“Sign and Foretaste”

Here it is. Only a few days left before Pentecost, and the beginning of “Ordinary Time,” or as it can also be called, “Growing Time.” I have been reading N. T. Wright‘s book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church during this Easter season, and then sharing those quotes that have been particularly helpful in reading 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s fullest treatise on the nature and significance of the resurrection of the body. And, because I typically bite off more good food than I can appropriately digest, I also tried to work in the “Holy Sonnets” of John Donne, a 16th-century English preacher and poet. This is the concluding post of the series, and we have one verse of 1 Corinthians 15 left to consider, in light of all we have seen and heard about the Easter resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and what that event means for our own promised resurrection still to come:

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Maybe this verse surprises you. Taken on its own, without the previous verses, it doesn’t seem to fit with a conversation on resurrection. Why should we be “steadfast, immovable” when we will be raised to new life? Isn’t Easter about the victory of Christ, that “It is finished!”, and not that we should continue “excelling in the work of the Lord”? What is Paul saying?

Paul, we remind ourselves, has just written the longest and densest chapter in any of his letters, discussing the future resurrection of the body in great and complex detail. How might we expect him to finish such a chapter? By saying, “Therefore, since you have such a great hope, sit back and relax because you know God’s got a great future in store for you”? No. Instead, he says, “Therefore, my beloved ones, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”

What does he mean? How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present? Quite straightforwardly. The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God’s people are called. What we do in the present — by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself — will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether….They are a part of what we may call building for the kingdom. (Surprised by Hope, 192-193)

A surprising conclusion. Easter, the resurrection, new life, and victory over death, all of this points not to our own comfort and security, but to the work that we are called to do. Wright continues:

The point is this. When God saves people in this life, by working through his Spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope, and love, such people are designed — it isn’t too strong a word — to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future. (Surprised by Hope, 200)

Easter’s reflections and celebrations of Christ’s victory and our sure resurrection ends with Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit to gather and equip the Church for its work in the world. We in the Reformed tradition might recognize the language of “sign and foretaste” here, because we use this phrase to describe what is going on in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The bread which we eat and the cup which we drink are for us a “sign and foretaste” of the heavenly banquet that we will enjoy when our Lord and Savior returns in glory; in the same way, I don’t think it too much to say that the church — yes, even the complicated mixture of sinful and sacred that it is — is sacramental in nature, a “sign and foretaste” of the full reign of God that we will enjoy — and work toward now “not in vain” — when our Lord and Savior returns in glory. This is the radical and surprising hope we hold, not that we will go to heaven, but that heaven is already on its way to us and through us! Thanks be to God!

In one last “Holy Sonnet” from Donne, we hear a fairly classic interpretation of salvation: that Christ’s sacrificial death seals a mysterious exchange, our sin for “death’s conquest.”

Holy Sonnet XVI: “Father, Part of His Double Interest,” by John Donne

Father, part of his double interest
Unto thy kingdom, thy Son gives to me,
His jointure in the knotty Trinity
He keeps, and gives to me his death’s conquest.

This Lamb, whose death with life the world hath blest,
Was from the world’s beginning slain, and he
Hath made two Wills which with the Legacy
Of his and thy kingdom do thy Sons invest.

Yet such are thy laws that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfil;
None doth; but all-healing grace and spirit
Revive again what law and letter kill.

Thy law’s abridgement, and thy last command
Is all but love; Oh let this last Will stand!

Donne, as he has in each of these “Holy Sonnets,” articulates a spiritual truth, and then explores it artfully. Let us remember, with Donne, that “All-healing grace and Spirit revive again what law and letter kill”;

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Amen, and Amen!

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