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|Our Faith, Our
Funerals, Our Future
by Jeffrey Gibbs
"You Christians are pathetic - your faith is worthless, and you are still covered with your filthy sins!"
Those are words you might expect from an enemy of the church. But they came from the apostle Paul. They were his way of declaring just how crucial the first Easter was. His exact words were: "If Christ is not risen your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1Cor. 15:17).
The first Easter was essential; the Resurrection of our Lord is the foundation on which our whole religion stands or falls.
This Easter-time we again have the chance to learn to rejoice in truths that we believe. I'd like to focus on three aspects of the marvelous Easter message: Our Faith, Our Funerals, and Our Future.
Easter for Our Faith
The first Easter, like the first Good Friday, was a real event that really happened at a certain time and place. It wasn't an idea - it was an event. How shall we describe what took place? A two-word phrase can capture it: bodily resurrection. The first Easter was the first and only time in history - so far! - that a person experienced such a bodily resurrection.
Jesus' Easter event was bodily. The same body that was nailed to the cross, died and was buried in a tomb cut out of rock - that same human body - experienced resurrection. By late Friday afternoon, the tomb was full of a corpse. Jesus was dead, and Joseph and Nicodemus bravely buried Him while grieving women watched. Then, by early Sunday morning, the tomb was empty. That same body was no longer there. Jesus' resurrection was bodily.
Let me emphasize this point in order to turn aside what you sometimes hear from skeptical writers with regard to something that Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, his great chapter that deals with our resurrection. Yes, that's right, 1 Corinthians 15 is not really about Jesus' resurrection as much as it is about ours. But I'll return to that in a minute.
In 1 Cor. 15:35, Paul anticipates a natural question: "But someone will say, 'How are the dead raised? With what sort of body do they come?'" As he is answering that question, Paul makes this statement about our resurrection body that is also true of Jesus' resurrected body: "It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:44). Some try to twist Paul's words so as to make him say that Jesus' resurrection wasn't bodily, but "only spiritual"! As if Christ's body were still in the tomb!
The obvious mistake in this has to do with the meaning of the Greek term that is translated "spiritual." It doesn't mean "non-physical." It means "filled with the Holy Spirit" or "empowered with the Holy Spirit." This is clear from 1 Cor. 2:15, where Paul uses the same term to describe Christians as "spiritual" people. The apostle is not saying that Christians don't have bodies; he is saying that they are under the direction of the Spirit of God. Similarly, Christ's resurrection took place (as will ours!) in the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that His was a bodily resurrection.
We also believe that His was a bodily resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth was not brought back to the manner of life that He had known before His death. This had happened for the son of the widow at Nain (Luke 7), Lazarus (John 11) and others. They were all revived by the miraculous power of God. But they came back to the same mortal existence that they had before, and then at some later time they died again.
Not so on the first Easter! We believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected. The Son of God had voluntarily emptied Himself of the full exercise of His powers and privileges. We often speak of this as Christ's condition of humility or "humiliation." He came to be our savior in our place, and He was subject to death. Jesus was "kill-able," mortal.
But on the first Easter He was bodily resurrected, that is, He was set free from death and all of its effects. Paul states this directly in Rom. 6:9: "We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, no longer dies. Death no longer lords it over him."
Here is one more thing to believe about that first Easter. Bodily resurrection was definitely a part of the faith of Old Testament believers. But it was supposed to happen on the Last Day (Dan. 12:1 - 3; Job 19:25 - 27). True resurrection means that death has been undone; the effects of Adam's sins have been completely reversed. God promised to do that on the Last Day. But it already has happened on the first, Easter; Jesus our Lord experienced bodily resurrection.
The next question is, "What does that mean?"
We often say that Easter proves or validates who Jesus claimed to be and what He claimed to do. This is surely correct! Easter is "the sign of Jonah" that Jesus promised to those who were questioning His authority and His ministry (Matt 12:38 - 40). Easter proves that God the Father is pleased with the sacrifice of His Son for us.
But is this all? Is the first Easter merely an underscoring of Good Friday? What else does it mean that this Man, the Son of God, our Representative and Substitute, rose in a bodily resurrection?
Think first about the meaning of death. Why do people die today? There is only one ultimate reason; people die because they are sinners. Before they fell into sin, Adam and Eve were immortal. Death only entered in on the day that they ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. Every time you read an obituary, every time you attend a funeral, there is only one thing that you know for certain about that person: he or she was a sinner. That's why he or she died.
Now, hold on to your hats. Jesus died! Why? He died, not because He was a sinner but because He came to be in our place, to take our place, to receive the punishment from God that we deserved and so to save us. That means that He also has to die. He died in our place.
But if Jesus came to be our substitute and to save us from all the effects of sin, then that also means that He had to rise in a bodily resurrection. Victory over sin and all of its effects must also mean victory over death - the undoing of death. Since Jesus was our substitute, He had to rise in a bodily resurrection. For through Him, God planned to undo sin and all of its effects - even the mortality and death of our bodies.
So, Easter means that in Jesus, God has now overcome even the death of our bodies. He has a plan and a certain hope for us and for all the creation. This creation is the only one we've ever known, and, in so many ways, it is a wondrous, beautiful creation. But the apostle Paul reminds us that this creation is still subject to futility, still groaning like a woman in labor, still waiting for God's final redemption and salvation to appear on the Last Day (Romans 8). God has a plan to restore the creation and make it again a place upon which He can look down and say, "It is very good."
Easter means that we have a part in that plan for creation - all of us - bodies and souls. 1 Peter 1:3 - 5 says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (English Standard Version).
Notice the three phrases that I have placed in italics. Through Jesus' resurrection, all Christians have a living hope, an inheritance, a final salvation that will be revealed when Jesus comes again in glory. On the first Easter, Jesus rose in a bodily resurrection. Because we are baptized into Him and believe His promise, we will receive a bodily resurrection as well. His resurrection and our resurrection cannot be separated. We might even say that they are actually the same event. In fact, that is what Paul says in his famous chapter about our resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15.
Among the many problems in Corinth, there were apparently some people saying, "There is no resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15:12). It is not the case that they were saying that Jesus hadn't risen; in fact, Paul can mention Christ's resurrection as part of the good news that he preached and that they had received (verses 3 - 11). The problem was that some in Corinth were saying that there would be no future resurrection of the dead.
This creates a terrible and monstrous problem that Paul must overthrow - because our resurrection and Jesus' resurrection are the same event, the same harvest.
Watch how Paul proceeds after mentioning in verse 12 the false teaching held by some. He says in the next verse, "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ. has been raised."
Ponder that sentence for a moment. Why would that be true? Couldn't it be true that Jesus was raised, but that we will not? No! Paul's answer comes clear in verse 20 when he writes, "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."
The concept of "firstfruits" comes from the Old Testament and refers to the very first part of a harvest that is offered in thanksgiving to God. But there is only one harvest. And there is only one resurrection. Jesus' resurrection is the firstfruits of ours. His complete victory over death and sin is our promised complete victory over death and sin.
Because we believers in Christ Jesus are connected to Him by our Baptism, we will come forth as the full and final harvest of which Jesus Himself is the first portion. Just as Christ died for us and in our place, He also rose for us and in our place, to guarantee that great and final victory for us on the Day when He comes again in glory. That is what Easter means, most gloriously and most especially!
Easter for our Funerals
If we take seriously the meaning of the first Easter, then there should be no better place to hear this resurrection good news than at a Christian's funeral - right? Let me speak of personal experiences.
In the course of my 12 years in St. Louis, I have attended a number of funerals for "regular" Christians and for "more well-known" synodical leaders. Yet I rarely have heard a single mention of this good news of bodily resurrection in the funeral sermons. I can assure you that this is the case because I listen specifically for it.
Gratefully, the liturgy always offers this comfort of full new life on the last day. But why, when a Christian has died and the body is right there in the middle of the congregation, do I hear only that the soul of the believer has gone to be with Christ?
Please do not misunderstand me. When a Christian dies, his soul does go to be "away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). Scripture is very clear about that. There is true comfort in this for those who mourn the death of a Christian loved one.
But the death of a loved one is still his death. Death can not separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ. But it is the last enemy to be overcome (1 Cor. 15:26). Our bodies matter to God; with them, we do good and we do evil. The creation matters to God; on the Last Day, through Christ Jesus, God the Father will restore and renew the creation.
A funeral brings us face to face with God's timing that we must accept by faith - the last enemy, whose sting has been taken away, has not yet been fully overcome! Could it be that the reason why one might not hear Easter and Last Day Good News at a funeral is because that Easter and Last Day Good News has not been at center stage the rest of the time?
Dr. Francis Pieper wrote these words in his Christian Dogmatics when he discussed the condition of the soul between death and the return of Christ: "Holy Writ reveals but little of the state of the soul between death and the resurrection. In speaking of the last things, it directs our gaze primarily to Judgment Day and the events clustering around it" (emphasis added). Dr. Pieper is right. When the Christians in Thessalonica were distressed over the fact that some of their number had died before the Lord's return, Paul did not say to them, "Don't worry: their souls are in heaven with Christ." No. He wrote, "The dead in Christ will rise first. ... Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:16, 18).
At funerals, let us comfort one another in the face of death with words of Easter hope and the promise of bodily resurrection.
Easter for Our Future
I teach a Bible class at my home congregation. Last Easter season we did a short study together on the meaning of Christ's resurrection from the dead. I tried to summarize much of what we were studying with this short, to the point statement: "Easter is your future!"
That's just right, isn't it? Christ, the firstfruits, is risen from the dead. In God's timing and in His plan, the remainder of the harvest will come forth from the earth - all who have died in the Lord and even the last generation of those who are living when Christ returns. Already, by faith in God's great Good Friday and Easter Gospel, we have begun our new life in Christ. We can honor God with the choices we make with our bodies, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (1 Cor. 6:13b - 15a).
Most important, we can rejoice in hope, in a certain hope that Easter reveals to us our future in the Lord Jesus Christ. And we can speak with joy the familiar words of the Nicene Creed: "I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."
Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs is associate professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Mo.
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