Mennonite Church of the Servant

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1 Sermon Notes 4:13-18 Pat Cameron; July 31, 2011 What happens to us after we die? Is this life all we have, or is there a kind of existence we can hope for after our earthly life is over? Humankind has raised questions about life after death for thousands of years, from the time that the first people walked on earth, to the present day. Many answers and solutions to these questions have also arisen throughout the centuries. The Israelites shared the widespread belief among many other cultures in the Ancient Near East that humans continue to live after their earthly deaths. They assumed that the earth was a flat plate, and underneath that plate was a land where the dead continued to live, referred in the Old Testament as Sheol, or the Pit. Living in this underworld had, at first, no relationship to whether or not one had lived a virtuous or an evil life on earth. Sheol was not Hell. It was where all humans, good or bad, continued to live after they were dead and buried on earth. Life in Sheol was assumed to be similar to life on earth. The Israelites shared with their Ancient Near East neighbors the common practice of burying with the dead food and other material goods that would be useful in the next life. However, archeological evidence suggests that the Israelites, unlike many of their ANE neighbors, did not observe regular post-funeral ceremonies to assure ongoing food and other necessities to the residents of the underworld. What was buried with the dead was just what they needed to survive on their downward journey. The Israelites must have assumed that Sheol also had food, water, and shelter just like on earth. Biblical literature that originated during and after the Babylonian Exile challenged these positive and popular views about Sheol. Sheol is described as a dark and gloomy place where people have no physical strength or mental capacities. The author of Eccelesiastes writes that the dead.have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Laws were written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that lash out against the practice of communicating with the dead to obtain blessings and to predict the future. Including these prohibitions in the Torah s suggests that these pratices were commonplace among the Israelites, as well as among many other cultures in the ANE. Not only were these practices condemned as illegal; they were also challenged because they didn t work. In the book of Psalms, and in Job and Ecclesiastes, at the time of death, all communication, both with those still living on earth, and with God, comes to an end. 1

2 In the third century B.C., Alexander the Great conquered the territory that included Judea; and the Greeks ruled for the next two centuries. During this period and beyond, Hellenstic, or Greek culture became highly influential in all aspects of life. Jewish views of the afterlife changed significantly when exposed to the Greek understanding of the immorality of the soul. In contrast to the mortality of the body, the human soul lives on. The author of the Song of Solomon, writing under the influence of the Greek perspective of the soul writes, the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever tough them. In the sight of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immorality. During the time of Greek rulers and on into the period of the Roman occupation, the Jews held two primary perspectives about the immorality of the soul. The first was that after death, the soul becomes separated from the body. Upon the death of the body, the soul faced judgment, and then went to eternal reward or eternal punishment. The second perspective was that, at the end of time, the soul would be rejoined to the body in a general resurrection of the dead. The book of Daniel reflects this perspective: And many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. At the end of time, all souls would be rejoined to their bodies to face judgment, and God would determine whether they deserved reward or punishment. Some believed that the dead who were righteous would join together to share in the blessings of the reign of the Messiah, who would rule with righteousness. These two perspectives the immediate judgment of the soul, apart from the body, and the judgment of the resurrected, embodied soul at the end of the present age,--were competing viewpoints that influenced the teaching of the rabbis who were called upon to explain to their people what happens after death. Jesus death and resurrection provided an opportunity for the early Christian community to synthesize these two perspectives. In Paul s thinking, though death released the entrapped soul, this mortal body will also be raised, as was Christ s. In Romans Ch. 8, Paul says, if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies. Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica, But we do not want you to be uninformed about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. Why were the Thessalonians grieving? Some of the members of the community had died. Why were they uninformed about what would happen to them? Could it be that Paul, Silas and Timothy, all of whom had recently been in personal contact with the Christian community in Thessalonica, had overlooked teaching the church about what happens to church members who die? It can be argued that because Paul and his compatriots believed that Christ was coming very soon, they saw no need to address the matter of the death of church members. Before anyone dies, they may have reasoned, Christ will return. On the other hand, it may 2

3 be that the instruction about death was taught but needed to be reinforced in the church s time of grief. That you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. Is Paul minimizing the church s grieving process? In Paul s way of thinking, the Christian community is characterized by those who have hope; those outside of the community do not process this hope. Even in the midst of their grief, the Christian community is, by definition, a people of hope. So Paul isn t saying don t grieve, but that when they grieve, they should not lose hope.. This hope is based on the community s belief that Jesus was resurrected from death. For since we believe Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. It is noteworthy that here Paul uses the human term, Jesus rather than his more typical reference to Christ or Christ Jesus. Perhaps this is Paul s way of making Christ seem more personal, more accessible to a grieving people. Just as the Thessalonian church cannot forget the members of its community who have died, God, through raising Jesus, does not forget the dead. When Jesus returns to claim his own, the deceased believers will be included in his company. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left with the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. What is this Word of the Lord which we declare (the we being Timonty, and Silas)? The Word of the Lord could be what Jesus himself taught about his return. Even though the gospels had not yet been written, collections of Jesus words and deed were circulating among the Christian community, and some of the words may have been about what would happen when Jesus came back. But this interpretation of the Word of the Lord is tenuous, as some teachings attributed to Jesus were heavily influenced by what the early Christian community wanted or expected him to say. Or, the Word of the Lord: might refer to a direct communication to Paul from the risen Christ. It may be that the verses that follow represent a summation of this word of the Lord : we who are alive, who are left with the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. The word translated precede can be interrupted as importance, or it can refer to the order in which a set of actions occurs. So either, we who are alive are no more important than those who have died: or we who are alive will not go before those who have died. The first interpretation reinforces Paul s previous contention that deceased believers play a crucial role in Christ s return, equally important to those who are still living. The second interpretation seems to imply that those who are alive will not meet Jesus before those who are dead. The latter interpretation seems to be Paul s intent; for in the next verse, Paul says clearly that the dead in Christ will rise first. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel s call and with the sound of God s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. The imagery here brings to mind the arrival of an important political official whose coming is loudly announced by shouting and trumpet blows. 3

4 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever. The dead will rise up first, followed by the living, to meet Christ in the clouds. Paul does not say where Christ and these airborne Christians are heading. In an article entitled The Interim Earthly Messianic Kingdom, Seth Turner mentions three possibilities: 1) Jesus takes the Christians with him into heaven; 2) Jesus and the Christians stay suspended in mid-air, or 3) Christ continu[es] his downward journey to earth to establish the messianic age in which God through Christ will rule. Turner favors the latter possibility. He says, The creation will be restored to its paradise state, thus becoming a fitting place for redeemed humanity to dwell. This view is consistent with the prevailing assumption that the Messiah will return to establish God s reign on earth. This view also, according to Turner, explains why the Thessalonians are grieving. The Thessalonians, Turner says, would be worried that only those alive at Christ s return would share in an interim, earthly messianic kingdom with him, whilst dead Christians would not be raised until the end of that kingdom, missing out on its blessings.paul would then be reassuring the Thessalonians that those alive would not precede the dead.both alike would share in the temporary terrestrial kingdom of Christ. Turner goes on to clarify that though establishes Paul s belief in the earthly reign of Christ, it does not state that this reign is only temporary. But in Paul s discussion on similar matters in 1 Corinthians 15, Turner argues, Paul makes it clear that Christ s earthly kingdom is only temporary: in the interim between Christ s return to earth and when Christ takes his followers into God s heavenly realm. What happens to us after we die? Paul has a particular perspective on this question, influenced by prevailing cultural assumptions of the times in which he lived, but significantly shaped by his personal encounter with the risen Christ. As contemporary Christians, living two millennia after Paul, are we expected that what happens after death will happen exactly as Paul describes it? For example, what about idea that the dead will rise and dwell among the living in a messianic age? This image sounds like it could have come right out of this current zombie craze: and Zombies. But we need to remember that Paul s language is metaphorical. The images Paul uses are the best way he knew how to communicate the power of Christ over the living and the dead. We are not to take these metaphors literally; but we are to take them seriously. A serious approach to Paul s teaching is to learn that God cares for us when we grieve over the deaths of loved ones; that believers who have died are just as important to God as 4

5 believers who are living; that Christ reigns over both the living and the dead. And, finally, that whatever lies on the other side of this earthly life, Christ is our hope in this life and the next. 5

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