1st November 2015
All Saints Day
Wisdom 3. 1-9 ,Revelation 21: 1-6, John 11: 32-44
with Revd. Helen Mitchell
Note: the thrust of this argument and the quotations are from Tom Wright, mainly his book “Surprised by Hope” although some of the words may have been changed to facilitate its working as a sermon.
The slogan of Christian Aid is “we believe in life before death”.
Well of course we do, Christians do believe in life before death, but the reason this is an arresting slogan is because people expect it to say “we believe in life after death”
They think that Christianity essentially means believing that we will go off to heaven when we die, life after death..
Well Christians do believe in life after death, but that doesn’t mean we are only concerned with going to heaven and ignoring what happens here and now in this life.
That’s because we also believe in “life after life after death.”
It’s because we believe in “life after life after death”, that we are also very concerned about life before death.
This phrase” life after life after death” is a phrase coined by the Theologian Tom Wright and with his help and the help of today’s readings I am going to try to explain the belief of life after life after death to you today.
So hold tight.
To begin with the big picture.
To begin in fact at the beginning. Because that’s a very good place to start.
The Christian story of reality goes something like this.
“Reality as we know it is the result of a creator God bringing into being a world that is other than himself and yet is full of his hidden glory.
It was always the intention that this creation should be one day be entirely filled and flooded with God’s life. To help with this project the creator brought into being a creature made in his image, but these human creatures rebelled against this intention. The Creator God solved this in principle through a human who was entirely filled with God’s life, Jesus, and then sent the living Spirit of Jesus to live in the hearts of those who would accept him.”
Eventually this Spirit will flood the whole of creation until it is entirely transformed into a new creation.”
This is the big, the wondrous story.
This transformed creation is where we are going. Our second reading from Revelation describes it as a new heaven and a new earth.
The heavenly city comes down out of heaven to earth.
This is entirely different from those end of the world scenarios where we go off to heaven, no, heaven is coming to us.
Heaven and earth will be one. A new transformed physical creation
The reading says that the home of God will be among mortals. The living God will live among us continually pouring out his life and love so there will be no more evil, no more death.
Far from just sitting around, whether playing harps or not, Tom Wright envisages that there will be new delightful, creative tasks for us in God’s new world.
But of course we can’t really imagine it, all our words and images are just signposts pointing into a bright mist, giving us the direction of travel, not a photo of what we will find when we get there.
In order for us to be part of this new transformed physical creation we will need and will be given new transformed physical bodies.
This is what belief in the resurrection of the body means. It does not mean that we will at the last join Jesus in a non-bodily heaven but that we will be a full physical part of this new physical creation.
Again we can’t imagine what these bodies might be like but some writers have tried to imagine bodies more real than the ones we have now, because they will no longer subject to disease or death or decay.
The resurrection of Jesus, in which the life of the new creation broke into time, shows us something of what this body might be like.
The risen body of Jesus was clearly different, with different physical properties from his old body, not instantly recognisable, but nevertheless clearly, in all essentials, still Jesus, with his wounds still visible.
In speaking about the resurrection body Paul in his letters asks us to imagine a mode of physicality far more substantial than our present one, so that a Christian in this life is just a shadow of their future self, which will be a self far fuller of life and vigour!
A word of warning we should not be confused here by the story of the raising of Lazarus, which, although it tells us of the inexhaustible life-giving power of God, concentrated in the prayers of Jesus, is nevertheless a story of the raising of an ordinary human body, which would then die again.
This may have been powerful sign and intimation of the resurrection to come, but it was not that resurrection.
This resurrection to new immortal bodily life within God’s new transformed creation, his kingdom, is the life after life after death which is the central Christian hope.
Tom Wright says that the important thing is that we grasp the central hope of the ultimate resurrection, set within the new creation and re-order all our thinking about life after death around that.
But if that is life after life after death, resurrection in God’s future, what about plain life after death which is after all a more pressing problem for us.
Where are our loved ones now, where will we be when we die, as we await the fulfilling of God’s plans for his transformed creation?
Our loved ones are waiting, waiting with God, with Jesus, in heaven, God’s dimension of present reality.
On the cross, Jesus says to the good thief, “today you will be with me in paradise”.
And Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that, “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”
“The word used here is “monai” which is regularly used to describe a temporary resting place on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run. “
And I love our reading today from the book of Wisdom, one of the books of the apocrypha:
“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality”
They are in the hand of God but their hope is full of immortality, the immortal life in the body still to come.
John Polkinghorne has described this two stage process with an image from today, saying that God will download our software onto his hardware until he is ready to give us brand new hardware to run the software again.
I quite like that image but it doesn’t allow perhaps for the important question of consciousness.
Tom Wright working from the New Testament sources thinks that all the Christian departed are in the same state of restful happiness; not sleep, but knowingly held firmly within the conscious love of God, within the conscious presence of Jesus, seeing him face to face, while they await the resurrection.
Since both they and we are in Christ, we share with them in the communion of saints.
They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we celebrate the Eucharist they are there with us along with the angels and archangels.
But what does this all mean for us here and now, in this life, why did I say at the beginning that belief in life after life after death must mean that we also believe in life before death?
What we believe about the future of God’s kingdom coming on earth has consequences for what we build on earth now.
“The whole point of the work that Jesus did in his earthly life was that the healing that he was doing in the present, was what he was promising long term in the future.
He wasn’t saving souls for a disembodied eternity, but rescuing people from the evil and decay of the way the world now is, so they could take part right away, in the healed and renewed creation, which is God’s ultimate purpose; and become partners themselves in God’s project.”
Tom Wright says that “When God saves people, by working through his Spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope and love, such people are designed to be a sign of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos and also to be part of the means by which this happens.
God builds the kingdom. The final coming together of heaven and earth is God’s supreme act of new creation.
But God has ordered the world so that we are co-creators with God, and we can build for the kingdom.
Indeed we can only truly pray in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s kingdom of justice, beauty and peace, to come on earth, if we are willing ourselves to become part of the answer to that prayer, to work for it’s coming now, in us and through us,
We may be assured that whatever we do for the Lord is not done in vain. We are accomplishing something that will become part of God’s new creation.
“Every act of love, gratitude, kindness, generosity, every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, every work of art inspired by the love of God, every deed which spreads the gospel, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God into his new creation.
Gods’ recreation of his wonderful world which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and the power of the Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit is not wasted, it will last all the way into God’s new world.”
So yes we believe in life after death in God’s presence
And life after life after death in God’s new creation
And life before death working now for God’s kingdom to come.