Quite some time ago, during his seminary days, a young priest friend of mine attended an introductory lecture on Revelation and the Scriptures. The lecturer told the class that there is considerable distance between God’s actual message and instructions and the texts we have in the Old and New Testaments. The lecturer wasn’t saying, like the Jesuit superior general, that we don’t know what Christ taught because they didn’t have recorders then, didn’t have phones to capture the moment. But she was heading in that direction.
My friend inquired innocently whether the Second Vatican Council had said anything on this topic. The lecturer, confident in her expertise, explained that it had. What was the document called? Quick as a flash the reply came: “Dei Verbum,” the Word of God. It was only when she stopped to smile and enjoy her contribution that the lecturer realized she had been decapitated. The Scriptures are God’s words for us, written in different forms and styles and in different ages by human authors. Although they were not dictated by the archangel Gabriel, as the Muslims claim the Quran was, they remain for us the Word of God.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 17.5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Cor 15.12-20, 35-38, 42-58; St. Luke 6.17-26.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week we began a two-part preaching series on the Death and Resurrection of Christ based on 1 Cor 15, St. Paul’s massive treatise on the Resurrection of Christ. You recall that last week we focused on Christ’s sacrificial and saving Death. We saw that the problem of Sin, that outside and hostile power that has enslaved us thoroughly, requires more than just human repentance to be defeated; it requires the power of God to intervene on our behalf to offer an atoning sacrifice for our sins so that we could be reconciled to God the Father and thus healed of our sin-sickness so that its power is defeated once and for all. We saw that there is great mystery in all this and that the NT never explains fully how it all works, only that it does. If you don’t remember anything else from last week’s sermon—and being the brilliant teacher/preacher I am, I would be shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, if you didn’t remember every word I spoke—remember this. Christ died to reconcile you to the Father so that you can be fully healed of your sin-sickness. Christ, God become human, did this for you because he loves you and you are precious in his sight, even while you were still his enemy. There is nothing in all creation that can separate you from his love and there is no sin you have committed that has not been fully covered by the Blood of the Lamb shed for you on the cross. There is therefore no need or reason for any Christian to suffer debilitating, crushing guilt or despair.
We also noted that without the Resurrection, Christ’s death would have been just another utterly humiliating and degrading criminal’s death, lost forever in the vast sea of history and without significance. But Christ was and is raised from the dead, forever alive, never to die again. The Resurrection vindicated Christ’s claim that he was indeed Israel’s Messiah and the eternal Son of God and therefore the cross accomplished what the early Church claimed it did. So this morning in part 2 of this series I want us to look at exactly what is the Christian hope of the Resurrection. I want us to do so primarily for two reasons: 1) as St. Paul proclaimed last week, the Resurrection is of first importance. Without it we are still dead in our slavery to Sin’s power and without hope. Death really does have the final say, a terrible reality made worse by the fact that all of us must endure suffering and hardship in this life to one extent or the other; and 2) we are baptizing two new members into Christ’s Body today, God be thanked and praised! As we will see, resurrection has definite implications for any who are baptized into Christ. Resurrection remains of first importance and needs Christ’s saving Death as much as Christ’s saving Death needs the Resurrection. Without both there would be no Christianity, no Good News, no turning point in human history.
One more preliminary note before we begin our discussion. This sermon presumes the historicity of Christ’s Resurrection, i.e., Christ’s Resurrection really did happen in history. It is emphatically not some made up hokum or wishful thinking. To give a basic defense of the Resurrection’s historicity would require a separate sermon in itself and ain’t nobody got time for that this morning. Coffee hour and Super Bowl are a-waiting and we need to get on with our order of business! Suffice it to say here that from the beginning the Church proclaimed Christ’s Death and Resurrection as historical fact and we have no good reason to doubt this Central Christian Proclamation 2000 years later!
I begin by asking you a question. How many of you find the vision of heaven where you live for all eternity without a body and float on a cloud playing your harp compelling?
I ask this question because this vision (or derivatives of it) seems to be the prevailing Christian understanding in the West of what happens to us when we die. Our souls are separated from our bodies and go to heaven to enjoy God’s company, forever as a disembodied spirit, freed from the woes and weaknesses of our mortal body. Is that compelling to you? It’s more than just a philosophical question because as Christians we are exhorted to keep our eyes on the prize—Jesus. Why is Jesus the prize? Because Christ is the only way to the Father because only his death atones for our sins and makes us fit to live forever in the Father’s Holy Presence so that we are not destroyed by God’s perfect Holiness and justice. That’s why the Resurrection needs the Cross (in case you were wondering). But is the vision I just described to you a compelling one? Is it the prize above all prizes for you that motivates your living? I’ll be honest. The vision I just described leaves me cold and I find little to no motivation to follow Christ because of it. I suspect I am probably not alone in my thinking.
But thanks be to God that this vision is emphatically not the Christian vision contained in the NT, the vision of new creation that Christ’s Resurrection launched and proclaimed. It is a platonic and corrupted version of the Real Thing because resurrection never was about dying and going to heaven; it is instead about life in God’s new world, the new creation, God’s new heavens and earth. The former kind of teaching is the product of creeping gnosticism that believes in part that all things material are bad and all things spiritual are good. And I suspect if truth be told, it stems in part from inherent human disbelief and skepticism regarding the power of God and the utterly fantastic nature of the vision itself. Who among us has the power to imagine such a world so as to give it justice?
So what does the Church mean when it talks about the Resurrection and eternal life? Resurrection and eternal life are first and foremost—and I cannot be emphatic enough and exhort you strongly enough short of yelling and cussing at you, much as I would like that—about bodily reanimation on a permanent basis so that bodies are made fit to live in a radically new creation. When the first followers of Jesus proclaimed his Resurrection they were emphatically not saying that he had died and gone to heaven. They were proclaiming that God had raised his body from the dead and reanimated it by transforming it. This gets at what St. Paul is telling us in his very dense writing from our epistle lesson when he uses the analogy of seed and plant to compare our mortal body with our new spiritual body. St. Paul is telling that there will be radical change (a body that is impervious to death) within basic continuity (we are still talking about bodies, not spirits). We have a mortal body in this life and will have an immortal body patterned after the risen Christ’s body in God’s new creation.
And when we put this radical new teaching about a two-stage resurrection (Christ first and then later us when he returns to finish his saving work) within the overarching story of Scripture, this should make perfect sense to us. Think about it. The creation narratives in Genesis proclaim very clearly that God created creation good (very good after he created humans to run God’s world on his behalf; that’s why God created us in his image in the first place). And God continues to value his creation, creatures included. Only human sin and rebellion corrupted it and the rest of Scripture tells us about how God is going about rescuing his good creation gone bad and reclaiming it and us from the dark powers that usurped God’s rule in the first place, enigmatic and puzzling as that might be to us. God refused to totally destroy creation and start over because God loves and values us. That’s why he spared Noah et al. in the Great Flood. That’s why God called Abraham to be God’s blessing to his broken and hurting world and its creatures, a blessing ultimately achieved in Jesus Christ, the one true Israelite and descendant of Abraham. It makes no sense, therefore, that God would suddenly be uninterested in reclaiming the bodies of his image-bearing creatures, consigning us instead to an eternity of being disembodied spirits. How does that honor God’s faithfulness and love for his creation? Read in this manner, the Revelation to St. John, chapters 21-22, is seen as the successful climax of God’s redemptive project launched through Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s saving Death and Resurrection. Heaven comes down to earth (we aren’t raptured so get that lousy theology out of your head). Heaven and earth, God’s space and humans’ space respectively, are fused together in a mighty act of new creation. Our mortal bodies are raised from the dead and transformed into immortal bodies, fit to live in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, with new ways of working and living as God’s faithful, obedient, image-bearers. Death and illness and hurt and suffering and loneliness and alienation and all the rest that weigh us down and kill us are abolished forever, all by and through the power of God the Father who loves us and remains faithful to us as essential parts of his good creation. Seen in this light, resurrection makes perfect sense.
St. Paul also talks about the fulfillment of God’s creative purposes in Romans 8. Hear him now.
Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us (Romans 8.18-23).
Notice there’s nothing about dying and going to heaven here! No, St. Paul speaks of God’s curse on his current creation, a curse that was in response to human sin and rebellion, reminding us in no uncertain terms that God cannot and will not tolerate any form of evil in his promised new world. Notice too that St. Paul speaks unabashedly about the prize worth seeking above all prizes. This is about radical and total healing and transformation, the kind that can only be brought about by God the Father, and it speaks of a created future, not a spiritual or disembodied one. It is about being fully human, living in the created (or recreated) manner that God always intended for us.
But what about St. Paul’s comparison of the physical body and spiritual body? Doesn’t having a spiritual body mean we really don’t have a body? Not at all. The Greek for physical body, psychikon soma, and spiritual body, pneumatikon soma, both describe a body. In Greek and in the context of this pericope, when an adjective ends with -ikon, it refers not to the nature of the body (what the body is made of) but rather what powers or animatesthe body. So St. Paul is telling us that our new bodies will be powered not by flesh and blood or our soul, but by the Holy Spirit himself, thus making them indestructible. The reason flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God is not because God hates our bodies. That is ridiculous! God created our bodies and declared them good! No, flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom is imperishable and immortal whereas our mortal bodies are not. Our bodies die and we are separated from them for a season. When Christ returns, however, our bodies will be raised from the dead and transformed and reanimated in a way that abolishes death forever. The NT has very little to say about what happens to our souls when we die other than a few oblique references (see, e.g., Phil 1.20-26). As we have seen, it has a lot to say about God’s new world, a world launched when God raised Christ from the dead and come in full upon Christ’s return.
This is a vision that is compelling and worthy of all our striving. It proclaims a new world reclaimed by God, a world in which we get to live directly in God’s presence forever, a world therefore devoid of suffering, sorrow, sickness, and death, a world in which we are finally and perfectly healed forever, a world where we can finally be free to be God’s image-bearers who go about their business of tending to God’s new world with God’s blessing. It is a world where we will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ, never to be separated again. And after our bodies are raised, death will be abolished forever as St. Paul tells us in today’s lesson. Death cannot be abolished until then, even for Christians, because death involves our bodies and souls, and until we receive our new bodies, death still reigns. While our loved ones who died in Christ are safely in his care as they await their new resurrection or spiritual bodies, they are still dead because they do not yet enjoy new bodily existence where their souls are reunited to their bodies. So we can remember them and miss them and find comfort that they are safe in Christ, but we can’t touch them or see them or hear them or feel them or smell them like we did when they were alive in their mortal bodies. The resurrection promises that this will all change one day when we and they are given new bodies. Whatever that looks like it is worthy of our highest calling and striving because it is a vision that exalts both God and humans, a vision beyond our wildest longings and desires and hopes. If what I have described does not stir you to want to give your ultimate allegiance to Christ, the One who makes it all possible because only Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, blame my inability to cast the vision for all it’s worth, not the vision itself with its incomprehensible richness and beauty that point to the power and fathomless love of God the Father for us as his human image-bearers. When it comes in full, whatever it looks like, God’s new creation will fully honor human beings and consummate our life-giving relationship with God the Father, our Creator.
So what do we take from this? Two things. For our about-to-be newly-baptized, it means they are about to become part of this promise because they are about to become united to Christ in his Death and Resurrection, sharing in both. In other words, they are about to tap into the power of God at work in them in and through the Spirit to make them part of God’s family forever. That’s why we can baptize infants and those who cannot speak for themselves. Baptism, like resurrection, is not about human responsibility but about the power of God at work to heal, redeem, and give life in full. It is a powerful and tangible sign of God’s extravagantly generous and gracious love for us.
Second, for those of us who are baptized, this truth reminds us to remember our own baptism and be thankful. The promise of resurrection and new creation also has the power to help us see life clearly now. Resurrection and new creation are our future and our hope, and both give us a real and appropriate vision of how life is to be lived. If you get this, reread Jesus’ woes and blessings in light of living in the resurrection reality. Both are remarkably appropriate because they encourage and warn us respectively what it is like to live as Christ’s true people. We will make judgments based on what is to come, not what currently is with all of its corruption and false values. We have a promised eternity to live in this manner and it is a sure and certain expectation, based not on wishful thinking but on the historical reality that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. That is why I can preach it. If we find the vision of resurrection and new creation compelling, we’d better get busy and practice living like the resurrection peeps we are, no matter how imperfectly we live it. What better hope for us than to be perfectly healed of all that weighs us down and kills us, death included, never to be afraid again, always to enjoy perfect health and relationships? That, my beloved, is a prize worth all our strivings and it is only made possible by the amazing love and power of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. “What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices?” asks God. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands?”
What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel. “The hour will come,” he says: “when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit,” and so he looks for worshipers who are like himself.
We are true worshipers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own.
We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God.
Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe.
Of old, prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger, even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove all sense of pain by the grace it wins for others. But it gives the armor of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed. It strengthens the power of grace, so that faith may know what it is gaining from the Lord, and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.
In the past prayer was able to bring down punishment, rout armies, withhold the blessing of rain. Now, however, the prayer of the just turns aside the whole anger of God, keeps vigil for its enemies, pleads for persecutors. Is it any wonder that it can call down water from heaven when it could obtain fire from heaven as well? Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God. But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.
Its only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison cells to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the faint-hearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.
All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look up to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.
What more needs be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and power for ever and ever.
Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, D. C. 20543
JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA
September 1, 1998
Dr. James C. Goodloe
Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church
1627 Monument Avenue
Richmond, Virginia 23220-2925
Dear Dr. Goodloe:
I looked for you unsuccessfully at the luncheon following the funeral yesterday. I wanted to tell you how reverent and inspiring I found the service that you conducted.
In my aging years, I have attended so many funerals of prominent people that I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. When the deceased and his family are nonbelievers, of course, there is not much to be said except praise for the departed who is no more. But even in Christian services conducted for deceased Christians , I am surprised at how often eulogy is the centerpiece of the service, rather than (as it was in your church) the Resurrection of Christ, and the eternal life which follows from that. I am told that, in Roman Catholic canon law, encomiums at funeral Masses are not permitted—though if that is the rule, I have never seen it observed except in the breach. I have always thought there is much to be said for such a prohibition, not only because it spares from embarrassment or dissembling those of us about whom little good can truthfully be said, but also because, even when the deceased was an admirable person—indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person—praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner. (My goodness, that seems more like a Presbyterian thought than a Catholic one!)
Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance—whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased. What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.
Many thanks, Dr. Goodloe, for a service that did honor to Lewis and homage to God. It was a privilege to sit with your congregation. Best regards.
All of us are tempted on occasion to approach biblical tensions—texts that seem to contradict each other—in flippant or offhand ways. At one end of the spectrum are skeptics who reduce tensions to textual incoherence and human invention. On the other are those with more evangelical commitments, who desperately trawl books and websites to harmonize mismatching texts. Once they find one, they sigh and move on as if the tension has nothing to teach us. The “problem” has been “resolved.”
But if we want to take Scripture seriously, we must ask why tensions exist in the first place. Why did the Holy Spirit—who inspired Scripture—cause these discrepant texts to be written? What do they reveal? And what might we lose if we “resolve” the problem? We are, after all, listening for the voice of God, not solving a puzzle.