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New life at the end

[This is an alternative version of the sermon for Ordinary 32 Year C on The Day of Resurrection, with less emphasis on the last day and more emphisis on personal resurrection. It is based more on the Gospel reading and less on the epistile and share some material with the semon for 10B.]

What do you expect to happen when you die? Do you expect to go into the presence of our Lord and in that meeting to learn the fulfilment of your hope for a new life? Do your expect to meet people you have known and who died before you? What sort of a relationship do you think you might have with them? Do you believe, as we say in the Nicene Creed, in "the resurrection of the dead"? Do you belief, as we say in the Apostles Creed, in "the resurrection of the body"? Have you noticed the difference between the two ancient creeds? Have you thought about the form in which we hope to be raised to a new life? (See what Paul said about that - "with what kind of body do they come?" in 1 Corinthians 15.)

At the time of his earthly ministry Jesus was confronted on several occasions by members of a party called the Sadducces, who, as we are told in the Gospel reading for today said "there is no resurrection." The Sadducces and the Pharisees were two groups who both clashed with Jesus at various times, but they had quite different ideas from each other on the possibility of life after death. They even came to blows on it on one occasion when Paul was being examined before the Jewish council (Acts 23: 1-10). Paul noticed that both parties were present and he set one against the other by saying "Brothers, I am a Pharisee a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead." (v.6). Then dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducces "and the assembly was divided." The dissension became violent and the Roman tribune sent soldiers in to rescue Paul.

Hope of resurrection was one of the points of faith for which the early Christians were known. Quite early on, Peter and John were arrested for "teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 4:1-2). Again it was the Sadducces who were particulay annoyed. It was they who previously had come and asked Jesus the question in the Gospel reading of whose wife a woman would be who had married seven men, one after the other when each one died: "In the resurrection, therefore whose wife will the woman be?" (Luke 20:33). The answer Jesus gave is significant: that is, that in the life of the resurrection people do not marry, they "they are like angels and are children of God" (Luke 20:36) - they are heavenly beings. How does this fit with what you expect? It is not just my opinion on a subject that we might well say is mysterious. It is what Jesus taught according to Luke, who says the same as Mark and Matthew. As we see in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul's letters, which I will come to in a moment, whatever relationships there might be between people in heaven, belief in the possibility of personal resurrection was of central importance to the early Christians. It was part of what the Apostles preached.

They were not alone in believing in the possibility of resurrection to a new life after death. That possibility was a point of serious debate among the Jews at that time. It was an idea that was lacking in the Hebrew scriptures and became a question in the minds of devote Jews in the last century or so before Jesus was born and they did not all agree. What was distinctive about the Christians was that they saw the resurrection of Jesus as opening the way for others to follow him into the Kingdom of God.

Early expectations

There is no doubt that many of the early believers in Christ had experience of the his resurrection. Many of them met with Jesus after he had died and been raised from the dead. They had experienced in their own lives tremendous changes, which meant that they need no longer be afraid of evil in the world. They had confidence that Christ had overcome all evil and that nothing, even death, could stand in his way. After the early experience of the resurrection they expected him to appear again: indeed their common prayer and blessing of one another when parting was `Come, Lord Jesus!' -- Revelation 22:20-21 [cf 1 Corinthians 16:22-23]. Their expectations were so strong that some had, wrongly, stopped working to sit down and wait. Paul had to tell them that those who would not work should not eat. Expecting an early end to the world as we know it is one reason why they found it easier than we might to sell their belongings.

One of the things that worried them as the years went by was that some of their number had died and they had hoped to be alive when the Lord returned. It was necessary for Paul to re-assure them that the believers who had died would not lose out on a place in the Kingdom that Christ would establish: they would be raised from the dead and take their place before those who were still living [1 Thess 4:13-17; 1 Cor 15:52; compare Matt 24:30-31; Mark 13:26-27.] Assurance of the resurrection of the faithful was common pastoral theme:

They did not believe in the natural immortality of the soul, except perhaps in some vague sense of a kind of sleep. Hope for a new life depended upon the grace of God who they believed would act with a new initiative. It was a gift in which they had confidence because they had seen the power of God and his love at work in Christ. This new life to which they expected to be raised was not a mere continuation of the life they knew in the physical body [see 1 Cor 15:44] because they would be changed:   The life they expected was not a mere continuity of the old life, but a renewed and perfected life shared with others who had been blessed by God with new life. Their own individual hopes of life in the resurrection depended upon the acts of God, so that their salvation was tied up with the coming of the Kingdom, the establishment of the rule of God in which there would be great changes.

The possibility of people being raised to a new life was very much a matter of debate at the time of Christ. It was not generally known in Old Testament times. It begins to appear as a major topic in the literature written just before and during the New Testament times [especially in 2 Esdras]. As we have noted some teachers like the pharisees said there would be a resurrection for people who died; others like the Sadducees disagreed. There were several occasions when they asked Jesus about it.

The trick question about marriage and the resurrection

If a woman had had seven husbands in succession, who would be her husband in the life of the resurrection? It is a silly question, really, once you understand that the new life to which people are raised from the dead is not simply a continuation of this life. It is much the same as Paul was saying when he spoke of how people would be changed, and of how the spiritual body of the resurrection is different from the physical body of this earthly life. There are relationships, but they are different and it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to understand -- they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. The story is not really about marriage, but rather about the possibility of resurrection, but we might just note that when people who are parted from loved ones by death look forward to being re-united with them their hope is well founded; its just that in the spiritual bodies of the resurrection the kind of relationships we can have are different. The particular relationship of marriage belongs to the life of our material bodies, created as male and female, in which it is possible for two bodies to become one flesh.

The bodies, like the relationships, of the resurrection are different. Paul asked and answered the same question:

Paul said it was like a plant coming up from a seed:

You might still ask, “Can we really know anything about it anyway?” Would anything we say be mere speculation? Well, people often say we cannot know these things, and that we are only guessing or seeking the fulfilment of our wishes, but I don’t think so.  We do have direct teaching from Jesus and quite a lot elsewhere in the New Testament and other ancient scripture as well as the witness of the faithful through the ages.  It makes sense to me to say that when we are raised to a new life after death it is to life in a spiritual body, as different from our former physical bodies as the life of a plant is different from the seed from which it grew – as Paul said.

We should also note that what is promised is the possibility of resurrection, not a certainty for all. As Luke tells it, the resurrection is for those who are considered worthy of a place in that age. Jesus taught that the `children of God' had a place with him; and he believed that Old Testament characters like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob shared in the life of the resurrection although, of course they had not know him in his earthly ministry as the Messiah. (It would seem from what Jesus said to the Sadducees that others too who could have known nothing of his resurrection may be raised. That depends on God. It need not be our concern.) Knowing Jesus as the man walked the road to Jerusalem might not have been necessary, but it was sufficient for new life to know him as the Christ. Believing that Jesus is the Christ and that God raised him from the dead is sufficient for salvation (Romans 10:9)

Such faith is a sufficient condition for salvation.

Others too believed in the possibility of resurrection

The idea of sharing in the resurrection as children of God is present in some of the literature from the period just before the time of Jesus. For example in the Wisdom of Solomon [a late work named after the great king who lived many centuries earlier]:  

So in the second century BC, brave men defied those who threatened to kill them when the refused to worship idols and died, confident in being raised by God: For the people who followed Jesus, then, the prospect of being raised to a new life in which they would be changed and renewed, and in which they would share with him in his kingdom, was a very real prospect much on the minds of faithful people in those days. They looked forward to it; yet because of the tremendous changes it must bring in their lives and the changes the kingdom would bring in the whole world, they also looked forward with some fear. There was much excitement about such things, and much talk of how and when it would all happen.

That excitement and concern was the main reason for Paul writing two letters to the believers at Thessalonica. These are the earliest surviving letters of Paul written around the year 50 AD, and the earliest of the books in the New Testament. They reflect the excitement and struggles of the early years of the church.

Paul's warning about being alarmed

On the one hand Paul wanted them to be ready, continually watchful; on the other hand he did not want them to the overly excited and alarmed.

Jesus himself had taught that no one knows the time or how it will happen. Jesus said to one of the criminals who was dying with him, who had asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). God's time is not our time- even theoretical physicists today when speaking of the big bang in cosmology say that time came into existence together with space and matter or energy. Apart from the physical universe and our physical bodies we cannot speak of time in the same sense, but rather of hope and fulfilment.

Resurrection was not only something to look forward to. It was also something to be experienced now, for those who are open to God already belong to him:

So Paul wants to encourage the faithful whom God has chosen as the first fruits of salvation [1 Thess 2:13]: The victory of Christ is being established in God's way and in his time.

Glory be to him. Amen.

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