I believe that we're meant to think about the end of the story, more than we do! When I was younger I would often turn to the end of a book I was reading to see if the character I liked was still mentioned in the final pages - it was important for me to know what happened at the end of the story, before I actually got there. My eldest son is eagerly working his way through a series of books at the moment, desperate to know if the hero will survive and if there will be justice for him.
I suspect the truth is that very few of us actually think about the end of our own story. Sure, some of us who are older or who are facing serious illness are confronting the reality of the end of the story right now – but for most of us our focus is on the here on now and the pressures, trials and issues of the moment.
This morning my task, whatever situation you may be in, is to encourage you to think more about the end of the story than maybe you do already.... ...because the end of our story and the start of the real story begins with the resurrection of the dead. And when that story starts – this current, broken, fallen, human church will be truly fixed as we live and worship our creator forever.
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is writing to remind the Corinthian Christians of the gospel basics and the folly of saying there is no resurrection. You see some of them were denying the very idea of bodily life beyond death. He asks in v.12.
"How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?"
If that's really the case he says in v.19 then
"we are to be pitied more than all men."
You see if there is no resurrection of Jesus there is no saviour; no salvation; no forgiveness of sin and no hope of resurrected eternal life. Plainly stated without the resurrection of Jesus, the few billion people today who say they worship Jesus as God – me included – are gullible; my hope for a resurrection life after this life is the hope of a silly fool who trusts in a dead man to give him a life that doesn't exist. Needless to say – I don't believe that. I believe in the resurrection of the dead. And so does Paul.
So let's look at why. My first point of three is this:
1. THE CERTAINTY OF OUR RESURRECTION
Paul's certainty for his own, and all believers, bodily resurrection is based on the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus. Jump back briefly with me to our gospel reading. Luke 24:37 – The disciples are startled and afraid when they see Jesus – they think he is a ghost. But - v.39 - he invites his disciples to look at him and touch him and he says:
"A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have"
Not only that, v.42
he also eats with them......and he gently explains to them that what they are witnessing is the fulfilment of scripture.
Have no doubt – this is a physical, bodily, resurrection. Yes it was supernatural (he could appear and disappear and he is now immortal). But Jesus' resurrection is a physical, bodily resurrection. So it is these facts that Paul draws on in the first part 1 Corinthians 15. Look at v.3 – there Paul outlines the Gospel basics, which are that Jesus died for our sins, that he was buried, and that on the 3rd day he was raised … all as the scriptures had said would happen.
Paul is completely confident that this happened and he is at pains to point out that it is not just his own eye-witness testimony to Jesus' resurrection that should give his readers confidence. v.5 in effect says "don't believe me? – then check with Peter, check with the 12, in fact check with the 500 whom Jesus appeared to at one time, check with Jesus' brother – they are all convinced he is alive!" And the fact that he is alive – v20 – whether you choose to believe it or not – the fact that he is alive acts as a guarantee, a promise, a foretaste (v.23) that all those who believe and trust in Jesus will enjoy the same physical, bodily resurrection.
I have many happy memories of family meal times growing up. One of my favourite memories is of Sunday lunch times. We would walk back into the house after church to the wonderful smell of a roast being cooked. There's nothing quite like it is there? I remember the anticipation, especially if it were roast lamb, of what was to come. But my sister and I had to wait. The veg had to be cooked, the gravy made & the table laid. And when it came to carving time my sister and I longed for the first nibble – the first shiny juicy piece of lamb! Now being the model kids we were we never pestered our parents for our favourite bits, but just occasionally Mum or Dad would carve just a little bit off the joint and allow one of us the first taste. It was a wonderful sample – a foretaste of what was to come later. And so it is with Jesus' resurrection. It is a sample, a foretaste, the first fruit of much more of the same to come.
So when we spend moments thinking about the end of the story and we're tempted to doubt whether bodily resurrection will really happen, or when there are opportunities to discuss this with sceptical friends, family or work colleagues who goad us by saying "it's just wishful thinking. Face facts, this life is all there is!" It is in those times that we need to reflect, and dwell and meditate on the real, historical event of Jesus' resurrection from the dead - which guarantees the certainty of our own bodily resurrections.
However, for some of the Corinthians it seems from verse 35 that even this fact was not enough. And so we come to my second point:
2. THE NATURE OF OUR RESURRECTION (v.36-44)
Let's be honest – our future hope in the glorious resurrection of our bodies blows our minds. And even though many of us believe it - like the Corinthian believers, we cannot understand how material bodies... bodies made of flesh and blood... bodies that are subject to sickness, decay and death... we cannot understand how they can actually live eternally. "How? How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have?" The problem with dwelling too much on the question 'How?' is that unanswered it leads to doubt – not just in God's ability but also, in turn, his very existence. And this is why Paul says in v.36
"Don't be foolish!"
because, as the Bible elsewhere affirms,
"only the fool says in his heart there is no God!"
Don't go there, Paul says, instead look around you! And you will see that the Creator has written into his creation the very principle of resurrection. Therefore when we see this principle in action it should give us some clue as to what our own resurrection will be like. Firstly, take the seed that is sown. v.36&37 He says:
"What you sow does not come to life unless it dies."
In order for it to grow it must first die and change. Without death and burial, there can be no new life. The subsequent plant that grows, grows from the same seed, but is in some way different. Or take the second example v38&39. Paul says that God created flesh, but not all flesh is the same. And so there are humans, animals, birds and fish – the same but different. All of them perfectly suited to the environment that God has designed and placed them in. And as there are physical earthy bodies, so there will be physical heavenly bodies - perfectly suited to their environment - the same but different! – having gone through death and resurrection.
Paul then goes on to give us some wonderfully encouraging glimpses of how these physical resurrected bodies will be different. Firstly (v.42) they will be...imperishable. They will not wear out, they won't grow old and they won't ever again be subject to any kind of disease or sickness. That is good news! I'm 39. Now you may kindly say I don't look it – but actually I do! Already the visible effects of 39 years of exposure to sin are taking their toll!
My hands go white and painful in winter because of the cold; my hair is going grey and disappearing!; the skin on my face is wrinkling and the skin on my hands shrivelling; I take pills daily for a gut problem; I've been putting off going to the opticians because I can't read the study notes in my bible, and on top of all that my wife tells me I'm a hypochondriac!! Seriously, I can't wait for the imperishable and I'm not even 40!
For those of us in the midst of health problems or facing our mortality, Paul wants us to look forward to our resurrection existence. What you are going through now as the body decays and declines – you will not experience in your resurrection body. You will be healthy and free from disease or injury – you will enjoy your humanity as God always intended it to be.
Secondly (v.43) our future bodies will be... glorious. It is a description that conveys shining beauty and attractiveness. Radiance. And it's reinforced in OT by Daniel who declares that the resurrection bodies of the wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky and the stars. A third glimpse (still v.43) is that our bodies will be raised in power, contrasting starkly with our current weakness. We won't suddenly all turn into superheroes – God will still be God and we his Creation – but we will have the fullness of strength that God always designed for us to have, perfectly suited for our environment. And finally (v.44) our resurrected bodies are described as spiritual ...NOT because they are non-physical, we have already seen that they will be physical, but because they are supernatural and perfectly in tune with the Holy Spirit – both with His character and His activity.
All these glimpses are designed to encourage us to accept the present reality of our natural decay and health problems. I don't know what all of you are going through right now – but often we think that we should be fit, healthy, not look old, free from disease. But that way of thinking is a way of thinking that has been deceived.The effect of sin means the reality is completely the opposite. Disease. Decay. Death. Yes, we have the NHS and medical breakthroughs that can offset that temporarily, and we should be grateful for that blessing from God. Nevertheless we need to face the fact that full health is for the end of the story – it is not the norm for now.
In all these glimpses of the nature of our resurrected bodies, Paul is trying to describe the indescribable process of transformation. Ultimately scripture doesn't say exactly how this will happen. So maybe for you questions still remain. Maybe, like me, you know believers who have died in tragic circumstances and you just can't get your head around how God is going to do that transformation, when for example there is no physical body that remains, or part of their physical body was lost or just never there from birth. Well, the simple (& liberating) answer is you don't need to! Just because we can't handle the 'how' doesn't mean we give up the truth of the fact 'that' it will happen. We need to confidently say that the God of this very creation, who took nothing and made all of this by his word, is more than able to take whatever remains of our physical body in the grave (much or little) and transform it into an imperishable, glorious, powerful and spiritual-but-physical body.
That is the nature of our resurrection. My third and final point Paul moves on to in v.50-58 and that is...
3. THE NECESSITY OF OUR RESURRECTION (v.50-58)
In many ways the key to understanding the necessity of our bodily resurrection is v.50
"I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable."
Why is that? Answer – because sin needs defeating. You see the previous verses might well leave us thinking, 'all I need is a physical transformation'. But our current perishable, dishonourable, weak and natural bodies are a sign of God's judgement on our sin. And the crucial issue is that: for me to be in God's Kingdom - sin must be eradicated from me. Flesh and blood in its current corruptible form CANNOT inherit the eternally incorruptible Kingdom of God.
Now it may well be that you are here this morning and you aren't a Christian. You have never given any serious thought to the end of the story. Well the Bible makes clear that the end of the story affects everyone. The OT prophet Daniel again says
"Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake – some to everlasting life – and some to shame and everlasting contempt."
In other words we will all be raised up at the end of the story – the question is, where to? (Everlasting life or everlasting death). The Bible teaches that we all sin – we put ourselves first in life, act like we are God of our lives and ignore our Creator. The Bible says that the penalty of that sin is death. Paul describes it as a 'sting' here and sting can be fatal. Whilst in the RAF I deployed to the Middle East numerous times. Every time before I went we were briefed on many things. One was to stay out of the way of any friendly Scorpions that we encountered in our tents. The sting of some scorpions can be fatal – killing you in minutes. Likewise death's sting – sin - is eternally fatal. Because if you are not right with God when you die, God will reject you in a judgement he is perfectly entitled to make. And that judgement will lead to everlasting contempt in a place commonly known as hell.
... the wonderful news that Paul is proclaiming is this. God doesn't want you to go there! He longs for you to turn back to him in repentance and faith. He longs for you to trust him – not yourself. So much so, that as we see at the start of the chapter, he sent his Son to die on a cross to receive the penalty you deserve for your sin. In other words the fatal sting has been removed for you! And the best thing of all is that it's free – you can't earn it by what you do, just receive it with repentance and faith. No wonder Paul gets moved to pen v.55 & 57:
"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"
So where does this understanding (of the necessity of the resurrection) leave those of us who would call ourselves Christians? I think there are 2 things we need to grasp:
Firstly, KNOW THAT YOU WON'T BE WITHOUT SIN IN THIS LIFE. Yes, as Christians we have God dwelling in us by his Holy Spirit, but sin will still affect us. There will still be part of us that wants to rebel and disobey. That is our nature. A bit like the 'No Bombing' sign at the swimming pool. I see that and (especially when accompanied by a picture of someone bombing who looks like they are enjoying it) and I want to do it! I never knew what bombing was until I saw a sign in the pool telling me not to do it! That is the nature of sin – rebellion and disobedience. Know that you won't be without it until the end of the story.
On the other hand though, KNOW THAT YOU WILL BE SINLESS BEYOND THIS LIFE. If you are despairing, if you feel like you fail time and time again – then allow the truth of these verses to encourage you that this state is only temporary. Don't view your sinful habits and traits as the real you – they are not! Look ahead to the end of the story and the victory that is yours through Jesus Christ.
Paul concludes his argument full of hope. Hope that the truth of the end of the story will have radical implications for us struggling through the middle of the story. You see for Paul right thinking and right theology was nothing without corresponding action and behaviour. And so Holy Trinity Gateshead, let's not be swayed by competing world views that say that belief in the resurrection of the dead is just 'pie-in-the-sky' 'wishful thinking'. Rather, let's take our lead from the concluding verses of 1 Corinthians 15 knowing that we won't be without sin in this life (so let's put everything into fighting sin now) and knowing that one day it will be gone! Let's abound in the Lord's work knowing that our efforts in the Lord are not in vain and will be of eternal value, and let's stand firm, let's not allow anything to move us in our faith.
We are meant to think about the end of the story more than we do. For Christians - the end of the story is really only the beginning - as we enter eternity with God. CS Lewis captures this brilliantly at the end of his Narnia series: "And for us this is the end of all the stories... But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning chapter one of the great story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."