Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sermon: 24 Pentecost (11 November 2007)

24 Pentecost: 11 November 2007
(Ezekiel 37:1-14/Psalm 27/1Corinthians 15:12-26/John 11:17-27)
I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I like the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel in some Bible translations much better than in others; here, I prefer traditional over contemporary language. There’s real poetry in the opening lines.

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:2 Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. 3 Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. 4 Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. 5 Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, 6 and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. 7 Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa. 8 Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. 9 Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. 10 Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. 11 Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon.12 And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. 13 Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. 14 Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. 15 Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. 16 And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ (Matthew 1:1-16, NKJV).

At least one thing is obvious from this passage: there was a whole lot of “begotting” going on in the story of Jesus. And “begotting” is a messy process. A marriage is arranged – there are some exceptions to that in this story, but it generally is the case. The husband and wife have sex, sometimes over the course of many years before conception occurs and sometimes only once; either way the conception is something of an ordinary miracle. The mother carries the child for nine months and worries the entire time about its safety and hers; delivery was risky business and many mothers and children simply didn’t survive it. The baby is born amidst water and blood and sweat and tears and screams of pain and joy. This whole “begotting” business is just messy stuff from start to finish. It’s messier still when you consider some of the shady characters in the genealogy. There are Judah and Tamar. Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She pretended to be a prostitute to seduce Judah and bear his child. And she was the “good” one in this story found in Genesis 38; Judah was the sleaze. There was Salmon’s wife, Rahab, the mother of Boaz who later married Ruth. Rahab’s “full name” was Rahab the Prostitute. You can read about her in Joshua 2. Solomon’s mother is described as “she who had been the wife of Uriah.” We know her better as Bathsheba, the woman with whom David committed adultery. Messy business this “begotting” stuff. And this whole messy process leads us to Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.

I like all this mess. It looks like my life and connects me to the story. I like it when the Bible refuses to “pretty” up certain aspects of the story, when instead it shows God’s people warts-and-all as the very real, very flawed human beings we all know ourselves to be. It makes the Bible even more credible. Fiction can be tidy; not so truth. I like it that God has not bypassed our earthy humanity in favor of some idealized spirituality. God loves humans. He went to extraordinary lengths to save us as humans by becoming a human himself. What greater love could there be?

Not every early Christian group appreciated the messy way in which God works, though. The Docetists, very early on, denied that Jesus had a physical body at all; it was mere illusion. In reality he was pure spirit: incorporeal (not embodied) and eternal. The Gnostics, while not necessarily denying the humanity of Jesus, considered the physical body an obstacle to be transcended. Trapped within this prison of the body lives the spark of God – pure spirit – whose sole purpose is to escape the body and be reunited to God. It takes special, hidden, mystical knowledge – gnosis – to effect this escape. These early Christian heretics were dualists and saw an inherent conflict between the flesh – degraded and sinful they considered it – and the pure, uncorrupted spirit. God’s way seemed too messy for them, too earthy, too human; so, they created their own “better” way. And the church soundly rejected their version of the gospel. That’s why John writes

1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world (1 John 4:1-3, NIV).

The church adamantly rejected the dualists – “bad” body, “good” spirit is just bad theology – but they have remained with us to this day. They thrive both outside the church and inside the church. I suspect that most of us even have some latent, Gnostic tendencies. Want to do a little self-test? Picture the afterlife – life eternal in the presence of God. (Pause right now to visualize it. Where are you? What are you? What are you doing?) For many Christians, I suspect the image of the afterlife has been formed more by Hollywood than by scripture, more by commercials than by commentaries. To the extent that Hollywood even considers the afterlife, the dead are often portrayed as distressed spirits trying desperately to make contact with those remaining on earth. Commercials are even worse: spirits with wings floating on clouds and extolling the virtues of a particular brand of toilet tissue or cream cheese spread. These images parody and trivialize our faith but probably do it no real harm since they are so obviously foolish. Notions of those outside the church don’t concern me nearly as much as those inside the church. So, how did you do? How did you picture the afterlife?

The Creed says simply, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Now I don’t want to crush any hopes – well, yes, I do: you are not going to be an angel. Ever. No wings despite the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Sorry Clarence. No floating on clouds; that’s a misreading of scripture. No. You are going to be … well, you are going to be you – body and all. Have you ever been to funerals – I know you have – where people have said the “comforting” words, “He’s not here, dear. That’s just his body. He’s gone to heaven to be with the Lord.” Bless these saints; it’s right for them to offer comfort. But there’s more than a smidgen of gnosticism hidden in their assurances. Despite what they may think or say, human beings are not just spirits. Humans are bodies and spirits united as one. The New Testament never pictures the afterlife as an eternal realm of disembodied spirits praising God. We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Nor does the New Testament picture us all going to live in heaven. No. It pictures a new heaven and a new earth. It pictures New Jerusalem, the city of God, descending out of heaven to the new earth to become the dwelling place of God and his people (Rev 21). The life everlasting will be messy no more – no “begotting,” no sorrow or pain or sickness or death or sin – but it will still be earthy and human. Our humanity is not something shoddy to be transcended, but something fallen to be glorified. God created us as humans. God loves us as humans. God redeems us as humans. And humans we shall be throughout eternity in his presence.

If you’re curious about the body you will be throughout eternity, read the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus in the gospels. Read 1 Corinthians 15. I can add nothing to those accounts really; that’s all we know – everything else is pure speculation. We will have bodies. They will be like Jesus’s resurrection body. They will be our very own bodies – I’ll never be other than John Roop – yet somehow transformed and glorified. It’s a transformation I’m looking forward to. Who wouldn’t when reading Paul’s words?

41There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is
from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor 15:41-49, NRSV).

Paul is not being at all dualistic in this passage when he contrasts the spiritual body with the physical body. The physical body is our present state. The spiritual body is our glorified state when we join in the resurrection: imperishable, glorious, powerful – a body fully bearing the image of the man of heaven, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Humanity which has been enslaved to sin and corruption will finally be set free, not from the body, but from the fallen state of the body, at the resurrection from the dead, on the last day, when the last trumpet sounds,

For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." 55"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:52b-58, NIV).

So we believe in the resurrection of the body. Now, here’s the question: Except for the sake of theological orthodoxy, is that really important? Does it really matter whether in the life everlasting we will be disembodied spirits or glorified human bodies? Perhaps we should frame the questions a little differently: Are bodies important, or does only the spirit have value? More generally: Is matter important, or does only the spiritual have value? The answers seem obvious from a biblical standpoint, don’t they? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – matter – and pronounced his creation good. Yes, matter matters. It is of value in God’s eyes. The entire creation – rocks and trees and sky and rivers and air and snowy egrets and slugs and all created things – the entire creation has value in God’s eyes and must therefore have value in our eyes. And that includes bodies. Watch Jesus in action in the gospels. What is he doing? Healing broken bodies. Feeding hungry bodies. Raising to life again dead bodies. Feasting with sinful bodies. Dying for no-bodies, nobodies loved with a love more powerful than sin and death and hell.

The great danger in discounting the importance of the body is precisely that we will devalue bodies – that we will fail to heal and feed and clothe and shelter and visit and feast with those bodies around us, in short that we will fail to act like Jesus. A spiritualized faith – one that discounts the body – is no faith at all.

14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17, NIV).

When a Christian brother or sister tells you that we need not concern ourselves with poverty, homelessness, universal health care, HIV/AIDS, justice, genocide, and other global humanitarian crises – with the general state of humanity – because “Jesus came to save our souls,” there is a gnostic Christian who neither truly understands nor believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

The great danger in discounting the importance of matter is precisely that we will devalue the material world – that we will rape our planet, hoard or squander our natural resource, pollute our air and water, exercise dominion but not stewardship, and generally turn the garden God created and pronounced good into a wasteland filled with the remains of a humanity that has ceased to bear God’s image. When a Christian brother or sister tells you that we need not concern ourselves with sustainable living, with pollution, with global warming – with the general state of our material world – because “this old world is temporary and our eternal home is in heaven,” there is a Gnostic Christian who neither truly understands nor believe in the resurrection of the body.

Do bodies matter? Does this world matter? Look again at Jesus. Look at the kingdom of God that existed wherever he was, and that will exist wherever he is.

1After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
2When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
4Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" (Matthew 11:1-6, NIV).

Tell John what you see and hear. And what were the signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God? Physical blessing of broken bodies. Jesus seemed to think that was important. I suspect that wherever we see Jesus today – in the person of his disciple and his church – wherever the kingdom breaks into this fallen world, we will see the same. Bodies matter. This glorious creation of God matters. Now and unto the ages of ages.

We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


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