Sunday, July 23, 2017

I Believe - Resurrection

Today we finish our study of the Apostle’s Creed by looking at the one part of our Christian belief that we always have to take on faith – resurrection and eternal life.  The Bible says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.  Since what happens after we die is not something that we can see, what we believe about our resurrection and eternal life are things we have to take on faith.  While the Apostles’ Creed does not lay out for us a detailed analysis of how the resurrection takes place and what eternal life is like, it does point us in the right direction and bears witness to the foundation of what the early followers of Jesus believed which is that there is a resurrection and eternal life.  

This is what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20-22.

And Jesus himself said, I am the resurrection and the life and the one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.   John 11:25

So the creed points us to the truth of the resurrection and eternal life and this is what we believe but if you were hoping to leave today with a clear understanding of how and when this all happens, you will be disappointed.  Jesus is not clear and the Bible gives us no details.  What I would like to do is address 4 questions that have to do with resurrection and eternal life:
What happens when we die?
What do we mean by the resurrection of the body?
What is heaven like?  
When does all this happen?

What happen when we die?  Not what happens to our body but what happens to our life, our soul or spirit?  In the Old Testament it was believed that when a person died they went to the place of the dead, which was known as Sheol.  Everyone went there when they died, the good and the bad, it was just the place of the dead.  In fact, the word Sheol can often be found in the book of psalms translated as the word grave or the place of the dead.

By the end of the Old Testament, God revealed more of his plan of salvation and eternal life by telling us that at some point death would be defeated.  Isaiah 25:6-8.  Isaiah 26:19.  These passages pointed to a resurrection of the dead, but at the time of Jesus, this was not clearly defined and the thought that there could or would be a resurrection to eternal life was pretty controversial.  In fact, in first century Judaism there were two very different schools of thought.  The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection.  They believed that when people died they went to Sheol but there was no resurrection to eternal life.  The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection.  This difference in opinion divided the Jewish leaders and they often tried to pull Jesus into their debate.

While any attempt to clearly outline what the first century Jews and then later Christians believed about resurrection and eternal life would be incomplete, here is a diagram that Adam Hamilton has provided that does a good job of giving us a picture of what people believed.
From Adam Hamilton's "Creed"  
When someone died their spirit went to the place of the dead, Sheol which was also known as Hades.  At the time of Jesus there was already this thought that righteous went to a good section of Sheol known as paradise and the evil went to tartarus and between these sections was a gulf that could not be crossed.  But these were not people’s final destinations because at some point there would be a resurrection and then a final judgement and from here people would go to either heaven or hell.  Again, while this is incomplete and you can find different views from different people, and many of the Greek and Hebrew words used to talk about all these things make it difficult for us to fully understand all the ideas being presented, this is a pretty good picture of what people of faith believed at the time of Jesus and it gives us at least a place to start talking about what we believe happens when we die.

Today there are still a variety of views on what happens to us when we die and people have different ideas on how and when all this takes place and the Bible does not give us a clear teaching.  The only thing I can say with certainty is that we do not know exactly what happens when we die.  While the does Bible give us some insight and direction, Jesus never spoke definitively on the subject and he never laid out a clear path for us to teach so all of this really becomes a matter for us to take on faith.

So What happens when we die?  As clearly as I can say it, when our faith and trust is in Jesus, when we die we go to be with him.  Jesus turned to the thief on the cross who died at the same time he did and because he trusted Jesus, Jesus promised that they would be together in paradise.  Is this paradise an eternal heaven or is there another judgement coming?  I don’t know but this I do know, if our faith is in Jesus – when we die we will be with him.   Jesus does come to judge the living and the dead and so maybe that judgement takes place at the moment we die, maybe it is at a later time – we don’t really know, but if we place our faith in Jesus – we will be with Jesus when we die and we will be with him forever.

The second question to address is What do we mean by the resurrection of the body?  After we die, is it this body, our current body that comes back to life?  Paul tells us that the answer to this is no.  1 Corinthians 15: 42-44.  Our current bodies are made of dust and to dust we shall return.  These bodies are not meant to last forever so the new bodies we will receive will be imperishable and indestructible.  We don’t know what these bodies will be like, but they will be good and strong and not prone to sin or sickness or any kind of disease.

Think about Jesus after his resurrection.  His body changed.  The mortal wounds were healed, and at times people recognized him and at times they didn’t.  There were times Jesus body seemed to be just like ours as he ate food and could be touched but then there were times he would appear and disappear unexplained.  If Jesus is the model of our new bodies, they will be similar but different.  They will also be unique and eternal.  I am so glad I will be able to let go of this body with all its problems and be given something new.
So if it is not this body that is resurrected, why do we affirm in the creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body?  It is important for us to remember that the Apostles’ Creed is a product of its time and at that time there was this idea that all flesh was bad and only the spirit was good.  This kind of dualism is called Gnosticism and it was a world view that threatened to undermine much of Christian teaching.  In response to this, the Christian leaders decided to talk about a bodily resurrection because they wanted to set forth the idea that all of God’s creation has value and will be redeemed.  If only the spirit matters then there is no need for us to care for people’s physical needs or to be good stewards of this world, but all of life is important, the physical and the spiritual and so it was important to make that distinction.

What I appreciate about affirming a bodily resurrection is that we are not talking about a spiritual resurrection to eternal life but a bodily one which means we will all have something special and defined and somehow relatable.  It will not a body that will decay and decline but a body that will be strong and last forever.  Each of us will have a glorious heavenly body that will be unique and eternal and while we may not be able to wrap our minds around what this body will be like – we believe it is there for us all.  So the resurrection of the body doesn’t mean this body will be reformed from the ashes it will be become, it means that there will be a glorious body we will all receive at the time of the resurrection.

So this leads to the question, What is heaven like?  People have been trying to communicate this to us for centuries and the reality is that we don’t know but we believe it will be good and so we use images that help us to see it as the absolute best thing ever.  If we go back to Isaiah where we first start hearing about death being swallowed up in eternal life the image used was a great banquet because one of the best things ever is good food.  Isaiah 25:6-8.  

When Jesus talked about the coming kingdom of heaven he talked about a wedding feast that included everyone and it was a feast where we are all given robes to wear and places of honor to sit.  In the book of Revelation the coming kingdom of God is talked about like a bride dressed for her husband or a city of gold coming down from heaven.  The new Jerusalem was talked about as a city that had walls made of gem stones like sapphires, rubies and amethysts and where the gates were made of pearl and the streets were paved with gold.  Now is there going to be an actual city with pearly gates and golden streets, I don’t know, but what the author was trying to communicate is that heaven is going to be better than anything you can imagine.

And if gold and gem stones don’t excite you then it also talks about heaven in terms of a river that flows from the throne of God where on each side of the river stands the tree of life whose leaves bring healing to the nations.  So is there an actual river with trees on each side?  I don’t know, but again these were the best images the author could provide.  Heaven is simply going to be the best.  It will be a mansion in glory, a home that has a place set aside for us and feast that never ends.

The last question we want to address is the question of timing.  When does all this happen?  Do we go to this eternal heaven immediately when we die or is the final judgement that leads to heaven still to come?  Does all this happen when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead or is this process of judgement already taking place as people die?  You can probably guess what my answer is going to be… we don’t know.  Let me use the words of Jesus about that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son but only the Father.

Instead of getting hung up on trying to figure out the details of how and when the resurrection and eternal life will happen, let’s focus instead on what is important.  We believe there is a resurrection to eternal life and the way to experience this resurrection and life is through Jesus Christ.  It is because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus that we can have faith and trust in our resurrection and eternal life.  1 Corinthians 15:20-23.  We don’t know the specifics.  Jesus didn’t know or give the details and the apostle’s didn’t provide a clear path for us so the creed doesn’t give us details, it just points us in the right direction and tells us that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ there is a resurrection for us all and that resurrection leads to life and life eternal.

Let me also share some of why I have faith in an eternal life that cannot be seen and why I am convinced that there is a resurrection from the dead.  I believe because of the witness and testimony of others.  I have heard men and women of faith who have been close to death talk about seeing those who have died come and be with them.  I have listened to people close to death talk about how their loved ones have come to talk with them and call them to come and be with them.  One of the most beautiful experiences I heard was from a woman in this church who in the days before she died told me one night all her family who had died gathered in what appeared to be a balcony along her bed and they sang to her and called her home.  Is that proof of a resurrection?  Does that prove to me there is an eternal life?  No, but it helps me have faith.

We have no choice but to take this last line of the creed on faith because resurrection and eternal life and our home in heaven are not things we can see until that time comes.  Until then we have faith and I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Would you stand and once again affirm our common faith using this ancient creed that still speaks and gives shape to our faith today.

Next Steps
I Believe – Resurrection and Eternal Life

While the Apostles’ Creed points us to a belief in a resurrection to eternal life, we are not given specifics on what, how or when this all happens.  This week, take time to read what the Bible tells us about the resurrection and eternal life.  Talk to family and friends to share these ideas and find hope in this last line of the creed.

1. What the Bible says about resurrection:
Resurrection in the Old Testament;  Isaiah 25:6-10, Isaiah 26:19, Isaiah 40:28-31
The teaching of Jesus:  John 5:25-29, John 11:1-44, John 14:1-14
The teaching of the early church:
 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, resurrection of Christ
1 Corinthians 15:12-34, resurrection of the dead
1 Corinthians 15:35-58, the resurrected body

2. What the Bible says about the resurrected body of Jesus?
John 20:11-29, John 21:4-14, Luke 24:13-43

3. What the Bible tells us about heaven (images of heaven):
Isaiah 25:6-10 (a great feast)
Isaiah 40:28-31 (wings like eagles)
John 14:2-4 (mansions prepared by Jesus)
Revelation 21:1-7 (health, strength and peace)
Revelation 21:10-27 (gates of pearl & streets of gold)
Revelation 22:1-5 (rivers and trees)