“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!

“God’s Future Plan”

I have been reading N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope during this Eastertide, (partly because it was assigned during my first year of seminary and I didn’t have time to read it until now that I’ve graduated, but) mostly because I have a very thin understanding of heaven, resurrection, and what Easter actually means for the church, and it is precisely to such readers that Wright wrote this book.

Wright’s second section, titled “God’s Future Plan,” is where Wright addresses all (well, most) of the questions I would guess readers are expecting to find answers to. What/where is heaven? What/when is resurrection? Is all of this for real? His reading of the New Testament is insightful, and I find his answers particularly compelling. Much of this section interacts with 1 Corinthians, which is one of the key New Testament letters for our understanding of the resurrection. I have been working through it over Easter, and this week we read perhaps the best known verses of chapter 15:

For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:53-57; see also Philippians 3:20-21)

These verses are read often in church, and of course they are! They are words of assurance after confession, of comfort by hospital beds, of power at funerals and grave sites. The last verse, especially, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” is a powerful message of hope and celebration, like an oasis or refuge in particularly arid and oppressive circumstances.  For a creative exploration of this “victory,” I offer another of John Donne’s so-called “Holy Sonnets”:

Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God; For You,” by John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Donne and Paul remind us that the victory is not ours, but our Lord Jesus Christ’s. In all of our readings of 1 Corinthians 15:53-57, I fear we tend to focus on the good news of victory for the individual, who is either grieving or suffering, or who has passed through suffering in death. Pastorally, it is fitting to speak words of victory in such moments, but N. T. Wright wowed me with this insight in his conclusion to his part 2, “God’s Future Plan”:

If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question — to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world — may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in out own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. (Surprised by Hope, 185)

This is an outstanding call to expand our conversations of death, life after death, resurrection, heaven, hell, final judgment, and even election and predestination, beyond the narrow “who’s in?” and “who’s out?” to consider what God is up to in the grand scheme of reconciling all things. I doubt this is a satisfying answer to someone deep in the heart of death’s seeming victories, but then, such people are rarely in the mood for a theological treatise. When we are shocked to find Death still at work, seeming to have an upper hand in spite of Easter’s glorious triumph, we must turn to another of John Donne’s sonnets and say, “Death, be not Proud.”

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

…Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

“From Thence He Shall Come”

It’s still Easter? Haven’t we moved on yet? It’s 50 days!?

Maybe you don’t feel like that, because you moved on to new topics 3 weeks ago. Maybe you’ve been confused these past three weeks why I seem to be stuck on Easter and resurrection.

I continue to find the Church Calendar to be an amazing and fathomless tool for spiritual transformation, for being (trans)formed according to the life of Christ. So-called “Liturgical” (which is a misnomer, because all churches have liturgies) or “High” churches — namely, Lutheran (some), Episcopal/Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches — celebrate the Church Year in their weekly worship, paying attention to the seasons of the Christian life that correspond with events and themes in the biblical witness to the life of Christ. I did not grow up worshiping this way. My church, like most Protestant, Evangelical churches, paid attention to the big holidays — Christmas (and therefore, the season of Advent, to build up the hype), Holy Week (and therefore, Lent, wherein we “give up” something we’re too attached to, because Jesus is going to die, so we should feel sad about it), Easter Sunday (three services!), and Pentecost (maybe…we’re not charismatics!). I’m writing with my tongue in my cheek here, but the point I want to make is that I grew up with the Christian year being marked by high days, not whole seasons. To celebrate 50 days of Easter is a discipline!

But what a discipline! And of course Easter should outlast Lent, if we really believe that life wins over death, and God is now triumphant, and the cross and tomb are empty! What is more, this should be a discipline that is easy to take up, because it’s saturated through with joyful celebration, with light and bright colors, with loud “Alleluia!”s. If we really believe that Christ is risen — He is risen, indeed! — then we who are in Christ have a guarantee that we, too, will be raised!

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:50-52; see also 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

This is Easter’s good news! Thanks be to God! If we give Easter only one Sunday (even with the extra Sunrise Service thrown in), we risk telling a lopsided story of grace.

There will come a time, which might indeed come at any time, when, in the great renewal of the world that Easter itself foreshadowed, Jesus himself will be personally present and will be the agent and model of the transformation that will happen both to the whole world and also to believers….As with the ascension, so with Jesus’s appearing: it was seen as a vital part of a full presentation of the Jesus who was and is and is to come. Without it the church’s proclamation makes no sense. Take it away, and all sorts of things start to unravel. (Surprised by Hope, 136)

And so we celebrate that Christ really is risen, and we will celebrate in the coming weeks that he really is ascended into heaven, and he really will come again. Because if we don’t, then what story are we really telling? If Christ isn’t still alive and active and ruling, then what good’s the gospel?

Maybe we downplay Christ’s return, because with it comes judgment. Maybe we know all too well how John Donne feels:

Holy Sonnet VII: “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, Blow,” by John Donne

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.

But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For, if above all these, my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace,
When we are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

We simultaneously pray, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” in worship, and murmur, “But, you know, take your time. Don’t be hasty.” I have certainly prayed halfhearted maranathas. Might this be because we don’t really understand Christ’s — or our own — resurrection, or Christ’s coming return? What is it we expect will happen when that trumpet blows? What does it mean that, “we will all be changed”?

We need to remind ourselves that throughout the Bible, not least in the Psalms, God’s coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over. It causes people to shout for joy and the trees of the field to clap their hands. In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment. (Surprised by Hope, 137)

When we celebrate the full story of Easter, and explore all of its implications, we can pray loud and lighthearted maranathas, because we understand that the world to come, and the judgment that marks its arrival, is the fullness of blessing. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us how we might better pray “Maranatha!” this Easter:

Q&A 52
Q. How does Christ’s return “to judge the living and the dead” comfort you?
A. In all distress and persecution, with uplifted head I confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me. Christ will cast all his enemies and mine into everlasting condemnation, but will take me and all his chosen ones to himself into the joy and glory of heaven.

Resurrection Bodies

Holy Sonnet I: “Thou Hast Made Me, and Shall Thy Work Decay?” by John Donne

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t’wards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour my self I can sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.

John Donne, 16th-century poet-pastor, writes sharply of what is all too familiar to us all as we struggle to live the Christian life. Namely, why are we so prone toward death and its many faces (decay, despair, terror, feebleness, waste, sin) if we are resurrection people? This paradox is acutely painful, and has led to all kinds of attempts by Christian thinkers and theologians to describe what is going on. Paul gives an answer in 1 Corinthians that may be familiar to many: that there are really two bodies. Before I turn to Paul, however, I offer up N. T. Wright’s careful warning: to hear what Paul means, and not what we have been conditioned to hear.

This is the point at which we modern Westerners are called to make a huge leap of the imagination. We have been buying our mental furniture for so long in Plato’s factory that we have come to take for granted a basic ontological contrast between “spirit” in the sense of something material, solid, physical. We think we know that solid objects are one sort of thing and ideas or values or spirits or ghosts are a different sort of thing (often not noticing that they are themselves all rather different sorts of things). We know that bodies decay and die; that houses, temples, cities, and civilizations fall to dust; and so we assume that to be bodily, to be physical, is to be impermanent, changeable, transitory, and that the only way to be permanent, unchanging, and immortal is to become nonphysical.

Paul’s point here is that this is not so. Actually, it wasn’t so even in the dominant cosmology of his day, which was Stoic rather than Platonic. Still less within the Jewish creation theology, which formed the seedbed out of which, because of the resurrection of Jesus himself, Paul grew this theology of new creation. Paul is making his Corinthian readers think in new patterns, and he has the same effect on us. (Surprised by Hope, 153-154)

So, with this warning to not read Paul as Enlightenment-informed Platonists firmly in mind, we turn to Paul. (To help us avoid the temptation to narrowly read “physical,” therefore, I offer the New King James Version, which says “natural”):

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory.

So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. (1 Corinthians 15:35-45, New King James Version)

N. T. Wright comments on this passage, helpfully explaining the nuances of the Greek words “natural” (or “physical”) and “spiritual”:  namely, the difference is not the material from which our bodies are made, but the power by which our bodies exist:

Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psyche (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation. (Surprised by Hope, 155-156)

This is why Paul is talking about Adam. Adam received the very breath of God, and instead took his life into his own hands by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Rather than relying wholly on God as the source of life, and enjoying the many good trees by which God would sustain his creation, Adam and Eve wanted to live independently, sustained by their own “normal human psyche.” Paul offers Jesus Christ as “the second Man” who demonstrated what it looks like for a body to live entirely upon “God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life.” When life is sustained by this divine breath, it is little wonder that the grave will not hold it.

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Wright draws from C.S. Lewis’ masterful work of speculative fiction, The Great Divorce, which artfully explores what resurrected bodies — as more substantial than earthly bodies, not less substantial — might seem like to one who chooses not to enter heaven. An excellent read!

What Paul is asking us to imagine is that there will be a new mode of physicality, which stands in relation to our present body as our present body does to a ghost. It will be as much more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body  as our present body is more substantial, more touchable, than a disembodied spirit. (Surprised by Hope, 154)

Resurrection living is not easy. Donne remarks that, “not one hour my self I can sustain,” because we live still in these perishable bodies. Our lungs are still pulling tainted air, knowing all along that we are promised the very breath of God. This promise is sealed to us in baptism, which is the sacrament by which we mysteriously participate in our Lord’s dying and our Lord’s rising again. But we have not risen yet, and these bodies still decay. An Easter paradox, indeed.

This is why Paul is working so hard to communicate to the Corinthians, and to us, that while we have not risen yet, Christ’s rising is a guarantee of our own coming resurrection, and Christ’s “spiritual” body is a testament that our own are coming. This is why we lament the death and disease so prevalent among us, because our hope is sure! Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!