October 14, 2018

Resurrection and the Future

Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Romans 8: 18-25

Synopsis: Our experience of death and our questions about our future with God are intensely personal. No question should be off the table as we wrestle with this in our death denying culture. In this respect, it can be helpful to study the development of Paul’s thought as he considers his Pharisaic belief in the resurrection, Greek beliefs that our imperishable souls are confined in our perishable bodies, and the experience of suffering and death. In all such formulations, we’re reaching beyond what we can clearly see or articulate. Our hope is that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.


When Ruth and I were serving a mission assignment in the Philippines, we received word that my mother was gravely ill after a long fight with breast cancer. We, with our three young children, quickly booked a flight home. Family members were there to meet us on when we arrived at the airport. They rushed us to see mother because they thought she might not live through the night.


She was very weak but so happy to see us. Then her health revived, and she lived several more weeks. I’m convinced that she willed herself to stay alive until she could again see us. That was a precious time. Ruth used her nursing skills to help care for her and I spent lots of time by her bedside. I felt awkward and incompetent. I had recently finished my seminary studies and had been ordained as a pastor but none of that had prepared me for this.


Once, as I was sitting by her side, mother asked me to read some Bible passages to her and I read a portion from one of Paul’s letters. I don’t know if the words I read were comforting to her, but Paul’s exclamation that death has been swallowed up in victory felt triumphalistic and hollow to me. In retrospect, Paul’s passage in Romans about groaning in labor pains as we wait for the redemption of our bodies would have been more appropriate.


This is a difficult matter to talk about, partly because we live in a death denying culture. My more recent year of clinical pastoral education at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center before I became our pastor was the kind of training on caring for dying people that I should have had much earlier in my career. The pain of death is always with us as are the questions and doubts it raises.


No question should be off the table. A good friend once confided that she doesn’t believe in life after death. She’s a nurse who has seen lots of human suffering and death. For her, the notion that dead bodies would be resurrected is unbelievable. She’s not alone in that. Part of Paul’s debate with the church in Corinth was that they also struggled with such beliefs. What makes preaching about this so difficult is that I don’t want to give glib answers about going to heaven or about our bodies being resurrected. Yet, I want to offer us a living hope in our future with God. I’m aware that Christians have had very different ways of understanding such matters through the ages. In that respect, it can be helpful for us to see the development of Paul’s thought.


As a devout Pharisee, Paul believed in the resurrection. This, however, had not been an historic Jewish belief. The Hebrew scriptures which we call the Old Testament, don’t mention the resurrection except at the very end in the book of Daniel. Religious scholars say this belief had been borrowed from the Persians. Paul also believed that Christ would return in his lifetime. That’s what he taught new believers in his first missionary journeys and it becomes a central topic for discussion in his first letter to the Thessalonians. When Christ didn’t return and some of the Christians in Thessalonica died, others worried that they would miss out in meeting him at his second coming. In response, Paul said that the dead would rise first, and they’d all then meet Christ together.


As Christ’s return kept being pushed further and further into the future, the teaching that the dead were waiting in their graves for his return provided little comfort. Furthermore, new Christians from a Greek background didn’t believe in the resurrection. They had a dualistic understanding that our spirits are imperishable but are confined in our perishable bodies. At death, our spirit is released from the prison of our body. Paul disputes this in his first letter to the Corinthians, telling them that if there is no resurrection, then Christ has not been raised and our faith is in vain (12: 13-14). It’s fascinating to see how Paul’s thought develops. He next tries to meet the Corinthians halfway. He doesn’t deny that our bodies die and decay but insists that there are different kinds of bodies and not all die and decay.


Drawing on the analogy of sowing seeds, he argues that what was sown as a perishable seed is raised as a new imperishable body. I wonder if Paul’s argument convinced the Corinthians. I suspect that they took it with a grain of salt and fit it into their dualistic body/spirit worldview. A good reason for thinking this is because the Greek worldview on such matters, rather than the Jewish worldview, became the dominant Christian worldview in the following centuries.


We still hold that basic Greek worldview today. We believe that at death our bodies decay and our spirits go to be with God in heaven through faith in Jesus. In this sense, we’re more Greek than Jewish. In his effort to help the Corinthians understand the resurrection, Paul claimed that the risen Christ did not have a body “of flesh and blood” but a “spiritual” body. He “spoke of Christ as not only alive in heaven but also present in the lives of believers.”[1]


As an aside, many people have questions about what will happen to evil people when they die. While Paul indicates that they will experience God’s wrath, he never mentions hell or eternal punishment.[2] This is a whole different discussion that we don’t have time to get into today.


Our focus is on the future of believers. Paul said that Christ is a “first fruit” and we will also share in his resurrection. In following years, as Paul went through some severe trials and near-death experiences, he became less sure that Christ would return in his lifetime. In response, he began to reflect on the spiritual transformation that’s already underway in our lives.


He told the Corinthians that “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). This indwelling presence is beautifully expressed in the gathering hymn, God is here among us.

God is here among us let us all adore him and with awe appear before him.

God is here within us; soul, in silence fear him, humbly, fervently draw near him.

Now his own who have known God in worship lowly yield their spirits wholly.


By the time that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans (his last surviving letter), he was a prisoner in chains. The historical details are lost but biblical scholars think he was never released and was eventually executed in Rome. At this point, he appears to have given up his belief that Christ would return in his lifetime. He says that we wait in hope and patience.


Paul adds another dimension to such hope. This is that the whole creation, which groans and struggles with us, will also be released from its bondage in God’s future and share in the glory that will be revealed in us. This is especially apropos in our day of resource depletion and global warming.  God’s purpose is that the violated creation will be restored to its original goodness. I also like to think of it as our present world order of competing and waring nation states being completely transformed.


It would be a mistake to treat Paul’s teaching on the resurrection and the future as hard and fast doctrine. We, instead, see his fertile mind at work as he wrestles with this topic, ever slightly changing his focus and perspective as he confronts different challenges. God had called him to be an apostle to the gentiles, not a systematic theologian.[3]


He wraps up his discussion on these matters in his letter to the Romans by enveloping it all in God’s love, writing, “In all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created” (8:37-39).


The solid foundation of our hope is God’s powerful love for us, a love that’s stronger than any other power or circumstance. We trust that our God holds the future no matter what may come. When we talk about the resurrection, body and spirit, or being with God in heaven we’re reaching beyond what we can clearly see or articulate. That’s why it’s better to not get too dogmatic about such things.


Still, I love old gospel songs about the future and eternal life even when the language is rather fanciful. I got that from my Mom. I can still hear her singing gospel songs like My latest sun is sinking fast.

 O come, angel band, come and around me stand;

O bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home.

 O bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home.


The last stanza of the song, In the bulb there is a flower, more nearly expresses my hope in God’s eternity,

In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity;

in our doubt there is believing; in our life eternity.

In our death, a resurrection; at the last a victory,

unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.


[1] E. P. Sanders, Paul, The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought (location 5975).

[2] Ibid., 6630.

[3] Ibid., 6791.

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