Friday, 30 April 2010

Humility, contentment, trust


Eugene Peterson, in his A Long Obedience in the same Direction tells of the German 16th century legend of John Faustus. Faustus became impatient with the limitations placed on him in his study of law, medicine and theology. However much he learned, there was always something that was bigger than him: justice, the limits of healing, God. So he became skilled in magic, in order to defy the laws of physics and restrictions of morality. But to do so, he had to make a pact with the Devil. The devil permitted him to live for 24 years in a godlike way – having unlimited knowledge and every worldly pleasure, living without limits, being in control – but at the end of the 24 years came damnation. It is a story that has been told many times (in poetry and song)

In many ways the legend of Faustus is just a retelling of the story of the fall. Adam and Eve are offered the chance to ‘be like God’, but the way to become like God, they are told, is not to trust God but to disobey God. But it is a lie. When they do disobey God, they do not become like him, but are instead are cut off from him.

But it is also part of our everyday story. The world-voice, the me-voice tells us, “Live as if there is no God. Be your own God. Believe in yourself. Do what you like. Improve yourself by whatever means you can. Get ahead regardless of the price. Take care of yourself first. Reach for the skies and grab what you can”.

The problem is that it is a lie. We may for a time, for a moment, be able to live it. But nothing is free, and reality will catch up with us.

Psalm 131 is the God-voice. Or, more accurately, it is the words of someone who has listened to the God-voice.

1. Declaration of humility:

It begins with a declaration of humility:

Psalm 131:1, “My heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.”

When the Psalmist says, ‘My heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high’, I suggest that is about our relationship with God and with other people.

The Psalmist is saying, ‘I am not going to do a Faustus. I’m not going to try and become God – and I will treat God as God. I will listen to him, trust him and obey him. And I will not think more of myself and less of others than I should’.
It is about treating God as God, and it is about treating other people as if they matter. Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to ‘value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’.

It really is about humility. The arrogant person thinks that the world should rotate around them. The humble person begins to recognise that they are not the centre of the world.

And when the Psalmist says, ‘I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me’, he is saying ‘I recognise that there are many things that are beyond me’.

Job 42:3: ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

Deuteronomy 29:29 (the ultimate cop-out verse!): ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.’

That does not mean we should not ask questions, but that we do need to be aware that maybe there are some questions that cannot be answered.
• Philosophical: What happened before ‘the beginning’? Who created God?
• Theological: How can Jesus be eternally God’s son? Divine sovereignty/human freewill
• Moral: Why is this wrong? (cf Adam and Eve in garden of Eden. Satan persuades them that to eat of the fruit is not wrong)
• Personal: Why did you allow suffering? or, more specifically, Why did they have to suffer? Why do I have to suffer?

When we begin to listen to the God voice, we are able to see that God is God, and that we are not God.

2. A declaration of contentment:

“I have calmed myself and quieted my ambitions. I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content”

It is a very strange illustration – a weaned child

You might have expected the Psalmist to say that they are like a child feeding at the breast of his or her mother. That, after all, is a picture of dependence.

But he talks about a weaned child (today weaning tends to happen after a child has reached 6 months. In the society we are talking about here, weaning would have happened at age 2 or 3). The weaning process (getting the baby off mum’s milk) is pretty traumatic when the baby is young. It can, I suspect, be even more traumatic when the child is older. They’re desperate for the milk, the closeness, the security. But they’ve got to grow up, they have to begin to become independent.

And so the picture here is of a child who has gone through the weaning process and has come out the other side. They are sitting on their mothers lap: calm, secure of her love, reassured by her presence, but also now someone in their own right, beginning to be independent.

I guess that it is what Paul in the New Testament means when he says, ‘I have learned to be content in all circumstances’.

Again, when the Psalmist talks about having ‘quieted his/her ambitions’, it is not talking about calming ourselves so that we have no ambitions. I hope that those of you who are younger have great ambitions. I also hope those of us who are older have ambitions. I was at a talk on children and their spirituality on Wednesday, and Helen Woodroffe was quoting from some children from our own diocese. One child said, ‘The problem with the old folk in our church is that they are always looking back to the past, never forward to the possibilities”.

Ambition is not wrong. What is wrong is unruly ambition, ambition that is unrealistic, that is directed in the wrong place. You are gifted a musician. Why not go for the choral scholarship? But do not make it your God, and recognise that he is ultimately in control. Make it your ambition to use your gifts in his service. That does not mean you need to become a vicar or a music director or a chorister in church. You may have the desire and the ability to be a doctor or teacher or actor or lawyer or astronaut or politician. Do what you can to the best of your ability. Seek to grow your gifts, and to use your gifts in the best way possible – to serve other people for the sake of Jesus. You don’t need to say that you are doing it for Jesus’ sake, but you know that is why you are doing it.

The world-voice says, ‘Be ambitious, and get on, become a celeb, because then you will be somebody’. The God-voice says, ‘You already are somebody. You are unique and special to me. I love you like a mother loves the child who is sitting on her lap. Nothing can separate you from my love, unless you choose to walk away from me. So you don’t need to be ambitious in order to prove yourself. Be ambitious instead to grow to your full potential, to use your gifts in the right way, in my service’.

And the Psalmist says, ‘in that lies contentment’.

3. It is a call to put our trust in God

“Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and for evermore”

Of course there will be times when we experience great success and joy, and times when we experience major disappointment and distress

David, to whom this Psalm is dedicated, experienced both. He killed Goliath, won many battles, and became a major celeb. He then spent years as a hunted fugitive. He became king, established a powerful kingdom, and then had to flee for his life following a palace coup by one of his sons. He regained his kingdom, but lost his son.

But through it all, most of the time, David put his trust in God.

And for all of us, there will be times of great success and times of great disappointment: We’re chosen for the main part in the school play; we’re ditched by a girlfriend; we win the election; we lose the election; a moment of madness destroys a dream; we’re promoted at work; we’re made redundant. We’re let down badly by friends; we fall in love; we feel physically on top of the world; we’re diagnosed with a potential killer disease.

But the call remains to put our trust in God.

Spurgeon said that this is “one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn”.

It is so easy to try and to do a Faustus – to seek to reject our limitations and to pretend to be God. That is the way to frustration and to death.
The opposite of that is to let God be God and to trust him.

There will be times when we don’t understand. There will be times when He seems distant, when we are sick with anxiety, or completely devoid of any emotion. But we hold on.

You will not remember it: the weaning process is very painful. But it is worth it.

God is there.
God is much much bigger than us
God does know, even if we don’t
God does love you.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Christians and political involvement

We can’t get away from election even in church. It does give us an opportunity to think about Christian involvement in politics

In Acts 4, a man crippled from birth has been healed in the name of Jesus. The disciples have been arrested and released, but charged by the authorities not to preach in the name of Jesus. So they come together and they pray. In their prayer, they restate their conviction that the authorities are not ultimately sovereign, but that God is sovereign. (Acts 4:24)

In other words, they are saying, ‘The political rulers claim authority – but we recognize a higher authority. We recognize that God is in absolute control of history’. I don’t know whether you realize just how subversive it is to pray for the queen and government. It is saying that we believe that there is someone who is bigger than them.

It is very easy to separate ‘spiritual’ from the ‘political’: to say that God is for church, but that as far as politics is concerned, God is basically irrelevant. But if God exists, if Jesus Christ is the Son of God, if he is Lord now, and one day every ruler and every person and every thing in creation will bow before him – then as Christians we need to be prepared to submit our political decisions before him.

Three Principals

1. The principal that we are called to be involved in the life of our community

Exiles in BabylonJeremiah 29:7, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.

In 1 Timothy 2:1ff, we are called to pray for all people, ‘for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’.

The big difference between us and the exiles in Babylon and the Christians in 1 Timothy is that we live in a democracy, and that therefore our rulers are not simply imposed upon us, they are not simply there, but that instead we can and do have a part to play in politics: at European, National and local levels. Indeed, there is no reason, depending on interest and ability, on why we or you should not be those people.

I challenge people who say, ‘Politicians, they’re all the same. They’re all on the make. I’m going to have nothing to do with it’.

·        First of all it is not true. Most people go into politics because they want to make a difference, and because they want to serve. Many of our local politicians do not get any financial reward – in fact it costs them to do the job.

·        And secondly, someone has to do the work. Decisions have to be made. We need more housing: do we put it here or there; what are the priorities for the health service given that money is not unlimited; someone has to make decisions about the deployment of troops. So, if you really don’t think that the current lot are up to doing the job, get involved yourself. Even if you are not considering being a candidate, join one of the parties, or get involved in a lobby group. Saying ‘Politicians are all the same and I’m going to have nothing to do with them’, is a very lazy persons way of copping out of responsibility for their wider community. It is just too easy to be a critic sitting in the armchair.

While we live in a democracy, we have a part to play: at local, national and European, levels. You may not personally like the involvement at European level, but it is there – and we cannot just be ostriches and stick our heads in the sand

2. We are called to be, as far as it is possible, salt and light in society

‘Let your light shine before others’ (Matthew 5:16)
1 Peter 2:12, ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

I do not think that that means that we should get involved in politics wearing the white suit and somehow imagining that we are going to be more moral than the others. By the grace of God we will be motivated by love for God and love for others, but we will also be very aware of our own sinfulness, and mixed motives, and be aware that morality is not the preserve of Christians. So many people involved in politics have a passion for social justice, for challenging the structures that strip opportunities away from those who are poorer, and for setting people free from oppression. And they often live more  ‘moral’, more self-sacrificing lives than many Christians.

Christians should not get involved in politics because they think that they are going to be more moral people, but because they know that they are forgiven people, and because we believe we are called to make a difference.

To love our neighbour means that we want to see the best for them: spiritually and materially.  

That is why we are called to be good citizens.

  1. It is why – as a parish community - we should allow our resources to be used by the community (particularly the Hyndman Centre); it is why we should be involved with town pastors, with fair trade, with homelessness issues, supporting people with learning disabilities 
  1. It is why we should be the first to pay our taxes, and not to try and avoid paying taxes. Jesus paid his taxes (even if it was in unorthodox ways).
Even if you think society would operate better if the taxes were less and more was left to individuals, charitable groups, and the free market, it is currently our taxes which pay for the health service, our schools, armed forces, national security and welfare system.

  1. It is why we should not necessarily vote for the party or candidate who will most benefit us personally. In this election there does seem to be a great deal more thoughtfulness. There is slightly less appeal to personal self-interest, and a recognition that what is at stake is the health of the nation.
There is something incredibly authentic about a wealthy person commending higher rates of taxation on the wealthy; or for someone living on benefits commending cuts in public services.

And of course we live in a world that is very different to even 30 years ago. We are now very aware that the particular interests of our nation are not necessarily the same as the interests of humanity as a whole. And we need to be prepared to vote for parties who have the courage to do what is right not simply by our nation, but by humanity as a whole. Yes, we wish to live in a green and pleasant land, but if that means consigning millions of people (whether here or elsewhere) to living in either urban over-crowding or poverty, then we need to think about those things.

Whether we like it or not, we are our brother’s keeper; and although Matthew 25 is specifically talking about how we treat other Christian believers, the principal can be extended: judgment is about how we show compassion to the naked, hungry, imprisoned and sick. And whether we like it or not, that includes people here, among whom we live, and people in Tanzania, Bangladesh and Haiti.

3. We are called to get involved because we have a vision for the world.

I spoke about socialist realism painting in the talk on Wednesday. Socialist realism art, beloved in communist lands, painted reality not as it was, but as it was meant to be, and as it would be. There was a vision of what society would become.

We too have a vision of what society can become, when it recognizes the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus. If you wish to know what that vision is, listen to the Christmas readings from the Old Testament prophets. Read the last few chapters of Revelation. They are not just talking about heaven up there, but what will happen on the day when heaven comes down to earth.

We pray, ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.

Christians should get involved in politics because we have a vision for society: a society which recognizes Jesus as Lord; that under Him we are part of each other, that we are interdependent; that recognizes that the word of God offers us the best guidelines for living, but also that God gave us the remarkable gift of freedom. That is a very difficult balance to get – between, on the one hand, saying that marriage between man and woman is the best way, the right way, of family life and of bringing up children - but that we respect and support those who, because of either circumstances or choice, are not in that pattern. It is a difficult balance, but I think it can be done.

Christians should get involved in politics because we have a vision of a just society, and a deep concern about the excluded – those who are homeless, refugees and immigrants, those who are victims, those who are at the bottom of the heap, those who are powerless, those who are aliens among us, those who are isolated, those who are in minorities. I think of Jesus’ Kingdom manifesto in Luke 4:18 – includes ‘Good news to the poor; freedom for prisoners; recovery of sight for the blind; and the setting of oppressed people free’. Imagine if that was on someone’s Party political manifesto.

And Christians should get involved in politics because we care about community.

And today, Christians need to get involved in politics because if we don’t, the political agenda is going to drift so quickly against us that we won’t know what has hit us. For instance, while I am grateful for the much more honest and real debate about sexuality, and while I think that civil partnerships are helpful, and respect those who choose to live in active same sex relationships, if equality legislation means that it becomes illegal for a church or minister to refuse to consecrate a marriage between a man and man, or woman and woman, then you are going to have a vicar who will end up paying a fine or going to prison. And even if it is not your calling to get directly involved in politics, please do support organizations like the Christian Institute or CARE, because they do make a difference.

Of course there will be as many Christian visions as there are people. Some will focus on the need to uphold biblical teaching on traditional family values; some will focus on the need to uphold biblical teaching about defending the vulnerable in the local community; some will focus on the biblical teaching about justice and liberation for the poor and oppressed. Some of us will be very aware of the dangers to human freedom that come when the state tries to control everything. Others will be very aware of the dangers to the weak and vulnerable when it is left to the free market.

I do not give any answers. That is not only because I don’t have the answers and it is not my place to to promote one party over another. But do come to the election hustings on Friday at 7:30pm in All Saints church.

But there is another reason why I am hesitant about saying ‘support this or that party’ – even an explicitly Christian party – because even though it is vital that Christians get involved in politics as Christians, politics is always going to be provisional.

We are to live in this land and to seek the welfare of this land, but we are not to forget that we are aliens and strangers ourselves, our true home is in the future, and that we are ambassadors of that other kingdom in this world. This world, as it is, will never be our home. It is a world that is bound to frustration and to sin and to death. Some tensions will be resolved; their solution will mean that there are new tensions.

We need to remember that our battle is not with earthly rulers, but with spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. And that should give us the freedom to be very gracious to those with whom we profoundly disagree.

That is why the disciples in Acts 4, pray. They pray for courage to speak, to declare that Jesus is risen from the dead, that he is Lord. And they pray that God will work wonderfully and bring healing. In other words, they are praying that the future kingdom will begin to break in here and now.

So please do vote, and do get involved. It would be fantastic if members of our own congregations were standing, if not for parliament, then for other bodies – lay representatives on the health authority, representatives on local government. Get out there and campaign – but as a Christian put it in perspective. We are not going to create heaven on earth. There is no magical solution. There will always be compromises.

It is all provisional; that is why love is actually more important than your political party or your convictions. And pray, with the first Christians, for boldness to profess that Christ is Lord, and for God to act so that his kingdom comes. 

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Christian hope and the resurrection of the body

A talk given at the Christian Arts Exhibition on the Resurrection, April 2010

In the creed we say, ‘We believe in the resurrection of the body’.

This is something that has excited me, partly as a result of reading Tom Wright’s, Surprised by Hope, and I hope that you will be able to share a bit of that vision. 

1.      Death
Our society is very confused about death. We treat death either by pushing it away, by denying it, or by becoming sentimental.

The lie of Satan to Eve in the garden, ‘You will not die .. you will be like God’. It is a lie we continue to believe. And as a result we have a very confusing set of beliefs about death. 

-         reincarnation (remarkably meaningless, because even if I am reincarnated, my consciousness dies)

-         blending into cosmic spirituality (poem by Mary Frye):

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

-         denial of pain of death

Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?

-         sentimentality (film: Ghost)
-         float up and live on some cloud

Heaven ‘is somewhere you believe in .. it’s a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there. At night you can sit next to the stars, which are the brightest of anywhere in the universe .. If you’re good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven .. when your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with him … [And Grandma is] alive in me .. Most important, she taught me to believe in myself … She’s in a safe place, with the stars, with God and the angels .. she is watching over us from up there …  ‘I want you to know’ [says the heroine to her great-grandma] ‘that even though you are no longer here, your spirit will always be alive in me’. (Maria Shriver)

-       we say that memories will live on. Good Night Mister Tom - ‘He’ll live on, in here’.  Not true:  Memorial to Norwegian commandos in village on Southern coast of Britain. It read, ‘We will never forget what you have done’. But no one could remember what they had done.

I have a great respect for humanists: they face up to the reality of death, even if it is pretty bleak. Having said that, even they will read poems such as … ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’.

Death is ghastly – if this is all that there is, it is absolutely final.
It makes a mockery of our achievements, battles, successes, failures, loves, life.
In the same sermon that Henry Scott Holland preached when he talked about ‘Death is nothing at all’, (on the occasion of the death of King Edward VII) , he spoke of other feelings associated with death:
“so inexplicable, so ruthless, so blundering  ... the cruel ambush into which we are snared  ... it makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us ... beyond the darkness hides its impenetrable secret ... dumb as the night, that terrifying silence!”

But someone said to me, ‘But death is a good thing. It can come as a friend. People often welcome death.’
I agree, but in a sense that only compounds the deceit of death. The death principal takes someone who is strong and active and turns them into someone incredibly frail and vulnerable: into someone who longs for death.
It takes that which is strong and capable and creative and beautiful and turns it into dust.

If we do not weep in the face of death, then we have not seen what death does, we have not faced up to the reality of death.

We live in a world where so much is said to be relative. Values, beauty, ugliness, goodness, evil, harmony, discord is all said to be relative. What we say is beautiful, another in another time and space will say is ugly. But there is no relativity about death

It is the ultimate statistic. We will all die.
The greatest empires will crumble
Even the solar system, the galaxy, the universe will succumb to an eternal nothingness/coldness.

The second law of thermodynamics

(my science comes from the Flanders and Swann song:
And all because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which lays down:
That you can't pass heat from the cooler to the hotter
Try it if you like but you far better notter
'Cos the cold in the cooler will get hotter as a ruler
'Cos the hotter body's heat will pass to the cooler
Oh, you can't pass heat from the cooler to the hotter
You can try it if you like but you'll only look a fooler
'Cos the cold in the cooler will get hotter as a ruler
That's a physical Law!)

It is entropy.

Professor Brian Cox presented a brilliant set of programmes about the Solar System. Talked about the sun. It gives off astonishing heat. But one day it will burn out. And then other suns and finally – it will all be a vast expanse of coldness and darkness

Ecclesiastes: ‘Everything is meaningless’. It is profoundly depressing. On this basis we really should just live life for the immediate. Live for ourselves, for the people we love, and for the immediate. ‘Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die’. If you can get away with something that is great. There is no accountability, no ultimate justice, no ultimate value (a human life is of no more intrinsic worth than the life of an ant), no ultimate hope. 

So in the face of such a reality, how can we talk of any hope beyond death? On what basis does our hope lie?

1.      Near death experiences – both positive and distressing. The only thing that near death experiences tell us is that people who are near death have near death experiences.

2.      Spiritualism – people who claim to encounter people who have died. The problem is that you just do not know who is speaking: the medium, a reality that cannot be seen, the spirit of someone departed.

3.      Visions – problem is, again, how can someone else’s vision be authoritative for me?

4.      Wishful thinking – pie in the sky when we die. Marx said that that is precisely what religion is. It offers a future non-existent hope, to keep people from making any changes here and now.

The basis of the Christian hope lies in a completely different place.

It depends on the resurrection of Jesus Christ

The claim of the first Christians is that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples on many and different occasions, and he did not die again. The gospels tell us that Jesus brought back three people from the dead: the widow of Nain’s son, Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus. They had died; they were raised, but they all had to die again. But Jesus did not die again.  Like Enoch (‘who walked with God and was not’) or Elijah (taken up in a chariot of fire), he was taken away. A cloud hid him from sight. I am not sure that the technicalities are important.

I am not this evening going to give an apologetic for the resurrection. Many people have done that. I like the quote from Wolfhart Pannenberg who said, ‘The evidence for Jesus resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: first it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live’ 

What I do wish to do is to point out that the belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is absolutely central to the Christian faith.

1 Corinthians 15 is vital here:
Paul begins by summarising the gospel: ‘that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures’
He goes on to talk about the appearances of Jesus, and his, Paul’s, personal encounter with the risen Jesus

But he then goes on to challenge those people who are saying that there is no resurrection. ‘If that is the case’, he says, ‘then Christ has not been raised’. They are arguing from the general to the particular: People do not rise from the dead so Christ is not raised.
And Paul follows up the consequences of saying, ‘Christ has not been raised’:
  • Our preaching is in vain
  • Our faith is in vain.
  • We are liars, because we are claiming that God raised Jesus from the dead
  • We are still in our sins
  • Our sufferings for Christ are pointless
  • There is no hope for those who have died, or for ourselves
  • We are to be pitied more than all people’.

But then he declares, v20: ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’.
In other words, he is saying, ‘Don’t start with the general: dead people do not live again. Start with the particular – Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and he is the first one’ – and derive the general from the particular.

The Christian faith depends on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus.

But what kind of resurrection?
There was a period when theologians argued that what was important was the ‘meaning’ of the resurrection. It doesn’t matter what happened with Jesus’ bones; what is much more important is that his ideas, or his Spirit, lived on.

Tom Wright has pointed out that this option was not available to the gospel writers. They were people who were steeped in the Jewish hope of the resurrection of the body and the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The vision of the prophets is of the coming Kingdom of God:
There would come a day when God would intervene in human history: decisively and finally: when there would be an end to idolatry, a time of judgement, and God’s glory would be shown.

It would be a time when the covenant was renewed, that is the promise that God made to Israel that they would be his people, and he would be their God. There are many references to that: Jeremiah 31:22, 33; Jeremiah 32:38; Ezekiel 34:31; 37:23; Hosea 1:10

God’s ruler, the Messiah, would come. Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2-5

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

Jerusalem would be restored, the exiles would return, the land would be fruitful and at peace, old men and women would sit in the streets while children played around them. There would be healing and righteousness. Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 4:2-6; Isaiah 60:17-22

“Instead of bronze I will bring gold, instead of iron I will bring silver; instead of wood, bronze, instead of stones, iron. I will appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster.
Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.
The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down, or your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever.

But this vision was not just for Israel. The nations would come to Israel. Zephaniah 3:9-10

At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech,
that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering.

A river would flow out of the temple which would give life to all. Zechariah 14:5-9

“Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him. On that day there shall not be either cold or frost. And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the Lord), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter.
And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.”

And creation itself will be transformed. There will be a reversal of the law of the survival of the fittest. Isaiah 11:6-9, The wolf and the lamb will sit down together; the infant will play with the cobra and the little child with the viper (there is even a place for snakes in this new Kingdom of God)

No longer will my survival depend upon the non-survival of something or someone else. Instead my welfare will depend fully on the welfare of the other.

And there will be the reversal of death itselfIsaiah 26:19; Isaiah 25:6-8 (NRSV)

‘On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.’

Or in Daniel 12:2-4

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

And this was a hope that was developed in the inter-testamental period

2 Maccabbees 7: 10-14 [7 brothers brought before Antiochus and commanded to eat pork].

“After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put out his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words: "It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again." Even the king and his attendants marvelled at the young man's courage, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing. After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way. When he was near death, he said, "It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the God-given hope of being restored to life by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life."

This was the Jewish hope. It was not some hope that when they died they might go off to heaven. Their hope was that heaven would come to earth: that the Messiah would come and that this world of space and time would be transformed.

There hope was that two fundamental laws of today would be reversed: the law of sin (of self-centredness, dog-eat-dog), and the law of death would be destroyed.

So it is not surprising, that having put their trust in Jesus, having decided that he was the Messiah of God, the disciples behave as they do.

James and John asked for the leading posts in the new Kingdom, Matthew 20:20-21

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

And is it surprising that they are totally and utterly devastated when Jesus is crucified. As the man on the road to Emmaus says to Jesus, without realising it was Jesus, ‘We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:21)

And after the resurrection, as the risen Jesus stands in front of them, is it surprising that they say: ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)

So what is the Christian hope?

For many of us this belief in the resurrection of the body has been watered down: we preach instead a message that says, ‘Believe and repent, and you will be saved and go to heaven’.

Heaven is somewhere else, not here.

There is a green hill far away:
“He died that we might be forgiven;
he died to make us good;
that we might go at last to heaven,
saved by his precious blood”.

Away in a manger:
“and take us to heaven to live with thee there”

And we interpret bible passages in the light of that false theology: eg. We think of ‘My Father’s house’ as somewhere else.

But the Christian hope, the hope that is in the NT, that is spoken of in the creed, is the hope of the resurrection of the body.

The heaven that is ‘up there’, is simply the waiting room before the Son of Man returns in power to this earth, before heaven comes down to earth.

The Christian hope is not just some personal salvation that sees you being whipped up from this world to some floaty space ‘up there’. It is the hope of the resurrection of the body, of the establishment of God’s Kingdom. It is why the image of ‘sleeping’ is used so much in the New Testament of people who have died. They’re sleeping here – they’re with the Lord there – but one day, they are going to wake up again.

And so Revelation takes up the theme of the prophets: Revelation 21:1-4

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Revelation 21:22-27

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

It is the same hope that the prophets had – although slightly transformed. Their hope was, and many current Jewish hopes are, still tied to an exclusively Jewish city of Jerusalem and to the land of Israel. It is that vision which compels many conservatives to bulldoze Palestinian homes and replace them with Jewish settlements. But the vision of the new Jerusalem is of something similar, but quite different - a truly international city, a home for all people, centred not on the temple but on Jesus Christ.

The great prayer of the church was ‘Come, Lord Jesus’. Not ‘Come and take us out of this mess’, but ‘Come and transform this mess’.

And the Christian hope involves the whole of creation. Romans 8:18-21 states:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

And so, for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, ‘Meet the Lord in the air’ – it is not about us going up there to meet him and be taken away, but about us going up to meet him as he returns.

Now I am aware that there are passages in scripture which talk about us being taken out of this world:

-Matthew 24:40-41 (NRSV) “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” (cf. Luke 17:26-27, Luke 17:34-36).
- 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 (NRSV)  “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
- 2 Peter 3:10-12 (NRSV) “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?”

But 2 Peter 3 continues, verse 13:
“But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells”.

So what is the relationship between this heaven and earth and that heaven and earth, between this body and that body?

Take the resurrection body of Jesus. He is described as the first fruits of the resurrection.

  1. There was both continuity and discontinuity.
There was continuity: his new body could only be there when the old body had gone. It was not a question of him floating around as some spirit while his old body was still lying in the tomb. His new body bore the marks of his love and his victory, the marks of the scars. His new body was recognisable.

But there was also discontinuity: he was recognisable but also different. He could appear and disappear. It seems that he was not subject to the laws of gravity, or time or space.

  1. Our current bodies are earthly (‘fleshly’) bodies. Our resurrection bodies will be spiritual bodies

This does not mean that our future bodies will be non-material.

In the great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of the resurrection body, and he writes, vv 44-49

“It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

In other words, our current bodies are controlled by the physical.
Our resurrection bodies will be controlled by the spiritual.

And what is true of the resurrection body of Jesus, and what is true of our bodies, will be true of creation.

Orthodox theology speaks the language of transfiguration: that as Jesus was transfigured and shone, and as Elijah and Moses both shine with him, so – when the new heaven and the new earth combine – we will shine and creation will shine.

The doctrine of the resurrection of the body has enormous implications

  1. We have a great hope: 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NRSV): “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”

Challenge to us about living in the now:

“large numbers of men and women, perhaps the majority, no longer believe that their innermost souls are known intimately by a caring God. So … far more of them than ever before seek for their ‘authentic’ selves in cherished landscapes, or family history, or the cultural artefacts of their kind … And, of course, once they cease believing that eternity is their future and only significant heritage, men and women will place more emphasis not just on striving to enjoy themselves in the present, but also on revivifying the past. Because what else do they have?”
[David Lowenthal, quoted by Graham Howes, The Art of the Sacred, p87]

  1. It means that your body matters – immense dignity. Why burial was practiced by first Christians (over against cremation in wider community).  The early Christians called the places where they buried their dead, ‘Coemeterium’ (‘place of rest, dormitory, cemetery’) in contrast to the pagan ‘Necropoli’ (‘cities of the dead’)

  1. It means that creation matters: not just jumping on the ecological bandwagon. (If this is true, I don’t have to see everything now! 100 things to see before you die) It means that your work matters, your gardening matters, your painting and creativity matters.

And that really was part of my challenge to the Christian Arts Society in putting on the resurrection festival.
Many images show us the gospel stories of the resurrection
Many use abstract impressionism to talk of resurrection – and one understands why.
But few go further: Spencer’s ‘Resurrection in Cookham’ is a notable exception.

But I think that, because we are talking about a bodily resurrection, we can go some way to ‘imag-ing’ the resurrection.

The New Testament does. It speaks of:
Feast and banquet (Jesus speaks of the future Kingdom of God as a banquet (Luke 14:15–24)
A wedding: both a wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14; Matthew 25:1-13; Revelation 19:9), and a wedding between Christ and the church, his bride (Revelation 19:7; 21:2,9)
A glorious city, the new Jerusalem  (Revelation 21:10-22:2), through which flows the river of life. The bible starts in a garden and ends in a city.

And Jesus gives us another hint of what the resurrection will be like:

In Matthew 22:23-33, he talks about marriage in the resurrection. He says,

For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.”

And the bible talks about us reigning with Christ (Revelation 22:5), sitting on thrones with him (Luke 22:30), having responsibility in the Kingdom (Luke 19:17,19).

I know that we are talking here about a reality that is beyond imagination:  1 Corinthians 2:9,

“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”

Paul is asked the question about what kind of body we will have in the resurrection: He answers ‘you foolish person’ (1 Corinthians 15:35-37)

The story of the acorn and the oak tree: it is like two acorns discussing what it will be like to be an oak tree. It is beyond our understanding

But that does not mean we should not try.

Socialist reality paintings – paint reality not as it is, but as it should be. It is compelled by a vision of the future. Are not we?

So, for instance, “Hans Kung, although primarily focused on art as the expression of estrangement, also claims that art functions eschatologically, so that the tree painted beautifully on canvas ‘is not sealed in its reality, but rouses the hope … that the world as it ought to be will at some time actually arise’ – a hope, in short, for a new heaven and a new earth”. (The art of the sacred, Graham Howes, p161)

cf. Peter Wenzel, 1745-1829, Adam and Eve in Paradise – looking back rather than looking forward, but still a vision of creation as it could be.

Icons depict people not as they were, but as they are, in transfigured glory – radiant and whole.

CS Lewis does something like this in literature:

On the body: The Great Divorce
“I saw people coming to meet us. Because they were bright I saw them while they were still very distant, and at first I did not know that they were people at all …. The earth shook under their tread as their strong feet sank into the wet turf. A tiny haze and a sweet smell went up where they crushed the grass and scattered the dew. Some were naked, some robed. But the naked ones did not seem less adorned, and the robes did not disguise in those who wore them the massive grandeur of muscle and the radiant smoothness of flesh. Some were bearded but no one in that company struck me as being of any particular age. One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless—heavy thought in the face of an infant, and a frolicking childhood in that of a very old man. Here it was all like that.”

On creation: The Last Battle
The company have come through the stable. The last judgement has taken place, and the old Narnia has been consumed by fire. They are sad because of that. But it is hard to be sad in this new land for very long. And as they look at the mountains, they remind them of the mountains in Narnia.
'"And yet they're not like," said Lucy. "They're different. They have more colours on them and they look further away than I remembered and they're more... more... oh, I don't know..."
 "More like the real thing," said the Lord Digory softly.'

'It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time there were somehow different -- deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.
     The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can't describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean.
     It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then he cried:
     "I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!"'

So if the resurrection is physical, there is a place for the imag-ing of the resurrection, even if we recognise that all our images are completely provisional.

I’ve spoken about the resurrection of the body. It is something that is crucial to our faith. We have a great hope – which needs to impact on how we treat our bodies and how we treat this creation.

However, the really important thing about the Kingdom is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified and risen, will be there and so will God the Father. And the great hope of the New Testament is that we will be with him, we will see him and we will become like him.

2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

1 John 3:2, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”.