Today is the last Sunday in the liturgical church calendar. This Sunday has been designated by the Church as a Memorial Sunday or Eternal life Sunday. It is a day that we set aside to remember those who have gone before us in death. This day also awakens within us a living hope of an eternal reunion with our loved ones who already rest safely in the arms of Jesus.
We remembered earlier the names of those who passed away from our congregational family in the past year. And we acknowledge also the many families who have lost a loved one outside of our church, perhaps in a different country.
As we remember our loved ones who died, we face the unavoidable question of our own mortality. And we ask, wherein lies our hope as Christians? What is the resurrection of the dead? What does the immortality of the soul mean? Will we see our loved ones again in heaven?
We have to admit the doubts that sometimes hit us as we try to answer these questions. Will the resurrection of the dead really take place? These questions are a normal part of our spiritual growth process. The Lord Jesus gave us an example of this kind of spiritual questioning when he prayed his way through to victory in the Garden Gethsemane.
The question about the resurrection of the dead is not a new one. Today we want to look at Paul’s theology of Resurrection.
In 1. Cor. 15 Paul, the Apostle, focuses on his faith in the resurrection of the dead.
In verses 3ff he asserts his authority as an Apostle of Jesus Christ by pointing out the essence of the Christian Faith. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
By stating that he is “passing on” what “he has received” he tells his readers that he stands in the tradition of the disciples - those who walked with Jesus and learnt from him in life. Though he had not been one of the twelve, Christ encountered him personally as the “resurrected Christ” on the Damascus road. That gives him the status and authority of an Apostle.
Paul had preached to an attentive and responsive Corinthian audience. Yet, here he seems to question the maturity of their faith. Did they really understand what he had been preaching to them. Just to make sure, he repeats the essence of the Christian message for them one more time: “That Christ died, was buried, was raised from the dead, and was seen by his disciples and many others.
In verses 12ff he contradicts those who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, 12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
Paul identifies four contradictions of those who argue against the resurrection:
1. 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
2. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
3. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
4. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
Paul goes on to teach about the meaning of Christ’s resurrection (v. 20ff):
1. 20 Christ was raised from the dead as first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. He is the first one who has been transformed into a new imperishable body.
2. 22 As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
3. 23 When Christ returns, those who have fallen asleep will rise with him. Paul expected the return of Christ to happen in his own lifetime. He makes the point that at Christ’s return all will be transformed – those who are present at the time of His return and also those who died in the Lord.
4. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. Even this enemy will be conquered.
5. The resurrection of Christ is closely related to the resurrection of the dead. Christ is our brother – and through the faith in his resurrection we become children of the heavenly father. We become children of God’s family in this life and the life to come.
6. The resurrection of the dead is a fundamental component of God’s plan of salvation. God’s Word says much about a New Heaven and a New Earth. The entire creation waits with groaning for the full redemption from our bondage to decay and death. We hold to the promise that this will happen when the trumpet of the Lord will blow.
In verses 35ff Paul gives us an idea as to what the Resurrection Body may look like: 35 But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.
Here Paul draws a comparison with the world of plants. The seed first has to fall into the earth and die in order that a new plant (a new body) may grow out of it. In the same way also, the physical body has to die so that a spiritual body can rise up.
This physical body is perishable, dishonorable, and weak. But this body will be transformed into an imperishable, glorious, and spiritual resurrection body. A fundamental transformation will take place. The physical body cannot rise to life again in the same form that it was before death. It will be a brand new body – a spiritual body that will never die again.
We may be wandering: where did Paul get this idea of a resurrection body that is so totally different than the physical body? He rests is argument in nothing other than the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
When we stand before the grave of a loved one, we are confronted with the crude reality of death – the final enemy, as Paul called it. Death is so final. There is no way back to this life for those who walk through the door that all of us who are alive have to walk through. That is a serious reality, but it should not scare us or paralyze us. Death is a part of life.
But for those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ there is another chapter that follows death. In faith we can look forward to a glorious day of resurrection that is beyond comprehension and explanation. And yet we ask: how will it be?
In our limited human understanding we have to admit that “heaven” cannot be defined as a scientifically provable world or place. We cannot poke our nose through the door to eternity and say, “Mmm that’s what its going to be like.” Granted, there are plenty of stories around about people who have had near-death experiences, who report seeing a bright light and walked toward it. These people paint a beautiful picture of what heaven is like. I have no reason to doubt the validity of such reports.
Yet, despite such reports we remain skeptic as long as we have not experienced it ourselves – but then again we can’t experience it and live to tell about it, can we? Like Thomas, we have questions. “Unless I see that He is alive, I can’t grasp it.” That’s a normal response to the harsh reality of death.
However, based on God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, we can believe (affirm in faith) that Jesus is the firstborn of those who have been raised from the dead. As the first one to rise from the dead, Jesus promised that he would go on to His Father’s house to prepare a room for us, that we too may be were he is.
Our hope in the resurrection from the dead is a matter of faith. And so we search for signs and symbols on this side of death that will confirm for us that our faith has not been in vain.
I would like share an example about resurrection that may help to clarify our understanding of that which we affirm in faith.
If I were a twin baby in my mother’s womb I doubt that I could explain the existence of a fuller life outside to my unborn twin. I could try to explain that the noises and the chatter coming from outside our known walls must be the voices of our parents and other creatures.
Most likely my unborn twin would consider my belief in a fuller life outside of the mother’s womb as ridiculous. He would regard my idea, that persons run around outside in an unknown atmosphere and space, as ludicrous and even insane. After all a baby lives in the warmth and safety of the mother’s womb, and it has no understanding or knowledge of a life after birth.
You see, a baby must be born in order to experience and eventually understand the existence of life on earth outside of the mother’s womb. But, being born brings with it the signs that a new life is beginning. There are the birth pangs – the pain of the mother that mark the transition from one state of existence to another. Then the baby travels through a dark channel; there is a bright light; the first breath and then life outside the mother’s womb appears in all its glory.
Soon the newborn baby experiences the warm touch and loving kindness of the mother as well as the strong and tender arms of the father. Before you know it the little child is growing up before your very eyes, gaining in understanding and experiencing life in all its fullness. Could an unborn child ever imagine playing in the snow, smelling the roses or chasing after a fluttering butterfly? I hardly think so. But it is true. All of us in this audience have experienced it. We know!
Following the theological argument of Paul we might say, “If there was no birth of the unborn, then you and I would not have been born either. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ would not have been raised. However, because Christ was raised from the dead and lives, so we too will rise to life and live in all eternity.
Even though we may never fully understanding the process of death and dying, we do often chance upon the whispers and rumors of the resurrection unto eternal life. We are encouraged to pay attention to the voice of God’s word that assures us of a future reunion with God and saints. It is good to reflect on the meaning of our inner longing to be eternally reunited with our loved ones.
One more thing. Hope in the resurrection of the dead gives meaning to our life here on earth. If our hope is on the things of this world alone – we are to be pitied, says Paul.
However, because we live in the hope of an eternal reunion with Christ and our loved ones, we can live a life of fullness already now. Death is not the end . It is the birth process to a new fuller life in God’s glory. It is a graduation from a life of pain and tears to a life of eternal bliss and joy.
God Himself will be in our midst. And we will see him face to face, and we will recognize the one who already knows us intimately. We will live in joyful fellowship with the one who stands with us in our pain and joy.
May the presence of the risen Christ be with us as we grieve our losses and as we contemplate the eternal joyful reunion that awaits us. The Advent season is just around the corner. And we are reminded not only of the birth of the one who makes our hope alive, but also that he will come again. May the words of Paul strengthen our faith and our hope that we shall be transformed into a new creation already now, and more fully also in all eternity.