Feast of the Ascension 2020: N.T. Wright on the Ascension of Jesus

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.

— N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

—Understanding the Bible, 103.

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (1)

It is a pity that we call it ‘Ascension Day’, for the Bible speaks more of Christ’s exaltation than of his ascension. This is an interesting avenue to explore. The four great events in the saving career of Jesus are described in the Bible both actively and passively, as deeds done both by Jesus and to Jesus. Thus, we are told with reference to his birth both that he came and that he was sent; with reference to his death both that he gave himself and that he was offered; with reference to his resurrection both that he rose and that he was raised; with reference to his ascension both that he ascended and that he was exalted. If we look more closely, we shall find that in the first two cases, the active phrase is commoner: he came and died, as a deliberate, self-determined choice. But in the last two cases, the passive phrase is more common: he was raised from the tomb and he was exalted to the throne. It was the Father’s act.

—The Exaltation of Jesus (sermon on Phil. 2:9-11)

New Life in the New Creation Theology: A Testimony

From one of our bright young stars at St. Augustine’s. It’s a powerful testimony as to why there is no such thing as an isolate Christian for the love of Christ to be made fully known.

18 April 2020

When I was first introduced to the idea of the “New Heaven and New Earth,” I was resistant. Hostile, even. A perfected creation where I would live with a physical body, in a physical world very like this one? Yeah, right.

My skepticism was partly born from what I now recognize as despair. I believed that the substance of this world was so deeply broken, so deeply wretched, so enslaved to corrupting forces of sin and death, that there was no way it could be made good again. My relationships were so shot through with the misery inherent in all flesh that there was no way to fix them. Heaven was, I was sure, an ethereal place untethered from bodily existence, with no past to remember and no future to look forward to. I couldn’t possibly imagine otherwise.

I think back to that way of believing with more than a little pity for my past self. Not only did I think that God was waiting to destroy the world with fire, I also had no hope for a better future. The fact was, the “heaven” that I was taught to await was not a nice place. Eternality in a fleshless life was no less terrifying than endless darkness of death. The teachings I had received in that other, Not-to-be-Identified church told me to fear sin and avoid it (that was the extent of the spiritual life I was taught to lead); and if I avoided sin successfully enough, and believed in Jesus under very particular doctrinal constraints, then I had a fleshless, unimaginable heaven to look forward to. 

I called myself a Christian, and I desperately looked for Christ. But I lived inside of a theology that gave me no hope, no joy, and no guide for how to live in the world that Christ created. It had nothing to say about life, much less life-after-death. 

You would think that when I heard Fr Kevin talking about the New Creation, where we would live for eternity in a perfected physical world with our loved ones, I would have leapt at the idea. It should have been the clear answer shining in the darkness. But I was incredibly resistant to it. 

And that brings me to the second reason why I had trouble accepting this creation theology – because I didn’t want to be trapped in the body that I had been burdened with. It was bad enough, I thought, to be female in this life. But to be condemned to being female – and thus, in my mind, a lesser and derivative creature – for all of eternity? No way. That reeked of another male-centered theology that saw no reason why women shouldn’t want to be stuck as second-class citizens for all of time, a theology that saw no problem with telling women that their only value to God was their ability to bear children. 

The only thing I thought I could hope for, back then in that spiritually dead life I had, was to die and have the chance to be on equal footing with God’s other creatures – men – when we all got to be non-gendered, disembodied blobs together. 

How dare Fr Kevin tell me to believe in this New Creation with a “better” physical body that left me in the same position I was in before – the less loved creature? The one that God had only created to help Adam? It was well enough for him, I thought, and for all the other male theologians, to crow about a resurrection of the body, when they got to be men in the next life, and I got stuck being this. So I wasn’t having this misogynist bullshit about being created men and women, and how great marriage was (great for who? certainly not great for me), and the New Creation, and blah blah blah. 

But what Fr Kevin couldn’t convince me of with words he convinced me of with actions. Because it was around then that I started attending St Augustine’s regularly. This was the summer of 2015, I think. I had met Carl, and we talked a lot about spiritual things. As you can already tell from reading this, I was dealing with a lot of spiritual baggage (so much more than I’ve let on with these short paragraphs). And when Carl told me about his church, and what they believed, I was drawn in like a fly to honey. What, you mean ANY baptized Christian can come to communion? You’re saying the vestry has WOMEN on it?? I couldn’t believe it, and I desperately wanted to believe it. These conversations happened at the same time that the Holy Spirit in his infinite wisdom “gave the boot” from the Not-To-Be-Named Church I was previously attending; and so out I went, into the cold day of unanswered questions: Who is God? And who am I to God? 

I was troubled, deeply and painfully, for many years by a recurring thought that God had made me less by making me a female. I was told in my other church that I was not allowed to teach, not allowed to serve at the altar, not allowed preach, not allowed to read scripture or pray in front of the congregation. To do so was in violation of St Paul’s admonition that women were to be “silent in the church.” And yes, I was silent in the church, because I cry very quietly. “God loves you less,” the voice in my head told me. “God made you smart and opinionated and angry so that you could learn to tamp it down through true humility. God will love you better if you learn to be quiet; if you submit yourself to a husband; if you pop out a couple kids.”

But there was another voice, too. And that voice said, “You know the Holy Spirit kicked you out of the church that taught you that. Maybe He wants you to hear a new story, a new version of who He is and how he sees you. Follow that.”

So I followed Carl, and Fr Kevin, to St Augustine’s. I drank it in like person dying in the desert. Even when there were teachings that I wasn’t used to – Fr Kevin’s New Creation and the bodily resurrection; Fr Ric’s insistence that the “egoic mind” and its addiction to scarcity was the “flesh” that Paul talked about – I sucked it in and held it close. I was desperate for a new way of engaging with God, one that hurt less than what I’d had before. 

And if you saw me crying in the pew those first few months during communion (or even now sometimes, when gratitude overcomes me, that God brought me here, to this place, to these people), it was because I saw women standing next to men at the altar before the rest of the congregation came up front for the bread and wine. I saw smart, kind, capable women in the altar guild standing in white robes next to men. I saw women who were prayer warriors. And there they stood, equal numbers of men and women, standing together in that sacred space, as equals. 

In those early conversations with Fr Kevin, I couldn’t quite hold on to the words he gave me. The old stories about Creation and Resurrection couldn’t help me then. I couldn’t hear past the ringing in my ears that said “The Creation narrative tells you that you are only partially human, made from Adam’s rib.” But what moved me and changed me was seeing the actions: women standing next to men as equals. 

As I’ve come to know how business works at St Augustine’s, I’ve had a chance to see how men and women work together for the Kingdom of God. I’ve watched women speak up and be heard in Vestry meetings and at parish meetings. I’ve watched women lead, and teach, and talk, and be taken seriously as equals in a congregation family. I’ve come to know these women, love and admire them, as powerful forces for good in the church and in their families and communities. I’ve come to know the men in our congregation who also admire and listen to the women. And I’ve never heard anything derogatory about a woman’s participation in the life of the Church, or the life of the Spirit. Seeing that, living in that, I slowly healed. I became the marvel of calm assurance that you see before you today (please read that with the sarcasm I intend). 

I was given Special Dispensation to attend Thursday Night Men’s Group (thanks, Fr Kevin, for advocating for me), and I was treated like one of the guys. It was something I desperately wanted – just to be included with the men, as if I mattered, too – and it helped. A lot. Way more than you’d think for smoking a bunch of stinky cigars and shouting happily at each other across a noisy screened in porch. 

I’m one of those people who thinks too much. As such, I’m one of those people who thinks you can solve all your problems by thinking, by logical decision-making. So I was a bit curious when I realized that the “believing I was created as an inferior being” problem didn’t go away when I DECIDED that I no longer logically assented to the theology. Where had that voice gone, I wondered? But more importantly, why didn’t it disappear as soon as I decided I no longer agreed with that belief?

Well, there’s the short answer and the long answer. 

The short answer is this: the voice telling me God loved me less for being female was hounding me, and it began to sound less and less like “me” and more like some external force. One late night it became very pronounced, and so I exorcised it. No, not like the thing from The Exorcist. More like Alice in Wonderland, when she stamps her foot, and says “Go away!” to the Cheshire Cat. So I stamped my spiritual foot and said “Go away!” and recited some verses that state “Whatever you command in my name,” etc. etc. And it never came back to bother me again. 

The longer answer is more compelling (more compelling than casting out a demon, you may well ask?). And that is, that I needed to live in a community that practiced what it preached. I needed to be part of a group of Christians who not only said “Be fed,” but who fed me. At St Augustine’s, I participated in every aspect of the life of the church that the men did: I read scripture and prayed; I served on altar guild; I smoked cigars; I joined vestry and spoke up and was heard. And when I was more confident that I wasn’t just being relegated to “women’s work,” I helped run Godly Play and volunteered to help cook and serve meals with Faith Mission. After years of being involved in every way I can with the church and the other members, I can say “God loves me just as much as anyone else” – not through logical assent, but because I’ve lived inside of that love, equality, and acceptance. 

And this brings me to my final point: the importance of the messenger, not just the message. If we could learn everything we needed to learn from reading scriptures, then we wouldn’t need Christian community. But the fact is, God has specially ordained that the Good News of what God has done for us be spread through us. He has made us messengers. And we may not be the most eloquent, nor the most educated – Lord knows I’m neither – but he blesses our efforts to bring others into the fold. He blesses our conversations about spiritual things. He blesses our gatherings (virtual and physical). He blesses our services, our corporate prayer and worship. He blesses it when we invite a visitor to our church – however shy, awkward, and occasionally defensive or hostile she may be – into our homes, onto our porches, into the space at the altar. 

This is the community of God. This beautiful, weird, imperfect, loving family is the first-fruits of the promises of God. I couldn’t believe in the physical resurrection until I experienced a church family that valued me, despite my being a woman. I couldn’t believe in the New Creation until I experienced a church family that showed me that altruistic relationships were possible (if still to be perfected) in the next life. 

Back in the summer of 2015, I stood on a street corner – physically and metaphysically – and begged God for Christian friends and a Christian community. And the greatest evidence that I have that God loves me and gives good gifts is that he brought me to St Augustine’s. Thanks God. I love you weirdos. 

Reflections for Easter Week: Helping You Focus on Christ and Heavenly Realities—Saturday

Your daily dose of encouragement to seek Christ and the things of heaven during the midst of pandemic and fear.

Reading for Saturday of Easter Week: 1 Corinthians 15.51-59

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

Today we conclude our look at St. Paul’s masterful teaching about the resurrection of the dead. He begins by reminding us that resurrection is fundamentally about transformation: from death to life, from decay to vitality, from darkness to light, all made possible by the love and power of God the Father made known in the saving work of God the Son.

God’s new world will come in full in an instant and those who are still living when Christ returns to finish his saving work and finally judge all evil and evildoers, human and spiritual, will find their mortal bodies transformed along with the dead who are raised to new life. So whether living or dead, for those who belong to Christ, the end result is life eternal.

Again St. Paul tells us that Death is the last enemy to be conquered. We looked at his reasoning on Wednesday. Here he reminds us that immortal bodies along with God’s new world have always been God’s intention for his creation and creatures, especially his image-bearing creatures. God created everything good and intends to rescue and restore it, humans included. It’s the overarching story of Scripture. Our rebellion would have undone us permanently had it not been for the great love and mercy of God our Father who sent his only Son (or became human) to die for us so that God could finally undo death. For those who belong to Christ, the power of Sin cannot and will not prevail. Our future is secured. At the resurrection of the dead the last enemy is defeated and God’s saving work will be completed, thanks be to God!! (As a sidebar for you pet lovers, given the transformative nature of God’s new world, I see no reason why the non-human creatures that we loved will not also be present in the new heavens and earth. The logic of new creation points to it, even if Scripture for the most part remains silent about it. After all, animals belong to the created order and God has declared his intention to redeem and restore the entire created order, not just parts of it.)

But here’s the punchline. Notice carefully how St. Paul concludes his teaching on the resurrection. He doesn’t tell us to party like it’s the end time or focus entirely on the future, massively important as that is. No, St. Paul tells us to be strong and immovable, always working enthusiastically as God’s people because we know that nothing we ever do for the sake of Christ is ever useless or in vain (v.59). What a remarkable conclusion! St. Paul reminds us here that we are to leverage our future hope to help us live faithfully in a world surrounded by darkness and infested by human folly, sin, and the powers of Evil. Of course there are glimpses of God’s truth, beauty, love, and goodness all around. We can’t look at the beauty of nature or human relationships when they operate as God intended and not see that. But there is also much that corrupts and destroys the goodness of God’s world and our lives. St. Paul knows that it can overwhelm us and cause us to fall away from our faith in Christ. Don’t let that happen, he warns. You can’t always see or know the good you do in Christ’s name and for his sake. Don’t let it discourage you because your present and future are secure, and nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate you from the love of God made known in Jesus Christ our Lord (see Romans 8.31-39).

Of all the things St. Paul has talked about, this last verse might be most practical in helping us cope with the darkness of pandemic and our lives. Don’t give up hope. Don’t fall into despair. Keep on being faithful, even when it looks like nothing is happening. Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and Death is defeated. We can’t see that yet either, but we know it’s coming! So trust God based on an informed faith. Think about and ponder this hope that is yours. Talk to other Christians about how to encourage and support and love each other during these dark days. And then get to work because you know the world in which you live is important to God, who has moved to heal and redeem it through the power of suffering love. Get to work, even in the face of the darkness that confronts you, because you know that nothing you do in the name of the Lord is ever wasted or in vain, thanks be to God! Christos Anesti. Alithos Anesti!

Reflections for Easter Week: Helping You Focus on Christ and Heavenly Realities—Friday

Your daily dose of encouragement to seek Christ and the things of heaven during the midst of pandemic and fear.

Reading for Friday of Easter Week: 1 Corinthians 15.35-50

35 But someone may ask, “How will the dead be raised? What kind of bodies will they have?” 36 What a foolish question! When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. 37 And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. 38 Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have. A different plant grows from each kind of seed. 39 Similarly there are different kinds of flesh—one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.

40 There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. 41 The sun has one kind of glory, while the moon and stars each have another kind. And even the stars differ from each other in their glory.

42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.

45 The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit. 46 What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. 47 Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. 48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man.49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.

50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.

Today we come to the heart of St. Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of the body. St. Paul begins by asking the skeptic’s question: How are the dead raised, i.e., how can God possibly do that? We just can’t imagine it! What about, e.g., those whose bodies have been obliterated or lost at sea so there are no tangible remains? What about those who have been cremated? What a foolish question, St. Paul declares. Just because you can’t imagine resurrection doesn’t mean God doesn’t have the power to accomplish it. After all, God is the God who creates things out of nothing (the cosmos) and raises the dead to life (Romans 4.17), Jesus being the most important example! What is too hard for God to accomplish? In other words, St. Paul tells us that resurrection is God’s problem, not ours, and we shouldn’t worry about how God will pull off the resurrection of the dead and transform the old creation into the new. God has promised to do it in raising Christ from the dead and God will accomplish what he promises, so chill out, baby. St. Paul then continues his argument for bodily resurrection by declaring that there are different types of bodies in the created order. He is laying the foundation to talk about the difference between our present mortal bodies (psychikon soma) versus our future spiritual bodies. Below I post a short video by Dr. Ben Witherington, where he explains clearly and concisely what St. Paul meant by a “spiritual body” (pneumatikon soma). Listen to him now.

What I want to reemphasize here is that when St. Paul speaks of resurrection he is clearly speaking about bodily resurrection and affirming the goodness of the created order. Our mortal bodies will die because we all belong to Adam and have been afflicted and enslaved by the power of Sin, which leads to our mortal death. If you have ever seen a dead human body before the undertaker has prepared it for viewing, you know exactly what St. Paul is talking about when he speaks of our mortal bodies being buried in weakness and brokenness. I had never seen a dead body outside a funeral home until I served as a chaplain intern in preparation for my ordination to the priesthood. I’ll never forget the night I was called to the hospital to attend to a person to whom I had ministered in life who had just died. It was night, which only added to my apprehension as I walked into the dimly-lit room to see the person’s dead body lying there. An awful look had come over it, like an alien and hostile force had taken ahold of it, and I hardly recognized the person. I observed an ugliness that had never been there in life. It was very disconcerting and I realized that this is not what God ever intended for his image-bearers. Had it not been for me knowing that this saint was safely with the Lord and that the person’s mortal body would be raised and healed and transformed into a thing of astonishing beauty, even more beautiful than the person’s mortal body had been, I would have become completely unnerved and overwhelmed by what confronted me. I experienced first-hand what St. Paul was talking about in the passage above about the weakness and brokenness of our mortal bodies. Death is not pretty. It is not our friend, but our enemy.

But thanks be to God we also belong to Christ by baptism and faith so that we can look forward to having resurrected bodies like our crucified and risen Lord has now. Those bodies will be adapted for immortality because God’s new creation will be eternal when it comes in full at Christ’s return. In telling us that mortal bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (the new creation when it comes in full), St. Paul is not denigrating bodily existence. He knew bodies matter to God! St. Paul is simply affirming that what is temporary (our mortal body) is not suited or equipped to inhabit that which is permanent and eternal (the new creation). Our mortal bodies die because we belong to Adam. Or resurrection bodies will never die because we belong to Christ.

As we are bombarded with news about COVID-19 and the rising death count, how can you use this passage from 1 Corinthians 15 to help you keep perspective and prevent you from falling into fear and despair? Perhaps the story I shared with you will also help guide your reflections. Think through what Paul is saying and then talk about it with fellow Christians. It is critical that we answer these questions. In doing so, we will find God gives us new power and resolve during this time of death and despair. Keep your focus where it should be—on Christ’s love, light, and power. Christos Anesti!

Tomorrow: Conclusion—1 Corinthians 15.51-59

Reflections for Easter Week: Helping You Focus on Christ and Heavenly Realities—Thursday

Your daily dose of encouragement to seek Christ and the things of heaven during the midst of pandemic and fear.

Reading for Thursday of Easter Week: 1 Corinthians 15.29-34

29 If the dead will not be raised, what point is there in people being baptized for those who are dead? Why do it unless the dead will someday rise again?

30 And why should we ourselves risk our lives hour by hour? 31 For I swear, dear brothers and sisters, that I face death daily. This is as certain as my pride in what Christ Jesus our Lord has done in you. 32 And what value was there in fighting wild beasts—those people of Ephesus—if there will be no resurrection from the dead? And if there is no resurrection, “Let’s feast and drink, for tomorrow we die!”33 Don’t be fooled by those who say such things, for “bad company corrupts good character.” 34 Think carefully about what is right, and stop sinning. For to your shame I say that some of you don’t know God at all.

So far in this chapter, St. Paul has laid out the historical basis of Christ’s resurrection and the certainly of the future hope of resurrection for those who belong to Christ. Here he gives two more examples in support of his argument. Whatever was behind the purpose of being baptized for the dead—this is the only reference to it in the NT and other ancient Christian literature—we mustn’t let it distract our focus on resurrection. St. Paul mentions it simply to reinforce his argument that Christ has been raised from the dead and that the Christian hope of resurrection is based on that reality. If Christ isn’t raised, why conduct baptism by proxy for the dead? Makes no sense.

Likewise, if Christ isn’t raised and our future resurrection isn’t assured, why would St. Paul risk his own life and suffer what he had endured for the sake of proclaiming a false gospel (as some of his opponents had claimed in denying the resurrection) that Jesus Christ was crucified and raised from the dead to announce the forgiveness of sins and the partial in-breaking of God’s new world on the old? We could ask ourselves the same question. As we saw previously, if there is no resurrection, we have no hope for a real future beyond our mortal life and we’d better be about grabbing all the gusto and fun we can selfishly hoard (toilet paper anyone?) because our days are numbered.

St. Paul then scolds those in the church at Corinth (not unbelievers outside the church) who have caved to the cynical darkness of the world and taught wrongly and falsely that there is no resurrection of the dead. Those people, roars St. Paul, do not know God at all! To add to their foolishness and folly, they are trying to bring down others by denying the bodily resurrection of Christ. Yikes! If that is not enough to make us shudder as Christians, I don’t know what can.

Here’s an example that I hope illustrates what St. Paul is talking about. I read yesterday that a famous preacher in Virginia had died from COVID-19 after refusing to stay at home and preaching that “God is larger than this dreaded virus.” One of the commenters on the story sneered that karma was greater than the pastor’s God. I do not comment on the pastor’s decision. He has paid for it with his life; may he rest In peace and rise in glory. What I do comment on is the commenter’s sneering remark because it reflects pretty well the ethos of the world of Adam, the current Age in which we live, an age where the world is fundamentally hostile to God. When I read it I wondered how karma will work out for him on his deathbed as clearly he didn’t have a clue about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has the power to create things out of nothing and raise the dead (Romans 4.17). Despite his tragic mistake, the Virginia pastor has a future awaiting him. The sneering commenter? Not so much unless he abandons his foolishness, and I pray to God that he will. This is what St. Paul is getting at in this section of 1 Corinthians 15. We have been given a great gift and treasure in the hope and promise of resurrection. Let us not feed our pearls to the pigs, but instead pray for those who do not have the treasure for themselves. The resurrection for St. Paul and countless other Christians over time and across cultures has made all the difference in the world for them and how they live(d) their lives.

How do you make your resurrection faith real as you cope with this pandemic? What makes you want to abandon it or deny the reality of your future? What do you do when that happens to resist the temptation? Think these questions through and talk to others about it. Encourage each other as needed. Doing so will help you refocus where your attention should be, on God’s new world, not the darkness of this world, and you will discover God’s blessings afresh. Christos Anesti!

Tomorrow: 1 Corinthians 15.35-50

Reflections for Easter Week: Helping You Focus on Christ and Heavenly Realities—Wednesday

Your daily dose of encouragement to seek Christ and the things of heaven during the midst of pandemic and fear.

Reading for Wednesday of Easter Week: 1 Corinthians 15.20-28

20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back.

24 After that the end will come, when he will turn the Kingdom over to God the Father, having destroyed every ruler and authority and power. 25 For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. 26 And the last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For the Scriptures say, “God has put all things under his authority.” (Of course, when it says “all things are under his authority,” that does not include God himself, who gave Christ his authority.) 28 Then, when all things are under his authority, the Son will put himself under God’s authority, so that God, who gave his Son authority over all things, will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere.

St. Paul has built a case for the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection in the previous verses. Now he draws his conclusion. There’s going to be a general resurrection of the dead and Christ’s resurrection signals that reality. In other words, there’s going to be a new physical reality beyond the scope of history. Why is that important? Because the world is tied to Adam and its end is death and destruction. Why? Because everyone sins, which alienates us from God and excludes our presence with his. The profane (fallen humanity) does not fare well when it meets the holy (God). We, like our first ancestor Adam, are fundamentally flawed and have become slaves to the power of Sin; and as St. Paul writes elsewhere, sin leads to death. Without help from an outside Power, the world of Adam of which we are a part is bound to lead to suffering, sorrow, alienation, decay, and ultimately death. We see it swirling around and within us all the time. COVID-19 is a classic example of what’s wrong with Adam’s world, the current world in which we live. This is where the world and our lives are headed without outside intervention.

Fortunately there is a power greater than the power of Sin: The love and power of God made known to us in Jesus Christ and him crucified. Those who belong to Christ, who by baptism and faith believe him to be the Son of God and the Resurrection and the Life (John 11.25-26), will share in his risen life, even though our mortal body must die (because we formerly belonged to Adam).

But here’s the kicker for St. Paul. While most first-century Jews believed in a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, nobody expected or anticipated a one-off event in the middle of history—until Christ arose from the dead, that is. So here we see St. Paul adjusting his theology to match the new reality that Christ has been raised from the dead to inaugurate and give us a glimpse of God’s new world and new life, all made possible by his death on the cross. He tells us that when Christ returns to usher in God’s new creation in full with its abolition of all things evil including Sin and Death, those who belong to Christ will be raised to new life.

The course of history, says St. Paul, has been radically altered from death to life.

Heaven and earth will be joined together and the goodness of God’s original creation will be restored, only on steroids. We can’t imagine what this looks like because it comes from God’s realm, heaven (that’s why we are to put our focus there). Whatever it looks like, it will reflect the love, beauty, and power of God, just as God’s current world partially reflects these things. Sins will be forgiven forever, memories and bodies healed, all things destructive will be banned so as not to harm us or God’s creation ever again (see Revelation 21.1-8). We can only imagine—and hope with eager anticipation.

But why is Death the last enemy to be destroyed? Because until Christ returns to raise the dead, folks are still dead! To be sure, the souls of the dead who belong to Christ are resting with him in heaven right now, aware of his loving presence (cf. Philippians 1.23-24), but until they are reunited with their body, they are still dead. Here we find another robust endorsement of the created order and a very high view of human beings. Bodies matter to the Lord! He created them and has redeemed them in Christ’s death (Romans 8.1-4), and he intends to restore them one day to their full glory at the resurrection of the dead. But until all the components that make us human are reunited, we are still dead and death still remains.

How can the promise of new creation and new indestructible bodies help you understand the importance of your own humanity in this life? How can the promise of an evil-free and perfect world where you can finally enjoy life fully as God created and intended for it to be help you cope with the darkness of your life? Why is the prospect of new creation so much better and more exciting than existing in a disembodied state for all eternity? How can the hope of resurrection and new creation help you cope during this pandemic with all its attendant bad news? Apply St. Paul’s teaching today to these questions. Think about it and reflect on it with other Christians and expect God to bless you as you do. After all, the blessing itself is a sign of new life in the midst of a death-dealing world! Christos Anesti!

Tomorrow: 1 Corinthians 15.29-34

Reflections for Easter Week: Helping You Focus on Christ and Heavenly Realities—Tuesday

Your daily dose of encouragement to seek Christ and the things of heaven during the midst of pandemic and fear. If yesterday you missed why I’m do this, you can read about it here.

Reading for Tuesday of Easter Week: 1 Corinthians 15.12-19

12 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? 13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. 15 And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 18 In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! 19 And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.

As we saw yesterday, resurrection is hard for us to imagine because it comes from God, not humans, and so it shouldn’t surprise us to see that even in St. Paul’s day there were folks who struggled to believe that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. Here he tells us that our future resurrection is based on the fact that Christ is raised from the dead because our life here and hereafter are inextricably linked to his. No resurrection for Jesus, no resurrection for his followers.

Second, if the resurrection is a myth, then the things St. Paul and the other apostles had been preaching about the saving power of the cross were a lie. Without the resurrection, Jesus would have died the death of a common criminal and the cross would have remained a sign of shame and degradation rather than of God’s forgiveness, healing, and redemption of our sins and brokenness. If that were the case, then our sins have not been forgiven and we remain hostile and alienated from God. The trajectory of this world and our mortal life remains decay and death. We have no hope, no future. We are dead people walking.

Third, if we have no hope or future, we are living a lie and those who preached Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead are liars themselves. They lied about God, about life, and about death. No Good News there.

And finally, if there is no resurrection, anyone who follows Christ with his demand to us to deny ourselves and take up our cross is a fool and should be pitied. If we have no future other than this mortal life, we’d better be grabbing for all the gusto we can get (and other earthly things) before we die. With no real future, self-giving love is a farce and a delusion.

St. Paul’s point is that the resurrection was the course-changing event in history. It proclaims that we have a future and that even though we suffer mortal death and are afflicted by all kinds of evil, our future is life, not death. That’s why we have hope, the sure and certain expectation of things to come. We have this sure and certain expectation because we believe that Christ is alive, and because he is, we are taught that those who follow him are promised a share in both his life and death.

How can/does this hope (the sure and certain expectation of resurrected life in God’s new world) help mitigate the death dealing news of COVID-19 or other death dealing events in your life? What signs of new creation and new life do you see breaking through around you? Think it over and think it through. Then talk to other Christians and see what you come up with. This is keeping your focus on Christ and things of heaven. God in his grace and love for you will surely bless your efforts.

Tomorrow: 1 Corinthians 15.20-28

Reflections for Easter Week: Helping You Focus on Christ and Heavenly Realities—Monday

Yesterday in my sermon I talked about the practical advice St. Paul gave us to help keep us focused on the reality and promise of bodily resurrection, especially during these dark days of pandemic. This is what the apostle said:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand.Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.

Colossians 3.1-4

It is easy for us to be uplifted during worship where we set our sights on the love and goodness and justice of God made known supremely in Christ and the realities of God’s space (heaven), and then get bogged down with the realities of the world after worship is over. But Christians are people of power and freedom, and we can choose to think about (or focus our attention on) things of heaven anytime we choose, things, e.g., that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable.

One way for us to focus our attention on the truth of the heavenly reality of bodily resurrection that will be part and parcel of God’s new heavens and earth is to read and reflect on Scripture that talks about resurrection. During Easter Week, Common Worship’s Daily Lectionary assigns readings from St. Paul’s masterful treatise on resurrection found in 1 Corinthians 15. So to help you focus your attention on Christ and the heavenly realities this week, I offer you the assigned reading each day along with a very brief reflection. I use the NLT version of Scripture. Feel free to use your favorite translation if the NLT doesn’t float your boat. May God bless you and encourage you, may God equip you to be his resurrection peeps as you do.

Reading for Monday of Easter Week: 1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.

10 But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results. For I have worked harder than any of the other apostles; yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace. 11 So it makes no difference whether I preach or they preach, for we all preach the same message you have already believed.

It is hard for us to imagine bodily resurrection because resurrection doesn’t originate from the human realm; it comes from God. For us to believe in bodily resurrection we must be convinced that it is rooted in human history, that Jesus of Nazareth really was crucified, died, and buried, and that he rose again on the third day. Here St. Paul reminds us of the historical basis of the resurrection. First, he tells us that Christ died for our sins, a conclusion the early Church drew based on the reality of the Resurrection. Why is that important? Because when Christ died for our sins he made those who believed in him ready to live in God’s direct presence in God’s new world. This is why Christ’s death and resurrection mark the turning point in history. Up to that time, our world and all that is in it were sin-corrupted and afflicted by the power of Evil, destined for decay, corruption, and death. We had no hope of ever living in God’s presence and enjoying sweet fellowship with him as our first ancestors did before they rebelled against him in paradise (Genesis 3). So the present age’s trajectory was decay and death before Christ.

But God changed all that by becoming human and dying for us to atone for our sins, thereby making it possible for us to be reconciled to him and ready to live in his promised new world. As we’ve just seen, Christ died for our sins as the Scriptures said he would. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God gave us a glimpse of life in God’s new world and proclaimed to us in this mighty act of power that Death would ultimately be defeated. The trajectory of God’s good but corrupted creation and our mortal lives therefore changed from death to life. This is news, my beloved. Good News. That’s why we call it the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ. Everything has changed. To be sure, Sin and Death are still awful realities in this world and the power of Evil still makes itself known all too regularly. But for those who have a real relationship with Christ, our destiny is no longer death but life, bodily life, not some spiritual existence. In Christ’s death and resurrection God affirms and honors our humanity. And why wouldn’t he? After all, God made us in his own image to run his good world (see Genesis 1-2)!

St. Paul then established that the resurrection isn’t some made up baloney or a figment of human imagination. He tells us that he had passed on a well-established oral tradition, carefully preserved from the beginning so that future generations who weren’t eyewitnesses could be taught about this mighty and totally unexpected act of power and grace on God’s part. There were all kinds of eyewitnesses who had seen Jesus after his resurrection, including Paul. This was an event so important that those eyewitnesses made sure that their testimony would be transmitted faithfully and accurately to future generations after the eyewitnesses had died.

This was St. Paul’s point. The resurrection happened. It was an historical fact and reality, unbelievable as it sounded. It really was too good, but it was also true, which made it even better! How can that knowledge help lift and strengthen you to face the death-dealing stories that come from COVID-19? Think on these things today as they apply to your life and your situation and then talk it over with other Christians. As you do, know that you are focusing on things of heaven and God will surely bless your efforts.

Tomorrow: 1 Corinthians 15.12-19.

Holy Week 2020: Good Friday: Jesus Remember Me

One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”

But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23.39-43).

NLT

Today is Good Friday, the most sacred day of the year and the turning point in history. Yet here we are in the midst of plague and it certainly doesn’t feel like today is the turning point of anything. Why is it the turning point? Because God himself has moved to redeem us from our slavery to the power of Sin. Our sin got us booted from paradise as our first ancestors arrogantly sought to be equal to God. Today the Son of God makes our reentrance into paradise possible. He does so in complete agreement and perfect obedience to God the Father’s will, and by giving up his equality with God in utter humility so that we might be saved.

On the cross, Jesus, God become human, is giving himself for us in self-sacrificial love to end our alienation from God and deal a decisive blow to the dark powers. This has always been enigmatic and paradoxical to us. It doesn’t look like Jesus is reigning as king from the cross. It doesn’t look like the evil powers have been defeated. It looks just the opposite! And it often looks that way in our lives and the world in which we live. With the powers of Evil so active, how can our Christian faith proclaim the defeat of these dark powers? We aren’t told how it all works, just that the powers of Evil have been defeated. Listen to St. Paul:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins.  He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15).

NLT

St. Paul wrote these words while he was languishing in a prison dungeon because he was an apostle for Christ! He of all people knew the evil and suffering the dark powers could inflict on the saints of God. Yet he still maintained that on the cross our slavery to Sin had been broken. Certainly not completely during this mortal life as we all can attest, but we believe that despite the darkness around us and within us, we are truly free because we believe that the cross of Christ is the power of God, the only power that can free us from our slavery. Reality isn’t always perceived by our senses and the world’s wisdom is foolishness to God. May God be gracious to us and give us the wisdom and humility to have ears to hear and hearts/minds believe this astonishing truth.

At the foot of the cross, we also find God’s forgiveness for the evil and folly we have committed in our lives. Like the repentant criminal dying next to Jesus, we believe that in Christ’s death we see the love of God being poured out for us so that we are spared God’s perfect justice and judgment on our sins, and we dare cry out to our Lord, asking him to remember us. Remember me, Jesus. Because if you don’t, my mortal life will be over before I know it and I will return to dust, desolate and bereft in my grave, and unremembered after only a few short years, perhaps a fate as awful as your judgment on my sins.

We cry to our merciful Lord to save us and remember us even though we don’t deserve such love and grace because we believe in the love of God shown us today. Like the repentant criminal, we dare believe that we will hear Christ’s promise to us that on the day of our death we will be with him in paradise to await our new bodies to live in God’s new world. St. Paul boldly proclaims this above. St. Luke tells us this in the exchange between Jesus and the repentant criminal and in the larger story of Christ’s passion. Earlier he tells us that Pilate had released Barabbas, a known terrorist, instead of Jesus. The innocent is condemned and the guilty go free. That sounds about right, but in telling us this, St. Luke reminds us that even in the darkness, God’s saving power is at work. Christ has stepped into the breach to die for us so that we can live. We may not be terrorists like Barabbas was, but none of us on our own merits is able to live in the perfect holiness of God’s presence—until today, until Christ’s death, thanks be to God!

During this time of pestilence, this is worthy of our best contemplation, our deepest mourning, and our most joyful and profound thanks to God the Father, whose great love for us in Christ surpasses our own poor expectations, hopes, and fears. This is why we call this particular Friday “Good.”

Holy Week 2020: Maundy Thursday

When the time came, Jesus and the apostles sat down together at the table. Jesus said, “I have been very eager to eat this Passover meal with you before my suffering begins. For I tell you now that I won’t eat this meal again until its meaning is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.”

Then he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. Then he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. For I will not drink wine again until the Kingdom of God has come.”

He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you (Luke 22.14-20).

NLT

On the Sunday of the Passion we looked at the reasons the cross of Christ is our only hope for enjoying life with God forever and how it offers us power to rejoice along with our lamenting. The crucified Son of God is the living embodiment that God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life forever (John 3.16).

Tonight we will observe Maundy Thursday. Maundy is derived from the Latin word, mandatum, meaning to mandate. What is our Lord mandating us to do? First, he gave us a supper, the bread and the wine, to teach us the meaning of his impending death. There is a reason Jesus chose Passover to die. Enigmatically his death buys our freedom from our slavery to the power of Sin, even as our freedom remains only partial in this mortal life.

Christ is also going to the cross to bear the sins of the entire world, your sin and mine, to spare us from God’s awful judgment on our evil. When we come to the table to receive Christ’s body and blood by faith, we have a living reminder that Christ is with us, both in the bread and wine we consume, and in his promise to us that we are participants in his eternal kingdom, not after we die, but right now. So we have a mandate to feed on Christ’s body and blood.

And as participants in his kingdom, how are we to be good citizens? By following his example of sacrificial love for all. We have the mandate to deny our selfish desires, take up our cross in suffering love, and follow our Lord wherever and however he calls us. We are to embody his crucified love for others, difficult as that can be at times. Christ showed us this when he washed his disciples’ feet that night in the Upper Room. Doing so was another tangible sign that we are made clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and we are therefore to serve others to bring Christ’s love to them.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. Bring your hurts, your fears, your sorrows, your disappointments, and your deep longing to be loved and have life to the table tonight. Feed on our Lord’s body and blood by faith with thanksgiving that you are loved and claimed by God the Father whose love is simply not fathomable, but whose love for you is real nevertheless. You have Christ’s holy meal that points you to the cross as the Father’s living testimony about his great and undeserved love for you. Give thanks for that love, even in the midst of this terrible plague that besets us. Christ is our peace. God forbid we fail to take the gift offered us.

Your sins cost God dearly. But God in Christ shows you that you are worth reclaiming, despite your rebellion and stubbornness and pride. Come to the Table with a thankful heart for the gift of life God gives you in Christ and find your reconciliation with the Author of all life as well as his peace. Then prepare yourself to kneel at the foot of the cross on Good Friday with sorrow and gratitude. See your Lord give his life so that you can live and find the healing we all need. Doing so anticipates the great Easter feast.