“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home 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 put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
Imagine for a moment the possibility that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead because he did not die; he actually survived the crucifixion. Imagine what it would be like for a man to be taken down from his cross nearly dead, joints and bone sockets all pulled out of place, five wounds on his body, and then placed in a tomb that was sealed up with a great stone. Then imagine that somehow in the dark and coolness of the tomb he was revived after a few day. He awoke in a stupor and managed to get the head cloth from his face and in a dazed state he placed his wounded, nail-pierced hands on the heavy stone blocking the entrance and pushed it out of the way. He then walked, staggered several streets away on pierced and wounded feet searching for his disciples. Finally after finding the place where they were staying he knocked on the door and Peter opened only to behold a severely wounded, dehydrated Jesus who was barely able to prop himself up. Peter is stunned and unable to speak. Jesus then, grimacing with pain says, “I am the Firstfruits of the general resurrection!” Firstfruits? Barely alive! What is my point? Clearly a surviving victim of a crucifixion would not have been a sign, even for his most loyal disciples, that he was somehow triumphant over death.
Once more I want to review some of main points that we have looked at since Good Friday. It is very important to me as your priest that you all understand our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead is not a vague metaphor, really not even a mystery – our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead is an assertion that the historic Jesus, the Jesus we read about in the Bible, was executed by Romans soldiers and God raised him from the dead and transformed his body. And furthermore we do not embrace that belief through some trick of language nor do we embrace the resurrection by taking a leap of faith into the irrational. It is reasonable to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. I want to you understand why it is reasonable.
Every belief, every affirmation of fact has a source. Our most basic source for belief in the resurrection of Christ is the New Testament and the texts that report, describe, and narrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I have pointed out over and over again that there are four facts reported in the New Testament texts that are pretty much undisputed by the majority of biblical scholars. Though their interpretations of these facts vary substantially, most will still admit that the facts provide us with the bedrock affirmations, pronouncements, and verifications of the first-generation Church. Yes, verifications – they understood that principle and they employed it (for example, Jesus’ invitation for Thomas to place his fingers into his wounded side and Paul’s citations of those to whom the resurrected Christ appeared in I Corinthians 15). Though contemporary scholars would not all agree on how to interpret them, the overwhelming majority would all agree that these four facts, reported in the New Testament’s texts, really occurred in history and we have here the bedrock beliefs of the Jerusalem Church while the founders were still living – namely while Apostles like Peter, Thomas and John and disciples like Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the Mother of James were still around. Something absolutely spectacular occurred and the founders of what would come to be known as the Jerusalem Church were the witnesses.
What are the four facts? First, that Jesus suffered a horrific death by crucifixion and he was buried. Secondly, only a few days after his burial, his body went missing and the tomb was empty. The third historic fact is that on different occasions and under various circumstances individual persons and groups of people experienced what they believed to be appearances of Jesus very much alive from the dead. The fourth historic fact is that his disciples suddenly, practically over night, and quite sincerely came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead physically, even though they were predisposed not to believe any such thing. This is the bedrock belief of the first generation Jerusalem Church, the Church that St. Paul presented him to after his conversion – this is the bedrock belief, the bedrock gospel that Paul and all other Christian missionaries commissioned by the Jerusalem Church preached and were willing to die for just like her first generation founders. This bedrock is also the source of St. Paul’s understanding our future life in the Kingdom of God, and it is in that direction that we will turn our attention for the next several weeks.
I have repeatedly pointed out that St. Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians, would permit no compromise or watering down concerning the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. St. Paul is clear that Jesus died and was raised from the dead body and all. St. Paul writes that the dead, mutilated corpse of Jesus was not only brought back to life, but the corpse was also transformed, made completely incorruptible never again to be subject to death. And yet this was and is the very Jesus, body and all, that we know in the Gospels. Paul’s use of language here leaves little room for spiritualizing but, in fairness, it is easy to see how he probably came off as overly rigid, literalistic, and to the Greeks, probably repulsive and disgusting. Almost certainly, to the cultivated Greek, if he were around today, he would take it that Paul was describing something like zombies – a living death, life in eternal bondage to decay – the very opposite of what Paul was actually saying.
A refined and polished Corinthian would have said something like this to Paul: “My dear, dear Paul the important matter isn’t the crude literalism you keep on pressing; the important thing is what it means. What you need is an appropriate hermeneutic. Your “resurrection from the dead” needs interpreting so that we know what it really means. After all what it really means is that we shall all be with God and Jesus after this life. Like a bird free from a snare, our bright, born-again spirits will escape once and for all the drag and decay of our sagging bodies of flesh. Dear, dear, boy the way you write one would think that you believe we are going to be stuck with bodies of flesh in the Kingdom of Christ, world without end.”
To which St. Paul might respond: “Well now you’re talking; at least there at the end! Stuck, as you put it, in bodies of flesh. Yes! You do understand what I am saying after all and for that I am grateful. Hard as it may be for you to believe, God’s eternal plan includes your bodies of flesh. Let me explain…”
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home 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 put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked…”
The bedrock facts become for the Church the bedrock gospel of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ that reaches all the way back to the Garden rescuing, redeeming and healing God’s creation. But it also reaches all the way forward, into the future, rescuing, redeeming and healing sons and daughters yet to be born – promising a future Kingdom in which God’s will is done here on earth as it is presently done in heaven. A Kingdom that will be modeled upon Christ the King, fitted for him, body and all, who died for the creation he loves and rose bodily from the dead. A Kingdom that will be a fit home in which Christ the King may joyfully, bodily live among those for whom he offered up his life. This is why we pray, “Thy Kingdom come” at every service of the Church.
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Now Paul is explaining to the Corinthians what is to come. Our body is so critical to our being human that Paul thinks of it in terms of a home, our earthly home. We are at home in our bodies because we belong there, so much so that in the Kingdom we shall inhabit a house, that is resurrection body “not made with hands,” that is, a dwelling made for us by God, fitted like the resurrection body of Christ himself.
“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
What Paul is saying is that even though we are very much at home in our bodies of flesh, we long to be with Jesus face to face and we long for our resurrection bodies modeled after his body – bodies of flesh no longer subject to decay. Bodies that ripen but never spoil. The word that we have translated as “groaning” would be better translated as “longing” or “yearning.” We yearn for Christ and we yearn for our resurrection bodies. The thought of being disembodied – the very idea that was so appealing to Greeks – was not in the least appealing to Christians. We are who we are – human beings – in our bodies. To be disembodied would be like being naked, something to be tolerated. Paul recognizes that Christians may well die before the great Day of Judgment and the Kingdom. It would be best of all possible outcomes for Christ to come before we die and then “we would be further clothed,” that is the heavenly, that is the eternal would simply transform our bodies without having to die.
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we who are alive shall be changed.”
Here is the point. Whether we die before our Lord returns or not, our bodies will be changed like the resurrected body of Christ.
Well that is as far as we get today, but we will pick up this theme of our blessed hope and the return of Christ over the next few weeks. But here are some points to remember: we need to understand St. Paul and what the first generation of Christians believed far more than we need a hermeneutic. We don’t need to interpret Paul; we need to understand Paul and the first generation Church. Meaning will follow understanding.
Imagine you and a friend are hiking up there in the mountains and he is crossing a stream by jumping from one rock to another and then he stops and you see that he is having some trouble keeping his balance. When he becomes wobbly on a particularly green and mossy rock, it suddenly occurs to you that this is a metaphor for his life and you shout to him: “This is a metaphor for your life! How you get stuck in life through a loss of nerve! You are caught between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born!” And as he slips and falls into the cold water he shouts back, “This is no metaphor; this is a slippery rock!”
We don’t need exotic hermeneutics or clever interpretations of what St. Paul and the first generation Church believed – we need to understand what they said they believed and once we understand what they believe we will be standing upon the bedrock.