Sermon for All Saints Day: “The Other Side of Resurrection”

November 5, 2009

Sermon Text: Revelation 21:1-6a

Earlier this year, as many of you know, I taught a Sunday school class entitled, “Questions You’re Afraid to Ask in Sunday School.” We began each class reading the Apostles’ Creed out loud, and using that as a starting point for questions. I would ask, “What do you hear in this creed that raises questions in your mind?” And some of the most interesting and thought-provoking conversation centered on the phrase, “I believe… in the resurrection of the dead.” A few people asked, “What do we mean by that? Is that a reference to Christ’s resurrection?” And I would explain that, no, the creed discusses Christ’s resurrection earlier; this is a reference to our own resurrection, at the end of history as we know it, on the other side of eternity. Both the New Testament and the early Church witness loudly emphasize resurrection—rather than simply “heaven when we die”—as our primary Christian hope.

I completely understand why so many people, including many Christians, are confused about this question of resurrection. When I made my profession of faith in Christ and was baptized, at age 14, in a Southern Baptist church, I thought that what I gained, primarily, was the assurance of heaven when I died. That is the theme, after all, of so many hymns that we sang, including one that we sing in Vinebranch and one that I love, and we’re going to keep on singing: “I’ll Fly Away.” “One glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away.” “Just a few more weary days and then I’ll fly away.” We’ll fly away, the song says, to “God’s celestial shore”—somewhere very far away from this world of suffering and sin.

I don’t know… In my experience, most of the time, life in this world, fraught as it is with suffering, sin, and evil, still seems like a really good gift, which I am not eager to give up. And songs like these—indeed, much of what well-meaning Christians say about heaven and the afterlife—can sound like escapism; like the world is really too much for us; it’s too overwhelming with all of its problems; and we can’t wait to fly away to heaven—leave it all far behind.

This is not the picture of our future hope in today’s scripture. Listen to John’s description: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Our future is not about our going up to heaven to be with God, but heaven coming down to earth—heaven and earth becoming one. Salvation is not about God’s snatching up individual souls and taking them far away from this wicked world—like a firefighter saving people from a burning building. God is actually quite fond of the building, too—of this very good Creation, and God wants to save and redeem it, all of it, including you and me. The saving work that God accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was for all Creation, not just for individual souls.

If we want to refer to our future new life on the other side of human history as “heaven,” that’s fine, as long as we understand it in the fullest sense as resurrection. Notice that God says, “See, I am making all things new,” not all new things. God isn’t like us. We’re the ones who sometimes grow weary of this world and want God to simply throw it away and start over. And, let’s face it, we often treat this good world like a trash can, even though God loves it and wants to save it. No, God re-makes or renews all the good stuff that is here—including you and me. As C.S. Lewis writes, “The old field of space, time, matter, and the senses is to be weeded, dug and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of that old field: God is not.”[1]

So… What is life in the resurrection like? Let me qualify what I’m going to say with this caution: There is so much mystery here; language does not live up to the task. Nevertheless, I hope we’re already picturing something very different from the traditional picture of angels playing harps and floating on clouds. I’ll never forget being a young and zealous disciple of Jesus, trying my best to be a witness for Christ to my friends in high school. At lunch one day, I was telling my friend Rick about how great it is to be a Christian and talking to him about the glories of heaven. He said, “I don’t want to wear a choir robe and sing hymns for all eternity. I’ll pass!” Wow! Come to think of it, I didn’t want to do that either!

In 1 Corinthians 15, portions of which are often read at funerals, Paul describes our future resurrection. What we will be, Paul says, is what Christ is, in his glorified, resurrected body. Physical, but something beyond physical as we understand it. And what we will be is at least a little bit like what we are today—only more so. There’s a good theological reason, after all, that some disciples like Mary Magdalene had difficulty recognizing the resurrected Lord at first. His body was transformed—he was like who he was before, but also very different. So we will be. One time a parishioner asked me if we’ll recognize one another in heaven. If we understand resurrection, we know that of course we will. God will save our bodies, too, even though they’ll be transformed.

What will we do in resurrection? We will do meaningful and fulfilling work in service to God and one another in a way that sin, death, and evil prevent us from doing now. And we will love God, one another, and ourselves perfectly, in a way that sin, death, and evil prevent us from doing now. And if that doesn’t sound like great news to us, it’s only because we can’t imagine all the good that sin, death, and evil rob us of in this life.

My profile picture on Facebook shows me playing a bass guitar. It was taken while I was recording a song in GarageBand on my Mac. The caption reads: “Brent always wanted to be a rock star. He enjoys his fall-back career, however, as a Methodist minister.” I know you think being a Methodist minister is glamorous, with all its fame and perks, but… don’t tell the Board of Ordained Ministry this, but a part of me wishes that God had called me to be a rock star. That, I imagine, would be a dream job. Speaking of rock stars, there’s an Elvis Costello song in which he has a parent say, “Well, there’s a boy if ever there was, who’s going to do big things/ I guess that’s what they all say, and that’s how the trouble begins.”[2] Part of our trouble on this side of resurrection is the often insurmountable distance between our hopes and dreams and reality. You feel that tension, don’t you?

We want more out of life; we aspire to more; we sense that we’re capable of more. Even at our best, we possess all this unfulfilled promise. We have so much more to give of ourselves, so much more to offer the world, than we can ever hope to realize, at least on this side of resurrection. I think of my father, who was a gifted and successful entrepreneur in so many ways, but he said that he gave up on the dream that one day his “ship would come in.” Before he died of cancer many years ago, he joked that he would just be happy if his “truck came in.” Listen: in God’s future, on the other side of resurrection, I hope and believe it will—and the ship, too. But in reality much more than that. This is what resurrection means to me: God saves all that is best about us, including our unique personalities, our giftedness, our interests, and even some form of our beautiful and good bodies, and God uses them in and for our life on the other side of resurrection.

Here’s some more good news: We can begin to live out the resurrection in the here and now, on this side of eternity. Not fully… Not completely. But Paul in Ephesians 2 and elsewhere talks about how our future hope for resurrection means that everything changes now. It frees us to live in a way that we couldn’t before. I’ve experienced this, at least in small ways, myself. I will never get to be a rock star, but there are times in my vocation when I feel as if I’m be exactly where God wants me to be, doing exactly what God wants me to do, using all the unique gifts I possess for God’s kingdom. And guess what? It feels great! I feel fulfilled. I’ve heard some of you talk about your own vocations, and I know that you experience that, too. That’s a glimpse our future in the resurrection.

On this All Saints Day, I want us to consider this: If we have already experienced the saving work of God in Christ, we have done so because faithful people who have gone before us have opened their lives up to God’s Spirit and allowed the Spirit to work through them, in order to fulfill God’s mission in this world. We all stand on the shoulders of these saints. These people gave so much of themselves in order that we might have the opportunity to experience this gospel as good news. I can’t begin to imagine all the faithful people who contributed something in order that I would be standing here today. I know many of you feel the same way about your own lives.

Stewardship season provides us an opportunity to ask, “How will I gratefully and lovingly respond to God’s gift of life and eternal life so that others might experience this gift as well? What can I give? What is God calling me to give?”

[1] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1960); p. 153.


[2] From “Battered Old Bird,” a song on his 1986 album, Blood and Chocolate.

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