief

Bishop Ames preached a wonderful sermon yesterday but unfortunately there is no manuscript for it so I cannot post it here. In lieu of that, I am reposting a sermon I preached on the second Sunday of Easter a couple of years ago.

From the archives. Sermon preached on April 11, 2010.

Lectionary texts: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning I want to continue to develop the theme of the Resurrection changing everything for us. I want to encourage us, especially those of us who are struggling with our resurrection faith or trying to find one, to be bold in embracing the hope that is ours in the death and resurrection of Jesus because it gives us power to live our lives with joy and hope and purpose, even in the midst of all that can go wrong in our broken and fallen world.

Have you ever wondered what changed the apostles from being fearful cowards to bold apostles? In today’s Gospel lesson, John tells us that the apostles were hiding behind locked doors because they feared that the Jewish authorities would arrest them and they would end up like their crucified Master. Despite Jesus’ earlier promises to them that he would be raised on the third day, John gives us no indication that the apostles believed this (or perhaps in the midst of their grief they had forgotten Jesus’ promises). Whatever the reason, the apostles weren’t expecting to see Jesus that evening.

And we can surely relate to them because we are just like them aren’t we? We may not be afraid of arrest and execution like the apostles were but we often behave like they did that first Easter. We learn that we or our loved ones have a life-threatening disease and we become afraid. We lose our job or our retirement savings get virtually wiped out and we become afraid. We or our loved ones fall victim to addictions or destructive habits and seem to hurtle toward self-destruction and we become afraid. Whatever the fear and the situation that caused it, we shouldn’t be too hard on the apostles as they hid behind locked doors that night because we too know what it is like to be afraid.

Now fast forward the clock several weeks to Luke’s NT lesson from Acts this morning. Instead of seeing cowardly, fearful men we see bold speakers on behalf of Jesus. They are telling Jerusalem’s most powerful movers and shakers that they cannot obey their commands to keep quiet about Jesus. They have just spent some quality time in jail for Jesus’ sake and now they tell the high priest that they must obey God rather than humans, especially when humans have gotten it wrong. The apostles tell the Sanhedrin that God has demonstrated that Jesus is Lord and Savior, that they are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit. These would be stunning, blasphemous words to any self-respecting Jew or to any proud, arrogant person for that matter.

Our lesson ends here but it is not hard for us to predict the outcome of this interchange. The leaders of the Sanhedrin are furious and want to kill the apostles. Luke tells us that this didn’t happen but that the Sanhedrin did have the apostles flogged and this is where the story gets really interesting because Luke tells us that instead of complaining about this or being afraid or feeling sorry for themselves or renouncing Jesus, the apostles actually rejoiced that they had been found worthy enough to suffer for him! Imagine that. They rejoiced in their suffering for Jesus! Would you like to have a resurrection faith like that? You can if you will become weak so that Christ can become strong in you.

So what changed? What happened to these apostles that transformed their fear into boldness and courage? What allowed them to actually rejoice in their suffering for Jesus? Were they just secretly masochists who decided to come out of the closet? No! What had changed for them was the reality of the Resurrection. Knowing Jesus was alive and his promises to them were true made all the difference for the apostles.

John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the apostles gives us insight into this transformative process. First, did you notice that Jesus did not castigate the disciples for deserting him, denying him, and apparently not believing his promises to be raised on the third day? Instead, Jesus appeared to them as they hid behind locked doors and offered them peace in the fullest sense, peace with God and reconciliation brought about by his very blood. Without telling them explicitly, Jesus was reminding them (and us) that because of him we are no longer God’s enemies. Instead, we are reconciled to God through Jesus’ cross. Jesus here is introducing them to God’s grace, wisdom, and love, which are manifested in the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 1), and showing the apostles that they could count on that love no matter what. That love made all the difference in the world for them and it can for us as well.

Second, it should not surprise us that the apostles needed to see Jesus for themselves. Human beings are “show me” creatures by nature and the idea of the Resurrection was mind blowing and completely unexpected. Yes, many Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end time, but no one expected the resurrection of the dead to be a two-stage event in which God’s Messiah and Son was its first fruits. And so in this story we see God in his infinite wisdom and mercy granting the apostles an especial grace to seal their faith.

Even with this especial grace, it was apparently very hard for the apostles to understand what had happened. As Luke tells us in his account of this story, the disciples were terrified even after Jesus appeared to them. They thought they were seeing a ghost because they had no frame of reference to help them understand the very nature of the Resurrection that they were witnessing. Likewise, Matthew tells us that some doubted, even as others worshiped Jesus. From this we can infer that those who doubted had not seen the Risen Lord with their eyes.

And of course we see this need to see before believing poignantly epitomized in Thomas, don’t we? But note the encouragement Jesus gives him and the special blessing Jesus gives those of us who believe in him without seeing him. From this we understand that seeing Jesus physically is not in the Father’s good plan for us. We must live by faith and allow God to demonstrate his trustworthiness to us, just the way he did when he raised Jesus from the dead.

The Resurrection was, and will always be, a mind-blowing event. But as John tells us, to help his disciples further, Jesus breathed on them and gave them the promised Holy Spirit who would live in them and remind them of this truth after Jesus ascended to the Father. And like the first disciples, we too have the Holy Spirit living in us, testifying to the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection, and reminding us that he is alive and with us always, even though we cannot see him the way the apostles did. If we do not have this conviction that Christ is living in and with us, we can never hope to have the kind of resurrection faith the apostles had.

Third, in John’s and Luke’s accounts, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected body and we take note of that because when he raises us from the dead on the last day, we will have bodies like his. We note that he can appear suddenly, even when the disciples are in a locked room. But we also notice that Jesus has a recognizable body, that he can eat and be touched. There is continuity but there is transformation. Because death no longer has any power over Jesus’ new body, and because our resurrection bodies will be like his, neither will death have any power over our mortal bodies when we are raised from the dead. Moreover, as the author of Revelation reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, we will get to live in the direct Presence of the Lord forever. All this reminds us what real life is all about. It reminds us that nothing in this world can ever separate us from God’s love for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Nothing.

These things, among others, changed everything for the apostles. First, it allowed them to understand in a new way that their exile from God was over but not yet fully consummated. They understood that the alienation from God their sin had caused was put to an end by the blood of Christ. The apostles realized that in Jesus, God had borne their punishment himself and they were free to enter a new and life-giving relationship with him based on Christ’s merits, not their own.

Second, Jesus’ resurrection reminded them that God’s promises in Christ were trustworthy and true, that he was alive and that they could have a transforming relationship with him in this world as well as the next. As the Spirit testified to them, the apostles realized that life is more than mortal existence; it was about having a relationship with the Living God and his Son, Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Consequently, threats of punishment and death simply became irrelevant to them because they knew that regardless of what happened to their bodies, God was in charge and they were safely in Jesus’ loving embrace and Presence. They might not be able to see him any more but that did not make this Truth any less real for them because God had done what needed to be done to seal their faith.

So what does all of this mean for us? When serious illness or economic catastrophe or some other terrible thing strikes, how can our resurrection faith help sustain us and even help us overcome all the bad things of life? First and foremost we must learn to rely on God’s wisdom and power, not our own. And God’s wisdom demands that we become weak so that his grace can be made perfect in us. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, the cross is God’s wisdom and power but the world regards God’s wisdom as foolishness. Like the apostles learned on those two Sundays after the Resurrection, we can count on God’s love for us no matter what our circumstance. We may not understand why bad things sometimes happen to us or our loved ones but knowing that Jesus is alive and with us reminds us that God is in control even when we cannot apparently see it.

God in his wisdom has simply chosen not to share all his purposes and ways with us and asks us instead to trust him in any and every circumstance. If we are not satisfied with this answer, it is probably an indication that our pride is being offended. We want God to treat us as equals when in fact we are not equal to God. As God reminds us through the prophet Isaiah, his ways are not our ways nor are his thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8ff). When we learn to trust God irrespective of our circumstance, we are learning to rely on God’s wisdom and power as manifested in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Think about it in this way. Parents do not often share their ways with their infant children because infants are simply not able to understand why their parents do what they do with them. As parents we often tell our children to do something or not do something based on whether it would be good or harmful to the child. As they grow older, our kids often question us even when they don’t see the bigger picture or understand what we as parents are doing or why. Likewise with God and us. For whatever reason, God has chosen not to share with us why he allows suffering and injustice. Instead, he tells us to look to the death and resurrection of Christ and to trust him because he has demonstrated his trustworthiness when he raised Jesus from the dead.

Our resurrection faith therefore reminds us that no matter how things might turn out for us in our mortal lives, it really does not matter because God has secured our life and our destiny. Yes, our bodies die but we live because Christ lives. We no longer have to fear sickness or death or anything else because we have been redeemed from sin and death by Christ’s blood. We don’t deserve any of this, but we have life offered to us anyway because God loves us and wants us to live forever with him. We know this to be true because when God raised Jesus from the dead he confirmed that his promises to us are true. This doesn’t mean we are immune to hurt, heartache, or sorrow. What it does mean that in the midst of our sorrow we can have the basis for real hope and even joy because we know that suffering and death are only temporary and cannot ultimately hurt us.

Last, our resurrection faith helps us reorient our lives in radical new ways. Instead of making the things of this world our top priority, we make developing our relationship with God our top priority. We are bound to be disappointed when we make things of this world our priority because this world is finite and fallible. But when we make our relationship with God our top priority, our resurrection faith reminds us we will never be disappointed because God is trustworthy and true. Like the apostles, we can actually find joy in suffering for Jesus because he is the only thing that really matters. Like our Master, our suffering for his sake is our path to glory because his grace is made perfect in our weakness. Again, the only way we can learn this is to take the plunge and trust God, but it is the testimony of Scripture and countless Christians over time and across cultures that God does not disappoint when we focus on making our relationship with him our top priority. He did this with the apostles that first Easter and he continues to do that for us today.

The death and resurrection of Jesus remind us that God is good to his word and promises. He has rescued us from sin and death and promised us life forever if we will but put our hope and trust in Christ. Christ’s death and resurrection remind us to keep an eternal perspective on life and help us to remember that even in the midst of living in a broken and fallen world with all of its mysteries and hurts, God is in charge and working out his plan of salvation. For those of us who have put our full hope and trust in Christ, we are assured that we are part of that plan, not outside of it. Consequently we work to become the creatures that God created us to be so that we can live in joyful obedience and hope, even in the face of all that can go wrong in this world because we know that life is about having a relationship with the Living God, starting right here and now, and nothing, not even death, can break that relationship. There will be troubles in this world but fear not, because Christ has overcome the world. If you really truly believe that, you have power to overcome any adversity and good news, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

“We Believe in the Resurrection of the Body”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15, Part 6

51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 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. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 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.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 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 labor in the Lord is not in vain.

–1 Corinthians 15.51-58 (NIV)

Paul has finished telling us about the fate of those who have died in the Lord and the nature of our promised resurrected bodies (see yesterday’s post). Today he focuses on what happens to those living when the dimensions of heaven (God’s space) and earth (human’s space) are fused together in a spectacular and universal act of re-creation when Jesus reappears in great power and glory to finish the work he started as God’s Messiah. It is a wonderful and heart-warming picture Paul paints for us and we would do well to pay attention to what he says.

Because the new creation will be the culminating event of human history, it means that there will be folks alive at the time Jesus reappears in great power and glory to consummate God’s promised new creation. None of us knows when this will happen even though from what he writes here, Paul apparently thought it would happen in his lifetime. Like their dead brothers and sisters in Christ, those who are still alive will also have their bodies transformed into new ones and it will happen instantaneously. As we saw yesterday, and as Paul reminds us here, this is necessary because our mortal bodies are not compatible to live in an environment where there is no mortality. They must be transformed and equipped to live in the new creation.  Only then will death be swallowed up forever because only until the dead are raised will death have been conquered. For you see, even those who die in the Lord are still dead because they have not yet received new bodies. That is the whole point of the resurrection. Yes, those who have died in the Lord are safe and their spirits are alive with him in heaven (God’s space). But that is not the end game and hence death cannot be fully defeated until the new creation comes and with it we are reunited with our resurrection bodies (see yesterday’s reflection). Had Jesus’ body not been raised from the dead, there is no way Paul and the other NT writers could have claimed that Jesus had defeated death. Dead bodies are, well, dead; and they will remain that way until God raises them and reanimates them with his Spirit. After all, our bodies are what God has determined will house us!

As Paul reminds us here, this is all God’s gift to us in Christ. Had God not become human and died for us on the cross, none of us would ever have this hope because on our own we cannot hope to be reconciled to God. Our sin and rebellion is simply too ingrained in us for that to happen. So as you think about the hope and promise of new creation, always remember that it is God’s gift to you because he created you for life and in his image so that you can reflect his glory in the manner he desires.

This brings us to our last point. Paul ends his treatise on resurrection and new creation in a curious manner. Having spilled a lot of ink talking about our hope and promise to which Jesus’ resurrection points us, we would expect Paul to conclude by saying something like, “Isn’t this all just wonderful? Hold onto that hope until the final day because you’ve got a great thing in store for you.” But Paul doesn’t say that. Instead, he says, “Stand firm in your faith and give yourself fully to working for the Lord because your work in Jesus’ name is not in vain.”

What’s that all about?

Well, Paul is reminding us once again about the implications of new creation. As we saw yesterday, the promise of new creation means that creation matters to God and so it had better matter to us. This means that we have work to do right now, work in the power of the Spirit to be God’s heart and hands and eyes and ears so that we can bring God’s healing love in Jesus to bear on others. There are millions of ways that can be done. We can feed the hungry and minister to the sick. We can reach out to the lonely and offer forgiveness to our enemies (who may or may not accept our offer). It means we might be called to become active in the political, social, and/or economic arenas. It means we might be called to remind folks why developing Christian character is a good idea for the living of our days and in our respective arenas of life. It means we might offer a compassionate ear to our disgruntled colleagues or patiently put up with the foibles of fellow believers with whom we deal on a regular basis. It might mean becoming a teacher in any number of venues. It might mean speaking a word of encouragement to those who are discouraged. It certainly means that we will be an active part of Christ’s body, the Church, because we are called to worship and do God’s work together.

Whatever the Lord’s work is we are called to do, we do so not to save the world. Jesus has already done that! No, we are called to be his agents of new creation to bring his healing love to bear on others in countless ways and that will take a lifetime to accomplish because we still live in a world where evil, while having been decisively defeated on the cross, still needs to be reminded of that victory and we do so by our actions.

And as everyone of us who labors for the Lord knows, sometimes it gets to be a bit much. We work hard to feed the hungry but hunger still persists. We speak out continually against injustice but injustice still persists, and on it goes. That’s why we need to hear Paul’s final word to us here. He is telling us that no matter how futile our actions might appear to be, they are most certainly not because apparently any good work done in the Lord’s name is carried on into the new creation. Not only that, we will have the added benefit of finding a corresponding reward awaiting us.

Can you say a recipe for hopelessness and despair? Sure you can because Paul just did!

Here, then, is our resurrection hope. As Paul also reminds us, do not let anyone or anything rob you of that hope. Be militant about it, even as you are humble and gentle as lamb. Remember you have not earned the right to this hope and without it you are still dead in your sins. Rather, remember it is God’s free gift to you. But as any gracious receiver of gifts knows, it is foolish to reject the gift given. And so, hold onto the resurrection hope with all your might and in the power of the Spirit. And if you cannot yet fully articulate your resurrection hope, get busy and search the Scriptures with others and ask God to give you the knowledge and wisdom you need to appropriate it. It is the best thing you can do to guard against pessimism, hopelessness, and despair that can take any of us down at any time.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Why Andrew Sullivan Doesn’t Get It

Recently, Andrew Sullivan published a piece in Newsweek titled, Christianity in Crisis. Here is the blurb from the article:

Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was 77 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out? He told us: “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.” He removed what he felt were the “misconceptions” of Jesus’ followers, “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.” And it wasn’t hard for him. He described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as “diamonds” in a “dunghill,” glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Yes, he was calling vast parts of the Bible religious manure.

When we think of Jefferson as the great architect of the separation of church and state, this, perhaps, was what he meant by “church”: the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus’ death. If Jefferson’s greatest political legacy was the Declaration of Independence, this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy. “I am a real Christian,” Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. “That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.

Read the entire article here.

Before I begin this critique of Sullivan’s article, I must say that there is some of what he says with which I agree. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with Sullivan about love, mercy, and forgiveness. I agree with Sullivan that Christians must renounce violence and the use of naked power to achieve their own selfish aims. In fact, everything I say in refuting Sullivan’s thesis that Christians should butt out of power politics and renounce any political agenda to pursue a “simpler” and “more pure faith” presupposes that Christians faithfully follow our Lord Jesus and have developed the needed Christian character to indeed crucify our sinful desires, in the power of the Spirit, so that we can deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him in putting the world to rights. Only then can we ever hope to legitimately be Jesus’ agents of new creation and his light and salt to the world. So before you read what I have written below, if you have not already done so, I encourage you to read Sullivan’s article in full. As a Christian writer, it seems to me that I must first seek some common ground, if possible, with others, even those with whom I vigorously disagree.

According to the Wikipedia article about him, Andrew Sullivan is a “gay Catholic.” I am not terribly interested in his sexual orientation except to the extent that he is advancing a particular agenda. But I am very interested in this screed he has published because he professes to be a Christian. And if that’s true, he should know better than to write a piece on Christianity as bad as this. In fact, there is so much lousy theology in this that I don’t know where to start.

Usually I ignore stuff like this because much of it is sophomoric and ill-thought out. Most critics of Christianity are really parrots who put forth the usual straw men they’ve received from others in their criticisms of the faith. But usually stuff like this is written by an unbeliever or outsider to Christianity. I get that and I can respect an unbeliever’s opinion, uninformed and blatantly biased as it might be. But I have little patience for someone who professes to be a practicing Christian and who writes garbage like this. As Paul reminded the Corinthians when writing about the resurrection, we should be ashamed if we allow someone to rob us of our resurrection hope, or worse yet, if we ourselves are responsible for robbing others of that hope (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.29-34). Sullivan has done exactly this and he should be ashamed of himself for doing so.

Since I have little inclination to rebut his arguments point by point, I am going to restrict my comments to a few general observations. First, anyone who holds up Thomas Jefferson as a model Christian really needs to get back on his meds. Jefferson might have been a brilliant political theorist by the standards of the Enlightenment, but he was no orthodox Christian by anyone’s measure. That he carved up the gospels to fit his own conception of what should really constitute the Christian faith is another sad example of humans redacting God’s word and sitting in judgment over it. That should tip us off immediately that something is amiss with Sullivan’s thesis. Jefferson was one of the poster children of the Enlightenment, an 18th century intellectual and political movement that was inherently hostile toward the Christian faith. Enlightened thinkers were generally deists who were interested in making God out to be an absentee landlord who had checked out on his involvement with the human race. In attempting to kick God upstairs and relegate God to heaven, enlightenment writers like Jefferson aimed at replacing God’s rule on earth as in heaven (remember that inconvenient little clause in Jesus’ prayer, Andrew?) with their own models of political rule. This isn’t the first time that humans have tried to replace God’s rule with their own and it won’t be the last. So of course Jefferson wanted the church to butt out of politics. If it didn’t God would not be effectively banished from running his world. Oh! The humanity of it all (no pun intended)!

No, in touting Jefferson’s expunging of all the miracles from the gospels, as well as other things that Jefferson and his ilk found displeasing, Sullivan is putting his stamp of approval on a sanitized gospel that leaves out huge chunks of  the story that were originally included to help us understand how God indeed became king in the person of Jesus. Nobody should be forced to believe what is in the gospels. But neither does anyone have the right to tell us that all the miracles and other dimensions of supernatural activity reported in the gospel is crap. The healings, the feedings, et al. are all consistent with Israel’s expectations for God’s promised Messiah. They are part and parcel of the whole of Scripture telling us how God became king and yes, they require an informed faith on our part.

And to say that Jesus was apolitical is simply wrong. I don’t have time to explicate why this is so. Suffice it to say here that Jesus was crucified because he was charged with being King of the Jews, hardly “apolitical.” Rome did not crucify people for being “apolitical,” false as the original charges were against Jesus. Pilate crucified Jesus precisely because Jesus represented a political threat. From Pilate’s perspective, would-be Messiahs always did and so he had Jesus crucified with the banner “King of the Jews,” in three languages no less, so there would be no mistake about why Jesus was being crucified. Just because Sullivan and his ilk find miracles and other “difficult” things in the gospels to be unbelievable–things like the fact that Jesus’ understanding of his vocation as Israel’s Messiah was hardly apolitical, and other things which typically do not support a particular sin or agenda–does not make it so. The last time I looked nobody has given Sullivan power to decide that for anyone but himself.

Moreover, for anyone who professes to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and all that it points to, it is inconceivable that he would basically tell other Christians that they should shut up, focus on being holy so that we can go to heaven, and leave the politics to Caesar and others eminently more qualified. You know. Folks like himself and the more sophisticated and enlightened thinkers who happen to believe the things he does. How very convenient. To be sure, Mr. Sullivan does a very clever job of covering his agenda and uses all the right buzz words and phrases. But if new creation is our final destiny, then that means we as Christians are not supposed to shut up and behave ourselves because we live in a broken world and things aren’t functioning as God intended. It means, rather, that we are to be Jesus’ agents of new creation who are actively involved in helping our Lord set things aright.

Don’t misunderstand. We are not called to save the world. Jesus has already done that for us and none of us can accomplish what he accomplished in his death and resurrection. But the promise of new creation demands that Christians care passionately about God’s current creation and act to bring about God’s healing love to God’s broken world and its peoples. Read Romans 8 if you don’t believe me. Or Isaiah 25 or 55. That means we are to be entirely engaged in the world so that God in the Spirit can use us to help reestablish his kingdom on earth as in heaven (and news flash, Andrew, that includes God’s intentions for human sexuality as well, cf. Genesis 1.27; 2.24; Mark 10.5-9–Jesus’ ultimate answer to those who are trying to make the practice of homosexuality good and normal).

Sure, Sullivan is correct in stating that the church has gotten it wrong before. Of course it has! It is made up of flawed and broken humans! But this old canard is blatantly skewed and one-sided. It ignores the massive good that has been done in Jesus’ name, good that far outweighs some of the evil for which it has been responsible. If it weren’t for Christians being active in this world, we wouldn’t have the hospitals and educational institutions or advances in science that we have, for example. Virtually all the early scientists associated with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century (and beyond) were practicing Christians who demonstrated their faith in and through their work because they saw that their work would help improve the world in which they lived, God’s world.

And if Sullivan believes that Christians should stay out of the political arena, I would invite him to look at what happens when we do. Take a look at Nazi Germany, for example. Nazism is the clearest modern example of what a human political system that is utterly devoid of God and God’s influence looks like. It came to fruition, in part, because many Christians did keep their mouths shut about politics, which laid the terrible groundwork for those, who like Bonhoeffer, to lose their lives once they did speak out. Then tell me that is something desirable. Or take a look at Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in the 18th century with its hatred of all things royal and Christian, as well as the other various fascist and communist dictatorships that sprang up during the 20th century. Hitler or Stalin anyone? Fine people, those two. This is what inevitably happens when Christians and other good people shut up and butt out of politics.

Granted, you cannot legislate morality nor am I arguing for that here. But given the human condition, we’d better be prepared to make sure our laws are fair and just and in accordance with God’s good will for his human creatures, which is to reflect God’s glory out into the world, not our own broken and disordered glory–the essence of all human sin. I find it disingenuous that Sullivan poo-poos agendas while subtly pushing his own. Get real. Everyone has agendas, Andrew. Everyone. So the issue for Christians is not to stay out of the agenda-making process but to be leaven and salt for it. You can’t be Christ’s leaven and remain apart from the bread. Neither can you be Christ’s light and be absent from the various political processes.

Of course, not all Christians are called to work in the political arena. But since we live in a democratic society and we have the right to vote and to speak out, we are called to be Christ’s light and salt to our culture and that means we must vote and make our voices heard. Otherwise, the forces of darkness and evil will make sure we are silenced. Once again, for any Christian who professes to believe in the resurrection and new creation as Sullivan does, it means that we don’t spend our time navel gazing, being holy for the sake of being holy, and waiting to get our ticket punched to heaven. It doesn’t mean we become politically inactive or disengage from the activities of God’s good but broken world so that the enemies of the cross can have their way and day. It means, rather, that we do what Christ calls us to do–be his light and salt to those around us.

Yeah, we’ll get it wrong on occasion, maybe even more often than not. But that isn’t the fault of Christianity or Jesus. That’s our own fault because we are all so profoundly broken. That’s precisely why we need to do the work together as Christ’s body, the Church, so that there can be mutual Christian accountability to help us minimize our mistakes. And by the way, how is the fact that Christians sometimes get it wrong because they decide to act selfishly and disobey their Lord any different from any other human endeavor or political ideology? I don’t hear folks advocating that those groups should withdraw from the political process on that basis. Why single out Christianity? What are you afraid of? God has demonstrated that creation is important to him and has acted decisively on our behalf to redeem it in the person of Jesus. How can we sit back and do otherwise?

In fact, it is precisely through human agency that God intends to redeem the world. This is seen plainly in Scripture in God’s call to his people Israel through Abraham and supremely in God fulfilling his call to Israel by becoming human in the person of Jesus and doing for Israel what she could not do for herself. True, God alone must ultimately consummate his project of new creation when Jesus reappears to finish his redemptive work. But that does not negate the fact that God has always used humans to help bring his healing love to the world, even when we fail to get it right. All this points to precisely the opposite that Sullivan seems to be arguing in this piece. It dictates that we who call ourselves Christians be active in God’s world, not passive or silent. In this country that means we must make our political voice and will heard as part of our discipleship.

And this activism all starts with an informed faith, a faith that isn’t afraid to be confronted by God’s glory contained in Scripture, a faith that is willing to wrestle with stuff that we don’t understand or agree with rather than cut it out of the Bible like Jefferson did. Only then will we be in the position, with the help of the Spirit living in us, to be faithful disciples of Christ, disciples willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus’ agenda rather than our own. If we aren’t convinced that Jesus is Lord–and I don’t know how we can ever be convinced of that if we expunge the stuff from the gospels that we don’t like or understand but which point to his Lordship–we will never be in a position to act like we really believe that. After all, faith must inevitably manifest itself in action. This is exactly what Sullivan is criticizing and that’s why he is so very wrong.

In closing, I make a personal appeal to Mr. Sullivan because I want him to know the truth, Jesus’ truth, Scripture’s truth, and to enjoy real Christian freedom. Criticize all you want. There’s lots to criticize legitimately about Christ’s church and God knows we need real and genuine prophetic voices. But please stop embarrassing yourself when you do. The first thing you can do is stop making Jefferson your model Christian. Stop worshiping the Enlightenment because it is antithetical to the Christian faith. It doesn’t want to see God’s rule established on earth as in heaven because that means that humans can’t rule as sovereigns anymore. Rather, go back to the founding documents in the NT and make any one of those folks your model. Start of course with Jesus, just like you advocate. But then also look at Paul and his political theology. It’s there if you have eyes to see, and if you can see it,  you will see how foolish your thesis in this piece is. The early Christians didn’t turn the world upside down by being or doing what you  advocate. They made a difference precisely because they had the hope of new creation and lived in the power of the Spirit. The knew Jesus was Lord and they acted like it! Caesar is never concerned about personal piety that isn’t directed toward the public forum. He sure is, however, when he is confronted by people who believe with their hearts and minds that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t and act like it.

“We Believe in the Resurrection of the Body”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15, Part 5

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

–1 Corinthians 15.35-50 (NIV)

Today’s passage gets at the heart of Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of the body, at least about the nature of the resurrected body. Paul tells us that at the resurrection of the dead, our mortal, corruptible body will be raised and transformed into a spiritual body. This, by the way, is why Christians have traditionally buried their dead. We believe that our mortal, corruptible bodies are awaiting their radical transformation and that God will indeed raise our remains on the Last Day and transform them into his promised new resurrection bodies. In fact, in earlier times, when it was possible, the Christian dead were buried facing east because it was believed that it was from the east that Christ would reappear at his promised Second Coming. On a personal note, this is why I have decided against having my own body cremated because I want my death and burial to be a silent last statement of my faith and hope in the new creation. Please don’t misunderstand. Can God raise and transform cremated bodies? Of course. Can God raise and transform bodies that have been blown to smithereens and completely lost to us? Of course. So it isn’t like we have to have our bodies buried for them to be raised. Rather, Christian burial is another tangible sign and symbol for our resurrection faith and each Christian must decide how he or she wants his or her corpse disposed. My point here is that as Christians we need to think about this and not be mindless in our decision because a particular method of disposing our dead human body happens to be in vogue at the time.

Getting back to Paul’s discussion of the resurrected body, due to some English translations of the Greek words Paul uses (like the NIV passage above), there has been confusion about what Paul is talking about when he talks about getting a “spiritual body.” The Greek Paul uses for this term, soma pneumatikon, doesn’t mean a disembodied spirit, but rather a body that is transformed and given life by the spirit, specifically God’s Holy Spirit, because the Spirit is life and without the Spirit there is no life. Unlike our earthly bodies which are animated and given life by flesh and blood and a life-force that we commonly call “the soul,” our resurrected spiritual bodies will be indestructible and impervious to the kinds of things to which our mortal bodies are susceptible. What Paul is telling us is this. If we are going to live in the new creation when it comes in full, we are going to need bodies that are suited for our new environment and those bodies, our spiritual bodies, will be animated and given life by the Spirit. Bodies there will be in the new creation (a continuity from our current mortal existence), but they will be radically transformed bodies (the discontinuity that will be part of the promised new creation). That is why Paul tells us flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, i.e., the new creation when it comes in full. Our mortal bodies are corruptible and subject to decay and death. Hence they are incompatible to live in the new creation because there will be no more death, decay, or corruptibility. As Paul says, our mortal bodies come from the dust of the earth (recall how God created Adam from the earth, cf. Genesis 3.19) and are therefore perishable. Our new bodies are fashioned after Jesus, the man from heaven, and like Jesus’ resurrection body, so too will our new bodies be imperishable when we are reunited with them when Jesus reappears in great power and glory to consummate the new creation that began with his death and resurrection.

This explains why Paul attempts to tell us about our resurrected bodies through analogy in the beginning of our passage today. Like the seed that is transformed into a plant or like Jesus’ resurrected body that had to first undergo a radical transformation, so too our mortal bodies must be transformed into that which is imperishable. Again, bodies and physicality there will be in the new creation. But it will also be of a radically different order. If you understand this, it will change the way your read the resurrection accounts of Jesus as well as the accounts of his transfiguration. What the gospel writers are attempting to tell us–and the appear to be struggling mightily to do so because they don’t quite seem to have the language for it because Jesus’ resurrection was so unexpected–is to look at Jesus’ resurrected body as a prototype for our own future resurrection bodies. In the resurrection narratives in Luke and John, for example, Jesus eats with his disciples and they can touch him. But he also can appear suddenly in a locked room and hide his appearance from them when he wants to. Continuity but also radical discontinuity.

So what does this mean for us? It is clear that Paul has in mind the creation narratives of Genesis as he writes the Corinthians about all this. Therefore, this means creation matters and that it is our eternal destiny, not heaven. Heaven there is, but it is not our final destiny. Instead, heaven–God’s space or dimension–is the place where we go to enjoy a season of rest with our Lord and where God is keeping our promised resurrected and transformed bodies safe for us until the day he fully consummates the redemptive and healing plan he inaugurated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Among other things, this means we need to take care of our bodies right here and now because the promise of resurrection reminds us that bodies are important to God, and therefore they should be important to us. As Paul reminded the Corinthians earlier in this letter, even our mortal bodies house God’s very Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 3.16), albeit incompletely. But as Paul reminds us here, one day the imperfect (flesh and blood) will be gone and the Spirit will be the source of life for our perfect bodies forever in God’s new creation. I cannot speak for you, but this prospect is much more exciting and appealing to me than the thought of living forever as a disembodied spirit. It means there will be new work to do and new opportunities to bring God glory. It means that we can look forward to an even more beautiful world once the dimensions of heaven and earth are fused together. If there is such breathtaking beauty in God’s present but fallen world, how much more beauty and goodness will there be in the new creation in all its perfection?

What about you? How does the hope and promise of a new resurrection body affect you and your hope (or does it)? How might it affect how you live your life right now, knowing that God’s creation is important to God? How might the hope and promise of new creation help you deal with the afflictions of your own body or the bodies of your loved ones? Think deeply on these things and ask God to bless you with the wisdom and grace to understand and embrace his promised inheritance to you.

“We Believe in the Resurrection of the Body”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15, Part 4

 29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”

33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.

–1 Corinthians 15.29-34 (NIV)

In today’s passage we see Paul continuing to lay out the practical implications of Jesus’ resurrection (and all that it previews) for daily living, this time applying it to his own life.  Paul is applying to himself what he has just written to the Corinthians (see verses 20-28) and preparing us to hear what he has to say next about the resurrection body. He is also warning the Corinthians what can happen to both individual Christians and the church as a whole if they allow others (both inside and outside the church) to rob them of their resurrection hope and to that we now turn.

In applying the resurrection hope to his own life, Paul is inviting us to look at what has motivated his behavior as well as the practice of baptizing some for the dead, whatever that entailed (it likely will never be known because while it appears to be a regular practice among the Corinthians, it was short-lived). The point Paul wants us to see is this. Why would he risk his life everyday for the sake of the Gospel if it is all a lie? Why would the Corinthians bother baptizing some for the dead if death were the final outcome?Extending Paul’s argument to Christians today, why would we likewise intentionally seek the path of humility, suffering, and service, and crucify our natural self-centered desires–something that itself is long, difficult, and often painful–for a lie? Does not compute, baby, and interestingly many atheists would agree with Paul on exactly this point!

Paul’s reference to fighting wild beasts in Ephesus (the city from which he wrote this letter), is surely metaphorical because Acts 19 gives us no indication that Paul ever had to face wild beasts. Instead, Luke tells us that Paul’s preaching incited riots in Ephesus because he had challenged the entrenched economic, religious, and political practices there and many didn’t take too kindly to that (does your faith shake things up when you are around or do you blend in nicely with your surrounding culture so that folks won’t take notice of you?). People do stupid things all the time–like write a six-part series of reflections on 1 Corinthians 15. 🙂 But to risk your life each day for a lie is about as stupid as you can get. Doubtless there were some who thought Paul was that stupid, but that betrays an outsider without a clue looking in on the party and not understanding what he is seeing. “No,” says Paul. “If death is all that we have to look forward to, I’ve been pretty foolish in my ministry and had better refocus on the more important things of life, like grabbing all that I can and enjoying the limited time I have on earth.” This was the predominant pagan belief about life and death and it is critical to our understanding of Paul’s writings about the resurrection that we understand this. That’s why it is so ironic that Paul quotes a pagan philosopher, the Greek poet Menander, here.

But Paul also has another warning for the Corinthians and Christians living today. Again quoting Menander with no small amount of irony, Paul tells us that bad company corrupts good character and exhorts the Corinthians to stop their sinning! What is Paul talking about? He is warning us not to let our surrounding culture or others who call themselves Christian, but who do not believe in the resurrection or who have distorted its original meaning by spiritualizing it, rob us of our resurrection hope that Jesus’ resurrection provides us. To lose our hope in Christ’s resurrection is a sin according to Paul! When’s the last time you have heard that from the pulpit (or from other Christians)? As Christians, we should be terribly indignant when we hear others try to rob us of our resurrection hope, especially when those others call themselves “Christian.”

Do you love your fellow believers enough to rebuke them for their folly? Do you love unbelievers enough to patiently, humbly, and  thoughtfully lay out the basis for your hope?

Living in a culture that is increasingly hostile toward the Christian faith makes it easy for us to get from whence Paul comes. If you don’t believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, you cannot hope to believe that God’s promised new creation is true and that it has actually begun with Jesus’ resurrection. And that meant for Paul that as Christians we have nothing at all, let alone any kind of hope. Given the sloppy and outright heretical teaching of many within the church on the topic of resurrection, this is a real challenge for us as Christians today. To believe in anything other than bodily resurrection and the hope of new creation to which it points is a sin and Paul tells us we should be ashamed of allowing anyone to rob us of it. ASHAMED! How politically incorrect of Paul! That kind of language does not play well to our ears but we miss an example of real love on Paul’s part if we fail to hear it and take heed. Paul wants the Corinthians (and Christians everywhere and in all times) to stand firm in their hope and not let anyone rob us of our real hope, a hope that allows us to be joyful in all circumstances because we know our future is assured and in God’s good hands.

Are you letting others rob you of this hope? Are you robbing others of this hope by believing in something other than bodily resurrection and new creation?

12 Christians in Iran Await Verdicts After Easter Sunday Apostasy Trial

From Fox News online. A grim reminder that Christians all over the world are still being called to sacrifice terribly for their Lord. But they do it gladly because Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. This is illustrated perfectly in the quote below.

“There are a lot of people who are disgruntled with the government and many for comfort and peace in their lives are turning to Christianity. That’s a threat to the regime,” DeMars said.  “The more people who turn from Islam, the fewer people the regime has on its side.”

Read it all.

“We Believe in the Resurrection of the Body”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15, Part 3

 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

–1 Corinthians 15.20-28 (NIV)

As we saw yesterday, Paul painted for us some “what if” scenarios if Jesus’ resurrection weren’t an historical fact. We would be without real hope and left to the whims of this sometimes cruel and fickle world. But in today’s passage, Paul resoundingly refutes this hopelessness. Here he begins to paint for us a picture of real and future hope that Jesus’ resurrection has made possible for us.

In today’s passage, Paul is setting out how God is going about putting the world to rights, a world created good but gone terribly wrong because of human sin and folly. First and foremost, Paul is reminding us that God is using humans to put to rights his fallen creation and creatures. God had called Israel to do that but Israel had failed to live up to her calling. So God fulfilled his promise to bring his blessings to his fallen world through his people Israel by means of his Messiah Jesus. But as Paul reminds us here, Jesus was more than just God’s Messiah. Jesus is God’s Son, the very embodiment of God himself.

And there is more. Paul is telling us that the risen Jesus is Lord, and by implication Caesar (and the forces of evil behind Caesar) is not. This means that God has revealed a two-part plan to put his broken world and its people to rights. Part 1 involves raising Jesus from the dead and making him Lord over all creation. We need to keep this in mind because it applies to us right now. If we believe this, we had better start acting like Jesus is Lord and no other is. We do that by living in the power of the Spirit and becoming the truly human beings God created us to be, the kind of folks that imitate the only truly human being ever to live–Jesus. That inevitably will involve our self-denial and suffering and it means we follow Jesus’ call to us, not our favorite political party. This is powerfully illustrated in an article that appeared tonight about Christians being sentenced for apostasy in Iran. Yeah, we aren’t Iran. But the principle doesn’t change. You can’t have two Lords. That’s what has gotten Christians in trouble with various governments from the very beginning

[From the article and speaking about the imprisoned Christians, Jason DeMars said] “There are a lot of people who are disgruntled with the government and many for comfort and peace in their lives are turning to Christianity. That’s a threat to the regime,” DeMars said.  “The more people who turn from Islam, the fewer people the regime has on its side.”

Despite the cross we are sometimes asked to bear, we do so with confidence because Paul is reminding us that Jesus’ resurrection is a preview of coming attractions, Part 2 in God’s rescue plan for us. One day Jesus will reappear in great power and glory and complete the work he started in his life, death, and resurrection. At that time the dead will be raised and death conquered finally and fully. Paul is pointing us toward God’s promised new creation, not an eternity in heaven. Until the final resurrection of the dead comes, death still reigns. Our bodies will die and those who die in the Lord will go to rest with him. That’s all good but we are still dead.

But that’s not the end game as Paul reminds us. Life and full restoration of all that is broken is the end game and we can have hope and confidence in that because we believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. Here, Paul is telling us, is real hope for any and every circumstance in this sad old world. Yes, we will have to suffer all that can go wrong in our lives, but we know a better day is coming–and a better life, a life with a new body that is impervious to suffering and death, and a life in God’s healed new creation.

This hope is so mind-blowing that many have a hard time believing it. “It’s too good to be true!” they say. Indeed. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!

“We Believe in the Resurrection of the Body”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15, Part 2

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

–1 Corinthians 15.12-19 (NIV)

Yesterday we saw how Paul was reminding us that Jesus’ resurrection is firmly rooted in history and therefore is thoroughly believable. In today’s passage, Paul continues to lay the foundation for our belief, this time drawing out the implications of this for our faith. Paul is telling us that if we don’t believe that the resurrection is an historical event (i.e., if we don’t believe that Jesus was really raised from the dead), then our future and present hope are both lost.

Paul links Jesus’ death and resurrection in no uncertain terms. If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then it negates all that Christians believe about the saving power of the cross. It means that Jesus was just another delusional messianic wannabe who met the same fate as countless other delusional wannabes. It means that we have no hope in God finally putting his good but flawed creation to rights through his Messiah. It means in effect that evil still is in control and has won the day.

Worse yet, it means for us Christians that we are, well, screwed. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, we are still alienated from God, the Source and Author of all life, and that means we are as good as dead. You cannot hope to have life apart from your life support system and we can only find life in God. So if God did not lay the foundation for our forgiveness and reconciliation in the cross of Jesus, that means we are still effectively separated from God and that means when our bodies die, that’s it. Game over.

But the bad news doesn’t stop there. Paul is reminding us that if Jesus’ resurrection is a lie, it means that we as Christians are most to be pitied because of the lifestyle we are called to live, a lifestyle that demands we deny our selfish desires, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Think about it. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then that means he is a liar (and so is God). So who in their right mind would want to live the kind of life Christ calls us to live if this is the only shot we have? No, says Paul. If Christ is not raised, you had better get your own while you can because the day is coming when you will die and that’s it. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will all die.

Is that the kind of meaning and existence you are looking for in this life? The “grab-all-the-gusto-you-can” philosophy can only possibly work well if you happen to have the means to grab the goodies. If you are desperately poor and without political power, you will be grabbing nothing but your empty stomach and hopeless situation. No. We humans must have hope if we want to live our lives with any kind of meaning and purpose. You cannot have hope, real hope, in anything but the death and resurrection of Jesus because no other hope promises victory over death and evil. Without real hope, you will surely shrivel up and die in a thousand ways before your actual body dies. If you are looking for a recipe for hopelessness and despair, look no further.

“We Believe in the Resurrection of the Body”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15, Part 1

1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

–1 Corinthians 15.1-11 (NIV)

Today I begin a six part series of reflections on Paul’s great treatise on the resurrection of Jesus and all that it entails.

“Remember who you are, Kevin.” My mother often said this to me before I went out to be with my buddy as a teenager. In saying this to me, she was reminding me to remember what our family name stood for and to act accordingly, i.e., she was reminding me not to act stupidly and to embrace all that my family had worked so hard to accomplish. Paul is doing something similar with the Corinthians in this passage today. He wants them to remember who they are and Whose they are. Why? Because when they embrace the hope and promise of the resurrection, they will have truly defeated the forces of evil and all that can go wrong in our lives. It hasn’t happened yet to its full extent, Paul is reminding us, but it is coming.

How can Paul say this? Because Jesus’ resurrection has indeed happened in history and is therefore a preview of coming attractions, and Paul here is reminding the Corinthians of this fact. It’s important to remember that Paul is writing this letter some 20-25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, long before the first gospel accounts were written, so this is our first recorded eyewitness testimony that the resurrection is historical. Paul takes pains to explain the historicity of the bodily resurrection by recounting the testimony of various witnesses (neatly expunging the testimony of the first witnesses of the resurrection–the women–in the process, which is yet another reason why we can believe the gospels’ accounts of the resurrection).

It is critical for us to understand what Paul has in mind when he talks about resurrection because if we do not understand what the NT writers mean when they talk about resurrection, we rob ourselves of the real hope and promise of the Christian faith. When Paul talks about resurrection, he emphatically was not talking about dying and then living in some spiritual existence. Bishop Tom Wright says it best in his book, Surprised by Hope:

Resurrection in the first century meant someone physically, thoroughly dead becoming physically, thoroughly alive again, no simply surviving or entering a “purely spiritual” world, whatever that might be. Resurrection  therefore necessarily impinges on the public world (75).

So here we see Paul building the solid foundation for his coming argument about the resurrection and all it entails. There are witnesses available, himself included, who can testify that Jesus did rise bodily from the dead. This alerts us immediately to the fact that God’s creation and its creatures are important to God and that God has something spectacular in mind for us. We will explore that throughout this week.

In the meantime, think about what Paul wants us to know in this passage. Our hope in Jesus’ resurrection is not founded on wishful or delusional thinking. It’s rooted in real history and we have evidence that it really happened, just like, for example, we have evidence that Lincoln actually delivered his famous address at Gettysburg. If you believe this, you’ve got the basis for Good News and hope in all circumstances (but not immunity from the evil that can beset all of us). Simply put, Paul is beginning to tell us that Jesus’ death and resurrection were the turning point of history because in these two events, God has intervened to defeat evil, sin, and death. If you cannot find good news in that truth, where can you find it?