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Saturday, March 24, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: What Happens When I Die?

1 Corinthians 15:1-27, 35-57

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There 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. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As 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. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, 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 be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 22:23-33

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.” Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.

Our Wednesday morning Bible Study group was talking this week about one of the strange phenomena of our time – that, according to newspaper death notices, no one dies any more. People pass; they claim the promise of the resurrection; they went to be with the Lord. I want to ask people who use those terms whether all of us who haven’t passed are failing; or where the Lord was before they died. I claimed the promise of the resurrection at my baptism. When the garbage truck runs over me while I’m riding my bike, I want you to say I died. It’s a perfectly good word.

The constant use of euphemisms usually indicates discomfort or outright denial. Years ago, we didn’t talk about sex -- we had dozens of euphemisms for that, too. Women didn’t get pregnant – they were in a family way. The sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther said that a bad theologian calls things true that are not true, but a faithful theologian tells it like it is. Christians ought to get used to death and everything about it, because the Apostles’ Creed says we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. We’ve got pass through dead to get to life everlasting.

What does the Bible teach us about what happens when we die? The Old Testament isn’t much help: it doesn’t talk very much about the afterlife. The Psalms talk about going down to Sheol, which was a kind of shadowy place where people went when they died. Mostly, the Hebrew Bible says that when people died, they slept with their ancestors. Ezekiel has a vision of the valley of dry bones coming back to life, but that’s more about the restoration of the nation of Israel than it is about individuals reviving in eternity.

Jesus talks about the afterlife mostly in parables: the great banquet, the judgment of the sheep and the goats, the rich man and Lazarus. In the Gospel of John, he tells the disciples he is leaving them to prepare a place for them, and that in his Father’s house there are many rooms. I remember a woman who didn’t like that translation – she preferred the King James Version, because she said she didn’t want a room, she wanted a mansion.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the Sadducees, who were the rich and conservative religious elite who only believed in the first five books of the Bible and therefore didn’t believe in an afterlife, try to trap Jesus by asking him a question about a woman who had been married seven times. “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” they ask. Jesus’ response tells us volumes about what happens in eternity. Eternity is not an extension of mortal life and mortal relationships. All of us who are hoping for perfect golf fairways or golden bicycle paths or sparkling beaches or even – dare I say it – immaculate baseball diamonds are going to be sorely disappointed. Human relationships – marriage, family, friendship – are parables of intimacy, dependence, and friendship with God and God’s people. They are like appetizers preparing us for the main course. Further, Jesus says, the dead are like angels. Note the wording: like. You and I are never going to be angels. Angels are not dead people – they are part of God’s heavenly court, and surround the throne of God singing eternal praise. In the Book of Revelation, heaven is one forever symphony of praise and thanksgiving. That’s why worship here is so important – like angels, worship is what we’re going to be doing forever, so we’d better learn to do it well now. Years ago at Annual Conference, after a long morning of argument over some issue, the bishop stopped the debate so we could have our mid-day worship service. As we creaked to our feet for the opening hymn, I said to my seatmate, best friend, and singing partner Jim Hewitt, I certainly hope heaven is not like THIS! Jim turned and said to me, I wouldn’t mind spending eternity singing next to you. And I crawled under my chair. But Jim was right – eternity is going to be about worship. If you don’t like it here – well, think about what that means for your future.

In the first letter to Corinth, St. Paul gets more explicit. Jesus is the model for us both in life and in death. Jesus died – he didn’t pass or go to be with the Lord. Then God raised Jesus to a new life. He wasn’t a ghost or an angel. He had a body. The disciples could touch him, he asked Mary not to hold on to him in the garden, and he cooked and ate fish with the disciples on the beach. He bore the scars of his crucifixion. But, he came and went through locked doors. He wasn’t recognized by two disciples on their way to Emmaus until he broke bread with them, and then he disappeared. He ascended up – and out – forty days after Easter, but then appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. So, Paul says in this morning’s lesson, who and how we are in this life resembles what is to come, in the same way that the mortal Jesus resembles, but is not identical to, the resurrected Jesus. It’s not clear what we’ll be, Paul says, except that we will be like Jesus. And that ought to be good enough for us.

It seems more and more to me that we don’t do ourselves, or others, or God any favors by talking about pearly gates or streets of gold or angel wings or beaches or golf courses. If, as St. Paul says, eternity is being like Jesus, what does that mean? Jesus is one with his Father. Jesus surrenders his will to the will of the Father. Jesus pours himself out in love for God and for the world. Jesus forgives all who have hurt him. Jesus lives to glorify his Father in everything he does and says and is. So, after death, it looks like Jesus. It looks like never having to think or worry about what I want, what I need, what I prefer. It looks like never ever thinking about what anyone else thinks about me. It looks like surrendering completely to love, to praise, to adoration, to God. It looks like never using the word “I” again. The closer I get to God, the more tired I get of me. To spend eternity in love, never thinking about myself, sounds pretty heavenly to me.

The Scottish-American Presbyterian clergyman Peter Marshall once told a story about falling asleep as a child in the living room of his house, and, when he woke up the next morning, found himself in his bed in his pajamas. He couldn’t figure out how he had gotten there, but then he realized that while he was asleep, without his knowing or remembering the in-between, his father had picked him up, carried him to his room, changed his clothes, and put him to bed, where he woke up in a new day, in new clothes, refreshed. That’s what will happen when we fall into that sleep. When we wake up, it will be in a new world, on a new day, and we will be wearing new bodies that look like Jesus’. Then, without any thought about ourselves, we’ll gather around the throne with all the new Creation to sing well and loud.

And we’ll all clap on two and four.

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