s174e01 Somerton Park 18/2/2001 Sunday 7
"Someone will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies." 1 Corinthians 15:35-36
This passage from 1 Corinthians 15 is the standard text for funerals, though those who know me know that I never use it, preferring the passage from John 14 with the explanation that Jesus is not setting himself up as the heavenly "bouncer" - keeping as many people away from God as possible, those who do not have faith, or the right faith or enough of the right faith ...
The reason I do not use this passage is precisely the word "Fool" - a particularly infelicitous phrase in the circumstance of a funeral, in my (not very humble :-) opinion.
Of course it bids us be exceedingly careful in how we use scripture, because Jesus himself commands us, in the almost parallel passage in Matthew to our gospel for today: "I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:22). St Paul obviously hadn't read his New Testament well enough :-) On the other hand St Paul regularly calls himself a "fool" (2 Cor 11,12) I wonder if that excuses us from putting ourselves down - and whether actually we'd be better off not doing it.
But the sad reality is that Christians have often thought of, as well as called, others who question the resurrection of the dead, fools, as if the resurrection of the dead is something obvious, something beyond question. The world certainly believes that the Church calls people to believe the unbelievable, when actually of course, God calls us to love the other ...
I am no expert when it comes to matters beyond this life, but it appears to me that if we have the conception that when we affirm our faith in the resurrection of the body, we mean that we as individuals survive unchanged for all of eternity - one can hardly use this passage from 1 Corinthians to justify this belief. Indeed one could question that St Paul actually believes in the resurrection of our mortal bodies at all if that is what we mean it is. He makes it quite plain at the end of our passage, in no uncertain terms when he writes: "What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." (1 Corinthians 15:50).
His thesis is that we shall not stay the same, but that we shall be changed, and I suppose it should be said, if we choose to be changed, but that is another matter.
And of course this fits precisely with the accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus. Time and again, those who had been closest to him in his earthly life failed to even recognise him.
It is my understanding that our Primate, the Most Rev'd Dr Peter Carnley, has sought to understand the New Testament diversities of understanding of the resurrection and the consequent and inherent lack of certainty we who take the Bible seriously must have when speaking about these matters. For it must be said that some people holding what seems to be the most orthodox and traditional beliefs - thinking that they are being faithful to the Bible - in fact have not seen the diversity in scripture and disregarded what is the fundamental text on which our faith is based.
Now it is normal and natural for individuals to crave certainty - they want to hold a faith and practice a religion which will guarantee a place in heaven for themselves. It must be stated quite clearly that this is NOT God's primary interest. God spends his or her time trying to reassure us that this is not the case, for any one of us. God's primary interest is in how we relate to people, people who are different to us, people who don't share our faith, people who lead different lifestyles to ourselves, people who do what we consider to be the wrong thing.
And the snare and the trap is, of course, when we live a life concerned primarily about our own salvation, so often we fail to consider the other, and so fail in the primary task of our faith.
One of the lovely beliefs of the Church is the concept of the communion of saints. If I have a picture of heaven, it is a "place" where competition between individuals has ceased. Heaven will be filled with people who have been different to us, people who didn't share our faith, people who lead different lifestyles to ourselves, people who did what we consider to be the wrong thing - and in heaven none of these things will matter in the slightest. We and they will all be there, and we will indeed be changed because we will want to be there with all these others. The incessant self inflicted demand for everyone to be the same will have vanished into thin air, and people will be happy in one another's company.
One has only to look at the parable of the Prodigal Father, with his pleading with the older son to join in the celebrations. For the reality is that when it is all said and done, while everyone might want to rejoice in the presence of the Father, many may not want to be part of a crowd of others as well, particularly if they include certain individuals with whom we have travelled through life.
It is, of course, not beyond the realms of possibility that we could become more like this in this life. We certainly have been given permission to do so - let's take it out of the realms of "should" or "must". We certainly are given grace if we choose to follow this path.
Just think of someone with whom you would least like to spend eternity - and guess who it is most likely you will be spending eternity with! So sometimes heaven might not seem quite the attractive proposition we always assume it is. I wonder just how many times Jesus tells parables where individuals rather than welcoming the invitation to the celebrations, find excuses, or come begrudgingly (without the wedding garment). We can be sure that the excuses given (the farm, the animals, the wife - Luke 14:15-24) are not the real reasons for their unwillingness - it is the character of the celebration - it is the others who are present also.
St Paul make it quite clear: "What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable ... It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42,44). If my thesis that the Holy Spirit's primary purpose is to enable us to reach across the barriers between people is true, then a spiritual body is one which accepts the company of all others, whereas a physical body is one which rejects the company of others. A physical body is concerned with it's own preservation, and therefore is perishable whereas a spiritual body is not concerned with it's own preservation and is, as a consequence, imperishable.
The ministry of Jesus was always with the acceptance of the other (for this was why he was crucified by the religious authorities), and the grace of the Holy Spirit is for us to do likewise; so heaven is the ultimate in inclusivity. Suggesting anyone should be fearful of their likelihood of admittance, is to deny everything that Jesus was on about.
For as Jesus tells us in our Sentence which comes from our gospel reading for today: "God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." (Luke 6:35). It is always a worry when I get out my Greek New Testament and Lexicon, but from my very rusty Greek, I find that the ungrateful is in Greek "aXaristous" which is the opposite of eucharistic, and the wicked is "ponerous" which I would by extension of the meaning of ungrateful, translate better as "worthless" as the Lexicon would allow. In the context it cannot mean that God is kind towards those who act wickedly towards their neighbours. God is merciful towards those who do not respond to the love that God offers. God gains nothing. God is kind to those who are "aXaristous" - those who don't come to church. God is not on about how many followers there are, God is interested in how followers love others who do not follow. God is kind to those who are not "Christians" - the ancient people of God, the Jews, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the atheist and the agnostic - for all of these, just as easily as us, can be non judgemental, not condemnatory, not unforgiving - they can be just as charitable as we are ...
In the end, our salvation is not in God's hands as the divine tally of religious obligations a person has managed to achieved, is weighed in the balance, and we are accepted or rejected (as we may assume from parables such as the Son of Man choosing between the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). We are not allowed into heaven because God is "chuffed" by our ardent belief in the eternal continuance of our mortal bodies. No, in the end, our salvation is in our own hands: the acceptance of a merciful Father who loves others besides ourselves, who loves people other than Anglicans, who loves people other than Christians, who loves people other than people of faith.
The words of the end of our gospel reading are particularly apt: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." The only judgement is in our hands, the only condemnation is in our hands, the only barrier to forgiveness is in our hands. Again, it is nothing about how often we went to church or synagogue or mosque or temple - how often we remembered God in our lives. It is all about our relationship with others.
I cannot but end this sermon with the final lovely words of our gospel reading: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." (Luke 6:37-38). And this seems to preclude calling others who can't believe in precisely the same terms as us: "Fool".
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