Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Life After...What?

[Opening with a video excerpt from the HBO Film Wit starring Emma Thompson and Christopher Lloyd.]

I almost didn’t show this clip. The truth is, it strikes too close to home for me and Terri. It seems recently we’ve been hit with death and scenarios like cancer. The morning after we found about the death of Terri’s brother, a dear friend of ours discovered he had lung cancer.

It seems the older we grow, the more aware we become of death. You look at your class year book and begin to count how many have passed away. Sometimes it’s quicker counting the survivors. You find yourself reading obituaries to see if you’ve lost any friends and you notice the ages in the obits are younger and younger.

It is not as if I experienced less death when I was younger. My parents made certain I went to every funeral they attended—which were quite a few. When I was a sixth grader I remember one of my classmates was electrocuted helping his dad set up a television antennae on his house. As a teenager, one of my classmates was killed in a bar fight. As a Freshman in college, a dear friend was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Death is a familiar figure—even when I was young.

Even so, death becomes more and more real to us. Maybe we just realize we are living on borrowed time. We know we won’t live forever and we feel the pressure of time rushing past us with ever increasing speed. Death becomes more real and more difficult, I think.

Have you ever wondered about the paradoxes presented at funerals? Preachers who say, “This body really isn’t Joe…” Well, then, if it isn’t Joe, then who is it? We hear phrases like “death has been defeated.” Death has been defeated? I’m looking at a body and thinking, “It looks like death won!” Then we hear funeral messages that seem to indicate victory over death is merely the spirit living with God in Heaven. But if death means the spirit is separated from the body, isn’t this just redefining death? How is this victory over death? Your spirit may be alive, but your body still died.

I think our confusion results from an unhealthy dose of Greek thought that has influenced Christianity for over 500 years. The ancients had a very limited view of death. The early Greeks thought when you died, you were dead. Perhaps a breath escaped and lived in Hades. But the breath wasn’t really you. You weren’t conscious, you had no memories. Heroes might be granted a special life after death but they were the exceptions. Later on, Plato came up with the idea of an eternal soul seeking to be freed from the body. Buying into this idea were several Greek-inspired religions, most notably Gnosticism. The body and the material world were evil while the spirit world was good. It was the ideal to be freed from the body and all things material.

When Paul preaches in Athens he is laughed at not because he taught the soul survived after the body died, but because he taught the resurrection of the dead. Most Greeks during that time believed the soul survived the body; they believed in life after death. The idea of resurrection was radically different from life after death.

However, the late Judaism of the first century, along with Jesus and Paul believed in resurrection. Jesus’ view of resurrection, while appearing to be similar to the Pharisees’ had a unique wrinkle. The Jews of Jesus day believed there would be only one resurrection—all of the righteous would be raised at the end of time and Israel would be restored and the entire world would live in peace with Israel being in the center ruled by the Messiah. They did not conceive that a representative, a first fruit would be raised in the middle of time. Of course this is exactly what happened with the resurrection of Jesus. He was raised from the dead in the middle of time demonstrating something incredible was happening: the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Its ultimate fulfillment is still to come, but the power and presence of God has now intersected our present world.

What happened with Jesus changed everything. According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:20, Jesus is the first fruit of the resurrection. Quite simply first fruit is an agricultural term referring to the first cutting that points to future harvest. Now, if you have the first fruit of wheat, what kind of crop do you think the second fruit is going to be? Is it going to be rice or beans or corn? No! The second fruit is also going to be wheat! The nature of the second fruit is the same nature as the first fruit. It is the same way with Jesus’ resurrected body and our resurrected bodies (cf. 1 John 3:1ff).

So, what was Jesus’ resurrected body like? While there are some major differences between the body that went into the tomb and the body that came out—it was still the same body. Jesus didn’t slough off a body and leave it in the tomb. Nor is there any indication in scripture that he sloughed off his body when he ascended to the presence of God. What was in the tomb came out of the tomb—changed in incredible ways.

While we have no clear picture, here are a few ways he was changed: he could keep himself from being recognized, he could appear and disappear at will, yet he describes himself as having flesh and bone, he could be touched and felt—that is, he had a physicality about him, he could even eat fish—and all of these descriptions are just found in Luke 24! Furthermore, he never decays or dies.

Perhaps the most detailed explanation of resurrection is found in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul is dealing with a doctrinal problem in this chapter. Some in Corinth are denying the general resurrection of the dead. Paul is emphatic about this issue. In 1 Corinthians 15:12, 13 Paul says:

Now if Christ is preached, that he raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised…
In vv. 20-26 he continues,

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by man came death, by a man also come the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at his coming, then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when he has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.
Now think this through with me for a moment: if resurrection is merely life after death, that is the survival of the soul in Heaven, then why is death the lat enemy to be defeated? Wouldn’t he already be defeated? Furthermore, what is raised on the last day? Evidently something other than one’s soul is going to be raised when Christ returns! Remember, the Corinthians, coming out of a first century pagan background have no problem in accepting life after death. That isn’t the issue! They have a hard time believing that dead bodies are going to rise again!

But this is precisely Paul’s point! We are not going to be disembodied spirits when Jesus comes back! We will have renewed bodies! They will be our own bodies.

Behold I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death where is your sting?”
So what difference does all of this make? Does it make any difference at all? Actually, it makes quite a bit of difference in how we view the world in which we live and especially how we treat our bodies. Let’s look briefly at some ramifications of the resurrection.

First, belief in the resurrection affects our ethics and morals. In the middle of the resurrection chapter Paul says:

“If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die. Do not be deceived, bad company corrupts good morals.”
He has brought up the resurrection in chapter 6 of the same book when he denounced sex outside of marriage as inconsistent with the resurrection. The truth is, if our bodies are going to be raised—if they are destined to immortality, then shouldn’t we treat them as if they are going to be raised? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about caring for the gift God has given us? Because of the resurrection what we do in the present with our bodies matters a great deal.

Secondly, Paul correlates the redemption of the creation with our resurrection in Romans 8. Creation longs to be redeemed and renewed right along with the redemption of our bodies! So belief in the resurrection also affects how we view the world itself. We live as stewards of the world, taking care of it and maintaining it. When God created the world and when he created our bodies, he created them as “very good.” That pronouncement means they are holy and to be treated with respect. They are not husks and shells containing the soul and meant to be discarded and destroyed. No, they will be renewed and redeemed and should be treated in such a way.

Thirdly, it means our work in the kingdom is not empty! Everything we do, every act of mercy shown, every cup of cold water given, every work of beauty, every word of grace given, and every attempt made at showing God to the world is significant and powerful. Paul ends his discussion of the resurrection with these words: Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. In other words what we do now has consequences that reach beyond the end of time. What is done “in the Lord” now will continue into God’s future! I love the way theologian N. T. Wright explains it: we are like stone cutters for the great ancient cathedrals in Europe. You may be required to cut out a huge square block; you might be required to carve a gargoyle; you an angel; you a capstone. You don’t know what it’s going to look like—you may even die before the cathedral is constructed (many took over 100 years to complete), but in the end when the architect has it all assembled together, the result is something so magnificent it defies description.

Finally, it means hope and comfort for those who face death. Paul makes this very clear in 1 Thessalonians. The resurrection of the body is a teaching which gives us hope and comfort. One day we will be resurrected along with all of God’s people. The curse of death will actually be reversed. We will know and be known! Death will be defeated and we will live with each other forever.

The movie and play Wit is about a professor of Literature who specializes in the holy sonnets of John Donne.* The one sonnet central to the play goes like this:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.

So, may you live your life aware of the bright hope placed before you. Death is a defeated foe! We do not have to stare into a deep, dark hole. Jesus has been raised from the dead and his resurrection guarantees ours! May you be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain!
*The movie version of Wit gets this one thing wrong: the idea of life after death is presented subtly as merely the soul's survival after death. But Donne was the lead clergyman (the dean) of St. Paul's Cathedral. He held a Doctorate of Divinity and he believed orthodox Christian belief regarding the resurrection. So in his sonnets his depiction of death as "one short sleep" is not just the initial act of dying, but he period between death and the final resurrection at the end of time. (See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope p. 15)

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