Life Everlasting

Sunday 21st October 2012
Year B, The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Mark 10:35-45

I wonder what you think of when you are reciting the last clauses of the Nicene Creed: "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." Do you really? And I wonder how similar are our thoughts on the subject with those of the followers of Jesus and, subsequently, those of the early churches founded by Saint Paul.

As a starting point, we have to recognise that Mark is telling us a story sometime after it happened - and, significantly, after the Resurrection of Jesus which changed so much in the eschatological department - but I think it is safe to say that what he describes, reflected in the other evangelists, is a reasonable enough question although it is pitched in rather competitive terms, as we saw when I preached on Mark 9.30-37 when the same 'inner cabinet' of Peter, James and John were arguing about who was the greatest and which seats they would occupy at the heavenly banquet.

The question being asked in Mark is not our question but is a quite reasonable Old Testament question about the relationship between earth and heaven and where the followers of the Messiah will fit into the new picture. At this point Jesus was "The Christ," or the "anointed one" of God or the Messiah and, in a way which was not very clear at that time, he was the "son of God' in a different sense from all other human beings; but this question was not being posed by the Apostles to the second person of the Holy Trinity.

Old Testament cosmology locates heaven, the place where God dwells, just above the dome of the blue sky; and, it also locates the presence of YHWH in the Holy of Holies, creating a piece of heaven on earth. In the later Old Testament period signalled by Daniel, and even more so in the apocalyptic literature of the inter Testamental period, there is a growing belief that the Chosen people will be Resurrected at the end of time to be with God, exemplified in the assertions made by Martha and Mary to Jesus just before the raising of Lazarus. It seems that the end time when such a resurrection might happen was somehow tied up with the advent of the Messiah which would, in turn mean that, conversely, the advent of the Messiah presaged the end of time and the resurrection. There was also a growing belief, portrayed in the story in Luke of the rich man and Lazarus, that being in the presence of God was a reward for right living; and then Jesus added a critical rider by promising the repentant thief a place in paradise as a result of his penitence.

But what is even more significant about the promise of Jesus is that he says he will fulfil it this very day and not wait until the end of time. This immediacy seems to have reinforced the idea that if Jesus was the Messiah the end time must be very soon, a constant theme in the writings of Saint Paul; and this framework of eschatological foreshortening, of believing that the end time would happen soon and very soon, was a feature of the infant church.

But as time slipped by, the emphasis shifted from the eschatological to the commemorative, so that what Jesus had done in the past became more important than what Jesus would do in the future.

And all the time, as the institutional church took root and grew, it was ravaged by two persistent heresies: the first, not the subject of today's sermon but never to be forgotten, is the tendency to think that our salvation is linked to our earthly behaviour; the second, crucial to our discussion today, is that what is saved at the end of time is the spiritual part of us, something we call our "soul". So tenacious is this heresy that it creeps into officially recognised prayers and hymns. This heresy, known in shorthand as Gnosticism, says that the spiritual side of us is good and capable of becoming pure while the physical aspect of us, the body, is fundamentally and unalterably corrupt. This, I believe, is why we have so much problem with the tail-end of the Creed: we can imagine our souls being united with God but not our bodies being in union with God which makes us Gnostics, if not Buddhist. The whole point of our creation is that we are creatures which are inseparably spiritual and physical. What will survive of us at the end of time is ourselves; that is why it is so important that we take care of ourselves.

And it follows from this survival of personhood that we will not be in a 'Platonic', static state at the end of time. Wholly in the Spirit, we will be in a dynamic relationship with God.

Viewed in this light, the frame of reference within which Peter, James and John are working is not as outlandish as it might seem at first sight. It is all too easy to think of people from the past as less sophisticated and learned than we are and in certain fields such as nuclear physics that is certainly true; but there is not much in basic philosophy which Plato and Aristotle did not sort out between them and although there have been some perceptive theological innovations during two millennia of Christianity, the New Testament foundations have never been shaken. The apostles, as reported by Mark, have a very strong sense that it will be they - and us - and not our spirits, that will dwell in heaven with God.

And one, final thought. We are pretty clear in our own minds about the challenges and rewards of faith and charity but we are just a little confused about hope because the word in English has steadily shifted from a concept of certainty to one of possibility; but uncertainty is not the same as hope, it is the opposite. We can be as sure of the last sentence of the Creed - I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come - as we can of the first - I believe in God.