Monday, April 9, 2012

Rethink: Eternal Life

The Scriptures referred to are Isaiah 25:6-9 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-15.

It was a rainy day in St. Louis. I sloshed back to school in my yellow raincoat and galoshes. We couldn't play outside, so we sat in the gym waiting for the bell to ring. My friend, Kenny Cross, leaned forward and whispered that President Kennedy had been shot. Kenny had a weird sense of humor so I didn't believe him. But once we got back in our classroom, we were soon told that it was true. Someone had killed the president. It cast a pall over the rest of the week, over Thanksgiving 1963 and, for some, over the rest of the decade. The world looked darker from that point on.

Since then a lot of theories have arisen about who killed Kennedy, how and why. I've read that Kennedy was shot from the Grassy Knoll and from a sewer. He was assassinated by the CIA, the Mafia, by Cubans, and accidentally by a Secret Service agent in the following car. All this, despite numerous forensic evidence and scientific experiments that show that there is no need to posit any other assassin than Lee Harvey Oswald, a Marine sharpshooter who had previously shot a judge. Just one theory hasn't been seriously proposed in the 48 years since that day in Dallas: that Kennedy rose from the dead.

In the case of Jesus, the theories run the other way. People try to explain away how in less than 20 years it became widely believed that Jesus rose from the dead. I've read wilder theories about Jesus' resurrection than I have about Kennedy's assassination. I've read that Jesus never really died thanks to a drug that fooled everyone by lowering his heart rate and breathing--but miraculously without finishing off a man who was already suffering from multiple trauma, at least 5 wounds, a flayed back, blood loss, dehydration, shock and air hunger. And it doesn't explain how the disciples saw him as the victor over death when he would have looked like a victim of a train wreck instead. I've read that the women went to the wrong tomb and really did mistake the gardener for Jesus. And apparently everyone else, including his enemies, continued to go to the wrong tomb! I've read that it was a group hallucination...that lasted 40 days! None of these hold up to critical examination, leaving us with but one reason that his followers turned from disappointed disciples cowering in a room to daring missionaries proclaiming good news about him to the crowds: Jesus must have risen from the dead.

The resurrection is found in the earliest part of the New Testament: the first chapter of 1st Thessalonians. In today's reading from 1st Corinthians, written just a few years after the letters to the Thessalonians, we get the first detailed account of the resurrection and Christ's appearances to not only the apostles but to 500 witnesses, most of whom were alive when Paul wrote this. Here is the reason why Christianity spread to every major city in the Roman Empire in less than a century. Here's why Jesus, out of all the would-be Messiahs executed by the authorities, not only kept his disciples after his death but gathered more and more. Here's why his followers went to their deaths rather than recant and why more people turned to Christ despite the very real threat of martyrdom. It wasn't just one woman, or a group of women, or his closest disciples who said they saw the risen Jesus; there were 500 people who saw him as well.

We know this, of course. How did the resurrection of Jesus make us rethink life?

In the Old Testament, there is very little information on the afterlife. When it is mentioned, the realm of the dead is called Sheol, a deep, dark place of silence and forgetfulness. No one was thought to come back from the grave, according to Job. There were, however, glimmers of hope, as we see in our passage from Isaiah, that one day God will end the reign of death. I love the imagery the prophet uses: God hosting a rich feast with good wines on Mount Zion, where Jerusalem is built; death as a shroud cast over all nations; God swallowing death, a reversal of the image of people swallowed up by death; and God wiping the tears from every face. It is a striking image of God's fatherly love.

By the time of Jesus, at least some Jews believed that God would not merely end death but resurrect the dead. This would happen at the end of this, the current evil age, and before the start of the Messianic age. That's why the disciples were so confused by Jesus' talk of his own death and resurrection. He was the Messiah. The Messiah doesn't die. He ends the present evil age by conquering the bad guys, basically the gentiles who oppress his people. First that happens, then everyone dead gets resurrected and judged. And the Messiah presides over that; he doesn't die himself. That was unthinkable.

So the disciples didn't understand what Jesus was trying to get through their heads until he actually rose from the dead. And it still took them a while. If the accounts said Jesus' followers immediately accepted his resurrection, we would suspect the stories were made up. But, no, it takes them a while to get used to the idea, just as it would if a friend you saw die was back in your midst, hale and hearty. We speak of doubtful Thomas but as the only disciple who didn't see Jesus that first Easter, his reaction is quite understandable. As is his response when he at last sees Jesus, who offers his hands and side to be touched. I imagine Mary of Magdala was not the only one to weep but the tears from then on were tears of joy.

But this meant they had to rethink everything they thought they knew about life, death and the life to come.

Pre-resurrection, when Jesus spoke of eternal life, his followers naturally thought he meant they would never actually die. They would simply pass from the current evil age to the future Messianic age. But post-resurrection, undergoing physical death, as Jesus had, was a possibility. Actually it was more like a probability. But the difference was that they no longer feared death. The contrast to their earlier behavior is significant. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled. An anonymous boy, dressed only in a sheet was braver than they (though he ran away naked when the guards grabbed him by the sheet.) Peter later snuck into the courtyard of the high priest but vehemently denied being one of Jesus' followers. He still feared death. But afterward, they didn't care about what physical harm befell them. They didn't care about warnings from the authorities or imprisonment or worse. They would not shut up about the risen Christ. Most of the Twelve were martyred: by beheadings, by torture, by burning to death, and even by crucifixion. The story is that Peter asked to be crucified upside down, because he felt unworthy to die as his Lord did. And none of them ever recanted their belief in the resurrection. They knew it to be true.

But if we who receive eternal life still have to die, in what way is it eternal? The clue is there in that last word. Eternity is not just a long, long time. It is not properly time at all, because eternity has no beginning or end. And only one thing has no beginning or end: God. The only way we, who have beginnings, can have eternal life is by entering into the life of God. That's why scripture doesn't say we get more life; what we get is new life in Christ--new to us, a different quality of life. We are entering into the eternal life of God himself.

This is what Jesus meant when he prays in John 17 that "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…" This is what Paul means when he talks of being "in Christ." When we take God's Spirit into our hearts, we are taken into the heart of the Triune God, into the eternal love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, in the unity of the Spirit of that love from which all life and creation springs.

When we enter that eternal life, we undergo a spiritual resurrection, as if were. Our old life is past and gone, all our sins and guilt are nailed to cross and buried with Christ. As he rose again in a glorified body, we become a new creation in Christ. And we are not the only new creation God has in mind.

I have never been asked by a dying person about heaven. They tend to talk of their family. It's the family who ask about heaven. Once immediately after the death of a beloved parishioner, as we awaiting the person from the funeral home who would pick up the body, I was caught unawares by a rather intense interrogation by the family of just what heaven would be like. And I had little to tell. All I could do was repeat what Paul said: that when we depart this life, we are with Christ. Later, I searched the Bible for a really detailed description of heaven only to find there isn't one. And there's a good reason for that. If you're going on a trip to an exciting and wonderful place, why would you want to hear a description of the waiting room? Jesus says "In my Father's house, there are many dwelling places." Another translation would be "way stations." When we die, our journey has not ended.

Our final destination is not an ethereal existence in an insubstantial dimension; for his new creations in Christ, God plans a new creation in which we will live our new lives. And it's already in the works. Remember how the disciples thought the present evil age would have to end before the general resurrection of humanity and the beginning of the new Messianic age? When Jesus was resurrected, the disciples had to rethink the whole timeline. But it's actually quite logical.Even if Jesus had led a conventional revolution, it would have started at one place and one point of time and slowly spread until all opposition was ended, which to them was the whole pagan domination of earth. In other words, during such a campaign, the present evil age and the Messianic age would in a sense coexist. There would be those living under the Messiah's reign while those still unconquered would be living under the rules of the evil age. Jesus wasn't that type of Messiah and he rarely used military metaphors. But in comparing God's Kingdom to seeds and crops and trees, he was saying the process is a gradual one, as the new age grows and undermines the old age.

Jesus' resurrection did however signal the start of the Kingdom of God. As the firstborn of the dead, he planted his flag here and now in the present age. Which means the 2 ages overlap, and what we are living in now is the time of transition. Transitional times are always unsettling. The past must be cleared away to make room for the new. And people don't want to let go of the past. It's familiar, comforting, even if it's not that good. Better the devil you know than the God you don't. And there is always rearguard action trying to stop and if possible erase the gains made by the vanguard. It can feel like chaos. But God has never let chaos stand in the way of creation.

Heaven is not so much a place as where God is. Heaven apart from earth is not our final destination. In the 21st Chapter of the Book of Revelation, we read that in the new creation a new Jerusalem will become the meeting place between heaven and earth. "See, the home of God is among mortals and he will dwell with them; they will be his people and God himself with be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." Sounds like heaven on earth. And that is where we will live eternally, in a new creation where there is no divide between the spiritual and the physical, where not only minds can meet but we can hear and smell and touch and taste and see that the Lord is good.

And notice the echoes of Isaiah's prophesy in John's revelation. No more tears. And death which sought to swallow up the Son of God will be swallowed up by God. And that's the main way Jesus makes us rethink God. He is not a God of death and destruction; he is the God of life and creation. In the beginning he created the heavens and the earth. In the end he creates new heavens and a new earth. To do this, he did not send the kind of Messiah people thought they wanted: a warrior king who conquers by meting out death to his enemies. He sent the Prince of Peace who conquers by meeting his death at the hands of his enemies. And the Lord of Life doesn't just stop death--he reverses it. He metes out new life to all enemies who lay down their arms and open their hearts to him. He conquers hate with love, darkness with light, lies with truth, evil with goodness and death with life. And we, his followers and members of his body, must do what he does.

We all have a vision of the good life, a life without the terrible things which derail our peace and happiness in this life. But few of us would enjoy a life standing in clouds, playing harps. The good news is that not what God promises anywhere! I don't know where cartoonists ever got that image. When God made this world, it was good and he said so. We have done our best to try to remake it in our image and we've done a creditable job of making it hell on earth. Those few of us who do live a better life, do so in large part on the backs of those who live terrible lives, working hard while barely able to make a living, or losing their lives to problems we have pretty much eradicated. But God has been working through his people to set the stage for the coming of his son, Jesus Christ. And now we have been given the task of picking up where he left off, spreading the good news of forgiveness and transformation in Christ, and doing so not only with our lips but with our lives, not only by giving expression to God's love in beautiful words, but giving it concrete expression in good works, which flow naturally from being recipients of God's grace. We are to prepare things so that when Jesus returns, the world will be ready for the last stage of the establishment of his Kingdom. And then that vision of the good life, a life of peace and happiness, of harmony with nature, with others, with ourselves and with God, will become reality for all who trusted him.

On that first Easter morning, when his friends saw Jesus, solid and healthy and unbound by the restrictions of space and time, it was so wonderful, it changed the way they saw everything. They saw a God of love and forgiveness, rather than justice alone. A God who would become one of us, who would die for us, who would rise again to give us his eternal life. A God who fills us with his Spirit. And therefore they saw everyone they met as created in the image of God, and as either a friend and follower of Jesus or a potential friend and follower of Jesus. They saw evil not as an barrier to good but as unfinished business. They saw no reason to fear death because that battle had been won decisively and Jesus was now Lord of all. They saw, not a darker world, not one spiraling into endless night but one just touched by the first light of a glorious dawn. They saw everything and everyone through new eyes, through Christ's eyes. And I have just one question to ask: what's stopping us from seeing and thinking and acting the very same way?

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