Tonight we're talking about the afterlife and mostly for my own amusement, I want to show you a little video clip. Two priests, one normal, the other very very silly, are keeping an overnight vigil by the coffin of another priest who has recently died. [Father Ted clip]
The afterlife: what happens after this life? What is there on the other side of death? What's in store for those who are followers of Jesus? What difference does it make whether you believe in it or you don't?
This week is indeed the last week in our series working phrase by phrase through the Apostles' Creed, which we say together in a lot of our services here at HTG, this ancient statement of belief in some of the key facts of the Christian message. We've covered the creating work of God the Father and the rescuing work of God the Son and we're now at the end of the paragraph about the recreating work of the Holy Spirit, who hooks us in to that rescuing work of Jesus. Our line for tonight is I believe in… the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. This is the business end of the Creed for us if we're following Jesus.
We're going to come at this last line by parachuting into chapter 15 of the Apostle Paul's first letter to a new church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. Let me tell you about the Corinthian Christians. The Corinthian church was full of problems. Pride, division and sin were rife, as was misunderstanding in some of the core truths of the gospel message. Insert Church of England joke here... It was certainly a church in need of a good Creed to help them stay on track. One of the things they wrongly thought was that being a Christian resulted in a prosperous, happy, successful life here and now. They didn't really believe in heaven as their destination but thought that all the blessings promised by and through Jesus could and should be theirs to experience now.
So Paul writes this epic 58-verse chapter, chapter 15, to explain that they're very wrong – dangerously so. They need to know the truth, and the truth is infinitely better than what they think now. Since it's the Creed we're examining we'll use the two ideas of that last line as our outline, so two points:
1) [I believe in] the resurrection of the body
2) [I believe in] the life everlasting
1) [I believe in…] the resurrection of the body
Now I've said already that this line of the Creed is all about us. This resurrection is our resurrection. This life everlasting is our life. Now you might be a fair bit back down the track. You might be thinking, 'I don't know if I even believe that Jesus rose from the dead, never mind this talk of the afterlife for everybody else.' We don't have time to cover Jesus' resurrection tonight but we have done earlier in the Creed series, and in our Reason for God series in August and on Easter Sunday earlier this year, so there are three past sermons you can find from this year alone that are all about Jesus' resurrection. I've also got a few copies of The Evidence for the Resurrection, which you could take from me afterwards.
And it's vital that we make up our minds about Jesus' resurrection, because without that everything else falls. The Corinthians aren't convinced about the afterlife, but Paul argues that if there's no such thing as resurrection, then Jesus hasn't been raised and if Jesus hasn't been raised then the cheque payment of his death on the cross for our sins bounced, meaning that the whole gospel is a massive mistake and Christians are the biggest losers of all time. Look down at v17:
17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
But Jesus did rise from the dead. Look further up at verse 3:
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
As the Scriptures, the Old Testament, said would happen, Jesus died, he was buried and he rose again. And there are witnesses – loads of them. And that's great news for us. Look back down to v20:
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
Jesus' resurrection wasn't a one-off thing. His resurrection was the first, the lead, the pioneering resurrection and it was just the beginning. Paul talks about firstfruits. It's a harvest analogy. One apple gets picked or one blade of wheat is gathered up and all the rest will follow, the whole crop. Jesus' resurrection is the first spring flower that shows that all the others are coming. It's the first domino – once it falls all the others can too. If Jesus wasn't raised, if there were no firstfruits, then what we'd have is total, 100% crop failure. But he did rise, so the whole harvest can be brought in. Who is in this harvest? V23: those who belong to him. People who trust in his death and resurrection to be for them, paying for their sin, paving the way for them to be at peace with God and adopted into God's family forever. Jesus will come for those who are following him. A few will be alive. The vast majority will already have died. Paul refers to them as being asleep. But they will be raised for life with Jesus. But we're not just talking about some hazy, ethereal cumulo-nimbus afterlife; we're talking about the resurrection of the body. So what about the body? Look at v50:
50I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit thekingdom ofGod, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
These bodies we're in won't get many of us to a hundred years, so they're no good at all for eternity. I'm thirty years old. If I was an international footballer I'd be starting to think about retiring from playing for Northern Ireland to prolong my club career at Old Trafford. Rod would be playing his last season, a shadow of his former self. Grey hairs appear – if they hang in there long enough to turn grey. The wrinkles finally triumph over the most expensive face-creams. I'm not just talking about Rod anymore by the way… These bodies are no good for eternity. So, v51:
51Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52in a flash [literally in an atom of time], in the twinkling of an eye [the time it takes to blink], at the last trumpet [the signal of celebration and victory]. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we [Christians] will be changed. 53For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
If we're going to live forever in the kingdom of God we need new forever bodies. Bodies with teeth that don't grind down, knees that don't get sore, fingers that don't get arthritis, eyes that don't go blind, ears that don't go deaf, backs that don't stoop over. So we will be changed. We don't know quite what we will be like, but we will be changed.
Back around v37 Paul compares our bodies now to little seeds. What do you do with a seed? You bury it in the ground, cold, dark and lifeless. But then it is raised into a plant, much bigger, looking much more alive, more vibrant organism. It's hardly imaginable that it could be another stage of the same life. Paul says it will be the same for us and our bodies. Look at v42:
42So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
Like a plant to a seed, our new bodies will be almost unimaginably more glorious than those we have now, and just as well. What a truth to cling onto when our hair is falling out and our knees are wobbling and our eyesight's going. What a truth to hold onto when we're unwell, when we don't seem to be getting any better, when the doctors don't know what's wrong, or when they do know what's wrong and it's very wrong. These failing bodies of dishonour and weakness and pain will be transformed beyond our imagining. What a joy and relief to be able to say, "I believe in the resurrection of the body."
And so we come to the very last clause in the whole Creed:
2) [I believe in…] the life everlasting
54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
55"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"
When that last trumpet blasts to signal the final, permanent victory over God's enemies we will be changed, our bodies transformed from weakness and mortality to glory and immortality. Death has no place in God's kingdom. In fact it never has. Death is an alien intruder in God's perfect creation. It's so hard for us to imagine, but death is an evil which only exists at all because of man's rebellion against God. Death is part of the punishment for turning our backs on the life-giver. God gave us breath and we used it to curse him, so he limited the time we could keep that breath.
But death has no place in God's kingdom. We will be imperishable, immortal. Death will be long forgotten. There will be no graveyards in eternity, no undertakers, practising undertakers I mean, no urns, no ashes, no mourning, no grieving, no wreaths, no hearses, no memorials, no sympathy cards, none of it. And this isn't superficial triumphalism from Paul, nor crass insensitivity. He mentions death's sting. Earlier he said that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Until that atom of time, that blinking of an eye when we are transformed, death continues to sting us, like a snake-bite, sharp pain, slow to fade. Death cuts us off from loved ones. Messages of condolence might say things like, 'He's still with us.' 'She'll never really leave us.' 'He lives on in our hearts.' But those things aren't really true, are they? Death cuts us off, we are separated, our loved ones have left us; that's why it hurts so much. And death is coming for all of us. Death is an enemy that defeats all of us. But death has no place in God's kingdom. Look at v56:
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
We need to get our thinking right about death. Death isn't just a biological event. Physical death is part of the punishment for turning our backs on the life-giver, but it's just the outward sign of that separation from God. Death comes from our sin, our desire to wrench ourselves away from God. And because we're effectively dead to God even now because of sin, more sin in the result. We're stuck. Even the law, which showed what was good, what God required, only added firepower to sin. Nothing makes me want to walk over some patch of well-maintained lawn more than a sign that says 'Keep off the grass'. But we're not talking near-arbitrary horticultural instruction. We're talking about design issues of the human race. Worship God alone. Worship the creator and not his creation. Don't murder. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't do all this stuff that makes life hard for you and for others. Don't do all this stuff that angers your good creator. V57:
57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus didn't sin. He didn't turn away from God. He lived perfectly. He didn't deserve to die under God's judgement for sin. Instead he chose to die under God's judgement for sin, not his own, but ours. He paid the price of our death. And the payment cleared. His resurrection was the receipt – payment accepted. Death unable to hold him down, he rose in victory, never to die again. And he shares his victory with us, starting now and then fully realised on that last day. Jesus was the pioneer and we get the chance to follow him and like him, to live forever.
Here's an illustration that I found very helpful when I first heard it. Imagine the human story as the story of two bus drivers, Adam and Jesus. In the beginning God set Adam at the front of humanity, in the driving seat of the human bus, with the job of getting humanity safely to God. The destination on the front of the bus was 'God'. But in no time at all Adam swung the steering wheel and pulled a sharp u-turn, 180 degrees in the other direction. So instead of driving humanity towards God, he steered us away from him. As human beings we've all climbed on board Adam's bus, heading away from the life-giving Creator, final destination 'Eternal Death', separated from God. And that is a rubbish bus to be on.
But God sent a new man, a second man, a second Adam, Jesus, to drive a new bus for a new humanity. He's the only one who could do it because he's the only one who wasn't stuck on Adam's bus. Look at v45-49. 'The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven.' Adam led us away from God but Jesus is leading us back to God, final destination 'Eternal Life'. Jesus went to the final destination of Adam's bus, he went to Death, he died physically, he died spiritually, being cut off from God, judged by God for our sins, but now he's alive and driving back, towards God, calling out to us to get onto his bus. In his final destination, Eternal Life, sin is gone. Maybe you've heard it this. By dying in our place Jesus has freed us from the penalty of sin, death and judgment. Now in this life he is freeing us from the power of sin, its hold on us. And when we reach our final destination Jesus will free us from the very presence of sin. In fact all the consequences of sin will be reversed and restored. No more death or mourning or crying or pain. No separation from God. Instead we will be with him, in his presence, worshipping him, delighting in him, as we were designed and made to do, fully functional, fully human.
That's the message of this chapter and the theme of the Apostles' Creed. God created us, Jesus rescues us, the Spirit recreates us, destination Eternal Life.
So if you're not a follower of Jesus the next step is obvious. Get off Adam's bus and get onto Jesus' bus. Ask God to count your rebellion against Jesus instead of you. Turn towards God. Submit to him as God. You can do that so simply, just by asking him. You could use the confession prayer we prayed earlier. Maybe you're not there yet. Maybe you're back at wondering if it's possibly even true that Jesus rose from the dead. Maybe you're wondering if we can even trust the bible to tell us any reliable truth about anything to do with Jesus. Why not take one of those books, The Case for Christ. That's a great way to into the evidence. Eternal life and death is at stake. That's the claim.
If you are a follower of Jesus, your next step is v58:
58Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
Stand firm. Don't get off the Jesus bus. Instead put your seatbelt on because the ride is bumpy. We're not home yet. Our driver had the bumpiest ride of all, if I can put it in such a silly way. He was rejected, suffered and died. We're not home yet. The victory is won but not yet finalised. The Corinthian Christians were wrong to expect a prosperous, happy, healthy, successful life here and now. Let nothing move you. Buckle up. Don't be moved, don't be shaken.
Instead, v58, give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. Part of believing in 'the life everlasting', as the Creed puts it, is knowing that we can plough ourselves into working for God's kingdom, knowing that death and decay can't ruin that work. Productivity now for God's kingdom has eternal effects. Praying, turning away from sins, giving financially, serving, telling others about Jesus, teaching our children, inviting people to Carol Services, encouraging other Christians, living for Jesus, trusting in Jesus, obeying Jesus, thanking Jesus; these and many more are eternally significant ways to spend our time and efforts. What will that work be if it is not in vain? It will be lasting. It will be worthwhile. It will be rewarded.
So that's the end of our series on the Apostles' Creed. Just 114 words but a goldmine of truth. So when we next say the Apostles' Creed and we come to that last line, let's be excited at the prospect of new, immortal, resurrection bodies. Let's be excited about everlasting life in the presence of God. Let's be so thankful to Jesus for his self-sacrifice to rescue us and take us home with him. And then let's remember to stand firm and get on with working for his kingdom.