Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 5C, April 28, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148.1-14; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this morning epistle lesson, John the Evangelist lays out for us one of the most spectacular and breathtaking scenes in the whole Bible—the wedding of the new heavens and earth. It is the culmination of God’s promised rescue plan for his good but fallen world and its creatures, a story that makes up the entire biblical narrative from Genesis 3 onward. In other words, the scene in Revelation 21.1-6 is about the promised new creation that was partially launched at Jesus’ resurrection and it is the only real antidote to fear, doubt, and despair. Try as we do to find the antidote to our doubts and fears in money, sex, power, security, and booze (or whatever else happens to be your favorite elixir), none of these will suffice in the end because none of them have the power to give life to the dead or call into existence things that are not. But the hope and promise of new creation is the real antidote to our fears and doubts precisely because it reminds us in powerful and poignant ways of God’s great love for his creation and creatures—a love that was poured out for us on Calvary—and God’s intention to rescue ultimately his people from our slavery to evil, sin, and death. And we know God does have the power to give life to the dead and to call into existence things that are not (Romans 4.17) because he spoke his creation into existence and raised Jesus from the dead.
New creation and all that accompanies it is why I have encouraged you to celebrate the fifty days of Easter wildly (how are you doing with that, BTW?) and it is worth our careful examination. But we must also remind ourselves that the consummation of God’s new creation is in the future and none of us knows when the Lord will return in great power and glory to finish the work he started in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. So what do we do in the meantime? This question is also worth our careful examination this morning because if the gospel is to make any real difference in our lives, it must also address our current situation, not just our hope and future, important as that is. But before we look at our present situation, I want us to look carefully at our future.
As we have seen in the resurrection narratives in the gospels, when God raised Jesus from the dead, he raised more than Jesus’ spirit or soul. God also raised Jesus’ body. And if at this point your eyes are rolling up in the back of your head and you are muttering to yourself how brilliantly I state the obvious, it is only because I am persuaded that the mainline churches have for years ignored the obvious or denied it altogether because bodily resurrection is just so hard for us to wrap our minds around. We have no other frame of reference except for Jesus. But God did raise Jesus’ body from the dead and the gospel writers and Paul are very clear about this. It is as if Jesus, after bearing the weight of our sin and the world’s evil himself on the cross, went through death and emerged on the other side, but with a transformed body that used the material of his mortal body as its basis but which was also something quite new. It could apparently function equally well in heaven (God’s space) and on earth (human space).
We see this illustrated in the fact that the gospel writers, especially Luke and John, tell us that after he was raised, Jesus ate and drank with his disciples and let them handle his resurrected body. But the gospel writers also tell us that Jesus could mask his appearance from his followers so that they didn’t recognize him immediately and that he could appear suddenly behind locked doors. All of this testifies quite powerfully to the fact that Jesus’ disciples were seeing no ghost. They were seeing how their future bodies would be patterned and it is absolutely essential for us to understand this if we are to ever understand how and why Jesus’ resurrection was a preview of God’s promised new creation that we read about in our epistle lesson this morning. Paul takes us to school about the nature of our future resurrection bodies in 1 Corinthians 15.35-57 and I encourage you this week to read and reflect on those verses.
Why? Because as John reminds us, when the new creation comes in full, the heavens and earth will not be destroyed but recreated. We notice first that the new Jerusalem (NT code for God’s dwelling place) will come down to earth, we won’t be taken up to heaven like some of the Rapture folks would have us believe. In other words, when God consummates his new creation, God’s space and human space (heaven and earth) will be merged into one and the clause in our Lord’s Prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven will be fully answered. This means God’s people will get to live directly in God’s presence and because of this there can be no evil because God is implacably opposed to evil of any kind. That is where our resurrection bodies come into play because as Paul tells us, when our mortal bodies die we will finally be free of sin (cf. Romans 6.6-7; 2 Corinthians 2.11-13) and this also helps us understand why Paul tells us that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15.50). Whatever our resurrection bodies look like, we know they will be animated by God’s Spirit who gives life and our bodies will be equipped to live in the new heavens and earth.
Not only that, because our transformation will be so complete, all the hurts and wrongs and sorrows and brokenness we have to endure presently will somehow be transformed and healed so that they will never again bedevil us. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ, never again to be separated from them. This is what John means when he tells us that God will wipe every tear from our eyes and death will be no more. And of course we earn none of this glorious promise. It is God’s gift given to us freely and graciously in and through the Lamb, Jesus himself. Resurrection and new creation are therefore not theoretical concepts. Instead, resurrection is a person and Jesus is his name (cf. John 11.25-26). We are offered these gifts because of God’s great love for us and his desire to rescue us from all that bedevils and dehumanizes us, thanks be to God! It is quite a vision and a hope!
But the new creation is our future. What about us and our lives with all of our problems right now? How does the promise of new creation speak to us right now? The answer is found, in part, in our gospel and NT lessons. Jesus tells his fearful disciples (and us) that in his death and resurrection, God will actually glorify him and as we have just seen, that’s good news for all his disciples. In the interim, Jesus commands them (and us) to love each other as he has loved them. The command to love was not new to Jesus. What was new is the fact that Jesus tells us that we must love each other as he has loved us. And what does that look like? It is a love that looks like the cross, a radical, self-giving love for others that has their best interest at heart. It is a love that is manifested in obedience to Jesus and his commands as seen in our NT lesson. Peter, being the good Jew he was, risked the scorn of his Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus when he sat down and ate with Gentile Christians, something that was quite scandalous to any self-respecting Jew of Peter’s day. Peter did not do this to make a statement or to be “cutting edge.” Peter did it because his Lord commanded him to and Peter finally got it right. If we are not willing to be radical, cross-bearing lovers to the world, to love the least and the lost, the poor and the destitute, and especially the most unlovable among us (and you know who you are), we will never help build God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven nor will we be equipped to live in the new creation. As John reminds us in Revelation, when Jesus tells us he is making all thing new, he is implying there is going to be new work that needs to be done and without love, that work will be impossible because without love we cannot know God. And if we do not know God, how can we ever live directly in God’s presence? I am not talking here about following a bunch of rules to get our tickets punched into the new creation. I am talking about knowing God the way we know our loved ones, and that can only happen if we become cross-bearing lovers of one another in the manner Jesus commanded us and loved us.
Of course, we cannot be cross-bearing lovers on our own. We are too selfish and self-centered for that to happen. But God being the gracious Father and generous giver that he is, promises to equip us to follow his command to us to love one another as Jesus loves us, and we find out how he does that in today’s NT lesson as well. God gives us his Spirit to heal, transform, and guide us so that we gradually become more and more like Jesus in our ability to love God and each other. God promises us a glorious future in his new creation and in the interim, he lives with us and equips us to do the work he calls us to do and to be the people he calls us to be. That is why we need not fear. Do you believe this?
So what do we do with all this so that it really will make a difference for us this week in particular and our lives in general? First, if we are going to be the radical, cross-bearing lovers that Jesus commands us to be, we had better do the things that open ourselves up to the Spirit’s power so that he can do his work in us and transform us to become like Jesus. As baptized Christians we are part of God’s family in Jesus and that means we need to know our family’s story and be willing to talk to our Father regularly. Think about it. Who among us, if we care at all about our family name and history, would ignore the head of our family and other family members or refuse to listen to family stories so that we can have our identities shaped by them? It is a ludicrous idea! Likewise with our membership in God’s family. Simply put, without immersing ourselves in Word and prayer daily, we cheapen our identity as Jesus’ people and rob ourselves of the power to fight the enemy, and the enemy will pick us off. And if we don’t know what our future and hope is, how can that possibly sustain us now, let alone help motivate us to be cross-bearing lovers?
Likewise, we need to worship regularly and come to the Lord’s Table to feed on his body and blood or the same thing will happen–the enemy will pick us off. We must worship regularly because we are created to worship the one true and living God, not the gods of our own creation. And when we come to table regularly, we get a foretaste of the new creation by eating and drinking at Jesus’ future Table right here and now. There is no more tangible way to bring Jesus into our whole being—body, mind, and soul—than to feed on him literally each week.
So this week as you go about your business and are buffeted by the inevitable distractions and bad news that are part and parcel of living in a fallen world, do this. I have already encouraged you to read Paul’s writings from 1 Corinthians 15 about our future resurrection body. What I want you to do in addition is to commit 1 Corinthians 15.58 to memory because if you take Jesus’ command to love others as he loves you, and if you are like me, you will find this to be a great challenge and you will be tempted to lose heart. When you see that happening, recall 1 Corinthians 15.58 to remind yourself that your work in the Lord is not in vain, a work that must be driven by the love and power of Jesus in the Spirit. Then go and read our epistle lesson this morning to remind yourself of your future so that you will know that sin, evil, and death do not have the final say, that because Jesus has loved and claimed you from all eternity, you have a real future and a hope. Let that encourage and sustain you.
There’s more, but if you can do this regularly this week so that it starts to become a holy habit, you will have made great headway. And if you do these things, next Sunday I’d like to hear about how it went for you this week. Consider giving a quick report to us as to whether you were able to tap into a power that is not your own so that the world really can see you are one of Jesus’ people and not its own. There’s good and bad news in that because not everybody wants you to be a Christian or to bear Jesus’ light to them. But whatever happens in that regard, remember Whose you are and what you are working for because it will surely remind you in the power of the Spirit that you have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!