Book recommendation: ‘Surprised by Hope’ Tom Wright.
‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’
Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’ John 11:21-27
Martha doesn’t answer Jesus’ question. She has already declared her faith in the resurrection on the last day and in her reply she affirms her faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God; she doesn’t directly answer the question Jesus asked. Perhaps her answer assumes an affirmation of what Jesus has asked, but at the moment she is focussed on the fact that Lazarus has died and Jesus wasn’t there and even now he could restore her brother to life.
This however is not the resurrection of Christian faith or even a pointer to the resurrection of Christian faith.Like the many miracles of Jesus it was a sign pointing to who he was, so that people could declare that he was and is the resurrection and the life. In the question he asked Martha Jesus is seeking more than a belief he can do an amazing miracle. Jesus is looking for faith that believes he can take people through death and beyond into a new life in eternity. The resurrection of Lazarus was an astounding miracle, particularly since he had been dead four days, but it was and is the resurrection of Jesus that brings about life after death with him. Lazarus did finally die. Understandably, Martha and Mary wanted their brother back with them in the here and now. In the face of the death of someone we love that is a natural reaction – even for Christians and even for ministers.
I was standing on the steps of a hotel in Blackpool at the BU conference and there was a minister who had trained with me waiting for her husband. We were chatting and she said, ‘Oh he is over there.’ He came to the crossing and then just collapsed into the road. I dashed over and he was having a fit. I put him in the recovery position and yelled at someone to call for an ambulance. He died shortly after in hospital. His daughter said to her mum, ‘He’s in a better place now,’ something that is often said. Heather’s response was, ‘Yes, but I want him here.’ This was the response of Martha and Mary. They believed in the resurrection at the last day; they believed Jesus was the Messiah. What they wanted was what was known: their brother alive with them. Faith in the resurrection and that Jesus would bring them through was and is a step into the unknown. However, because Jesus has been physically, bodily, raised from the dead, we put our faith in him and trust him for that step into the unknown.
So what has that got to do with 1 Corinthians? Here we have the first exposition of Christian belief in bodily resurrection and this detailed exposition is brought about because there seems to have been a group in the Corinthian church who denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus and had turned it into some sort of spiritual resurrection. They had accepted the Greek world view that the soul is released from the body at death and flies off to eternity. Basically Paul argues that because Jesus was physically raised from the dead by God, so shall all those who put their faith in him. In this passage, Paul goes to great lengths to give an answer to Jesus’ question:
‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even
though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
The church Paul established at Corinth went through many struggles in terms of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ, how they were supposed to live, how they were supposed to relate as the community of believers, spiritual pride and superiority as well as understanding what seems to be basic: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul is writing to people who are Christians or claiming to be Christians and seeking to establish the foundation to their faith. He is not writing to convince people who are not believers. The chapter has its own internal logic, but wouldn’t convince people of the resurrection. First they have to come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Without that. Not much of what Paul argues in this chapter will make sense.
What Paul does is take the Corinthians back to basics and points out the consequences of denying resurrection and in particular the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as well as the consequences of believing in the resurrection. In doing so he makes a case for the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection. He begins with a statement of faith:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
Then he lists other witnesses who can attest to the resurrection appearances. He is saying, ‘If you don’t believe me, go and speak with those who were eyewitnesses.’
We don’t have that opportunity except through the pages of scripture and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. We read in scripture and we seek God in faith and ask God to reveal himself to us. It is an act of faith on our part and grace on God’s part. But as Paul points out, without the bodily resurrection of Jesus – the vindication of God over the life, witness and obedience of his Son – we do not have the forgiveness for sin we preach, and we are found to be misrepresenting God.
There is a strand in Christian theology that does not believe in the bodily resurrection and interprets it in the ethereal spiritual terms some of the Corinthian church were doing. They would also deny the bodily resurrection of believers, but to the extent they believe in any form of life of death, it is a soul existence without the body. This is not limited to theologians in colleges; it is also found amongst church ministers and Christians in the pews or on the seats of our churches. As a consequence, there is lack of assurance and often Christian agnosticism: they adhere to a certain extent to the teachings of Jesus and go through the motions of worship, but as to whether or not he really was the Son of God – that is another matter.
This new series is called: It’s church, but not as you know it. Most people will think this is what we believe as Christians: that we don’t really believe Jesus rose from the dead, but it was a spiritual experience. Life after death is some sort of soul that escapes to heaven and is out there somewhere.
Paul is unequivocal:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have
fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 1 Corinthians 15:20-24
When he wrote to reassure the Thessalonians about those who had died, he wasn’t making the point that we would be whisked off this planet to spend eternity in the clouds. He was reassuring them that those who had died were not lost, but would be bodily raised: ‘The dead in Christ will rise first’. He pictures Christians meeting Jesus as he comes, but wasn’t saying we would spend eternity on the clouds. He believed in the bodily resurrection of believers – which is also the assertion of Martha as she speaks of the resurrection on the last day.
The actions of the church make no sense without the resurrection.
We read scripture to understand and follow Jesus, but what is the point if Jesus did not rise? We would not have the Holy Spirit to help us discern what is being said through the Word and it would be no different to reading about other prominent figures from history.
There would be no point proclaiming the gospel. After all, what would we be proclaiming? That there was a good man called Jesus who called people to live a counter-cultural lifestyle and who misjudged the situation and was executed? Not much good news there.
Baptism, communion, prayer and worship would just be rituals to see us through life – traditions or a comfort blanket. Without the resurrection they would have no meaning.
The body of the church only exists because of the resurrection. Think about the disciples even when they had met with Jesus – they weren’t exactly thinking about proclaiming that he was alive. However, as Jesus returned to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit, so the church was born.
Without the resurrection we are just another group following a popular figure and keeping his memory alive. We are just another religious group with some strange practices or who are rather keen on serving the community and helping people in need. The reason why we do these things is because, Jesus has been raised and given us the responsibility to proclaim the Kingdom of God and be part of bringing it in.
At every funeral I take I use the words of Jesus,
‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even
though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you
It is what we believe as Christians and is true whatever the position of the person who has died. At the committal I always say
Now that the earthly life of … has come to an end, we commit her body to
the ground/be cremated, trusting in the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
It is true, whatever the belief of the person who has died: the question is will we be raised to eternal life with Christ or eternal separation, because we have rejected him? We entrust everyone to the mercy of God in judgement.
I spoke those words on Friday at the funeral of Gladys, and will use them at the funerals of Audrey and Jenny. I spoke them with confidence on Friday and will be able to do so for Audrey and Jenny. We believe they are with the Lord – read the whole of 1 Corinthians 15 to understand Paul’s explanation. As Paul makes clear; as the Christian church has believed and declared since earliest times – and it was being declared when Paul became a follower of Jesus; as the church has declared in its creeds down through the centuries: We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
We believe in the resurrection of the body, because Jesus was physically raised from the dead. We do not believe that eternity is the soul released from the body to become one with God, the eternal or the universe. That is Hinduism, Buddhism or New Ageism. We do not believe we will be whisked from the earth to live in the heavens. Revelation points to God the Father renewing and recreating the earth and living among his people.
Paul does admit that there is mystery here in the process, but stands firm on bodily resurrection. Jesus declares that resurrection and life are found in him. We are a resurrection people – body and soul.