Life AFTER Life After Death

A couple from my former congregation in New York State recently passed through Dallas. We went to dinner at a restaurant in Uptown near my new apartment. They are musicians; she is a classical pianist, he is a jazz trombonist, arranger, and composer with a master’s degree from the jazz program at the University of North Texas in Denton.  I got to know them well over the years; they came to my Bible studies, Brad was on the vestry, and he and I played music together. But I really got to know them one Palm Sunday when I got a call from Brad early in the morning before church, asking me to come over.  Jane’s parents had been killed in a car accident the night before. 

I spent a lot of time with them in the weeks that followed. Jane was utterly grief-stricken. It took close to ten years for her not to be ambushed by periodic bouts of depression and anguish. At one point I gave her a book that I thought would be encouraging. It was a thin volume by N.T. Wright entitled, For all the Saints. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to think seriously about the Christian message of resurrection. But in this case, it was bit of a misfire. 

N.T. Wright asserts that many Christians have got it all wrong when it comes to what we call “life after death.”  They have invested everything in the conviction that when we die, our soul will go to heaven where we will dwell in bliss and glorify God forever. I expect many readers will think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before – this is basic Christianity, right?”

N.T. Wright’s point is: “No, that is not right.” The message of the Gospel is NOT that if we believe in Jesus, we get to go to heaven for ever. The New Testament invites us to be joined to Jesus in an act of complete trust – signified in Baptism.  In our union with Jesus we share in his death, so that in a mysterious but very real sense we are on the cross with him, and he literally bears our sins – as Paul says in Colossians, our sins are actually “nailed to the cross.”

United With Christ in His Death

The crucial point – and St. Paul is very explicit about this – is that if we share in his crucifixion, we also share in his resurrection. “Do you not know,” says Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death...if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3, 5)

This is why Easter matters. The resurrection of Jesus is not a novelty. It is not a one-of-a-kind miracle that God performed merely to vindicate Jesus as the Messiah.  Every Jew knew what Martha tells Jesus about her brother, Lazarus, in the Gospel of John – that the dead will “rise on the resurrection on last day.” (John 11:23) The disciples knew that if Jesus was raised, this was just the beginning, the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) of a harvest that would include them – and us. Jesus’ rising, body, mind, and spirit, from the tomb on Easter is a guarantee of our own resurrection to come.

The resurrection of the body is actually a more outrageous claim, and in my view, harder to believe, than the idea that soul is taken up to an eternal spiritual realm, leaving the body behind to decay into nothingness. The notion of a mere ascent of the soul is less awkward, less provocative, because it leaves the world unchanged and does not challenge us to think through the nature of God’s creation and his redemptive purpose for the world – nor compel us to question the determinist legacy of modernity. Why then would we believe that such a thing as resurrection is even possible?

To begin with, Old Testament speaks of resurrection. As Isaiah put it, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!…the earth will give birth to the dead.” (Isaiah 26:19) But the principal reason is this: we already have “Example A” in the actual event, in real time and space, of the resurrection of Jesus.   

An Intermediate State

Suppose, however, your parents have suddenly died and you have found comfort in the assurance that their souls are up in heaven waiting for you to join them forever.  Then all this talk of resurrection of the body seems to throw a wrench in the spokes. That is what Jane thought, anyway. She said, “I always had the image of my mom and dad in this beautiful place surrounded by a great crowd of people dressed in white robes.”

I said, “Jane, that’s not all wrong – that is actually in the Bible too.” I showed her the passage in Revelation where John writes, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) This is a vision of Heaven – and as the angel says to John, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Readers of Revelation have met them before. In the previous chapter, John says “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne…they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete.” (Rev. 6:9, 11)

These are the martyrs who have gone through the great tribulation. We might be inclined to ask, “what does this have to do with us and the comfortable placid lives we lead?” I believe that the “ones coming out of the great tribulation” include us as well. To cling to our faith in Jesus through the ups and downs of daily life is to defy powers and principalities of this age that deny the goodness and sovereignty of God and his triumph over death in Jesus Christ. We, too, go through the great tribulation; our robes are indeed washed white in the blood of the lamb.

Yet the setting depicted in this vision is provisional – it is only temporary. The text says that souls of the martyrs are “to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete.” Then what? Then comes the final act: the Resurrection of the Dead. Yes, at their death, the souls of the faithful are gathered into the presence of God in Heaven. Theologians call this “the intermediate state.” Joyful and glorious it may be, it is penultimate; it is not the last word, and it falls short of the Resurrection, and the New Heaven and New Earth.

N.T. Wright has a catchy phrase. He says the ultimate promise of the Gospel is not life after death, it is “life AFTER life after death.”

In the end, my parishioner recognized that the image of her parents gathered with the souls of the blessed in heaven had not been snatched away from her after all, but that this was only part of the picture; there is more! The Apostle Paul tells us that God’s power working in us “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) This is especially the case when it comes to the resurrection and our eternal future – it is greater than we can ask or imagine!

 

The Cross of Christ: Redemption and Pattern of Life

Note to the reader: when I arrived in the Diocese of Dallas in January, I embraced the opportunity to contribute my reflections in this blog, entitled, “Ordinarily Canonical.” (This title, of course, has a double meaning, given that I am the Canon to the Ordinary, but it also risks presumption since I dare not claim that my scattered thoughts are actually “canonical,” but only that they strive to be faithful to the canon of inspired scripture.)

As the weeks progressed my schedule filled up and I found that when the time arrived to submit my blog entries, they were not yet ready for publication. At this point I actually have several pieces in varying stages of completion. Then I had to fly back to Potsdam, NY, to empty my house so that the movers could pack their truck and cart our worldly possessions to Dallas. All that is done now, and I am hoping to continue my blog as regularly as I can.

A note on content: I had intended a series on the Cross. This has been the topic of the past few entries and also the focus of my thoughts below.  But while I have still more to say on the subject, it will have to wait. Easter is now upon us. In the weeks ahead, how can we not seize the chance to dwell on the Resurrection? So check in next week, as we grapple with the strange, wonderful - and world shattering - message of the Resurrection - Canon Christopher Brown

The Cross of Christ

Redemption and Pattern of Life

It was Spring - about this same time of year. It was starting to get hot and dry. The dust had begun to rise from the road that snaked its way from Galilee, through the hills of Samaria and down to the Jordan valley, and then up the slope from Jericho to Jerusalem. The Passover was coming. As faithful Jews, Jesus and his friends intended to fulfill the injunction of Deuteronomy to celebrate the feast at the “place of the Lord’s choosing.” (Deuteronomy 14:25) And Jesus had his own reason to be in Jerusalem, which, despite his frequent allusions to his approaching passion, remained oblique to his disciples.

It was after one such “passion prediction,” that James and James - called “Sons of Thunder” by their fellow disciples - came to Jesus with a request. They wanted to sit one at his right hand and one at his left “in his glory.” (Mark 10:37)

It is not clear how they conceived the “glory” that lay ahead. One can’t help but think that they understood it “kata sarka,” or “according to the flesh,” as St Paul would say - according to the standard of this age. Jewish belief in the Messiah tended toward the expectation that the coming Kingdom would be an actual nation state.  This anticipated kingdom would embody the covenant pattern of Torah, the Mosaic law - but it would, nonetheless, be a geo-political entity, to which all other nations would be subservient. Hence, it is as if James and John are seeking the prime appointments in Jesus’ coming regime - something akin to Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.

What these Sons of Thunder fail to grasp is that Jesus’ way to glory is to pass through weakness and suffering. The victory that Jesus is to achieve, “the cup that he will drink” and “baptism with which is to be baptized,” reverses the pattern of this age. And those who belong to him, and the Kingdom he is to bring, will also no longer conform to the pattern of this age.  This reversal of the values of the present age is to be evident not only in personal lives of holiness and compassion but it is also to encompass the full range of human experience.

Jesus indicates that this reversal extends to the prickly issue of power. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great one’s exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-43)

Lest they take this statement as a free-standing moral exhortation, he links it explicitly to the path that he himself will walk - “the cup that he will drink.” Hence, the greatest among them must be servant of all, following the example of their teacher, “for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

The Cross as the Means of our Redemption

Christians who observe Good Friday recognize that in his death on the Cross, Jesus fulfills the role of the suffering Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 (read each year in the Good Friday liturgy). “He was despised and rejected by men,” says the prophet, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities…All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)

The Jews of Jesus’ time (as well as our Jewish friends today) never understood the account of Servant of God and his vicarious suffering for his people as a Messianic prophecy. The classic Jewish interpretation is that the passage quoted above is about the sufferings of Israel. After all, in a related passage Isaiah says, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:3) But it took the first Christians no time at all to identify the suffering servant of Isaiah with the crucified Christ.

The Ethiopian Eunuch is reading this same passage in his chariot on the way home from Jerusalem, “like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent.” Understandably puzzled he asks the key question about the servant’s identity, “about whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Luke writes, “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” (Acts 8:34-35)

Good Friday is about a divine substitution, in which one takes the place another – in this case, many, many others, as “the LORD lays on him the iniquity of us all.” Our redemption is not something we accomplish; it takes place extra nos – “outside of us.” Yet we should not push the language of substitution so far as to suggest that we are entirely disconnected from Jesus’ redemptive suffering. There is a very real sense that in Jesus bearing our humanity, we are there on the cross with him. (Perhaps you remember the song by the Police, “King of Pain,” in which Sting sings, “that’s my soul up there”; we could say the same as we gaze upon the Cross.) And what is our baptism, if not our sacramental participation in his death? As Paul says, “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3)

The Cross as a Pattern of Life

Yet the Cross is not merely the means by which we are saved – it is not just the hinge on which the ordo salutis or the “order of salvation” turns. By linking his death as a “ransom for many” with his insistence that his disciples must not “Lord it over others” Jesus makes it clear that the Cross inscribes a way of life in our relations with others by which we participate in the pattern of his death.

Jesus insists that to walk the way of the Cross means rejecting the use of coercive power. It means refusing to “lord it over others the way the gentiles do,” in our personal interactions, in the way we order the community of faith, and in our engagement with world. 

There are those who would say that such a statement is pure hypocrisy, that Christians have frequently indulged in power politics as much as anyone else, and continue to do so. We can only admit that, sadly, this is true.  One need only to think for a minute to “fill in the blanks,” and find examples in history and in the contemporary situation. Herein lies the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s quip, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” The fact is, Jesus’ harshest words were not for unbelievers, but for the teachers and leaders of God’s covenant people. As Peter says, “judgement begins with the house of God…it begins with us.” (1 Peter 4:17)

Whatever the historical record, whatever our personal conduct may have been, there is a glaring disconnect when we celebrate Jesus’ death on the cross as our ticket to glory and fail to reject the pattern of this world and its use of coercive power. We proclaim the Good News not just by clear and compelling articulation of the ransom offered on the cross, but also by our imitation of the pattern of Jesus death, in which he came “not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 8:45)

 

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This blog is written by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown, the Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.