Raised Reigning Returning
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Do the words “tall dark no room” mean anything to you? If you frequent a certain coffee place or have any familiarity with it at all really, you know that it has a language of its own. I remember when I first started going there with any regularity. Pastor Bill and I would meet there. One of the first times was late fall/early winter and it was cold. I had no idea “frappuccino” meant an iced coffee and so ordered a caramel frappuccino. I soon came to learn the difference between tall and grande and venti. I took part in the liturgy of this coffee place where you say the required words and you are called by name to get your reward. I’ve simplified the whole thing for myself and these days my words are generally “tall dark no room.” Words that might not be immediately understood are not so easily understood by an outsider are nevertheless understood.
We have the same kind of thing in the church for some of the things we consider vital. We don’t do it so much here but there’s a traditional greeting that the church uses where we say “Peace be with you” or “The peace of Christ be with you.” The response that is generally given is “And with you” or “And with your spirit.” The peace of Christ, of God, of the Holy Spirit, is a big thing.
Here’s another one that is rather a big thing. It’s almost like the origination of the whole “when I say ____ you say _____.” It’s been going on for a long time. It’s one of the few Greek phrases I know (much to my chagrin). Christos anesti. Alithos anesti. Or
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!
This is our language. This is our truth.
The third day he rose again from the dead. We’re talking about a physical resurrection. We’re talking about an event that is just not something we mark at Easter but a reality in which we live. An earth-shaking revelation literally. The question was asked of the women at the tomb “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They might well have answered “We’re looking for the dead among the dead because that’s how things are.”
Not anymore. Up from the grave, he arose! Everything has changed, including death. In Roman times death was something to be shunted aside. The dead were disposed of outside of city walls. No service was held. In the early years of the church, followers of this Christ changed this. Death for them was not something to be ignored or passed by. They began to have services with the bodies of loved ones. We still do of course. Someone has said that the most prominent noise at a Christian funeral is not the sound of mourning but the sound of praise.
In his book on the Apostles’ Creed, Justo Gonzalez describes the centrality of the resurrection of Christ: “…without the resurrection of Christ, there is not much to Christianity. It becomes merely one more probable philosophy among others. The teachings of Jesus are good, but by themselves, they are no more than that. Loving one’s neighbour is always good, but without the resurrection is it little more than a helpful practice. Going to church together may keep the family intact, but without the resurrection, the church cannot hold itself together.”
“But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Cor 15:20) What was this like? We know that he grilled and ate fish. We know that he was able to get into a locked room (with that message of “Peace be with you”). We know that his wounds were visible and touchable. We know that in the risen Christ we hold the promise of new life. Life of the ages. Life eternal. Life that we will one day know along with new life now. Being made new in the Holy Spirit. Being transformed in the image of Christ who has gone before us and holding the promise that one day in the twinkling of an eye we will be changed.
He ascended to heaven. This might be one of those events we consider postscripts. Described in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Mark. Described by Luke in more detail at the beginning of Acts. What does it mean to say that we believe Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty?
Let us start by saying that in the ascended Christ, Christmas continues and Easter continues. Christ’s resurrected incarnational body is lifted up. The risen Christ is lifted up. This is not some spiritual ascension we’re talking about any more than we talk about a spiritual return on Christ’s part. Too often in the past Christians have succumbed to a body/spirit dualism that isn’t Christian at all. The renewal of all things which has begun in Christ continues in Christ and will be brought about ultimately at Christ’s return.
But I get ahead of myself. At this point, we’re looking at the present. Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. This right-hand description is not to imply some sort of subordinate role. In the ancient world, the one at the right hand of the monarch was a most trusted advisor. It has to do originally with the fact that a sword (or whatever offensive weapon) is held in the right hand with the defensive weapon in the left hand. It left one vulnerable to attack from the right-hand side – hence the honour and trust due to the one on the right. Christ as the first fruits of our own resurrection is seated at the right hand of God the Father. He has a place at the head table with his Father. If Jesus is the one who claims us for his own and the one who goes ahead of us then it’s it like we have a place at the table even now. This is another one of those great paradoxes or mysteries of our Christian faith. God is wholly transcendent, wholly other, wholly holy. God is due awe and reverence. At the same time in Christ, we have been invited in a way to take a seat at the table. God is due gratitude. Someone has said that the ascension is a sign “of a God so loving that every effort is made to bring us into God’s own heart.” There’s a great hymn called “Near to the Heart of God” that goes “Oh Jesus blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God/Hold us who wait before thee/Near to the heart of God.” We’re welcomed to the table, as it were. One Christian tradition puts it like this – “the finite cannot embrace the infinite. God and God alone is God. But what the ascension tells us is that in Christ’s incarnation and ascension the infinite had embraced the finite. At the very heart of this Trinity now is this human being, Jesus.”
In whom all things exist. In whom all things hold together. The ascension is not an absence. We might think of it as more of a presence. Look at Colossians 1:17 – “He himself is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.”
Jesus has not gone away, but in being raised and rising, as someone has said, he’s become more fully present. Christ has entered his glory (1 Tim 3:16). All things are subject to his authority (Phil 3:21). There’s an Australian indigenous artist named Shirley Purdie. In her painting of the ascension, she shows Jesus ascending into the earth. Someone has described her depiction as Jesus “not fleeing our world but exercising authority over (and within) the whole creation… Because Jesus has ascended he is even nearer to us and to all things.”
So we’ve looked at the past part of this section. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven. We’ve looked at the present part. Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. In the grand salvation story, we live in what is often called the in-between time -the time between Jesus’ ascension and Jesus’ return. This is what we turn to close out this section of the Creed. The part that looks forward.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead. The day to which we look forward. It’s about more than having a tattoo that says “Only God can judge me” which does not actually give one license to be a jerk, but more on that when we talk about the forgiveness of sins. We’re talking about the day when Jesus will judge in righteousness. The day when Jesus will make everything right.
When we think of justice we may think in terms of getting what we deserve, whether for the good we do or have done or the bad. It’s key to remember here that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we don’t get what we deserve. It’s key too to avoid the trap whereby we claim that the God of the OT is a God of justice (or wrath or punishment) and the God of the NT is a God of grace and love. It’s always been about grace and love and it’s always been about justice. Judgement is about putting an end to oppression and exploitation and love is not simply about letting the beloved do as we please – in fact doing as we please is completely opposed to the love of God shown in Christ who poured himself out for the world. Words used for judgement in the Bible often connote separating or selecting. Someone has said that when we consider judgement, the line of separation is not so much within Jesus or how Jesus reacts to people, either in anger or grace. Jesus is full of grace and truth as John puts it. The separation or selection is rather in our reaction to Jesus; welcoming the light of the world and gladly walking in it or squinting our eyes shut against it and rejecting it.
God’s love and justice are beyond our comprehension. People of faith and good-will differ on what they think God’s love and justice will result in on that day. Eternal punishment. The inclusion of all in God’s Kingdom. People simply ceasing to exist, annihilationism as it’s called. You can decide where you fall and you may change your mind. For my part, I believe that people are ultimately given the choice to reject God (God is humble like that) and bear the consequences of that rejection – separation from God. Some things are best left to the unknown I think. As Gonzalez says “…perhaps all we can say is that our limited understanding of love does not permit us to understand how God’s love can be fulfilled in conjunction with infinite justice and that our limited understanding of justice does not allow us to understand how God’s justice can be fulfilled in conjunction with infinite love.”
We can say that to know Christ is to know the judge. To belong to Christ is to belong to the judge. To belong to Christ is to trust not in our own actions or lack of actions but to trust in the one in whom we’ve been pledging our faith, the one who became one of us, who died, who rose again, who is coming back one day to make all things right, including ourselves. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.