Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Coming to Life

Coming to Life
Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26[1]
When you pay attention to what goes on in our world, it’s easy to conclude that “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). The world keeps on turning just as it has for centuries. When you really see the way we treat the members of our human family, it would seem that “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” (2 Pet. 3:4, NIV). The travesties and tragedies of life can easily lead us to the attitude that nothing ever changes. The rich get richer, might makes right, nice guys finish last, and the only things you can count on are death and taxes. Our existence in this world is just a matter of taking one turn after another on a merry-go-round that’s going nowhere.
But if we were to embrace that kind of attitude, we would be contradicting everything the Bible has to say about what God is doing in this world and in our lives. The good news is that God is working to fulfill promises like “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” (Isa. 65:17). Promises like “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” (Isa. 11:9; 65:25). Promises like “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ,” (1 Cor. 15:22). And promises like “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5).[2] The good news of Easter flies in the face of all the naysayers and doomsayers who see the outcome of our lives as always and only loss, heartbreak, tragedy, and futility. God’s final word over us is not death but life.
I think we see this profound truth reflected in our lesson from St. Paul for today. He says it this way: “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). In his letters, Paul is fond of comparing the effects on the whole human race of Adam’s choice to disobey God with the effects of Jesus’ choice to obey God and go to the cross. From his perspective, “all die in Adam” is more than just a statement about human mortality. It is an assessment of the state of our lives given the fact that we live in a world where sin and death still oppress us. They still have the ability to rob us of the joy that God intends for us.
Despite the fact that we can still feel the sting of sin and death in this life, the message Paul proclaims is that through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead God has decisively overcome the power of sin and death.[3] Even though we still suffer the effects of sin and death in this world, through the cross and the resurrection their power over us is ultimately broken. They may still affect our lives here and now, but they are defeated enemies, and their days are numbered.
The language of the risen Christ defeating enemies may sound strange to us. It can seem almost violent, as if Jesus is going to do battle against part of the human family. But I don’t think that’s the point here. In order to understand what Paul is saying we have to recognize who the real “enemies” are. Paul says that there are “rulers” and “authorities” and “powers” that must be overcome before the Kingdom of God comes to its full expression (1 Cor. 15:24). Paul usually refers to them as spiritual enemies who oppress humankind.[4]  Without attempting to identify them any more specifically, I think we can say that they represent the primary “enemies” Jesus fights against: sin and death. And by dying on the cross and by rising again, Jesus has defeated all these enemies.
At times, however, we may find ourselves subjected to powerful people who choose ways that are opposed to God, ways of injustice and oppression and violence. In so doing, they become agents of sin and death in our world. This is part of the context of our lesson from Isaiah. There are those who, because they continue to refuse to hear the message of God’s forgiveness to all those who genuinely seek him, persist in living a life that actively thwarts God’s purposes.[5] The result of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that their power is broken as well. They may have the ability to wield power over us in this world, but their days are numbered.
But the purpose of the language about overcoming enemies is not to give God a chance to vent his anger through violence. Rather, it is to prepare the way for a whole new creation. As the Scripture promises, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isa. 65:17). Here, the prophet promises in the name of the Lord that what God is going to do will change things so much that the original creation will not even be remembered![6] In this new creation we will all have the chance to live in peace, enjoying God’s good gifts.
This brings us back to Paul’s statement that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”[7] The resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday was the first act of God’s promised new creation.[8] The promise of Easter is that “all will be made alive in Christ.” Through Jesus’ resurrection, we already get to taste the new life that will be ours one day when God’s kingdom comes to its full expression.
Just as the sun rose on that first Easter morning, announcing to the whole creation that God had begun to make everything new, every sunrise can remind us of the promise of Easter. As the sun comes up each new day we have the chance to be “made alive in Christ” all over again. With the dawn of each new day we can already have a taste of the new creation that will be so breathtaking in the peace and joy it brings that it will make us forget the pain and sorrow of this life. As the first light of each morning reaches us, it reminds us that through Jesus the Christ we have the opportunity today to come to life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/27/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Presbyterian Church in the United States. A Declaration of Faith. 117th General Assembly (1977), reissued by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991, § 8.3; 8.5; 10.2, which articulates the faith that God is working toward a day when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” when “nations will not learn war any more,” and when we will see “the end of cruelty and suffering in the world.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:157, where he says that Jesus “is according to Paul the ‘second Adam’ (1 Cor. 15:45f.), the One who by His obedience sets the many before God as righteous, whose righteous act confronts in reconciliation the transgressions of the many who by following Adam are involved in hopeless death. In this righteous act there is achieved a justification for all, a justification that brings life (δικαίωσις ζωῆς, Rom. 5:12f.; I Cor. 15:22).” Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 263: The consequences of Jesus’ resurrection “correspond (antithetically) to the consequences of Adam’s sin which brought death upon all humanity. The impact of Jesus death and resurrection is therefore equally sweeping: …. our ultimate destiny is transformed from death to life through Christ’s resurrection.” Nevertheless, he seems to contradict himself by pointing out that (ibid., 164) “Many of Paul’s other statements make it difficult to suppose” that he believed in universal salvation of all human beings through Christ’s resurrection. He cites 1 Cor. 1:18; 2:6; 3:17; 4:5; 6:9-10. Therefore he concludes that Paul “is concerned in the present passage only about the way in which Christ’s resurrection prefigures the fate” of “those who belong to Christ.” And yet, Hays overlooks passages like Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10; and Phil. 2:10, all of which point to a universal salvation.
[4] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 265: these “enemies” “refer in the first instance to cosmic spheres or forces arrayed in opposition to God …, but they also have concrete political implications. The idea that Christ is Lord and that the kingdom ultimately belongs to God the Father stands as a frontal challenge to the ideology of imperial Rome.”
[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:544: “The indictments of false worship from Isaiah’s day are as true for these opponents as they were before, but with the added dark reality that standing as they do on the other side of an era of forgiveness and release from blindness, they constitute more serious offense. To turn away from the lavish forgiveness proffered by God and brought about by the sacrifice of the servant is a worse offense than to stand under Isaiah’s “former thing” judgment. And so, too, the punishment is more severe. God called and spoke anew, but some refused to listen and answer, choosing instead a way of death (65:15).” Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 242: “it was often difficult for the people to persevere in the vocation of [God’s] servant. Especially in times when those struggling to uphold torah and worship found their efforts thwarted both by their own leaders and by the sponsoring foreign powers, … .”
[6] In fact, the very wording of Isa. 65:17 in the Hebrew text alludes clearly to the original creation in Genesis 1:1, but the new creation will by far surpass it. Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66,” NIB VI:544: “To speak of a new heaven and a new earth is to return to creation and the curses that followed upon the very first act of disobedience. It is to go back beyond the rebellions of Isaiah’s generation, or of the present generation; back to the very point of rupture. In order for the former things to be put away for good, God must begin all over again.” And yet, Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 408, can also say, “The words, ‘I create anew the heavens and the earth’, do not imply that heaven and earth are to be destroyed and in their place a new heaven and a new earth created—this is apocalyptic, … . Instead, the world, designated as ‘heaven and earth’, is to be miraculously renewed.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End the Beginning, 161, 164, where he insists that as the effects of sin are universal, so the salvation effected through the resurrection is universal. Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 306, commenting on Col. 1:20: “Unless the whole cosmos is reconciled, Christ cannot be the Christ of God and cannot be the foundation of all things.”
[8] Cf. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Study Catechism: Full Version with Biblical References, 210th General Assembly (1998); question 85, which describes the new creation as a new world in which “evil in all its forms will be utterly eradicated,” so that “God is really honored as God, human beings are truly loving, and peace and justice reign on earth.” 

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