“But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust … [L]et these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, other than this one thing that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.'” Acts 24.14-15, 20-21.
The last thing I read before going to bed last night was an extract from Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop by Rupert Shortt which is to be published on 13 November. In it, I read how, in 1979, Rowan Williams (the present Archbishop of Canterbury) met Jane Paul, a theological student, and married her eighteen months later. Rupert Shortt comments: “Jane’s faith in general was resurrection-shaped”.
At the time, it struck me as a strange way to characterise someone’s beliefs; but then, this morning, I find myself being given this passage from Acts to think and write about — a passage which concludes with a statement by Paul (who is on trial in Caesarea before Felix, the Roman governor) that: “It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.” He might just as well have said, “It is because my faith is resurrection-shaped that I am on trial before you this day.”
What is resurrection-shaped faith? It is surely a faith that is rooted and grounded in the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead and that he will raise all men and women from the dead at the end of this present age. It is the faith that Paul expressed so clearly in 1 Corinthians 15.
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures … Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” (1 Corinthians 15.1-4, 12-14, 17-24).
How astonishing, in the light of a passage such as that, that there are so many people who profess to be Christians whose faith is not “resurrection-shaped” … whose belief is simply “pie in the sky when I die” — a disembodied, spiritual existence in “heaven” whatever their imaginations conceive “heaven” to be. What lies beyond that — the new heavens and the new earth of Revelation 21 in which we shall dwell in glorious resurrection bodies (picking up, as it were, from where Adam left off in Genesis 3) — is hardly a feature of their “hope”, yet that is the only authentic Christian hope and the one that should shape our work and witness and worship.
That wonderful hymn, For All the Saints, has it right. Yes, it speaks of the dead in Christ going to heaven when they die …
The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Yet it resolutely asserts that heaven is not the end. There is much much more thereafter …
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day:
the Saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Lord, please keep my faith resurrection-shaped and help me to bring others into that same-shaped faith.