The third in a series of three sermons preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
Welcome to today’s sermon, which, depending upon your point of view, is either the third sermon in a series on the resurrection, based on the fifteenth chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth, or is part three of one very long sermon. All three sermons, or all three parts of the sermon are about resurrection. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent. Our focus in those weeks will be on the journey Jesus made to Jerusalem and to his appointment with death upon a cross. This Sunday, celebrated as Transfiguration Sunday in many churches, is an appropriate one on which make mention of the glory of the resurrection of Jesus, prefigured in the events witnessed by the disciples on the mountain top.
So here’s the story so far. In week one I preached about the Christian message about Jesus Christ. I said this message was reliable. This reliable message had a content: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and then raised on the third day. There were a large number of witnesses to resurrection appearances, many of them still alive when Paul wrote.
In week two I preached about importance of resurrection in changing our view of the here and now. Suffering, death and destruction are realities in this world, but they are not the ultimate reality. Realising that the life we experience in this world is not all that there is but that it has to be understood within the context of resurrection, gives us hope that God’s justice and love will truly triumph. Think of how important it is to be able to hold on to that conviction, that perspective, in the light of how life is being played out in the Ukraine in these days.
At the end of week two, though, I left us hanging. The closing verse of scripture that week was, ‘but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.’ (15:20) Paul’s use of the term, ‘first fruits’ implied that we needed to think about resurrection not only in terms of historic reliability in the case of Jesus’s resurrection; not only about how it provided us with a new way of seeing the here and now, but also in terms of what it says concerning our future. And that’s what today’s sermon is about; heaven coming to us, rather than us going to heaven; a bodily resurrection, not just a spiritual one; one where, at last, we become people in God’s image, as God intended from the very beginning.
Heaven is coming to us, not us going to heaven? That really goes against the grain of popular ideas about what happens to us when we die. Living in Western society, which has been heavily influenced by the philosophy of ancient Greece, we see this world and our bodies as locations to be escaped. We treat the material as though it has less significance, deserves less esteem, than the intellectual and spiritual. Paul, being a good Jew, and having encountered the risen Christ, will have none of it – resurrection is resurrection of the body: ‘’What you sow does not come to life unless it dies … you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed … but God gives it a body as he has chosen.’ (15:36, 38)
Paul points out that seed and grown grain are the same – they are all wheat or barley or whatever – but the seed and the grown grain are also quite different when you look at them. If Paul was living here today, he might have made a similar observation about bulbs in the ground and the flowering snowdrops, croci, daffodils and tulips: same thing, but different – in different stages of life. And that’s what he has to say about us and our future. We are not escaping this existence for a disembodied one. Instead we will experience a resurrection in this world: ‘so it is,’ he says, ‘with the resurrection of all the dead.’ (15:42) With resurrection, heaven arrives in the here and now.
Then, second, heaven arrives for us in a resurrection which is physical, not just spiritual, though one this time where our bodies, in whatever form they take, are imperishable, not perishable, as they are currently. (15:42) And this is why, I would say, it is vital that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was not simply a vision experienced by hopeful disciples, but a physical reality; one where you could touch his body and see him eat and drink. Because what Jesus experienced in resurrection is what we are promised in our resurrection; his experience is the ‘first fruits of what is to come’ for us.
Jesus’s experience of both life and resurrection is a fully human one. As Paul puts it, ‘the first man was from the earth, a man of dust’ – that’s what ‘Adam’ means, ‘man of dust’ or ‘child of the earth’ – ‘the second man [Jesus Christ] is from heaven … just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.’ (15:48, 49) Jesus lives the human life, including its sufferings. He also experiences resurrection, so that we who experience the human life, with all its sufferings, may also experience God’s resurrection. As one traditional hymn puts it, ‘O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.’ (Praise to the Holiest in the Height by J. H. Newman (1801-1890)
So, first, heaven is coming to us here on earth, not in offering an escape from this world. Then, second, resurrection is coming to us all in a physical resurrection, where in his life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ reverses the human inclination to wrongdoing, begun or symbolised by Adam. And finally, third, creation is saved and transformed, for, ‘just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.’ (15:49)
If you are at all acquainted with the Bible it’s almost impossible to hear talk of ‘bearing the image of’ without thinking of the first chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and its imaginative account of God bringing creation into existence. God’s intention, so Genesis tells us (1:26), is for humankind to be in the image of God. We are intended to have a special place in this part of God’s creation, treating it and caring for it with the love that God has for it. Our failure to live up to that high calling, with our thoughtless use and misuse of this material world, is telling evidence of the existence of a propensity, a state of sin from which we need to be redeemed.
With the resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, which leads to our resurrection, we are made into what God has always intended us to be in the first place; we come to ‘bear the image of the man of heaven’, that is, Jesus Christ. He is the one who has come from heaven. He is the one who bears God’s image. He is that second Adam, that true child of the earth, and in resurrection we will be like him.
So, what about the future – about our future – in the light of resurrection? It’s the future where heaven comes to earth. It’s our future resurrection which is enabled by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the time when, at last, we become for ever the people that God intended us to be; living life to the full in the presence of God. So thanks be to God, who in and through Jesus Christ, makes this the future to which we look with hope and joy. Amen.