Proper 6 (June 12-18)
Texts: Matthew 9:35-10:23;
‘LIFE AFTER LIFE AFTER DEATH’
Our Gospel Lesson is rather lengthy, and may include numerous puzzling moments, but I’d like to focus mainly on just one of those puzzling verses today.
Verse 10:7 is: “announce that the kingdom of heaven will soon be here.” Look carefully. Listen carefully. Doesn’t that strike you as curious to talk about heaven soon coming here? We are used to talking about us going there to heaven when we die, aren’t we? When a loved one lies dying, we may say something comforting like, “You will soon be there with Jesus in heaven.” So this business about heaven coming here is completely backwards from our usual way of thinking about heaven. Come to think of it, the Lord’s Prayer seems to be the same problem or tension. We have prayed so many times in our lives: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” As often as we’ve prayed this prayer together, have you ever realized that we are praying for heaven to come here on earth? Again, it is the opposite of our usually thinking about us going there to heaven when we die.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, as my Sundays with you now can be count on one hand, I’m conscious in these last weeks of trying to leave you with some things that have been most important to me. Over the last couple years this issue about our hope for heaven is one of them. What I have to say to you this morning comes essentially as a personal testimony to something about our most central Christian hope and faith, something which I think is in dyer need of refreshment. As we look around at all the shepherdless sheep and, as followers of our Lord Jesus, have compassion on them, I hope you will agree that this updating of our basic Christian message is of utmost importance.
A testimony tells a story, and mine involves a very important book from our Augsburg Fortress publishers of two years ago [holding it up]: The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, a biblical scholar and also a bishop in the Church of England.
- A first thing you need to know about Bishop Wright is that he is a essentially a defender of orthodoxy. His careful scholarship is considered conservative in its readings of scripture.
- But as such, as he began to write on the theme of resurrection in the Bible, he found that our common Christian hope for heaven was widely out of touch with what is actually in the Bible. There’s nothing close in the Old Testament to that hope for heaven as a place where our spirits go when we die. And the little that’s in the New Testament is read through our rose-colored glasses of reading it that way. He took over 800 pages to carefully lay out in detail all the biblical evidence. And his main finding is that the New Testament Jewish-Christian hope for resurrection is something that we as Christians are grossly out of touch with.
- How could we have gotten so out of touch? Well, that is part of his thorough research, too. Basically, it comes from the fact that as time went on in the church, and it moved from its completely Jewish beginnings to becoming increasingly Greek, our Christian hope took on more of the Greek worldview than the Jewish worldview of Jesus and the apostles.
- The Greek world of Jesus’ time was primarily influenced by the philosopher Plato who thought that the most really real was the spiritual realm of ideas, of which this material world is only a mere shadow. Does that sound familiar? Plato could have easily written a hymn like:
- I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home
- Earth is a desert drear, heaven is my home
- But Wright wrote 800 pages on the resurrection to make it clear that such a hymn decidedly does not express a properly Jewish-Christian hope for the world to come. No, what distinguishes the Jewish-Christian faith is its belief in a Creator God who lovingly created this universe, and created it good. If it has fallen under the power of sin, then God’s plan of salvation is for this entire creation, not just for a few human souls. Heaven, in fact, is the unseen place of God’s loving power to create and to someday make that power of life all-in-all. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom of heaven to come to earth.
O.K. Can we boil this all down to why it might be so important to us? The next important thing to know about Bishop Wright is that he is not only a fantastic, thorough, conservative scholar, but he is also a pastor and preacher, so he always is concerned about boiling his scholarship down to the average person in the pew. That effort is currently in process with a book the title of which helps a great deal to sum this up and boil it down. The title of his forthcoming summary of these 800 pages is Life after Life After Death. No, I didn’t just have a stuttering episode! The first thing to understand about unpacking this title is that it doesn’t take away our current Christian hope. Our more common hope for a “life after death” is part of the Christian hope. It is comforting to know that when our loved ones die that they somehow are kept alive in God’s power of life. They are part of the “communion of saints,” waiting with God in heaven for that day when heaven will ‘come down’ to earth and make God’s plan come true: a new heaven and earth; a good creation at last come to fulfillment. So, yes, our Christian hope does include a hope for “life after death.”
But, says Bishop Wright, as important and comforting as our hope in life after death may be, it is still a hope of lesser ultimacy. Our most central Christian hope for resurrection is a hope for more than life after death. It is a hope for life after life after death. It is a hope that goes way beyond that of the fate of simply our human souls. It is a more Jewish hope for the whole creation. It is a hope that someday God’s central work of creating will come to fulfillment such that God’s power of love and life will fill the whole universe.
Now, the really important thing about this is the way in which it refreshes and updates the Good News we share with our neighbors. We look at our own lives perhaps and see that there are many times that we are like lost sheep without a shepherd. We look around us at our neighbors, at home and across this globe, and we see so many lost sheep. We bring a tiny lamb for baptism, like little Matthew Henry this morning, and we wonder how God can help us be Good Shepherds to our children. It’s such a scary world right now. How can we as parents prevent our children from getting lost without being smothering and overprotective?
A huge difference maker in our message today must be in understanding fully what it means to proclaim as Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven has come here to this world in Jesus Christ.” Our message, in other words, goes far beyond a hope for simply our souls after we die. Our hope goes beyond a message for right now that says simply grin and bear it as best you can, making yourself as comfortable as you can in the meantime, until your reward after death.’ What is scary for me as a parent, in fact, is the way that traditional Christian hope goes along with the message our kids hear a thousand ways these days, which says: there’s no real point to life on this earth anyway, so just do what you can to keep yourself entertained in the meantime.’ No, our message says that what we do in our lives, right here now today, all matters because God’s ultimate plan isn’t just for human souls. What we do today matters tomorrow because God’s ultimate plan is for his power of life and love to someday fill the whole creation.
Brothers and sisters, isn’t that a Good News truly worth sharing each chance we get? Jesus has commissioned each of us in our baptisms, as he commissioned little Matthew this morning, to be ambassadors of a hope and faith that moves us to seek healing and justice today for all of God’s children. Let us go forth and share the Good News! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Atonement Lutheran,
Muskego, WI, June 12, 2005