Sunday, May 17, 2015

Resurrection of the Body & Life Everlasting

Here we are at the end of a series of sermons on the Apostle’s Creed. Three months ago, we were considering “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” And today, I have the privilege of closing it off. This morning, we will be looking at “The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Wow. What a promise! What a blessing. John’s vision of that promise is worthy of a reminder:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold! I am making everything new!” Revelation 21:3-5
What a glorious hope! ...but now that I’ve already given away the punchline, I’m going to ask us to slow way down so we can appreciate this final episode of the Apostle’s Creed better. And to do so, I’d like to encourage us to change our way of thinking just a bit. After all, there are so many influences in our lives trying to get us off track and to divert us from the truth of the gospel. So before we get deeply into “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”, I’d like to warn you of two such influences in all of our lives that would, if they could, have us misunderstand this important teaching.
The first of these is the curious situation that we find ourselves in in the early stages of the twenty-first century. And I’d like to give some credit to Norm for bringing my attention to this very peculiar aspect of our society. It would seem that our society is all about “protection”. And this transition toward being all about “protection” has happened in quite a short space of historical time. When my parents were growing up, there were no safety ropes or fences on the mountains that they climbed. Now - those same mountains are considerably sanitized - with protection for any loss of footing. When my parents were growing up, there was no “social safety net” either - if you got sick or you lost your job, it was up to you to get better and find a new one. Today, we have all kinds of social programs in place for our protection. If you get sick, the government looks after your medical bills. If you lose your job, the government will look after (at least some of) your income (at least for a while).

Now, of course I’m not devaluing those protective measures -- they make our societies considerably more civilized. But it is useful to keep in mind just how recent they are in history, and how much they can affect the way we look at the world. You see, we’ve grown so accustomed to being protected from anything and everything that we start to assume that “there must be something in place to protect me from…[whatever!]”, and in this artificial little protected bubble we are tempted to take that assumption to its logical conclusion -- that “there must be something in place to protect me from... death!”

But if that’s our attitude (and it is too easy to pick up some of this attitude in our culture), then we really won’t appreciate what it means for God to offer us “the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting”. Because this is not an entitlement. We don’t deserve a resurrection. We don’t earn life everlasting. In fact, when the Bible talks about what we have coming to us, the situation is quite different. “The wages of sin is death.” we are told, “But the gift of God is eternal life.” It is a gift from God. And if we aren’t responding to it as a gift, then we need to understand it better.

Our society’s continued expectation of “protection” puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the gift of eternal life - but that isn’t the only disadvantage that we bring to understanding the ending of the Apostle’s Creed.

You see, the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t just summarize the gospel message. It tells a story. And of course that’s how it should be: after all, the Bible is full of stories, and the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) understood that the gospel is best presented as a story. But that isn’t the source of our disadvantage. There is no problem in the fact that the Apostle’s Creed is a story. From our earliest ages, we’ve been exposed to stories, and we love stories.

At Awana, every year we try to tap some of you to come out and speak to the children. Most of you know how it goes and come prepared, but every so often someone will ask me “what works for 8-12-yr-olds?” -- and my answer is always the same: tell a story. Human beings love stories. Human beings have always loved stories. But the conventions of storytelling have changed a lot over the last three thousand years or so… and that is the source of our disadvantage.

You see, the first stories that children are exposed to in the twenty-first century usually end with “...and they lived happily ever after”. And if we hear that phrase enough, it leads us to believe that “living happily ever after” is the goal -- the purpose of life. But it isn’t. And we regularly watch television, which, according to formula, is all about the protagonist achieving some goal within 22 minutes. That goal is almost always achieved or revealed at the end of the episode, once again reinforcing the idea that what comes later is always more important. But it isn’t. In fact, the modern model of storytelling (or “narrative arc”) is all pointing toward the end -- as in the illustration.

You see, we are not just conditioned to think that we will be protected from anything inconvenient or troublesome; we are also conditioned to think that every story is all gearing up to what comes at the end. Unfortunately, being brought up that way makes us imagine that the end of the Apostle’s Creed is really the whole focus and purpose and climax and goal of it, too. But it isn’t.

The way that stories are told in the Bible is very different. And it is instructive to consider that difference as we reach the conclusion of the Apostle’s Creed. In 1863, Freytag published his “pyramid” model based on ancient storytelling. Here we see it illustrated -- very different from our modern story structure. But if we look at the stories the Old Testament, whether Abraham, or Jacob, or Joseph, or David we can detect this kind of mirror-image structure in them. Think about how much of the story of David occurs after he becomes king. Think about how much of the story of Joseph occurs after he becomes second-in-command under Pharaoh.

But why am I telling you this? What’s the point of a little literary theory on a Sunday morning? Well, thinking that the end of a story is the most important part might match our modern sensibilities, but is simply not appropriate when it comes to God’s stories. And it is simply not appropriate when it comes to the Apostle’s Creed.

For example, this is not the way to imagine the Apostle’s Creed. (power-point: one layer on top of the next)

Rather, we should think of it more like this.
1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: [inside 2]
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: [inside 2]
5. He descended into hell: The third day he rose again from the dead: [inside 2]
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: [inside 2]
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: [inside 2]
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost: [emanating from 2]
9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints: [emanating from 2]
10. The forgiveness of sins: [emanating from 2]
11. The resurrection of the body: And the life everlasting. Amen. [emanating from 2]

As the Bible says in Ephesians 4, after he ascended, he gave gifts to his people. And these yellow triangles [emanations] are those gifts, aren’t they?

You see, if the first picture were true, we could be tempted to think that it was all about us - that history is just one elaborate plan to achieve our eternal salvation. It really isn’t. Instead, the story is HIS story (that’s what "his-tory" is, after all), and the focus needs to be on HIM. But this isn’t just a potential problem with “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”. In fact, it is a potential problem with any one of the wonderful consequences of a life committed to following Jesus.

The strong hope of eternal life is not the only sure consequence of a life committed to following Jesus. Once we make that commitment, we can also expect to have our lives changed in significant and positive ways. A commitment to Christ will make you more aligned with reality: it will help you toward “right thinking” (or “good theology”). A commitment to Christ will make you more in tune with his values: it will help you toward “right behavior” (or “good morality”). A commitment to Christ will make you more aligned with his heart toward others: it will help you toward “right relationships”.

Indeed, so many sermons have been preached encouraging God’s children to improve on their thinking or on their behavior or on their relationships. Of course these are good and appropriate things to consider. All of these good gifts, like eternal life, come from God and need to be celebrated and nurtured. But I’d like to suggest this morning that it is a mistake to focus on them to the neglect of their true source. If we “lose connection with our head” (as it says in Colossians) -- if we disconnect these gifts from their ultimate source, it will be a disaster… if not for us, for our children.

You see, our children are really quite perceptive. If being right is more important to our Christian experience than our relationship with God, then it doesn’t take long before “looking right” takes the place of “being right” occasionally -- and our children will pick up on that right away. And if being good is more important to our Christian experience than our relationship with God, then it doesn’t take long before “looking good” takes the place of “being good” occasionally -- and they’ll be sure to pick up on that, too.

After a very short period of that kind of thing, what do you get? Well, If you ask people on the street, they will tell you that “Oh that church on the corner? They teach the same thing as every other religion: they just want us all to be good.” Ouch. That is not what the Bible teaches. And I hope that that is not what we teach. But how does that happen? How do people get such a distorted impression of our message? Well, it happens when we focus on the effect at the expense of the cause. It happens when we, as a church, forget the source of right thinking, the source of right behavior, the source of right relationships, and start to focus on that thinking, or on that behavior or on those relationships without their crucial grounding. If a church “loses connection with [its] head” -- then like a chicken that has lost its head, it can only keep going for so long.

So as we finally (finally!) consider “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” -- let’s keep firmly in mind that the Bible tells us that “[Jesus is the] source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:9) and Jesus own words confirm: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Not only that, but the Bible tells us that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5) You see, not only is Jesus the source of the gift of eternal life, Jesus also provides the path to eternal life. And he doesn’t just tell us about that path, expecting us to go it alone. No. He blazes the trail for us himself. Going to the cross, scorning its shame, his sacrificial death breaks the power of sin and death forever. And his resurrection from the dead proves it. And it also proves that this resurrection is also available to each and every one of us.

But “resurrection of the body” and “life everlasting” are really two very different things, aren’t they? You see, when the Bible talks about resurrection, it can have two meanings -- but “eternal life” can only mean one thing. As far as the resurrection goes, first, there is a “general resurrection”. Jesus tells us that “a time is coming when all [!] who are in their graves will hear [my] voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5:28, 29) Both the good and the bad are described as “rising”.

And it is interesting, of course, to appreciate that Jesus teaches that who is considered good and who is considered bad will almost certainly involve some surprises. As Jesus says elsewhere: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:22,23)

When Jesus tells his followers that performing miracles and exercising the power to drive out demons and speaking for God (yes: that’s me talking to me) aren’t in themselves grounds for entrance into his kingdom, he wants us to pay close attention to his entrance criteria -- if “I never knew you” is grounds to be kept out of the kingdom, the only grounds for entrance would certainly be knowing him: after all, he is the King of that resurrection kingdom, and only he gets to decide who gets to celebrate with him.

The ability to perform miracles, the ability to secure loving relationships or to establish sound doctrine, or the ability to be kind and generous -- all these are gifts from God. Gifts to be cherished and protected, for sure… but let’s listen carefully to Paul’s attitude on the topic -- this is what he writes in Philippians: “...whatever I considered of value I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

And when we come to the topic of the resurrection from the dead, this should be our attitude, too. Because when the Bible talks about the resurrection, it sometimes refers to a “general” resurrection, sure (with that judgment to follow) -- but more often (as in the passage we just read), it refers to a “special” resurrection: a resurrection following in the footsteps of Jesus. But notice, once again, that Paul recognizes that a critical and necessary step to experience this resurrection of the dead is to “become like [Jesus] in his death”.

These last three weeks, I’ve come to appreciate what is in store for us at the resurrection in a new and special way. You see, I’ve had a terrible cough and fever that just never seemed to go away. The cough got so bad that one day I actually needed to hold my head when I coughed. It was rattling my brain, and my back and my throat were sore from all the coughing. I’m really very glad to have been able to recover enough to be here this morning. Being sick, though, was a powerful reminder of just how perishable our old bodies are. And for anyone who can’t quite relate yet, be warned - it’s just a matter of time. But the perishable contains a promise in it. As we read:

The body that is sown [that is, the one that will eventually be planted in the ground in burial] is perishable, [but] it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, [but] it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, [but] it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, [but] it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

That old body breaking down, losing its hair, losing the color in the rest of its hair, losing its eyesight, losing its hearing, losing far too many other things to catalog in the time we have, it is going to be replaced. “Behold, I am making everything new!” Hallelujah! No more shame. We will be raised to glory. No more weakness. We will be raised in power.

But reflecting on the promise of the imperishable isn’t the only reminder I had from being sick. You see, whenever I wasn’t coughing, whenever I could take a deep breath, I always felt “what a blessing it is to be alive!” I was exhausted because the coughing kept me awake. I usually rest with a heart-rate of sixty, but my heartrate was only going down to eighty after lying awake for an hour. I was shivering with aches because of the fever. But “oh my! what a blessing it is to be alive!” And if it is a blessing to be alive when one’s body feels like it is falling apart, just imagine the blessing of not just an eternal, but an eternally abundant life. After all, Jesus promises both eternal life and abundant life to those who follow him.

So when the Bible talks about everlasting life, there is no worry about being bored. When the Bible talks about eternal life, there is no risk of it becoming tedious. God is more than capable of providing abundant enjoyment to go along with life’s abundant duration.

But that brings us to the special meaning that the Bible reserves whenever it mentions eternal or everlasting life: that is, it is ever only for God’s chosen children. This fact might offend some people. But this eternal life is available to them, too. If anyone feels that being excluded is unjust, they need only to follow Jesus themselves.

You see, eternal life doesn’t rest on some argument for the immorality of the human soul. All those come from Greek philosophers, not the gospel. Our souls got started at some point. That start was a gift from God, and if we rebel against God’s gracious plan, He has every right, and more than enough power to take it away if he so chooses.

But God promises eternal life to those who take the time to get to know his Son. When we, as a church, the body of Christ, stay connected to our head, Christ himself -- then we will be healthy. Then we will know all the gifts - good theology, good morality, good relationships, and life everlasting.

But that connection isn’t always an easy business: we must be prepared to participate in His suffering -- to take up our cross daily -- and then, and only then, will we also participate in his resurrection, a resurrection to share life and glory with Jesus forever. Hallelujah!