Sermon for Sunday, April 19, 2018 (7 Easter Year B)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
What is Christian Hope? Why do we worship today and then go out into the world… into our neighborhoods… to work on God’s mission? What is the hope that makes sense of all this?
For some, the Christian Hope is that “we go to heaven after we die". But that’s not actually what the church says… and it’s NOT the answer that early Christians came to believe. You see, there is really very, very little in the New Testament that talks about what happens to us when we die. Paul alludes to it just a little bit about being with Christ when he dies, but that’s a pretty thin basis for this common belief in going to heaven after we die. For Paul though, resurrection is what matters. The Christian hope is not “going to heaven after you die", it’s being resurrected from the dead, just as Jesus was resurrected from the dead. It is not life after death that matters, its life after life-after-death. That’s what we celebrate in Easter, the resurrection of Christ in the middle of history as the single most important historical event ever. And our hope as Christians is that resurrection will happen to us too. Resurrection is a core Christian belief. And one of the most interesting things about Early Christianity is how fast resurrection became the central hope of early Christianity. Within 40 years of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul and others were writing about it earnestly. There are several ways in which the idea of resurrection morphed from an interesting but controversial belief in Second-Temple Judaism, to the cornerstone of Early Christian Hope. On this last Sunday of Easter, I want to talk about the Christian view of resurrection1.
Among Second-Temple Jews, there was a range of thought about resurrection. The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees believed, but the Sadducees did not. For those Jews who did believe, it was important but not all that important; writings of the period were focused on other things. Second-temple Jews were vague about the details of resurrection; some thought it would happen at the end of history to all God’s people, or maybe to all humans, but no one imagined that it might happen to anyone in the middle of history. The Messiah was going to do important things, but resurrection wasn’t one of them. Some thought that resurrection might be with your old physical body while others thought you might turn into something like a star. I think this explains some of the strangeness of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. It was as though they were really struggling to find the words to describe what had happened; it was totally and completely unexpected and unimagined.
Christians took this somewhat important but vague Jewish idea and put it front and center in their beliefs. Here are some of the ways they rejiggered it:
- First, there was not a range of beliefs about resurrection like there were among Jews. As you know, the early Christians were drawn from all kinds of Jews and all kinds of pagans… people with widely varying beliefs. Those early Christians came to ONE central belief in resurrection, not several differing beliefs.
- Resurrection was the highlight of all four gospels, and a focus in many of the Epistles, especially Paul’s.
- Christians were much more specific about what resurrection IS. They believed a resurrected body would be a physical body. Clearly, Christ’s resurrected body was physical… it had the scars of crucifixion on it and they could touch them… he could eat a fish… he could walk alongside on the road to Emmaus… he could breathe on them. Jesus wasn’t a ghost. But early Christians ALSO believed that the resurrected physical body would have wonderful new properties. Christ seems to appear out of nowhere into the locked Upper Room… people had difficulty at first recognizing who he was. This new physical resurrected body will be a physical body, but it will be more capable, more marvelous, more fully human that our old bodies. This is what Paul means by the "spiritual body": not a body made out of spirit, but a physical body animated by the Spirit. Early Christians believed this about resurrection because that is what happened to Jesus. And what happened to Jesus will happen to us too.
- Unlike Jews, Christians believed that resurrection had happened to one person, Jesus, in the middle of history, and that this was the most important event in history, and that it anticipates and guarantees the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of history.
- And, since the early Christians believed that resurrection had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they ALSO believed that God calls Christians to work on God’s mission with the help of the Holy Spirit between now and then. This is how you get a lot of the strange now and not-yet time-warpy language in Christian writings, that Christians anticipate resurrection now even though it hasn’t happened to anyone but Jesus; that the Kingdom of God is both NOW and NOT-YET. AND, there’s work to do today that anticipates the fully-realized Kingdom of God in the future.
- Another big change for Early Christians was the way they saw the Messiah. Jews believed that the Messiah was supposed to fight God's battle against the Romans; to rebuild or cleanse the Temple; and to bring God's justice to the world. You sure get the sense that Jesus’ disciples might have thought this. But Jesus did none of these things, at least not in the way they thought the Messiah was supposed to do them. Early Christians believed that Jesus WAS the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection. Jesus was not the only one to claim that he was the Messiah of Israel. Typically, when these other Messiah’s were killed, their movement would end or they find a new Messiah, because, nobody follows a dead Messiah. But Christians did, precisely because Jesus was resurrected.
- A final thing that Christians changed, was to use resurrection as a metaphor for all kinds of stories about dying and coming to life again. Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection became the Good News; the model for God’s rescue mission for all of all creation. Alcohol abuse is a kind of death; sobriety is a kind of resurrection. The lost of a beloved parent is a kind of death; the birth of a niece or nephew is a resurrection. The Prodigal Son suffers death with his self-destructive lifestyle; he is raised to new life when he turns from that life and is embraced by his loving father. Further, as Early Christians began to look back into the Old Testament stories of exile, enslavement, and liberation, they saw this pattern of suffering, death, and resurrection all along the way. It’s like God has been using this pattern as a part of his strategy for saving creation… and he still is. Its like a pattern that was hidden in plain sight.
So, we may die someday and go to heaven or maybe we will die and exist only as a memory in God’s mind… who knows? The Bible does not tell us, and modern beliefs in life after death have more to do with Dante’s thirteenth century Divine Comedy than in anything Paul and others were actually writing about. The good news of Jesus Christ… the hope of all Christians, is that we will be resurrected at the end of history in new, physical, spirit-animated bodies, here on Earth… where Heaven and Earth will finally come together and God will dwell with us once again. All the good that is within us, all the gifts the Spirit pours into our hearts, our “true selves", will be carried forward from our old life into these new bodies… and all the hurt and tears of our old life will be wiped away. And there will be work to do; perhaps “the healing of the nations" as the last chapter of the Revelation to John puts it. In the meantime, we act in a broken world in anticipation of that wonderful hope when God will make all things right. We can look for God’s healing work in our neighborhoods and join it … it is all around us if we have eyes to see … we can change suffering into new life. We can help the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, Jesus Christ the Resurrected One. Amen.
- Much of this drawn from Wright, N.T. (2014, April 17). Only Love Believes: The Resurrection of Jesus and the Constraints of History. Retrieved January 21, 2015, from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/04/17/3988223.htm