God, I offer these words to you, build with them and do with them as You will. May they bear witness of your love, your power, and your way of life. AMEN
When Amy invited me to preach a few weeks ago, I looked up the readings and prayed with them to sense where there might be an invitation. It was to this passage in Second Corinthians and to be honest I was felt slightly horrified and overwhelmed. Let me repeat them:
. . . So we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
I felt overwhelmed because I confess that even though I spent three years in divinity school and have an undergraduate degree in religious studies, I didn’t take a class on what Christian theologians call eschatology – the study of the end of lives, the end of times. Most of what I’ve learned about this topic, I learned in the last week.
I felt horrified because I generally try to ignore discussions or sections of the Bible that have words like eternal or heaven or bodies being raised with Jesus. My mind can’t help but go to a cartoonish place – the Jesus with- a Jet-pack image – leaving Earth during the ascension, then jetting back at some future time to take back with him all the good people and cast down to hell bad people. Second, I associate these cartons with versions of Christianity that seem rife with judgment and fear. “If they want to talk about the end times, let them have it,” I tell myself. I’d prefer to talk about Jesus’ love, reconciling power, and inclusiveness. So I focus on the gospels and don’t generally dwell on Paul’s writing on eschatology.
Bu as I argued with God in my mind about preaching on this passage, what stood out were the lines, “so we speak” and “so we take heart.” The promise of bodily resurrection for Jesus’ followers wasn’t secondary to their faith; it was core to their hope and inspiration. Maybe I was avoiding this topic at my own peril.
Given my newness of this subject to me, I found two books as companions – N.T. Wright, an Anglican theologian, and author of the book Surprised By Hope. Brian McLaren’s book The Secret Message of Jesus has also been a resource. McLaren is a progressive Evangelical pastor.
I want to share four points from their writing that have been a source of both clarity and inspiration.
- First, when Paul writes that God will raise Jesus’ followers as he raised Jesus, I can happily let go of the jetpack imagery. If you’re struggling with that image, don’t worry, you can let go of it. You and I don’t have to believe that at some point in the future Jesus will appear from the sky, and then invite the people he likes to follow him back up there. N.T. Wright writes that “Heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s creation.” They have different kinds of space, different kinds of matter, and different kinds of time. So that end time, Paul refers to of our bodies being raised with Jesus – instead of imagining jetpacks – imagine two different worlds or dimensions colliding. Imagine this collision coinciding with the end of the powers and principalities that caused Jesus’ death and cause suffering inwardly and outwardly for us today – individuals and institutions focused on power, prestige, and accruing possessions. Wright writes that if in this life we know Jesus through the sacraments and through one another, it’s like knowing someone by email or telephone. Part of what will happen is this moment of getting to know Jesus face-to-face.
- Second, if Paul’s emphasis on our bodies being raised with Jesus, seems confusing, we’re very entitled to that confusion. Neither Paul nor Jesus give us a lot of details about what will happen to each of us when we breathe our last breath. They don’t explain how heaven could possibly fit so many dead people. What they do give us as information about bodily resurrection is a metaphor, the metaphor of the harvest. McLaren summarizes Paul’s use of the metaphor: “This ‘flesh and blood earthly body, [Paul] says, is planted in death like a seed in soil. The ‘heavenly body’ that grows from the seed is as unlike our current body as a stalk of wheat is unlike (yet as related to) the seed from which it germinated. There is continuity but also discontinuity.” Our heavenly bodies will be both similar and dissimilar from our current earthly bodies.
- T. Wright’s explanation of heaven and McLaren’s explanation of bodily resurrection began to satisfy some of my intellectual resistance to the Second Coming but it didn’t help me understand why it was so important. Why does any of this talk about heaven and bodily resurrection matter for me? Why did it matter to Paul? Third, and maybe most importantly, as McLaren reminded me of the political context of early Christianity I understood that Paul emphasizes the promise of resurrection for all of Jesus’ followers – not as a way to get people to abandon this earthly life – but to embolden them to participate in Jesus’ Kingdom in this life.
McLaren reminded me that the Jewish people to whom Jesus preached wanted to be free, to live in their own land without being second-class citizens. Given their covenant with God to rule over the land of Israel, it seemed wrong to the Jews that they were being ruled over by the Romans and in particular that Augustus Caesar was claiming to be divine himself. So a question hung in the air for first century Jews, “How can we remain quiet and compliant citizens under an oppressive empire that demands our loyalty over and against our loyalty to God? How can we be liberated from Rome?”
Four different Jewish groups offered four different answers:
- The Zealots said, “We need to revolt.”
- The Herodians said, “We need to cooperate.”
- The Essenes said, “We need to withdraw.”
- The Pharisees said, “We need to purify.”
Into this mix of solutions came Jesus with a different response. It gets translated in different ways but the message was singular. It was the message that he told his followers to share with anyone who would welcome them. “Repent. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” “The Kingdom of God is near.”
Jesus’ message confused people. They couldn’t figure out if he was a Zealot, an Essene or another Pharisee. His solution was to seek, and enter a kingdom where citizens didn’t kill Roman soldiers. Instead if a soldier hit you across one cheek you offered him the other. It was a message about loving your enemies, about God having a special place in his heart for women and children and prostitutes and others on the margin of society, it was about how what made you first on earth wouldn’t make you first in heaven.
McLaren reminds us that embracing this kingdom was very, very risky business. Jesus was killed for his commitment to God’s kingdom. His loyalty to the Kingdom of God was a threat to the Rome’s demand for loyalty. Embracing Jesus’ message was equally dangerous for early Christians. For some, it also cost them their lives at the hands of the Romans. For others, like the Corinthian congregation, a mix of Jews and Gentiles, being in the community was costing them their precious convictions about food and clothing customs, sexual mores. Jesus’ bodily resurrection, as Paul wrote, took the sting out of death. It showed God’s triumph over the Romans’ attempt to crush Jesus’s message of compassion and communion. Moreover, the promise of Jesus’ Second Coming, the promise of bodily resurrection for all his believers, the promise that Jesus was the first fruits of God’s harvest and they would be next, Paul was extending to Christians the promise and challenge to embrace God’s kingdom today. HE keeps telling them about the end that awaits them and how it is with Jesus because he wants to invite them into the same risky, vibrant, Kingdom present that Jesus embraced.
If the theology of the End Times, the promise of a future embodied existence with Jesus a time in the future are meant to embolden us to embody and seek out Jesus’ kingdom today, I wonder what stories about the future we might be carrying that we need to let go of? What story are you telling yourself about your ultimate destination? What story might God be inviting you to let go of in order to embrace this other story?
I’ve become more aware in the last few months of the story I’ve been telling myself about my ultimate destination. I went to church growing up but we didn’t pray much at home, didn’t talk about God, definitely not about eschatology. So I unconsciously soaked up the values of my upper-middle-class upbringing: go to a good college, get a job as a doctor, lawyer, or professor, marry, and have kids, live in a home as nice as the one I grew up with, have kids, repeat. Be kind to everyone. Give to charity. Success will look like some combination of being socially-minded enough to work for Doctors Without Border and being wealthy enough to afford retirement and a mortgage and college for a couple kids.
This story worked fine, except that by my early 30s, I’m still single, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a house, I’m not a doctor. If I accept my culture’s story about what matters, I measure up short. Something shifted a few weeks months ago..
It’s epiphany Sunday. I get a call from my parents just as church is about to start. I let it go to voicemail because I’m in the sanctuary but I listen to the voicemail as I walk out to the foyer. They don’t usually call Sunday mornings so I’m concerned that something has happened.
In the voicemail my father tells me that he and my mother are at Logan. They’re going to Peru for two weeks. I feel relieved that they’re OK and I feel drawn to call them back given that they’re going away so far and for so long. I go out the side door near the organ and stand outside in the cold January sun pondering what to say. There’s a blue sky, geese fly overhead, and I think of Mary Oliver“. . .Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again, whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination. . .”
Here’s what I begin reciting in my mind, “Mum, Dad, travel safely. I’ll think about you often. No need to worry; I’m well back here. I’ve got a good home now.” Those last words catch me by surprise: “I’ve got a good home.” They’re true. Here, right here at this church, in many ways I’m still a stranger but I have also found a home. I have failed to live out the story I inherited about the good life, but here at CGS I’ve fallen into another story. It’s a story that this communion table is a foretaste of God’s kingdom of compassion and communion. I’ve felt it in my body as I’ve watched people help one another to the communion table – whether they can walk or see on their own. I’ve felt it as I’ve heard voicing singing in perfect harmony mixing with voices singing a few notes off, a few seconds off, and knowing that they’re all welcome here.
I didn’t have to explain any of this to my father. When I tried calling him back my call went to voicemail. They’d already boarded the plane. Even without talking to my father, it felt like God planting his heavenly promise more deeply in my heart, “Duncan, be not afraid. You’re not alone. You have a home, though it doesn’t look like what you expected. But day by day I’m giving you the eyes to see it.”
I want to close with a quote from N.T. Wright:
“The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, . . . They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
We’re being invited to be co-creators of a great and risky future. It’s risky because its greatness isn’t about power or fame or knowledge but about vulnerability, sacrifice, and love. There will be costs. It’s thrilling because we get to be part of the renewal and reconciliation of all things. My prayer for today is that we each be given the eyes to see our part and that we be bold in claiming it.