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.
Before his conversion to Roman Catholicism Gavin Ashenden was an Anglican priest and bishop as well as former Chaplain to the Queen. I fear his concerns are real and true. From Christian Today:
It used to be the fashion to address a monarch as His or Her ‘Most Christian Majesty’. In the case of Elizabeth II, that was the most appropriate description. People have discussed her longevity, her family, her good judgement; but behind the length of her reign, and the reason why she found herself so dearly loved, was her Christian character.
Alongside a life constructed and sculpted by faith is the congruence that the demise of Christian faith in the public sphere may take place in parallel to her own personal demise…
As the society she ruled over constitutionally grew more heterodox and hedonistic, the dignity and integrity that she embodied both personally and constitutionally resonated with a contrasting moral and existential value which was nurtured by her relationship with God – her sense of vocation as his servant, placed within the royal family to serve both him and her nation – and her love of Christ, whose Spirit renewed her daily.
The mourning that will accompany her passing will be a grief not only for a remarkable woman, a treasured mother, a dignified grandmother and a much-loved Queen, it will also include a sorrow for the passing of a Christianised culture whose deepest and most noble virtues she represented and embodied. In every sense it is true to say of her, we shall not see her like again.
But on the fiftieth day, that is, the Lord’s Day, when the people have a very great deal to go through, everything that is customary is done from the first cockcrow onwards; vigil is kept in the Anastasis, and the bishop reads the passage from the Gospel that is always read on the Lord’s Day, namely, the account of the Lord’s Resurrection, and afterwards everything customary is done in the Anastasis [the cross], just as throughout the whole year. But when morning is come, all the people proceed to the great church, that is, to the martyrium [the church], and all things usual are done there; the priests preach and then the bishop, and all things that are prescribed are done, the oblation being made, as is customary on the Lord’s Day, only the same dismissal in the martyrium is hastened, in order that it may be made before the third hour [9am].
And when the dismissal has been made at the martyrium, all the people, to a man, escort the bishop with hymns to Sion, [so that] they are in Sion when the third hour is fully come. And on their arrival there the passage from the Acts of the Apostles is read where the Spirit came down so that all tongues [were heard and all men] understood the things that were being spoken, and the dismissal takes place afterwards in due course For the priests read there from the Acts of the Apostles concerning the selfsame thing, because that is the place in Sion—there is another church there now—where once, after the Lord’s Passion, the multitude was gathered together with the Apostles, and where this was done, as we have said above. Afterwards the dismissal takes place in due course, and the oblation is made there. Then, that the people may be dismissed, the archdeacon raises his voice, and says: “Let us all be ready to day in Eleona, in the Imbomon [place of the Ascension], directly after the sixth hour [noon].”
So all the people return, each to his house, to rest themselves, and immediately after breakfast they ascend the Mount of Olives, that is, to Eleona, each as he can, so that there is no Christian left in the city who does not go. When, therefore, they have gone up the Mount of Olives, that is, to Eleona, they first enter the Imbomon, that is, the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, and the bishops and the priests take their seat there, and likewise all the people. Lessons are read there with hymns interspersed, antiphons too are said suitable to the day and the place, also the prayers which are interspersed have likewise similar references. The passage from the Gospel is also read where it speaks of the Lord’s Ascension, also that from the Acts of the Apostles which tells of the Ascension of the Lord into heaven after His Resurrection. And when this is over, the catechumens and then the faithful are blessed, and they come down thence, it being already the ninth hour [3pm], and go with hymns to that church which is in Eleona, wherein is the cave where the Lord was wont to sit and teach His Apostles. And as it is already past the tenth hour [4pm] when they arrive, lucernare takes place there; prayer is made, and the catechumens and likewise the faithful are blessed.
And then all the people to a man descend thence with the bishop, saying hymns and antiphons suitable to that day, and so come very slowly to the martyrium. It is already night when they reach the gate of the city, and about two hundred church candles are provided for the use of the people. And as it is agood distance from the gate to the great church, that is, the martyrium, they arrive about the second hour of the night, for they go the whole way very slowly lest the people should be weary from being afoot. And when the great gates are opened, which face towards the market-place, all the people enter the martyrium with hymns and with the bishop. And when they have entered the church, hymns are said, prayer is made, the catechumens and also the faithful are blessed; after which they go again with hymns to the Anastasis, where on their arrival hymns and antiphons are said, prayer is made, the catechumens and also the faithful are blessed; this is likewise done at the Cross. Lastly, all the Christian people to a man escort the bishop with hymns to Sion, and when they are come there, suitable lessons are read, psalrns and antiphons are said, prayer is made, the catechumens and the faithful are blessed, and the dismissal takes place. And after the dismissal all approach the bishop’s hand, and then every one returns to his house about midnight. Thus very great fatigue is endured on that day, for vigil is kept at the Anastasis from the first cockcrow, and there is no pause from that time onward throughout the whole day, but the whole celebration (of the Feast) lasts so long that it is midnight when every one returns home after the dismissal has taken place at Sion.
—Egeria, Abbess (late 4th century), The Pilgrimageof Egeria, 85-90
The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.
This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge.
What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism.
Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.
Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.
With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit.
The following day, Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, which they call here the Great Week. On this [Palm] Sunday morning, at the completion of those rites which are customarily celebrated at the Anastasis [the Lord’s tomb] or the Cross from the first cockcrow until dawn, everyone assembles for the liturgy according to custom in the major church, called the Martyrium. It is called the Martyrium because it is on Golgotha, behind the Cross, where the Lord suffered His Passion, and is therefore a shrine of martyrdom. As soon as everything has been celebrated in the major church as usual, but before the dismissal is given, the archdeacon raises his voice and first says: “Throughout this whole week, beginning tomorrow at the ninth hour [3pm], let us all gather in the Martyrium, in the major church.” Then he raises his voice a second time, saying: “Today let us all be ready to assemble at the seventh hour [1pm] at the Eleona.” When the dismissal has been given in the Martyrium or major church, the bishop is led to the accompaniment of hymns to the Anastasis, and there all ceremonies are accomplished which customarily take place every Sunday at the Anastasis [Church of the Holy Sepulcher] following the dismissal from the Martyrium. Then everyone retires home to eat hastily, so that at the beginning of the seventh hour everyone will be ready to assemble in the church on the Eleona, by which I mean the Mount of Olives, where the grotto in which the Lord taught is located.
At the seventh hour all the people go up to the church on the Mount of Olives, that is, to the Eleona. The bishop sits down, hymns and antiphons appropriate to the day and place are sung, and there are likewise readings from the Scriptures. As the ninth hour approaches, they move up, chanting hymns, to the Imbomon, that is, to the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven; and everyone sits down there. When the bishop is present, the people are always commanded to be seated, so that only the deacons remain standing. And there hymns and antiphons proper to the day and place are sung, interspersed with appropriate readings from the Scriptures and prayers.
As the eleventh hour [5pm] draws near, that particular passage from Scripture is read in which the children bearing palms and branches came forth to meet the Lord, saying: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The bishop and all the people rise immediately, and then everyone walks down from the top of the Mount of Olives, with the people preceding the bishop and responding continually with “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” to the hymns and antiphons. All the children who are present here, including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. From the top of the mountain as far as the city, and from there through the entire city as far as the Anastasis, everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence, reciting the responses all the while; and they move very slowly so that the people will not tire. By the time they arrive at the Anastasis, it is already evening. Once they have arrived there, even though it is evening, vespers is celebrated; then a prayer is said at the Cross and the people are dismissed.
The extraordinary twist in this story is that, having announced judgment upon Jerusalem for refusing God’s way of peace, Jesus went ahead, embodying simultaneously the love and the judgment of God himself, to suffer the Roman horror he had predicted for his people.
That dark royal story lies at the heart of all subsequent Christian understanding of the cross, though it is a truth so strange that few hymns or liturgies plumb its depths. Theseus and Oberon are one and the same. Good Friday, itself a form of Roman street theatre, was taken up paradoxically within God’s street theatre, the play within the play within the play that explains everything else.
But, even without that sequel, the questions of Palm Sunday itself force themselves upon us.
First, the questions of which story we are living in, and which king we are following, remain urgent within our culture. As our public institutions are less trusted than ever, and our behaviour at home and abroad is more confused than ever, the stories which used to make sense of our lives have let us down.
We thought we knew how the play worked: get rid of tyrants, and people will embrace democracy, peace, love and flower-power. How quickly things have moved from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The so-called Arab Spring has turned back to winter, as we have no idea what to do about Syria, about Israel/Palestine and, of course, about Ukraine. We have run out of stories, we have run out of kings of whatever kind; all we think we can do is trust the great god Mammon, as though our fragile economic half-recoveries would trickle out into the mountains of Syria or the deserts of South Sudan. Give me Psalm 72 any day.
But that’s where the second question comes in, a personal question. If the Palm Sunday street theatre means what Jesus meant, it challenges all his followers, then and now. The crowds may have been fickle, but they were not mistaken. The two on the road to Emmaus had hoped he would redeem Israel, and they were hoping for the right thing – God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, a this-worldly reign of justice and peace – but they had not glimpsed the means by which Jesus would bring it about. Right story, wrong king.
Sooner or later, this happens to all of us. We start out following Jesus because we think we know the story, we know what sort of king we want him to be – and then things go badly wrong, he doesn’t give us what we wanted, and we are tempted to wonder if we’ve been standing on the wrong side of town, watching the wrong procession.
Jesus warned us this would happen: we all have to live through a Holy Week, a Gethsemane, a Good Friday of one sort or another. That happens in personal life, in vocational life, as well as in public life.
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.
…Candlemas, a Christian holiday that remembers when Mary presented the Christ child at the Temple in Jerusalem and performed her purification (see below). Candlemas is also called the Festival Day of Candles, in which the parish priest would bless candles for use in the local church for the coming year and would occasionally send some of them home with his parishioners for them to use. It is one of the earliest known feasts to be celebrated by the Church.
Candlemas falls 40 days from the birth of Jesus because that is the day Mary would have completed her purification process as prescribed by the Law, which means that Candlemas always falls on February 2. It is the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox and before there ever was a Groundhog Day (also observed on February 2), tradition held that when Candlemas fell on a sunny day, there was more winter to come. But when it fell on a cloudy, wet, or stormy day, it meant that the worst of winter was over. Check out the two Candlemas poems below and see if you recognize anything familiar in them:
If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again. (Anonymous English poem)
If Candlemas day be dry and fair, The half o’ winter to come and mair, If Candlemas day be wet and foul, The half of winter’s gone at Yule. (Anonymous Scottish poem)
For you Christmas junkies out there, tradition also holds that any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 5) should be left up until Candlemas and then taken down. Candlemas also officially marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, seasons in which the Church celebrates Christ as being the light to the world.
Excerpted from his splendid little book, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed.
Purgatory, in either its classic or its modern form, provides the rationale for All Souls’ Day. This Day, now kept on 2 November, was a tenth-century Benedictine innovation. It clearly assumes a sharp distinction between the ‘saints’, who have already made it to heaven, and the ‘souls’, who haven’t, and who are therefore still, at least in theory, less than completely happy and need our help to move on from there.
The arguments regularly advanced in support of some kind of a purgatory, however modernized, do not come from the Bible. They come from the common perception that all of us up to the time of death are still sinful, and from the proper assumption that something needs to be done about this if we are (to put it crudely) to be at ease in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. The medieval doctrine of purgatory, as we saw, imagined that the ‘something’ that needed to be done could be divided into two aspects: punishment on the one hand, and purging or cleansing on the other. It is vital that we understand the biblical response to both of these.
I cannot stress sufficiently that if we raise the question of punishment for sin, this is something that has already been dealt with on the cross of Jesus [emphasis mine]. Of course, there have been crude and unbiblical versions of the doctrine of atonement, and many have rightly reacted against the idea of a vengeful God determined to punish someone and being satisfied by taking it out on his own son. But do not mistake the caricature for the biblical doctrine. Paul says, in his most central and careful statement, not that God punished Jesus, but that God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ of Jesus (Romans 8:3). Here the instincts of the Reformers, if not always their exact expressions, were spot on. The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross.
[W]hat the standard argument fails to take into account is the significance of bodily death. We have been fooled, not for the first time, by a view of death, and life beyond, in which the really important thing is the ‘soul’—something which, to many people’s surprise, hardly features at all in the New Testament. We have allowed our view of the saving of souls to loom so large that we have failed to realize that the Bible is much more concerned about bodies—concerned to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to give a clear biblical account of the disembodied state in between bodily death and bodily resurrection. That’s not what the biblical writers are trying to get us to think about—even though it is of course what many Christians have thought about to the point of obsession, including many who have thought of themselves as ‘biblical’ in their theology. But what should not be in doubt is that, for the New Testament, bodily death itself actually puts sin to an end. There may well be all kinds of sins still lingering on within us, infecting us and dragging us down. But part of the biblical understanding of death, bodily death, is that it finishes all that off at a single go.
The central passages here are Romans 6:6–7 and Colossians 2:11–13, with the picture they generate being backed up by key passages from John’s Gospel. Both of the Pauline texts are speaking of baptism. Christians are assured that their sins have already been dealt with through the death of Christ; they are now no longer under threat because of them. The crucial verse is Romans 6:7: ‘the one who has died is free from sin’ (literally, ‘is justified from sin’). The necessary cleansing from sin, it seems, takes place in two stages. First, there is baptism and faith. ‘You are already made clean’, says Jesus, ‘by the word which I have spoken to you’ (John 15:3). The word of the gospel, awakening faith in the heart, is itself the basic cleansing that we require. ‘The one who has washed’, said Jesus at the supper, ‘doesn’t need to wash again, except for his feet; he is clean all over’ (John 13:10). The ‘feet’ here seem to be representing the part of us which still, so to speak, stands on the muddy ground of this world. This is where ‘the sin which so easily gets in the way’ (Hebrews 12:1) finds, we may suppose, its opportunity.
But the glorious news is that, although during the present life we struggle with sin, and may or may not make small and slight progress towards genuine holiness, our remaining propensity to sin is finished, cut off, done with all at once, in physical death. ‘The body is dead because of sin,’ declares Paul, ‘but the spirit is life because of righteousness’ (Romans 8:10). John and Paul combine together to state the massive, central and vital doctrine which is at the heart of the Christian good news: those who believe in Jesus, though they die, yet shall they live; and those who live and believe in him will never die (John 11:25–6). Or, to put it the way Paul does: if we have died with Christ, we shall live with him, knowing that Christ being raised from the dead will not die again; and you, in him, must regard and reckon yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:8–11). ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’ (Romans 5:2).
I therefore arrive at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. This is not the final destiny for which they are bound, namely the bodily resurrection; it is a temporary resting place. Since they and we are both in Christ, we do indeed share with them in the Communion of Saints.
I respectfully suggest that is because we have collectively forgotten just what a wonderful thing the gospel is: that ‘our own departed’ are themselves ‘heroes of the faith’ just as much as Peter, Paul, Mary, James, John and the rest. What makes ‘the great ones’ great is precisely that they, too, knew human grief and frailty. The double day [All-Saints and All-Souls] splits off so-called ordinary Christians from these so-called ‘great ones’ in a way that the latter would have been the first to repudiate.
The salvation being ‘kept in heaven’ is God’s plan for the new heaven and new earth, and the new bodies of the redeemed; and this plan is safe and fresh in God’s storehouse, that is, ‘heaven’.
[T]he commemoration of All Souls, especially the way it is now done, denies to ordinary Christians—and we’re all ordinary Christians—the solid, magnificent hope of the gospel: that all baptized believers, all those in Christ in the present, all those indwelt by the Spirit, are already ‘saints’. Where did all that All Souls’ gloom come from? Are we not in danger of grieving like people without hope, instead of grieving, as Paul instructs us to do in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, like people who do have hope? There is all the difference in the world between hopeful grief and hopeless grief, and All Souls’ Day can easily encourage the latter rather than, with All Saints’ Day, the former. Many churches now put a black frontal on the altar for All Souls’ Day; where did that idea come from? Why should the service end in solemn silence? Why should we sing the Dies Irae (‘Day of wrath, that dreadful day’) for our friends and loved ones, if it is true that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? Where is the gospel there?
The Christian hope, as articulated in the New Testament, is that if you die today you won’t be in a gloomy gathering in some dismal and perhaps painful waiting-room. You won’t simply be one more step further along a steep, hard road with no end in sight. You will be with Christ in paradise; and when you see him, you won’t shout, like poor Gerontius, ‘Take me away’. You will, like Paul, be ‘with Christ, which is far better’. How can there be any sense of foreboding, for those who already know the love of God in Christ, in coming face to face with the one ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20)?