Sunday, March 28, 2021

All the Hope We'll Ever Need (Sermon 12 on the Apostles' Creed)

This is the end – the very end of the story. By the time we leave here this morning, we'll have learned all about what's in the Apostles' Creed. And we'll be ready for Easter. We've confessed that we “believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day, he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” We also “believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins” – and now we add the final pieces of the story: “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.”

By the time God sent his Son into the world, many Jews had already learned to expect a general resurrection. “In those days, Sheol will return all the deposits which she had received” (1 Enoch 51.1). “The earth will surely give back the dead at that time. It receives them now in order to keep them, not changing anything in their form. But as it has received them, so will it give them back..., so it will raise them” (2 Baruch 50.2). What was it they were expecting to happen? They expected that one day, God would not only stop the process of death, but he'd undo its effects for many or for all. They expected that at an appointed time, God would call an end to this seemingly endless cycle. And on that day, the souls and bodies that had been ripped asunder by the reaper would be restored to each other.

Now, to people of nearly every other country in the world at that time, this idea was not especially appealing or desirable. Many of the surrounding cultures tended to take a dim view of the flesh, the physical dimension of who we are. They tended to see these bodies as prisons that are holding our souls back. And so to these Greek thinkers, the ideal afterlife was one that would finally get over this whole body business, would leave the flesh to rot where it belongs, and would whisk the soul off to heaven. That's what pagans wanted. And frankly, there are plenty of Christians today who have adopted a merely pagan view of the afterlife. These pagans, and their professing Christian followers, would ask, “Wait, so after the soul is free from the flesh, is it really necessary to join it to that flesh again?” And the answer is, “Yes.” Yes, because God does not think our bodies are junk. Yes because this body is not a prison. Yes because God never intended for our flesh to be discarded. If there is no general resurrection, if our souls get to go to heaven and that's where the story ends, then death has won. That's why Paul says that if there is no resurrection coming, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The plan is that the very same body that is laid down in death to be, not replaced, but restored.

Now, when the early Christians went around making a big deal out of this, and spreading this idea deeper into the Greek world, pagans thought it was hilarious. They made great fun of what we think is going to happen. It raised all sorts of questions they'd ask. What about people who die at sea in a shipwreck, and their bodies sink to the bottom – where are they to be raised? What about people who die in war and have their bodies scavenged by vultures, gobbled up – how can those bodies be restored? Or what about people who fall prey to cannibals, so that what used to be particles of their bodies are digested and turned into part of somebody else's body. And what about people who are cremated, turned totally into ash and dust?

The Church wasn't terribly impressed with these supposedly hard questions. She had faith in a God of wisdom unlimited and power unmatched. And because of that faith, the early Christians knew space and time are no boundaries to this God. They knew that whatever particles are needed for a body to count as the same body, God can preserve them from becoming essential parts of any other body. They knew that God can find even the tiniest atom, no matter how far it's gone, and put it back where it belongs. They were convinced that if God can create a universe out of nothing, he can easily create a human body out of ash and dust, or out of bone and dirt. So the Church stuck with her story, unintimidated by the world's mockery.

So what is it we expect? With Martha from the Gospel, we're awaiting “the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). That's the time Jesus comes back to judge the earth. A few weeks ago, when we looked at what the Bible tells us about the Last Judgment, and what's going to happen in the end, we glossed over this part, to save it for now. But in order to face the Last Judgment, the dead must be raised. And that makes sense, because so many of the sins we commit in this life, our body has its share of responsibility for. So many early Christians reasoned that it could only be fair for that same body to rejoin the same soul in order to face the music.

So when Jesus comes to judge those still living as well as all those who by then are dead, Jesus will command every soul to reunite with its corresponding body. Daniel wrote, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Daniel 12:2). Jesus declared, “An hour is coming... when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” (John 5:28-29). And that means flesh and bone restored to soul and life.

Outside this building, behind you, there's a cemetery. You know that, you've been there. Some of you have set loved ones to rest there. Some of you expect, after you feel that final heartbeat, to have your flesh lowered into a hole there and covered up. That is a cemetery. And 'cemetery' is a Christian word. It's Greek for “sleeping place.” Beneath the surface of the earth, seeds are sown in God's field. Beneath the earth, those people whose mortal names are inscribed on stone markers are sleeping. Those whose bones there sleep are waiting for their alarm to go off – the alarm called the last trumpet. And when Jesus approaches, the last trumpet will sound. On that day, that plot of land out there will no longer be a cemetery. It will not be a sleeping place. It will be a waking place. And by the time the Last Day is finished, not even one of those graves will keep hold of the contents we've trusted to it. Not one of our bodies, not any of our flesh, will be abandoned to stay there longer.

It's important that we really do believe this. It's important, first of all, because it lets us know what's actually going to happen. It promises us that physical death is not permanent, and perhaps not so scary as we worry. In putting that second date on that stone, we are not finishing the story of either the person or even the body. We are not telling everything. To believe this is to reassure us, in the hour of our grief, that the parental flesh that nursed and cared for us is important to God. The spousal flesh we caressed is important to God. It is just not enough, in God's eyes, to snatch a soul to heaven – or another destination. Because that flesh is not junk. And because we believe in the resurrection, Paul says, “do not go on sinning” (1 Corinthians 15:34). To know that our bodies will come into judgment is to have an antidote to temptation.

The resurrection we're expecting includes the good. Jesus repeatedly says of believers, “I will raise [them] up on the last day” (John 6:40). Daniel said that some will awaken “to everlasting life” (Daniel 12:2). Jesus said that “those who have done good shall come forth unto the resurrection of life” (John 5:29). Paul tells us that “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14). “God also will give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11). And that absolutely makes sense.

But we also expect that everyone, not just believers, not just those who lived well, will be raised. Daniel warns us that some of those now asleep in the dust will awaken “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Jesus himself says that “those who have done evil shall come forth unto the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29). Paul insists that “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15). So we know that Paul will be raised from the dead, but we also know that Hitler will be raised from the dead – not to life, not to blessing, but to shame and judgment and contempt. The goals are very different.

So when that day comes, what will our bodies be like? An acorn is put in the ground, and when it resurfaces, it becomes an oak tree that looks very little like an acorn. We sow a seed in the ground, just a kernel, but then God gives that seed “a body as he has chosen, and to each seed its own kind of body” (1 Corinthians 15:37-38). And that can be very different, as different as carp and carpenters, as different as we are from the stars that twinkle in the night (1 Corinthians 15:39-41). “So is it with the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:42). What we will be has not yet been revealed to us except in broad outline, and we can hardly imagine it, any more than someone who's only ever seen acorns can picture an oak tree. But we know that not all outcomes will be alike. They will be widely different, since some will be raised to glory and others will be raised to shame.

We don't tend to think too hard about the resurrection bodies that are cursed, not glorified. We know they'll be subject to suffering, weighed down, and dull. Burning from unending shame, with God's gifts withdrawn, both soul and body will be like a house that's lost its structural integrity, forever collapsing in on itself. It's enough for us to know we don't want that tragedy to cap off our story. The better question we ask is, what will a glorified resurrection body be like? The soul will never be cut off from the body, so a glorified resurrection body will be immortal. “For they cannot die any more,” Jesus explained, “because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). We also know that a glorified resurrection body will be incorruptible and imperishable – Paul says so. We will be “raised... from the dead, no more to return to corruption” (Acts 13:34). “What is raised is imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42). A glorified brain is immune to dementia. A glorified cell can't become cancerous. A glorified body cannot decay, cannot weaken with age, cannot spoil. “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that's written: Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

We know that a glorified resurrection body will be impassible, immune to suffering. Sufferings are meant only for “this present time” (Romans 8:18). For the glorified, sorrow will no longer be possible (Revelation 21:4). So a glorified bone cannot be broken. A glorified nerve ending cannot register pain. A glorified psyche cannot be burdened with anxiety or depression. A glorified body cannot be infected. We know also that a glorified resurrection body will be powerful. Paul says that it will be “raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43). What that will be like, it's hard to picture, but I'll always be fond of the medieval poet who felt that it will be “stronger than the universe..., strong enough, even without effort, to overturn the world.”

We can suppose, too, that a glorified resurrection body will not be as limited by the conventional boundaries of space and distance as our bodies are now. “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble” (Wisdom 3:7). When we read about the appearances of the risen Jesus, it doesn't seem like it took him very long to get from place to place. He appeared pretty suddenly and abruptly. We have fair reason to expect glorified resurrection bodies work like that. Just the same, we can suppose that a glorified resurrection body won't be as limited by the conventional boundaries of matter. The risen Jesus couldn't be kept out of a room by a locked door. Glorified resurrection bodies work like that. And finally, we're told that those raised to glory “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). These bodies will be brightly adapted for the light. Because they'll be adapted for life in the kingdom, life in a new creation.

Behold,” God promises, “I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The entire created world right now is groaning to be “set free” by sharing “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The sky over our heads is chained down in corruption. The earth is burdened by pollution and damage and sin. And this universe, this heaven and earth that now exist, are sick of it. This entire universe wants to ride our coattails into resurrection – and it will. John got a glimpse ahead at “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). The heavens above and the earth beneath will be raised to new life, marvelous in beauty. Earth and heaven will be one seamless reality, each totally open to the other. There will be a risen world of risen forests and risen fields, risen hills and risen valleys, risen atmosphere and risen oceans. What's the smell of a new-creation rose? What's the feel underfoot of new-creation grass? I don't know. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). The new creation is our promised land. We've scarcely had a peek inside.

Those resurrected to glory, those with bodies and souls functioning perfectly through the power of God's Spirit, will live there. “In the resurrection, they... are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). Jesus often talked about “eternal life” (e.g., Matthew 25:46), the kind of life experienced and enjoyed in “the age to come,” the age of the resurrection (Mark 10:30). “To those who, by patience in well-doing, seek glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). And when Jesus gives us eternal life, we “will never perish” (John 10:28). This isn't just wishful thinking. It's firm fact. “God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). “This is the promise that he made to us: eternal life” (1 John 2:25).

Eternal life is a life that cannot end. It's forever. If God gives you this gift, there will come a day when, asked your age, you'll think back to your five billionth birthday. Now, maybe that's pretty difficult to imagine – especially because in our present experience, living is sometimes exhausting, draining, burdensome, and all the more if we're under physical, emotional, or mental pain or strain. But all those will someday be gone for those in Jesus. Living eternal life won't be exhausting. Living eternal life won't bring any burden. You'll be healthier and stronger at age five billion than you've ever been before – and that goes for body, mind, heart, and soul.

Eternal life is the kind of life that can only really be lived in a new creation. It isn't just eternal in its quantity; it's eternal in its quality. It's a sort of life that our soul is already starting to encounter in Jesus, as “our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). And when Jesus receives our soul into heaven, then our soul will be enjoying eternal life. But when we at last receive our full inheritance of the new creation, our body and soul will have eternal life as one. And we “will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).

But eternal life means more than we can dream. Long ago, the psalmist prayed, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Psalm 17:15). Jesus explained that “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). When we enter glory, we will “know fully, even as [we have] been fully known,” and we “will... see face-to-face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We have the promise that “we will see his face,” God's face (Revelation 22:4), completely “beholding the glory of the Lord with unveiled face” (2 Corinthians 3:18). “We shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The special term for that is the “beatific,” or blessed, “vision.” And that's what we need most.

When we have the beatific vision, we will finally have the happiness we've always craved, the happiness we were made for: God's own happiness in himself will be ours. When we have the beatific vision, we will finally be seizing the goal – not only with our souls (because souls in heaven have the beatific vision), but with soul and body together, our whole self meeting God's whole self. Body and soul alike will drink the Spirit in, alike will embrace the Son, alike will enjoy the Father – no shield or separation, no barrier or buffer.

And the beatific vision, which will be our enjoyment for the endless billions and trillions of years ahead, can, by definition, never get boring! Never again can our heart become restless, once it comes to rest in this vision. And why not? Because God cannot bore us. We might think so sometimes now, because we aren't face-to-face. But every moment of eternity will be fresh and exciting. There is more infinite diversity and richness in our inventive God than in the entire totality of creation past, present, and future. Every book ever written, every movie ever filmed, every artwork ever painted, every song ever sung, ever meal ever tasted, every scene ever seen, every trail ever hiked – you could experience all of them, and you would not have found half as much delight or half as much fascination as even a minute of the beatific vision. Every moment of the beatific vision will be a greater education than all that's ever been taught. Every moment of the beatific vision will be greater enjoyment than all that's ever been experienced. Every moment of the beatific vision will be a grander adventure than every life ever lived. In the beatific vision, each moment will bear “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). We will be fully satisfied and fully delighted in God, and so all the desires of our heart will be fulfilled (Psalm 37:15). 'Breath-taking' doesn't begin to express it.

And in the resurrection, in the new creation, in the glory, we will have the beatific vision wherever we turn and whatever we do. All creation will be transparent to God, because his splendor will saturate and fill and shine through every tiniest speck of matter, every square millimeter of space, every split-second of time – all will be drenched in God, submerged in God, a universe eternally baptized in the heart of God. In seeing God as he is, in seeing him fully, we will see all things in God. In seeing God and all things in God, we will know him as we are known and will know all things as they are in him. Knowing, we will rejoice with the joy that is God's own joy, and we will love God, and love a lovable world in God, with the love that is God himself. That is what is waiting for us. That is what we were made for. That is eternal life.

And that's why the gospel is such high stakes. Those who “thrust it aside,” we read, are “judging themselves unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46). To refuse the gospel, to ignore Jesus, to let his gifts slip away, is to turn this down, to turn life down, eternal life down. But those who believe the gospel, those who keep obeying it and clinging to it – these are they who are “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). As God's grace in the gospel reigns in our life, it creates righteousness that “leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21). And now that we begin to appreciate what eternal life actually is, how could that not be worth everything? How can we get distracted from that? If you knew a billion dollars were showing up in your bank account tomorrow, how could you put that out of mind today? But eternal life, with the beatific vision, is vastly more than a billion dollars. How can we put it out of mind during our todays?

Through the Apostles' Creed, we haven't just been naming ideas in our heads. We've been pledging our loyalty. We've been calling out our commitments. We've been reveling in those realities so astonishing and beautiful and magnificent that we hang our trust on them. We hang our trust on the God of love and on his act of creating and sustaining the world. We hang our trust on Jesus and his whole story, from eternity past to the virgin birth to his suffering and death and descent and resurrection and ascension. We hang our trust on him as enthroned king and coming judge and savior. We hang our trust on the Holy Spirit who saves and sanctifies, and on the words of light and life he's inspired. We hang our trust even on the Church as his temple and our mother and teacher. We hang our trust on God's offer of forgiveness, knowing we can be absolved and healed of every ill. We hang our trust and our hope on God's promise to raise the dead, and to give eternal life, to finally share with us the purpose we were made for – if, that is, we become capable of receiving it by persevering in faith, in hope, in love. These things we say – these are what we live for, these are what keeps us going. Every week together, we're going to recite these ancient words. But we recite them with feeling, we recite them as an act of faith, we recite them to remind ourselves and each other of the story that defines us, the powers that swarm around us, the grace that overshadows us, the joy that awaits us. We recite these words as a confession of love for the God who makes all things new. And as these words sink into our flesh and our bones, our spirit and our soul, may they surface again and again in times of trial, setting our face toward the fulfillment. Therefore, go forth in joy and “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” in Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 6:12)! Amen!

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