I took this final statement in the Nicene Creed as my text for Easter Sunday and I preached the same message on the Sunday after Easter at the evening service. In preparing for this sermon I drew on material in Tom Wright’s book, “Surprised by hope”. These are my preaching notes.
Easter is for me the greatest celebration of the year. Christmas is fun, and of course it is in the middle of our summer holiday time and friends and family flood into Cape Town. But Easter and the fact that Jesus rose again on the third day and appeared to his disciples shared meals with them, showed them his hands and side, prepared a fish braai at the edge of the lake, does this amazing walking Bible study with Cleopas and his friend as they walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, confronts Saul (Paul) on his way to arrest Christians and turns his life around, is quite simply staggering. Jesus rose from the dead, he overcame death. It is so amazing it is hard to believe. It is so amazing that it is hard to get our minds around it.
But lets try. It is important that we do because our hope for the future and how we behave and live out our lives now as followers of Jesus depends on it.
The last line of the Nicene Creed – which is the ancient statement of the Christian faith that was adopted by the General Council of the Church in Nicaea in 325 and accepted as the statement of Orthodox Christian belief by the Universal Church down the centuries – reads ...
“We look for (or we believe in) the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”
But what exactly does that mean?
There is much confusion today in the church about what happens to people when they die. But actually the New Testament is crystal clear on the subject.
Paul speaks in Romans 8:23 of “the redemption of our bodies”.
Rom 8,23 (TNIV) Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
There is no room for doubt about what he means: God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, which will be a fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life.
The confusion in the church today about the hope we as Christian have set before us and has arisen as result of the creep of Greek Platonic dualism into the way we view the world.
Simply explained Greek Platonic thought has a two-structured world.
There is the world we live in – a world of physical objects that are imperfect and impermanent and mere shadows of the real world of forms and ideas that is permanent and unchanging. The result is that there is a downgrading of the value and importance of this world and our bodies.
So the picture that most people, certainly those of us in the Western world, have, is that when people die they leave this impermanent corrupt world and discard their imperfect bodies and go to heaven - which is way out there beyond the blue or certainly up there in the clouds, with or without an abundant supply harps.
Or they go to hell – and here our thinking is informed more by the ghastly images of Dante’s Inferno and eight stages of hell, than by the New Testament.
Never mind the hell bit – the heaven bit is way off line and a distortion and diminishing of our Christian hope as given us in Scripture.
But we are so attuned to a Greek way of thinking and seeing the world that we don’t realise it. Consequently we miss out on what the Scriptures – with a Hebraic worldview – are trying to tell us.
For example look at Phil 3:20. Paul writes to Philippians and urges his readers not to live as enemies of Christ whose minds are set earthly things.
Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,
“… our citizenship is in heaven”
What do you think he means?
With a Greek dualism in our thinking the default is to presume that this earth is a bad place to be – it is not our home and engaging in in earthly things is bad, and one day we will retire to heaven when we have finished our work here.
But the rest of the verse – which is a new sentence in the English - dispels that sort of thinking …
And we eagerly await a Saviour from there (heaven), the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform our present humble body into a glorious body like his own; and he will do this by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control.
So here is the rub. The risen body of Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body
and it is the means by which it comes.
Easter instructs about, and reminds us of, this great truth declared in our Creed.
The resurrection body of Jesus moved, ate, drank, touched and was touched, spoke and lived here on this earth.
Paul lists a number of the resurrection appearances in our NT lesson (1 Cor 15:4ff).
Jesus was raised on the third day and he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
And he does not mention all those wonderful resurrection Gospel readings…
Jesus appears to Mary in the garden.
He appears to the disciples in the upper room and asks for something to eat.
He shows has hands and side to doubting Thomas and tells him to touch and see the wounds in his hands and side.
He does a walking Bible study with Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus.
He shares a fish braai with Peter on the others on the edge of the lake.
And Paul says (1 Cor 15:20) that Jesus’ resurrection body is for us the first fruits – it is a foretaste of what awaits us – of what is promised.
His resurrection body is the model – it is the prototype of what we are to expect.
In Colossians 3:3-4 Paul says …
3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
He does not say, one day you will go to be with him.
No; you already possess life in him. This new life which the Christian possesses secretly (“your life is hidden with Christ in God” – it is invisible to the world) this life will burst forth into full bodily visible reality.
Listen to this … Romans 8:11
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit - to a “non-physical body”, which is what many think he is referring to when he speaks of a “spiritual body”. No; he will give life to your mortal body.
And it is not just Paul among the New Testament writers who bare witness to this truth. John declares in his first letter (1 John 3:2)
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
The resurrection body of Jesus, which to us is almost unimaginable in its glory and power, will be the model for our own resurrection bodies. John’s words “we will be like him” are staggering in their implications.
I can only imagine that when we are no longer bound by time and space limitations we will see and understand things better, but for now to get our minds around this within our time space limitations, Tom Wright, whose book Surprised by Hope I have been drawing on, says we have to hold onto a two-stage process in what happens to us when we die.
Bishop Tom Wright, who some suggest could be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, is articulating what the church has stated as orthodox belief down the centuries.
What do we mean by a two-stage process?
When Jesus said
“in my Father’s House are many dwelling places and I am going there to prepare a place for you”
– a passage that is often read and used to bring comfort to the bereaved in the context of a funeral service - the word Jesus used (”dwelling places”) in its original language was not the word for a final resting place but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run. It was a stop off along the way.
Just hold that thought. And now consider the conversation that Jesus has with the thief on the cross in Luke’s account of the passion. Jesus says the man … (Luke 23:43)
“Today you will be with me paradise”
The paradise to which Jesus refers is clearly not his final destination. Jesus did not rise from the dead on Good Friday.
Some Jewish writings suggest that Paradise was a place of resting refreshment and tranquil waiting for the dawn of the Day of the Lord, for the Day of Resurrection, when the dead will rise and put on their new bodies, bodies like Jesus’ resurrection body and see him as he is.
And it is interesting that the thief says to Jesus,
“Remember me when you come in your kingdom”
… implying that this will be in some far off distant future. But Jesus’ answer brings this future hope right into the present.
“Today you will be with me paradise”
There will still be a future completion of and full establishment of his Kingdom involving the ultimate resurrection. But he said to the dying man beside him that, that very day – at a time prior to the resurrection, he would be with Jesus in paradise.
So the hope we have as we die in the Lord is that we will be with him at once. Paul after all says … (Phil 1:23)
My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
But “The resurrection of the dead” – which we affirm in our Creeds,
is just that – it is the resurrection of the dead on the great Day of the Lord.
It is not another way of talking about “life after death”.
So when we declare in our Creed that we …
”Look for the resurrection of the dead”,
… we are saying that we look forward to the resurrection of these mortal bodies – to a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death – call it Paradise (that is what Jesus did).
But resurrection refers, Tom Wright says, to life after “life after death” – when God’s Kingdom is fully established here on earth.
The locale of his fully established Kingdom, according to Rev 21, is right here on earth – not way up there beyond the blue in some other Platonic non-physical world of forms and ideas.
So while we can say that when people die in the Lord they go to heaven – meaning that they will be with the Lord. It can lead us to make incorrect assumptions and weakens the hope we have, and as we will see in a moment, the imperative for mission.
Let me give you another example. Look at 1 Peter 1:3-5
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
With a Greek way of thinking the automatic assumption made is that heaven is where we go to receive our inheritance – our salvation. So salvation and the inheritance we have is something that happens to us – it is something we get, - when we die.
Heaven is, after all according to the Greek Plutonic worldview, something other than and disconnected with this world. It is somewhere way up there beyond the blue, where “the form” or “the idea” of those we love and who have died now reside.
But “Heaven” is actually a reverend way of speaking about God.
So Matthew uses the term “Kingdom of heaven” where as
Luke uses the term “Kingdom of God”.
So “riches in heaven” simply means “riches in God’s presence”.
So saying that our inheritance is kept in heaven is saying that our inheritance is kept in God. It is kept safe by God, but it is for us now in this world in this life and on into the next.
Through faith we are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
So if, as Peter says, “salvation is kept for us in heaven” – if heaven is where God’s purposes for the future are stored up, it isn’t where they are meant to stay, so that one would need to go to heaven to enjoy them. It is where they are kept safe for the day they will become a reality on earth. This is where they are going to be felt, experienced and enjoyed.
The point is this - our present bodily life is not valueless just because our bodies are going to die. God will raise this body to new life. So what I do with this body matters. God has a great future in store for it.
Paul argues in 1 Cor 6, when he addresses the subject of sexual immorality, we should honour God with our bodies.
What we do with these bodies matters because they are going to be resurrected. So the resurrection of the body has implications for personal ethics and morality.
It also has implications for what we do vocationally with our lives. What you do in the present – by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, creating jobs, addressing poverty, championing justice, writing poems, caring for the sick, loving your neighbour as yourself – all these things will last into God’s future.
They are not just ways in which we occupy ourselves and make life a little more bearable, until the day we leave this all behind and are “called home” – as some of the songs we sing unhelpfully express it.
This earth is our home – and it will be our final home – made new and redeemed. What we, in the Lord, give ourselves to now, matters – it is all part of building and working for God’s kingdom.
There is a wonderful verse from Rev 14 – verse 13, which we use at the end of the funeral service. And I admit there was a time when my narrow understanding of salvation made me feel uncomfortable reading it. But it is amazingly relevant. Rev 14:13 is read at the end of the funeral service after the committal.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say,
“Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour,
for their deeds will follow them.”
Eugene Petersen paraphrases it like this …
“Yes,” says the Spirit,
“and blessed rest from their hard, hard work.
None of what they’ve done is wasted;
God blesses them for it all in the end.”
And Paul makes this point so definitively in 1 Corinthians chapter 15.
We read the first 11 earlier. It is a chapter all about the resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus, and then following on about our resurrection, and it ends with these wonderful words of triumph.
55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
And we read that at funeral services too. But that is not where the chapter ends. Verse 58 begins with “Therefore”. And as has been said whenever you see a “therefore” in Scripture you need to ask what it is there for.
This “therefore” is there to link this wonderful truth and central affirmation of our faith –
Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning –
we have the promise of receiving resurrection bodies like his –
thanks be to God, he has won the victory for us –
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
Your labour in the Lord is not in vain – because of the resurrection.
What we do in the Lord is not in vain – because of the resurrection.
We are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to fall over a cliff.
We are not restoring a great painting that's shortly going to be thrown on the fire.
We are not protecting an eco system that is about to be dug up for a building site.
We are not building a just society that is going to be trashed anyway.
We are — strange though it may seem, and almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself — we are working on something which will become, in due course, part of God's new world.
Every act of love, gratitude and kindness;
every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation;
every minute spent teaching physically challenged child to read or to walk;
every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one's fellow human beings;
every action that protects our fellow creatures on this planet, and every act that protects our planet;
every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed which spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world —
all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make.
That is the implication of the “therefore your labour in the Lord is not in vain”.
God's re-creation of his wonderful world began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God's people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit.
What we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted.
It will last all the way into God's new world.
We are not given the details of how this will all work out in practice in the life of the world to come. But as we state in our Creed – we believe in the world to come.
The Scriptures give us a signpost rather than a photograph of where we are heading. It is and always will be a matter of stepping out in faith. Just as Abraham had to step out in faith and obedience even though he did not know where he was going. But we have this hope set before us.
So what we proclaim when we state that we believe in – the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come – has profound implications for us.
It is the foundation of our hope in this world and for this world.
It is the basis for how we live and what we do with the life God has given us.
It is motivation and basis for mission, which is nothing short of working to see God’s Kingdom come on earth.
It is at the heart of our every prayer …
“May your will be done, may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”.
So we can proclaim with awe and wonder, confidence and hope –
We believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
AMEN(Author: Duncan Mclea)
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