Monday, April 23, 2012

What Do Christians Mean When Confessing "the Resurrection of the Dead"?

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on April 22, 2012.]

Luke 24:36-49
To begin this morning, let’s look at two great verses about the greatest promise God gives to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

First, Romans 10:9: “...if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Now, turn to one of my favorite passages, John 11:25-26. Jesus spoke these words to His friend, Martha, grieving over the loss of her brother, Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. [All] who [believe] in Me, though [they] die, they shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

Both of these passages--and many more--tell us that Christ shares His Easter resurrection with all who entrust their lives to Him. They bring God's comfort and power into our lives!

But they can trouble and baffle us too.

A woman in my first parish had just lost her husband. “Pastor,” she said, “what exactly do we mean when we say that we believe in ‘the resurrection of the dead.’ I’ve said it all my life. But I’m not sure I understand it.”

Her confusion was understandable.

Ask the average Christian what happens to believers after they die and they may say something like: “Well, I guess that our immortal spirits go to live with God.” This is the kind of thing that the ancient Greeks and Romans said happened to people when they died. It’s not what the Bible teaches.

First of all, the Bible doesn’t say that we have immortal spirits. It says that we are mortal beings, completely dependent on the breath or the Spirit of God to live. Genesis says that when God created the first man, He did so by scooping dirt from the earth He had just created and exhaling life into it. We have no immortal spirit; either we have the breath or spirit of God within us and live or we don't have God's life within us and die. This is why we often say at grave sites, "Ashes to ashes; dust to dust."

And, according to the Bible, as believers in Christ, you and I are not destined to be airy murky ghosts.

When you and I, as believers in the promises of God recorded in both the Old and New Testaments, confess a belief in “the resurrection of the dead,” we’re saying something different from what any other religion or popular belief system has asserted.

Take a look at 1 Corinthians 15, starting at verse 51. These words written by the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit in the first century and are addressed to believers in Christ: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall 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 incorruptible [this not only means they can no longer sin, but also that their bodies will no longer deteriorate, age, or decay], and we shall all be changed. For this corruptible [nature] must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality...”

When believers in Christ are resurrected, it will be the result of God making a brand new creation. It’ll be a new Genesis.

We will, in some sense, look the same as we do here and now and we will have the benefit of all the lessons this life has taught us, but we who were once simply people of earth will become people of both earth and heaven.

On a day known only to God the Father, Jesus will show up on this earth and bring His new, eternal creation to supplant the old, tottering, death- and sin-infested creation in which you and I now live and we will rise, not as wispy spirits, but as new human beings.

It may happen long centuries after we have died, our skin and bones already reduced to dust or ashes, but God can bring new life from ashes. And God will not forget us! He will raise up all who have believed in His Son.

This is not a new teaching. Job is probably the oldest book in the Old Testament. Yet Job expressed belief in the resurrection that would come to all who believed in the God Who would, in the fullness of time, come into the world to die and rise again. Look at what Job says in Job 19:25-26: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He shall stand on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know: That in my flesh I shall see God.” In my flesh I will see God; not from the perspective of some ghostly phantom!

But how do we know that it’s true? In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls Jesus Christ “the firstfruits of the dead.” The resurrected Jesus is God’s prototype of what we will be like when those who follow Jesus are resurrected. 1 John 3:2 speaks to believers, “ has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when [Jesus] is revealed [at His return to this world], we shall be like Him...” The risen Jesus is the new Adam and those who believe in Him are destined by God to be like Him!

Turn to our gospel lesson, Luke 24:36-49 to see what we will be like.

Let's set the scene: It’s later in the day on the first Easter Sunday. Just before the events of today's lesson, Cleopas and another disciple had walked with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. But they only realized it was Jesus when Jesus, at the table with them, “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” 

After Jesus disappeared, they tore back to Jerusalem to tell other followers of Jesus that the crazy story brought from the tomb by some of the women disciples was true. Jesus was risen from the dead. They had seen Him too! When they got back to Jerusalem, they were told that Peter too, had seen the risen Jesus.

While they were talking about all of this, Jesus suddenly appeared among them. Verse 37 says that all of the disciples--the eleven apostles plus other believers in Jesus--”were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit.” Other translations say they thought they were seeing a ghost.

Why would they have thought that? After all, they had it from multiple witnesses by then that Jesus was raised from the dead.

The answer is simple: People with physical bodies don’t just show up in the midst of a crowd of people. They walk through open doors or, at least, slink in through open windows. But there had been no walking or slinking. Jesus had just appeared. Clearly, the resurrected Jesus isn’t constrained by the things that ordinarily constrain us.

In the face of their doubts, Jesus issues a challenge to the disciples in verse 39: “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” Then, to underscore that He is no ghost, but a body of flesh and bone, in verse 41, Jesus looks around like a teenager at the end of a school day (or at the end of the 30 Hour Famine) and asks, “Got anything to eat?” (Actually, “Have you any food here?”) The disciples give Jesus boiled fish. Spirits don’t have bodies that can be touched. Ghosts don’t eat. Living bodies do.

So, what does all of this have to do with you and me?

First of all, it means that our bodies are important. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: "God likes matter. He invented it."

The fact is that Jesus died and rose not to bring us to some murky, spiritual half-life. Jesus died and rose so that God can recreate us as physical beings, just as He originally intended when He made Adam and Eve.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19, that the physical body of each believer in Jesus Christ is "a temple of the Holy Spirit." God cares about what we do to and how we care for our bodies.

Second, we can live each day in the confidence that whatever comes our ways in this life, we belong to a risen Lord Who has big plans for us. Romans 14:8-9 says: “For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again that He might be Lord of both the living and the dead.” The risen Jesus can be with us, filling us with His life, all the time.

Third, we know that repentance and belief are more than nice ideas. In verse 47 of our lesson, Jesus says that the reason He calls the Church into existence is to tell the world about His suffering and resurrection and so that “repentance and remission [or forgiveness] of sins should be preached in [Jesus’] Name to all nations...” It’s those who repent and believe who will share in Jesus’ resurrection. That needs to be lived out in our daily lives...and shared with others!

Finally, we should know this: While all the mysteries about what will happen the moment after we breathe our last in this world haven’t disappeared, we can be certain that those who have died before Jesus’ returns are with Him.  The New Testament does say that those who have died believing in Jesus have gone to sleep and from the perspective of this world made imperfect and time-bound by human sin, that’s true.

But the Bible teaches that there are two dimensions of reality
. On the one hand, there is the earthly. In this dimension, we’re constrained by things like time and space and sin. The other dimension of reality is the heavenly. It’s the place where God reigns.

The heavenly dimension has invaded the earthly reality through Jesus and is being invaded still every time we read God’s Word, receive Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, or pray and serve in Jesus’ Name. We pray for the fullest possible invasion of the heavenly dimension into our lives and the life of the world every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

One day, when Jesus returns to the world, that invasion will be complete. The old will pass away and the new will take control forever.

And what happens in the meantime? Look at Luke 23:42. Jesus is dying on the cross between two criminals. One joins the crowd in excoriating Jesus. The other though says to Jesus: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Then Jesus makes a promise: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.”

Right now, this very moment, if you trust your past sins along with your present and future life to the control of Jesus, you are in His kingdom, though we do, in the Biblical phrase, see through a glass darkly.

And right now, those who have died believing in Jesus are with Him in paradise. We can’t see them now in their resurrected bodies and, from the perspective of this time-bound world, their resurrection has yet to happen. But in that other dimension--the heavenly dimension--they are with Jesus now in strong, youthful bodies.

They’re eating and drinking at the table of the Lord.

They’re laughing and rejoicing in a kingdom in which every tear has been wiped away, every physical ailment is banished, and sin is a forgotten affliction.

If, in the power of God, we will spend our lives turning from sin and entrusting our every moment to the risen Christ, the kingdom in which they live right now--the kingdom of Jesus--will be ours forever. The resurrection of Jesus shows us that it’s so.


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