I Believe in the Resurrection and Life Everlasting (September 1, 2019)
Revelation 4: 1-8; 1 Corinthians 2: 9
I Believe in the Resurrection and Life Everlasting
I invite you again this week to turn to page 882, the Apostles’ Creed, in the hymnal as we begin our sermon today. As we talked about last week, the Creed was the statement of what we believed. It was a way for Christians to say who was in our group and what it meant to be in our group. And I want to say it together now.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit The holy catholic church The communion of saints The forgiveness of sins The resurrection of the body And the life everlasting. Amen.
What happens when we die is a question that has plagued humanity throughout history. It’s been said that if you take one step down the path of science it will take you away from God, but if you keep walking it lead you back to him. One of the reasons for that is that eventually wind up with questions that science cannot answer, one of which is what happens to us after we die. The question is less about what happens to our bodies, and more about asking if there is anything about what makes us actually us that continues on after our brain stops functioning or our heart stops beating. And to this question the Apostles Creed presents a resounding and definitive yes.
In the Old Testament not a lot is said about the afterlife. There’s a very undefined concept, particularly in the Psalms, of this place called sheol, s-h-e-o-l if you read it in the Psalms, or also called “the pit.” In Greek this would be called Hades. Not a ton is known about what they would’ve actually been thinking as they were writing these things, but what we think is that this would be a place where all the dead would go. And you had two rooms within that place: the first of paradise and the other would be at Tartarus or Gehenna. Paradise was where the righteous dead went and Gehenna was where the unrighteous dead went. Gehenna is the name of the valley that served as the landfill for the city of Jerusalem, that was the place where you threw the trash; which gives you an idea of what they thought of the place and what they thought of the people who would go there.
We actually do see this concept present in the gospels. Jesus himself gives a parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus was a servant for the rich man. The rich man and Lazarus both die at the same time. And Lazarus goes to Paradise the rich man goes to Gahanna. That’s how this concept is present around the time of Jesus.
But in between the testaments something else was beginning to happen. In the roughly 300-400 years between the writing of Malachi and the writing of the Gospel of Matthew, you can see the beginning of a new mindset and a new idea in parts of the Jewish religion. And that was the concept of the resurrection of the dead. This was a concept and idea that at the end of days, at the “Day of Judgment,” the dead would be resurrected and would leave Sheol; both paradise and Gehenna, everyone of them would leave. At that point the Messiah would come down the Mount of Olives, through the Beautiful Gate on the eastern side of the Temple; and then the newly resurrected dead would be judged by him along with the living, and they all everyone would go to their eternal location: either heaven or hell. This was a new concept, and highly debated concept at the time.
We actually see this debate in scripture every once in a while. The Pharisees and the Saudeccees disagreed on whether or not there would be a resurrection of the dead, with the Pharisees believing it and the Saudeccees not. And so you see them coming up to Jesus and asking about what he thought about the resurrection, in hopes that he would make the other one angry at him. This was a heated debate. Which is partly why the writers of the Apostles Creed would say so clearly “we’re on the side of believing in the resurrection of the dead, that believes that Jesus, the Messiah, will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
In the basics, this is the system for the afterlife that most of the New Testament writers would have believed in, and very similar to concepts that the authors of the Apostles Creed are believing a few centuries later as they write. Notably however, this system is believed in by almost nobody today. We don’t have this concept. So what does it really mean for us, in 2019, to believe in the resurrection of the dead?
First off, I want to say that we believe in the resurrection of the dead primarily because we’ve seen it. Some of us have experiences of the resurrected Christ. Some of us have moments where we believe we’ve felt the very tangible presence of Christ or the Holy Spirit. Some of us have moments where we tangibly felt the spiritual presence of those who have gone before us, to kind of prove to us that there is something about us, something that makes us who we really are, that continues on after our body stops functioning. We believe in that because we’ve experienced it. But even if you haven’t experienced it, we believe it because we see in the Scriptures that so many people did actually witness the real resurrection of the previously really dead Jesus. Scriptures tell us there’s over 500 people that provided actual eyewitness accounts to that, and many of those are presented and preserved for us in Scripture. We believe in the resurrection of the dead because we saw it in Jesus. His resurrection was the first one, and it was intended to prove to us that we could be resurrected too. And it was meant to bring our souls peace. The first words he says to the disciples were “peace be with you.” And perhaps that peace can resurrect us from the dead even when our bodies are still functioning.
And the next question is: if we’re going to be resurrected from the dead, then what are we going to be resurrected to; what body is going to be resurrected? Specifically, is it going to be this body or some new body? And I will admit that I hope very much that it is not the body that we currently occupy that will be resurrected. Now admittedly that is probably exactly what the authors of the creed were thinking. But I hope that’s not the case. Part of that is because as medical advances happen we continue to get older and therefore even less functioning in our physical form upon the moment of death. And it is my hope, and my trust, that God can fix for us new bodies that don’t have all the problems that we develop over the course of our lives. That’s not to mention those who died in horrible ways. I’ve watched bodies decay from Alzhiemers and from Parkinson’s. I see the aftermath of explosions in terrorist attacks. These things cause me to really, really hope that this body we get for the resurrection is different.
There’s actually Scriptural reason to believe that is the case. We only get to see one heavenly body, one post resurrection body in Scripture, and that is the body of Jesus Christ. That body is similar to the body he had in real life; it had his scars and the wound in his side. It was able to be recognized by those who had been with him. So there was something about the body that was the same as the body he had. But also it was different. Mary, sitting in the garden, doesn’t recognize him. The disciples on the Sea of Galilee don’t recognize him. The people walking home the Emmaus don’t recognize who the stranger is who joins them. There is something different about his body too. Not to mention the fact it is able to walk through locked doors to meet with the disciples in the upper room.
There was a connection but there was a disconnect as well. That actually is good news for you. If you have to have your body cremated because of financial reasons or because of desire, if you donate your body to science, if you want to donate your organs (please donate your organs); that’s good news. I at least don’t believe that this physical body is the one that gets resurrected, or at the very least if something happens to it God can undo it. I have to have that hope because I’ve thought about it. To illustrate this, different Christians use the concept of a caterpillar and butterfly with death being the cocoon; that there something similar about the body, it holds all the other memories, but the body is different as well. And can fly.
So we’re resurrected, but resurrected to what? That is to say that we believe in the life everlasting, be it heaven or otherwise. One of the first questions that I was asked of the pastoral intern at Mount Union College was “what does heaven look like?” (They like to start with easy questions there). And the proper answer to the question is “we don’t know.” 1 Corinthians 2:9 says that best: “God has prepared things for those who love him that no eye has seen, or ear has heard, or that haven’t crossed the mind of any human being.” In other words, we don’t know. Scriptural authors who have seen heaven in visions speak in metaphor that should not really be taken completely literally. They’re trying to describe something that was of immense value. We talk about everlasting light, streets of gold, gates of pearls; the things that are are of great value in our life just amplified, feasts with millions of people present and joyful singing and laughing. One of the best visions of of heaven I have seen is from The Last Battle, the final book of the Narnia series, where everyone goes to heaven at the end. And it is described as just like Narnia, just like earth, only the air is a little crisper. the sky is a little bluer, the grass is a little greener, and you’re able to run without losing your breath or growing weary, there’s no pain, there’s no hurt; it’s just like earth, only better.
Now some of those metaphors may not appeal to you. As a non-extrovert parties, for of millions of people doesn’t sound appealing or like something I really want. Streets paved with gold with an everlasting light sounds blinding. But I’ve also heard heaven described like this old story: a doctor went and visited a dying patient (back when doctors did house visits and things), and the doctor came in and sat down with the man. And the doctor had a dog with him. The patient said “Doc, I’m scared. I don’t know what heaven is like. I’m scared.” At that moment, they could hear the dog trying to get in the door. He said “I have a dog out there. The dog has never been inside your house. He does not know if this house is safe, he does not know if there’s traps or anything that could be dangerous in here. All he knows is that his master is in the house, is beyond this door, and he wants nothing more than to be where his master is. And we don’t know what heaven is like, we’ve never been there, we don’t know what’s behind the door; but we do know that our master is there, that our Lord is there, and therefore that’s where we want to be there. We’re gonna be OK.” I love envisioning heaven like that. And believing in everlasting life.
I said throughout the series that the creed was kind of this document that was meant to differentiate between us and them. And yes, it was a dividing line between us and them. But it was not really meant to be an exclusionary line. It was a creed, a statement that said “you must believe this to be a member.” But it was also an invitation to come and be part of us. Believe in these great things, this amazing thing, this amazing set of words, is more of a promise to us. We take these promises, and there could be a message of hope for us. In times of trouble, just remember the apostles creed. Remember what we really believe as Christians. In times of trouble, you can believe that there is a creator of heaven and earth that calls you child. In times of loneliness, you can believe the Holy Spirit exists and is present. When you feel like you’ve messed up, believe in forgiveness. And in times of loss, believe in Jesus who was raised on the third day, and who invites us into a resurrection of the dead to life everlasting. Hold on to the hopes presented in the Apostles Creed. And let’s be a church that believes. Amen.