From Everlasting to Everlasting
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What do you think of the concept of living forever? To some, it might not be very welcome. Others might think that sitting around on clouds and playing harps after getting through the pearly gates might be interminably boring. One Christian leader who wrote a book on the Apostles’ Creed describes how would hear about heaven while in church as a young child and imagined it would be like sitting in church on a pew from which his feet didn’t reach the floor! Not compelling. I remember as a child imagining that heaven contained gumball machines into which you did not have to put any money. Just spin the dial and free gum! I think this probably tells you more about me as a child though than any widespread Christian conception or misconception about heaven.
I believe in the resurrection of the body. This is bound to once and for all clear up the misconception about us spending eternity as robed and winged beings floating on clouds. C.S. Lewis has a great line about this in mere Christianity where he talks about people objecting to the Christian faith because they don’t want “to spend eternity playing harps.” He writes that “All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity… Crowns.. suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven and the preciousness of it. People who take the symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
“Come on you… Do you want to live forever?” Do we? What is it that we’re talking about when we say “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting?”
As you know I often like to start things off by talking about what we’re not talking about. Throughout the Creed we see that matter matters. Being an adopted daughter or son of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit living in you means that matter matters. We’re not talking about looking forward to some disembodied existence. We’re not saying that the soul is somehow more important than the body or that our souls are the part of us that God made to be eternal. For we amateur philosophers this is an idea that came from Plato and Socrates.
Matter matters. The material is not immaterial to God. We’ve seen this from the beginning of course. God the Father Almighty – creator of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary. As someone has said, “Ancient gnostic teachers viewed the bodies of women with the utmost horror; but for Christians, the womb of a woman is the sacred venue of the divine action in this world.” The Holy Spirit is sent to dwell in us – to dwell in our bodies, making them a temple in way. This is not just to get us not to drink and smoke, but to signify that they are centres of divine activity. Let us not objectify them.
We’ve talked about the Creed throughout these eight weeks as a story. It’s a story of God as creator. Of God as redeemer. Of God as sanctifier. Of God as resurrected and resurrector.
The resurrection of the body. God’s gift. God’s miraculous action. Nothing we can do to make this happen for sure. God’s grace. Listen to how Paul describes it to the people of Corinth – “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. 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?” (1 Cor 15:51-55)
Death, which still stings, will sting no more for the victory will be Christ’s! This is Christian hope! A new heaven and new earth and a loud voice saying from the throne “See the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more for the first things have passed away” and on that day please do come up to me joyfully and tell me that I no longer have to talk about sorrow or paradox or tension or already/not-yet because that voice from the throne is saying “See I am making all things new.” The end of the story which of course isn’t an end at all. It’s more like a beginning because this story will never end.
Can we get our minds around it? I can’t. Paul simply used the image of a seed to help understanding. We’ll be coming up to planting season soon God willing. “You do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or some other grain (or tomatoes or cucumber). But God gives it a body as he has chosen…” (1 Cor 15:35-38)
The resurrection of the body in which the follower of Christ will participate in life in the new heaven and new earth.
Now the thing about life everlasting is that it might not seem to be such a good thing to everyone. This goes back to our view of life or our view of time. Do we look at time as same stuff different day or as a never-ending banal cycle? There’s an Argentine writer named Jorge Luis Borges who “tells the story of a man who drinks from a river of immortality and becomes immortal. But without death, life lacks definition; it doesn’t mean anything. One day the man learns of another river that can take immortality away. And so for centuries, he wanders the earth and drinks from every spring and river, seeking to end the curse of endless life. ‘Death,’ writes Borges, ‘makes men precious and pathetic, their ghostliness is touching; any act they perform may be their last.’”
You can debate the merits of such a position, but when we’re talking about “the life everlasting,” we are not just talking about quantity of life. We are talking about quality, or as I like to put it, life the way it was meant to be lived. The life everlasting might be described as life eternal or life of the ages. It’s not just that it’s everlasting but that it is life lived in communion with the author of life. As one prayer puts it “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life.” It’s described in places like John 5:24. To live eternal life or life of the ages life is to be identified with the one who is described as eternal life itself in 1 John 1:2. In drawing ever closer to Christ we are coming ever more to share what it means to live/ in loving communion with Christ. This promise is not solely for the afterlife but it is experienced now by the follower of Christ. This is the gift of God!
There’s a movie called “Immortal Beloved” about the life of Beethoven. Letters are found after his death addressed to his “immortal beloved” and a friend goes on a quest to find out who this is. When the woman is found, a story is told of love and childbirth and a missed meeting and rancour and reconciliation. You can see the movie to get the full story, but we get the idea of an “immortal beloved” perhaps. Someone has said that an “intense experience of love can alter our ordinary perceptions and seem to lift us beyond the limits of space and time. That is why so many poets and philosophers speak of the ‘eternal’ quality of love.”
An experience that takes us outside of space and time. Perhaps you’ve experienced or are experiencing something similar. I was talking about the C.S. Lewis quote about music and the sense of the eternal earlier. I’ve often had times when I’m playing with a band and feeling such a connection to the music and the people I’m playing with and God in some way that I feel that this could go on forever. Eternal embodied communion with Christ and the Spirit and the Father and with one another within a new heaven and new earth is how this story ends and the thing is it doesn’t end – it’s a never-ending story in the most wonderfully imaginable sense of the words. This is our hope friends. This is where we come to an end. Of course we never really come to an end, but let us mark this point with the final word of the Creed. The amen. Let the amen, sound from his people again, as the great hymn goes. We say Amen. Yes. So be it. I say “we” say it but of course, we’ve been saying “I” this whole time. As we individually praise and affirm these truths, our praise and affirmation is caught up together, united as we are by the Holy Spirit. United with the holy catholic church, with the communion of saints – those unseen (for now) saints who surround us as a cloud of witnesses, and so let us continue to run the race set before us. We are able to say amen at all based on the one called “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation” (Rev 3:14). Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. The one who often prefaced the truth he spoke with “amen amen” or “verily verily” or “truly truly I say to you…” The one who calls himself the way, the truth, the life. These are our truths. He is our truth. His Spirit enables us to affirm it. Thanks be to God for speaking to us through the story of the Apostle’s Creed over these last eight weeks. Let us affirm these truths together now… Amen