Sermon for September 22nd, 2019
John 5:25-29 (NT page 96)
25 “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27 and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
John 20:21-23 (NT page 115)
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The Apostles’ Creed – I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Part II
One day, a man is walking along the beach when he comes across a lamp partially buried in the sand. He picks up the lamp rubs it against his shirt to clean the dirt off, when suddenly, a genie appears and tells him he has been granted one wish! The guy thinks for a moment and says, "I want to live forever."
"Sorry," said the genie, "I'm not allowed to grant eternal life." So the man thinks for a moment, then says, "Alright, in that case, I want to die one day after Congress balances the budget and eliminates the national debt." The genie glares at the man for a rew seconds and says, "You crafty devil..."
For the last six weeks, we've been talking about the most ancient statement of Christian belief, the Apostles' Creed. And today we come to the end. Only it's not an end...it's a beginning. Because the final words of the Creed testify to a central belief in Christianity, a belief in the "life everlasting."
I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. As we wrap up this sermon series today, I want to talk about these three things in reverse order, starting with the "life everlasting."
The Life Everlasting
As a child, my earliest understanding of Christianity--perhaps it was yours, too--was that if you did good things, lived a good live, when you died you would go to a place called "heaven." And if you did bad things, lived a bad life, when you died you would go to a place called "hell." I vaguely understood that God and Jesus had something to do with this, but it wasn't clear exactly what.
That was actually the view of most Christians in the middle ages, and seems to be supported by Jesus' words in John 5, that on judgement day, the dead will "come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." It's also, more or less, a view still held by many Christians today.
The problem with this view is that it's really hard to be good all the time. Most of us have done things we aren't proud of. And no one (not even within Christianity) seems to be able to agree completely on what exactly *is* good and what is bad. If being good is the standard for getting into heaven, it must bee a lonely place.
There's an old joke about God and Mother Theresa, who are sitting around in heaven one day eating dinner together. They're eating tuna salad and some crackers, when Mother Theresa looks down into hell and sees people eating four course dinners with steak and wine. She asks God why they can't eat like that, and God replies, "Well it doesn't really make sense to cook all that for just two people."
As I became older, sat through a few Sunday School classes and sermons, I came to a more nuanced understanding of Christianity. It wasn't about whether you were good or bad, but rather if you believed in Jesus, and accepted him into your heart, you would go to heaven. Because Jesus died to pay for your sins. And if you didn't believe in Jesus, no matter how good you were, you would still go to hell.
That was the view of most Christians--especially Protestant Christians--in the Renaissance and Reformation, and up through most of the modern era.
The problem with this understanding is that it puts a lot of people in hell simply because they've never heard of Jesus. And it doesn't seem very fair that people who sincerely accept Jesus into their hearts, but then do horrible things, still get to enjoy eternity in heaven.
Furthermore, a big problem with both of these views (medieval and modern) is that they just aren't supported by the Bible, or the beliefs of the earliest Christians. The concept of Heaven and Hell as places of eternal reward or punishment were late developments, influenced initially by Greek, Roman and Norse philosophy, and then by the imagination of medieval art and literature, poems like Dante's Inferno and Paradise. When the words "heaven" and "hell" do (rarely) appear in the Bible, they usually have a different meaning in their original context, which we then force our medieval and modern understandings into, rather awkwardly.
And the Apostles' Creed, the statement of belief used by pre-medieval Christians, makes absolutely no mention of heaven or hell. Instead, it speaks of judgment, eternal life, and the resurrection of the dead--concepts that do appear frequently in the words of Jesus and the New Testament.
Later in my own journey--when I began to reclaim my faith and study the scriptures more intensely, I came to what I would call both an ancient AND post-modern understanding of the "life everlasting." And it has nothing to do with time or eternity.
When Jesus uses these words, for example in the famous verse John 3:16, "for God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" the word translated as "perish" in Greek is ἀπόλλυμι (appolumi) from ἀπό (from) and λύω (cut off). In other ancient Greek texts, this has the since of to become untethered, let loose, like a ship adrift. It can mean "destroyed" but almost never means "to die of natural causes after a long life."
By contrast, the word translated as "eternal life" is ζωὴν (life) αἰώνιον (aeon) or literally, "life of the ages." An aeon, in Greek, did not mean forever. It meant for an age, or a really long time. It was also a way of saying "really good." For God so loved the world, that whoever believes in him will not become lost, but will have life that is full, whole, and complete. Not after you die, but right here and right now. For a long time, that's how I interpreted the "everlasting life" promised by Jesus and the Apostles' Creed.
The Resurrection of the Body
So what happens then, after we die? Well, according to the Creed, and Jesus, that would be the "Resurrection of the Body." Listen again to John 5:25 and 28: “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live . . . Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out."
The Resurrection that Jesus and the Creed speak of is not a disembodied, ghostly, spiritual, floating-around-in-the-clouds kind of thing--it's full on Zombie Apocalypse! But not, I suppose, in a creepy, rotting flesh kind of way. In a whole, complete, rejuvenated way, much like the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples. Imagine your body, but at its peak, optimal functionality--whatever age that may have been! And this is not in some distant, remote place; it's here in this world, the world God created and called good. I would like to believe that at this point, the world is also rejuvenated, restored to its peak, optimal beauty and functionality, along with all the life within it.
I say "I would like to believe" and this is in fact what I do believe, today. I also believe (once again) in eternal life, time-wise, in addition to a life that is full and complete.
In fact, it was this singular doctrine, the belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, that almost eleven years ago brought my faith and my Christianity back from the brink. I had come to a place where I had abandoned my medieval, modern AND post-modern understandings and was ready to walk away from it all as just a bunch of superstitious fantasy. And then I read a book. It wasn't a Christian book. It was actually written by an agnostic Jewish scientist and futurist named Ray Kurzweil. It's a really thick book; I can't do it justice here.
In short, Kurzweil argues that through a convergence of rapidly accelerating technologies--genetics, robotics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence--it may be possible at some point in the future to bring back to life people who have been dead for centuries. Modern physics teaches us that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only rearranged. That means that every particle from every person who has ever lived is still here among us. Identifying and putting those molecules back together will be difficult, but something we will get better and better at with each passing century.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of possible objections a reasonable person (scientist or not) might raise, and Kurzweil addresses them all. For what it's worth, he's not viewed as some far out quack. He's the Director of Engineering at a little company named Google, and the recipient of the 1999 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which is the United States' highest honor in technology.
Of course, you don't have to buy into any of this--although I'd suggest reading one of his many books before dismissing it out of hand. In any case, my point in telling you this was simply to share my own story: As I read Kurzweil's words, it gave my very rational, analytical mind a framework to say, "wait a minute--he's saying the same thing that Christianity has been saying for 2,000 years, but in a fresh new way." And that gave me permission to hope, to trust, to believe again, in the possibility of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.
But wait a minute, Pastor Neal! Isn't God supposed to do all those things? Not future scientists, right? To which I'd say that God's Spirit (remember we're in the Holy Spirit part of the creed!) often works through skilled and talented people. Modern medicine and technology are both pretty "miraculous" especially when combined--we can only imagine how miraculous those things will appear to us a few centuries (or even decades) from now. Would any of you have been able to predict the internet, and all the ways (for better and for worse) in which it has radically changed our lives? Incidentally, Ray Kurzweil did, long before it happened.
Still, whether you believe in a resurrection of the dead brought about by science and technology, or a more "traditional" one poofed directly into existence by God, let's imagine together, just for a minute what that might look like...if you happen to be one of the most notorious bad guys in modern history. You know, Adolf Hitler.
In April of 1945, with allied forces closing in on Berlin, knowing they would soon be at his door, Hitler committed suicide. It was a way of escaping from the judgment he knew he would face for his actions. What would it look like, for Adolf Hitler, if moments after he took his own life, he woke up again...right back in this world (or a future version of it), among the very people he was trying to escape? Oh, and also among all the people whose lives he was responsible for cutting short, now also alive again?
And with death no longer a possibility, what if Hitler had to live and walk among the people of this world, wearing the full ramifications of his actions, clear and transparent as day to everyone, every day, for eternity?
I think that's what Jesus meant when he talked about he resurrection to condemnation.
By contrast, what if your great-great-great-great-grandmother closed her eyes for the last time (likely sometime in the 18th century), and reopened them to find herself surrounded by you, and all of her hundreds of descendants, eager to share their stories, to hear hers, to share life together in a world where the pain, sickness and poverty she may have experienced have cures and solutions that didn't exist before.
I think that's what Jesus meant when he talked about the resurrection to life.
The Forgiveness of Sins
Of course, like I said earlier, we all have done things we are not proud of--some more than others. Perhaps the best way to understand eternal judgment is the possibility that we may someday live with all our decisions, all our actions, in a transparent future where these things are known to everyone. That sounds frightening until you realize we're all in the same boat.
And that's where "forgiveness of sins" comes into play, becomes absolutely essential. I don't know how you forgive someone like Adolf Hitler. Maybe it takes a few thousand years and a lot of introspection and repentance on his part--which would only even be possible in a world where he had to stand before those he had wronged. Maybe for some of us it would be easier. Maybe we'd all be a lot more forgiving of others, knowing how much forgiveness we ourselves need, when we can no longer hide behind our short, finite lives.
Or maybe, just maybe, the "forgiveness of sins" is how we get to that future, to that full, complete, life everlasting where we are ready for a resurrection of the dead. Maybe it's the final pre-requisite before the eternal reward.
In our second scripture passage from John 20, Jesus ties forgiveness to peace: "Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit (remember--breath is life--receive life!) If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This almost sounds like a truism. If you forgive someone, they are forgiven. If you retain their sins (if you hold onto them, if you carry them) they are retained. In other words, if you can't forgive someone--you both continue to carry that burden, that pain, that brokenness that has come between you.
Putting it All Together
So. We come to the end of the creed, which is not an end, but a new beginning. I shared with you today my own (admittedly unusual) take on the creed, and the ways in which my faith has evolved, and interacted with the creed as I have spoken these words through the years. That's my hope for each of us as people of faith, and for us as a community of faith.
Some see this creed as a collection of doctrines or beliefs, as a litmus test for who is in and who is out. I see it as a template, a conversation between us and those who came before us, and those who will come after us. Every generation (and every individual) sees and interprets it in ways that speak uniquely to their own contexts and situations--and yet it is a common thread that holds us together across time and space and culture.
It contains a story that shapes us, and which is shaped by us.
It contains promises that sustain us and give us hope.
And it contains a call to be a community--one that gathers together, that loves and forgives each other, that shares life and GIVES life, and breathes NEW life into all the world...
In the name of God who created us, Christ who redeemed us, and the Spirit who makes us whole.