Text: 1 Cor. 15:20-26
A talk given at Overdale United Methodist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, on March 18, 2012. Click here to listen to the talk. Right click to download the talk as an MP3.
The comedian Stephen Wright once said, “I intend to live forever…..so far, so good. “ Truth is we are not going to live forever. It is appointed to each man and woman to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:27-29 NLT). This morning we are going to talk about the resurrection of those who have died in Christ. We are told this will come at the return of Christ into the world. It is a general resurrection, the day and time we know not when, but we are assured that that day will come.
A very zealous soul-winning young preacher recently came upon a farmer working in his field. Being concerned about the farmer’s soul the preacher asked the man, “Are you laboring in the vineyard of the Lord my good man?” Not even looking at the preacher and continuing his work the farmer replied, “Naw, these hear is corn.” “You don’t understand,” said the preacher. “Are you a Christian?” With the same amount of interest as his previous answer the farmer said, “Nope my name is Jones. You must be lookin for Jim Christian. He lives a mile south of here.” The young determined preacher tried again asking the farmer,”Are you lost?” “Naw! I’ve lived here all my life,” answered the farmer. “Are you prepared for the resurrection?” the frustrated preacher asked. This caught the farmer’s attention and he asked, “When’s it gonna be?” Thinking he had accomplished something the young preacher replied, “It could be today, tomorrow, or the next day.” Taking a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiping his brow, the farmer remarked, “Well, don’t mention it to my wife. She don’t get out much and she’ll wanna go all three days.”
In the past few weeks we have been discussing life beyond the grave. We first said that the resurrection is essential to the Christian faith. If Christ was not raised then we are to be most pitied, as the Apostle Paul said. But we know by faith that life beyond the grave exists. The risen Christ lives in us and testifies with every good, kind, compassionate act in us that Christ is risen, Christ is risen, indeed. The New Testament Gospels give a reliable account of the risen Savior. And last week we discovered that even science, physics in particular, is beginning to seriously theorize the presence of multiple dimensions and even universes that exist alongside ours and even interact with ours. We have not mentioned yet the various life after death experiences in which a person dies and returns and shares amazing stories of interacting with the dimension beyond the grave. So life beyond the grave is something we can have confidence in and a strong faith in each day.
But, what about the resurrection? That takes life beyond the grave an extra step. We can fathom, in some sense or another, our spirit living on after our body has breathed its last breath and been buried in the grave. But the Christian faith teaches that not only will our spirit endure but that our bodies, our flesh and bones, will be resurrected from the grave, reconstituted, and made glorious and incorruptible to live on in the new heaven and earth that is to come. That is quite a leap from merely acknowledging the likelihood of a spiritual, numinous life beyond the grave. What we’re talking about is a full-body resurrection of the dead into a new, glorious existence.
This is not theoretical work we are doing today. This is not speculation. This is serious talk about what will become of you after your physical body dies if in this life you take on the living, resurrected Christ today. If we treat the resurrection casually or if we do not figure it in to our Christian experience at all, then we will be sorely lacking as followers of Christ. The resurrection is the end game. It’s the party. It’s the culmination of the work of Jesus Christ in each of our lives, in the world. It is why Jesus came. He came to reconcile all things to him, including your broken down, weary body. This is celebration time, even as we talk about the resurrection.
Paul writes, “…in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life” (1 Cor. 15:20-22)
Because of Christ and through our faith in Christ, allowing him to enliven our body and soul today, our resurrection is settled. We are ready. We are prepared. We will rise in the last day.
There are three things I’d like for us to accomplish today. I want to talk about what happens after we die and before the resurrection, something one theologian called “soul sleep.” Next, I want to discuss the resurrected body. And, finally, I want us say just what the certainty of the resurrection should mean for us while we walk on this side of the grave.
There are generally two ways of viewing death and the resurrection in the Christian tradition. One is that when a person dies, he or she immediately enters into eternal life. In this view, death is the boundary between time and eternity. Wolfhart Pannenberg disagrees, saying the resurrection is one general resurrection at the end of history and time. As Paul writes, “But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back” (1 Cor. 15:23). This certainly implies that those who have died in Christ are resting until the general resurrection on the Last Day.
Pannenberg and the late Stanley Grenz both hold to this second view of death and the resurrection, and this is the view that trust in. It holds that upon a person’s death they enter into a “soul sleep.” Martin Luther offers some insights here. He wrote, “We are to sleep until he comes and knocks on the grave and says, ‘Dr. Martin, get up.’ Then I will arise in a moment and I will be eternally happy with him.” He also said, “For just as a man who falls asleep and sleeps soundly until morning does not know what has happened to him when he wakes up, so we shall suddenly rise on the Last Day; and we shall know neither what death has been like or how we come through it”.
Let’s look at some scriptural foundations for the idea of “soul sleep” or rest until the general resurrection. Jesus said of his friend Lazarus, who had just died, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but now I will go and wake him up” (John 11:11). Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died” (1 Thess 4:13-15). Finally, Revelation 14:13 says, 13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them” (Rev. 14:13)!
It is clear to me that the early Christians understood death to be followed by a soul sleep until the general resurrection that will occur when Christ returns. Stanley Grenz called this the, “blissful rest of the righteous dead who are kept with God awaiting the resurrection”.
The Resurrection Body
Of course, as Grenz wrote, the biblical emphasis is not on soul sleep but on the wonderful, glorious resurrection that is to come on the Last Day. The scripture teaches that on the Last Day, all will appear at the eschatological judgment. Death marks the end of earthly life but not the end of personal existence. Through death, God retains the personhood of the dead until the judgment. At that point, the dead reappear with “marks of personal identity – bodily identity, memory, and similarity of character or mental characteristics intact”.
What will have on that day is nothing short of miraculous and amazing. Our Creator and our Redeemer will call us from the grave, from our restful sleep, even though we have decayed into dust, even though we may have been cremated and scattered to the wind. The Lord will reconcile us, call us back together into a glorious body, a resurrection body.
John Wesley, who has been in the grave now for some 200 years wrote assuredly about how this will take place at the general resurrection:
God can distinguish and keep unmixed from all other bodies the particular dust into which our several bodies are dissolved, and can gather it together and join it again, how far soever dispersed asunder. God is infinite both in knowledge and power. He knoweth the number of the stars, and calleth them all by their names; he can tell the number of the sands on the sea-shore: And is it at all incredible, that He should distinctly know the several particles of dust into which the bodies of men are mouldered, and plainly discern to whom they belong, and the various changes they have undergone?…The artist knows every part of the watch which he frames; and if it should fall in pieces, and the various parts of it lie in the greatest disorder and confusion, yet he can soon gather them together, and as easily distinguish one from another, as if every one had its particular mark.
I’ve been working in the garden some this unusually warm and sunny March, digging in the soil, planting some onions and lettuce. As I reach my hands into the soil, I see pieces of leaves that have decayed over the winter, become soil and are giving new life to these new plants that will bear fruit and be beautiful, flowering plants within a few months. God takes the things of the grave, of the earth, reconstitutes them and brings new life into the world. How much more He will do with we who have died in Christ, when He raises us in victory and with a glorious body without corruption.
Wesley read the Scriptures and was convinced that what he read not only signified that we shall die no more, “but that we shall be perfectly free from all the bodily evils which sin brought into the world; that our bodies shall not be subject to sickness, or pain, or any other inconveniences we are daily exposed to.”
How the promise of the Resurrection should affect us today
If you truly trust in the promise of this glorious resurrection, if you believe that when you die, though you sleep for a time, you will be raised again, then you will surely be affected as you walk in this life, as you relate with others, your outlook on life, how you deal with disappoints, pain and loss.
Wesley encouraged all of us to take the promise of the resurrection and let it encourage us, embolden us and cheer us:
What frail things these bodies of ours are! How soon are they disordered! To what a troop of diseases, pains, and other infirmities are they constantly subject!… O when shall we arrive at that happy hand where no complaints were ever heard, where we shall all enjoy uninterrupted health both of body and mind, and never more be exposed to any of those inconveniences that disturb our present pilgrimage. When we shall have once passed from death unto life, we shall be eased of all the troublesome care of our bodies, which now takes up so much of our time and thoughts.
We are walking in this world but for a time, then the grave, then the Last Day. But on that day we will be raised with Christ. That is Good News for you who have the power of the resurrected Christ living in you. Let’s close with these prayerful words from Wesley, who writes:
Let this consideration engage us patiently to bear whatever troubles we may be exercised within the present life. The time of our eternal redemption draweth nigh. Let us hold out a little longer, and all tears shall be wiped from our eyes, and we shall never sigh nor sorrow any more. And how soon shall we forget all we endured in this earthly tabernacle, when once we are clothed with that house which is from above!
 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids (2000), 589.
 Ibid., 595.
 Ibid., 596.
 John Wesley, “On the Resurrection of the Dead,” Sermon 137, located at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/137/. Accessed on March 11, 2012.