Things that are Above
Things that are Above
Colossians 3:1-4 & St. John 20:1-10
The Lord is risen!
He is risen indeed!
Those are glorious words and we look forward all year long to be able to say them. But “The Lord is risen!” isn’t what Mary Magdalene was thinking when she arrived at Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. The other gospel writers tell us that she and some other women who were Jesus’ friends had come to anoint his body. Everyone was in a hurry when Jesus was taken down from the cross, wrapped, and brought to the tomb. Mary wanted to be sure that Jesus was given a proper burial. It’s not hard to imagine how grieved she was that morning, making her way in the dark to the tomb. And it’s not hard to imagine how upset she was to find, when she got there, that the tomb was open and Jesus’ body was gone.
Last summer they tore out the huge hedge that used to be on the north side of our cemetery. They tore it out because it hadn’t been cared for and was overgrow and they finally realised how overgrown it was because some people came to visit a grave. They looked and looked, but they couldn’t find it. They were distraught and about to leave when one someone finally found the grave, buried several feet back under the hedge. Imagine how you’d feel coming to visit a love one and finding their grave missing, or worse, empty.
And so Mary did the only thing she knew to do: she ran all the way to Peter’s house. Maybe Peter could fix it. But he and Jesus’ other friends had trouble believing her. Peter and John ran to the tomb. John got there first and noticed a funny thing. The linen wrappings that had been around Jesus’ body were still there. That didn’t make any sense. If someone had stolen the body, why would they unwrap it? And then Peter caught up with John and just as we’d expect from rash, impetuous Peter, he got down and crawled through the opening, going all the way into the tomb and he noticed something even stranger. The wrapping weren’t just there. They were completely undisturbed and the cloth, the handkerchief used to cover his face was sitting there neatly folded. Grave robbers wouldn’t have done that and if someone had been playing a trick, it was an elaborate one. In fact, it looked as though rather than being unwrapped, the body had simply disappeared, evaporated, leaving the wrapping there like a deflated balloon.
But then John squeezed into the tomb, next to Peter and John says of himself: he saw and believed. “No, Peter. No, Mary. No one’s taken Jesus’ body. He’s been raised from the dead!” Suddenly, as John saw the empty wrappings, all the things Jesus had said started to make sense. He tells us that up to that point they hadn’t understood. But now it all “clicks” for John. Imagine how that made him feel. He and his friends had been mourning. They were sad and, probably more importantly, they were discouraged. They’d been following Jesus for three years. They’d placed their hopes in him. And then he died. Mary coming to tell them that the body was missing just added insult to injury. But now all of that frustration, sadness, anger, and discouragement disappears in a moment of dawning faith. Jesus said he would be raised on the third day. He must have been raised. Despite how improbable it seems, that certainly makes a lot more sense than someone stealing his body without the wrappings. It makes more sense than chalking it all up to an elaborate prank. And John realises in the moment that if Jesus did in fact rise from death, it proved that he was the Messiah. And that meant that Jesus was really and in fact the one God sent into the world to bring peace and healing and forgiveness and restoration.
Now, it’s important to remember that this did not mean that Jesus had simply been taken away to heaven. That’s not what it means to be raised from the dead. That’s not what “resurrection” means. And we see this if we continue on with the story. Jesus hadn’t gone to some kind of disembodied spiritual existence in heaven. He was really and truly alive again and walking around in a very physical body. The disciples will meet him and spent forty days with him before he does ascend to heaven—with his renewed body. Somehow the misconceptions of pop-culture and pop-theology have muddled our understanding of resurrection. We think of resurrection and we think of dying and going to heaven to live with God in some kind of disembodied spiritual state. That’s not resurrection. That’s the intermediate state while we wait for the resurrection. I’ll come back to this later. Just remember: Jesus started something when he rose from the dead and it’s something we’re already beginning to take part in, and one day we’ll have our full share in it when his kingdom is ready and he comes back to renew all creation in a new heaven and earth. Then, on that day, we will be as he is right now.
But this is why the disciples had trouble believing. Resurrection wasn’t possible, at least as far as the people of their world were concerned. Pagan Greek and Roman philosophers talked about resurrection, but only theoretically. Many of them saw the body and the physical world as evil. The highest life was to die and leave the physical world behind. The pagans didn’t believe in resurrection. The Jews knew better. They knew that God had created the physical world and that it was inherently good. The problem was that it was suffering from the effects of our sin. And so many of the Jews looked forward to a day when they would be resurrection from death to life. The problem was that Jesus’ resurrection didn’t fit into their scheme. As I said on Friday, the Jews saw the world in terms of two ages: the “Present (evil) Age” and the “Age to Come”. It was the resurrection that they believed would inaugurate and usher in the Age to Come. The resurrection would signal God’s victory over sin and death and the evil emperors and empires of the world. (This, by the way, is why the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. It was too radical an idea for them. They were in power and they wanted to maintain their power and the current status quo. They weren’t over-anxious to see the Age to Come and they certainly didn’t want to promote any doctrines that might upset the Herodians and the Romans. Resurrection was just too revolutionary.)
Jesus’ resurrection didn’t fit into this scheme, because the resurrection was supposed to happen to God’s people all at once. The Messiah would come, he would deal with evil and with the pagan empires, somehow he would lead the people into resurrection, and God would be king forever. Not only did Jesus not conform to the idea that people had in their heads of what the Messiah was supposed to do and be like, Jesus was just one person and as far as anyone could tell, the Present Age was still here. This didn’t fit the model. But as John saw the empty grave wrappings and the face-cloth sitting there, he saw and believed. In his mind he realised that the old model was wrong. Well…not entirely wrong…but it needed to be rethought and reconfigured and as he knelt there looking at the neatly empty graveclothes, he started doing that rethinking. It had to be true; it was the only explanation that made sense: Jesus had been raised. And that meant that he was the Messiah, and that meant that no matter how things appeared, the Age to Come had really arrived and God was King.
And, brothers and sisters, if Jesus is the Messiah, if he is Lord, if his kingdom has come, that reality makes—or at least it should make—a dramatic difference in our lives. It means that he’s setting his kingdom to rights and every man and woman needs to ask what part we’re going to have in it. Are we going to continue in our rebellion—the rebellion we’ve been waging against God since Adam or are we going to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and submit to him? This coming of God to re-establish his kingdom on earth is what the Jews had been expecting for centuries. It’s why the Pharisees and others worked tirelessly to promote the law. They believed that when God returned—when he sent his Messiah—to establish the kingdom, he would know his people by their faithfulness in keeping his law. All those who had been keeping the law he would welcome and all those not keeping his law would be destroyed.
This is why what happened on that first Easter was so unexpected. Instead of the Messiah leading his people in a resurrection that brought the kingdom for the faithful and destructions for sinners, he instead ushered in a kingdom of grace. Jesus himself had said: I come not to condemn, but to redeem. In going before us, he shows us the way to follow. In his death and resurrection he conquered sin and death. And as we read in last night’s Epistle at the Vigil, when we pass through the waters of baptism in faith, we are buried with him in his death and raised to new life. Our baptism joins us to him and being “in Christ” or “in the Messiah” as St. Paul describes it means that you and I are dead to sin and alive to God. Instead of destroying sinners in order to establish his kingdom, Jesus calls sinners to repentance and to faith in his death and resurrection. He offers forgiveness and new life and then builds his new kingdom with the redeemed and renewed as his people.
And being the Messiah’s people gives us a different perspective. As St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle, we’re people who look up, not down. St. Paul writes: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of the God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
It is an objective fact that if you have accepted Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and new life through the waters of baptism, you have been raised with him. Whether you feel like it or not, you are in him and have been raised with him. It’s also a fact that as Christians we sometimes have our times of doubt and we all sometimes fail in following Jesus. Lots of Christians try to overcome these doubts and failures by seeking out experiences and be trying to “feel” the way they think they should feel. Brothers and sisters, emotions are fickle things. Our status in Christ isn’t dependent on our emotions or even on our success or failures. Grace doesn’t work that way. It isn’t earned and once the gift is given, God doesn’t take it back. If you’re doubting God’s faithfulness, if you’re struggling to follow Jesus, remember your baptism. Baptism isn’t about what we do; it’s about God’s promises to us. These waters are his promise of new life in Christ just as the path through the Red Sea was his promise of new life to the Israelites. If, in faith, we accept his promise and pass through the waters, he frees us from our bondage to sin and death. It’s done. Our part as people pardoned and forgiven is simply to walk with Jesus in the new life he gives us. When the steps are hard to take or when you feel that you’re walking alone, remember your baptism and know that no matter how you feel, the reality is that you are in Christ. No matter how often the devil temps you to doubt the forgiveness that Jesus has given you, remember your baptism and that, as we read in Hebrews on Friday, you have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and washed with pure water so that you may—now, anytime, and always—have confidence to enter the holy place—to stand in the presence of God.
Remember your baptism and set your heart and mind on the things that are yours in Christ. Set them on the things that, as Paul says, are above, where Christ is. That means: Set your mind on the resurrection and the kingdom that is to come. St. Paul tells us in verse 4: “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Jesus told his disciples that he had to go and prepare a place for them. As we do the work of building his kingdom here on earth, he’s doing the work of building his kingdom in heaven. Not very long ago a friend of mine described all of this in terms of a mother and father preparing for Christmas. Over the years the family has acquired various Christmas decorations that are kept in the attic. As the year goes on and gets closer to Christmas, presents are bought for the children and hidden away in the attic with the decorations. And as Christmas day draws near, the children start to think more and more of all the wonderful things that are being stored away for them. There’s Christmas excitement hidden away in the attic and as Christmas gets closer, those kids live in increasingly real hope of the day—not far away—when Mom and Dad bring it out to them and the whole family celebrates. Jesus is doing something like that now.
My friend used this illustration of the “Christmas Attic” because it cuts through one of the misconceptions that pop-theology and culture have given us about the resurrection. Again, a lot of people have this idea that “resurrection” means a sort of spiritual existence floating around on clouds in heaven. That thinking goes that if that’s where Jesus has gone to prepare a place, then that must be our final destination. But that’s not our hope. That would be like the kids looking forward to a Christmas morning opening presents with Mom and Dad the attic. The attic is simply the place where the Christmas celebration is being prepared. On Christmas morning it will be brought down from the attic to the children. Heaven is where our resurrection is being prepared for us. On that last great day when our Lord returns, he will bring down everything he has prepared to us.
He’s preparing the world for that wonderful day when he returns, bringing with him all those who have died in him, to join heaven and earth, and to bring us all into the full experience of his resurrection. As those children have their hope in the attic where Christmas is being prepared, so Jesus’ people have their hope in heaven where our own glorious future is being prepared. On that day the whole cosmos will be transformed as earth and heaven are joined in one great temple. Creation will be restored. On that day, all those who are “in Christ” and whose true life is today “hidden with Christ in God” will appear as the glorious and renewed human beings we already are in Christ.
And so, brothers and sisters, we who have been baptised into Jesus Christ live in hope. Last night we focused on the “here and now” of his death and resurrection: he has conquered sin. In our baptism we have died with Christ and we have been raised with Christ. We are no longer slaves to sin. This morning we’re also reminded that he hasn’t just conquered sin. In his resurrection he has conquered death too. As Jesus’ people, we have no reason to fear death. We know that one day we will follow in the resurrection that he has already experienced. We are people of new life and we are people of hope. In Jesus we are dead to sin and alive to God. Our fears have been put to rest and replaced with hope. And because God has proved himself to be faithful to his promises, we know that our hope will one day be sight. Like St. John, let us see the empty tomb, let us see the empty graveclothes, and let us believe. And let that belief transform who we are and who we will be in Christ Jesus.
Let us pray: “Almighty God, through your only Son Jesus Christ you have conquered death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: by your grace put good desires into our minds and, in your mercy, help us to bring them to their fulfilment, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”