Sermon for the 3rd Sunday before Lent: The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 13 February 2022 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.  (1 Corinthians 15: 12 – 20; Luke 6: 17 – 26)

In a few minutes we shall all – or most of us, anyway – declare that “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” That is something which – like the idea of infinity – we can grasp with our minds but can hardly imagine. The best way we can approach or picture the life hereafter is through music, art or poetry, and that will vary and differ for each of us.  I rather fancy that they will be singing Bach’s B minor Mass when I get there (if I do), with celestial high trumpets.

They stand, those halls of Sion,

Conjubilant with song,

And bright with many an angel,

And all the martyr throng;

The Prince is ever in them,

The daylight is serene,

The pastures of the blessèd,

Are decked in glorious sheen.”

Some feel that Bernard of Cluny over-egged his description of the celestial places; but, if it appeals to you, you can find the rest at Hymn 381.

For a sparer, more tentative, treatment of the idea of heaven, Mary Coleridge’s short poem ‘There’ ends with this telling verse:

“No grey cathedral, wide and wondrous fair,

That I may tread, where all my fathers trod. 

Nay, nay, my soul, no house of God is there,

But only God.”

That, it seems to me, tells us all we need to know about heaven – that it is where God is fully present to us, and where, therefore, we shall see, with a shock and wonder of recognition, all that we have loved and valued most.

Can we be sure of this? St Paul is in no doubt that we shall rise again to eternal life. The proof is in the resurrection of Jesus. Remember that Paul knew well many of those who had witnessed the resurrection, not least Peter, who’d rushed first into the empty tomb and, with the other apostles, had subsequently seen and talked to Jesus. Paul is clear, in writing to the Christians at Corinth in today’s Epistle (1 Cor 15), that our own resurrection to eternal life is intimately bound up with that of Jesus. “If Christ is preached as raised from the dead,” he asks the Corinthians, “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? …. If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (vv 12, 14)  “But in fact” – triumphant climax – “Christ has been raised from the dead.” (v 20)

The difficulty some of them had in accepting Paul’s teaching on “the resurrection of the body” lay in Greek philosophy.  Plato and others believed that, when one’s body died, the soul was released, freed from the constraints of bodily needs and passions, and could soar upwards. What Paul meant by the body (σῶμα), by contrast, was our whole personality – body and soul, if you like – as contrasted with the flesh (σάρξ). In our resurrected life we are not simply some disembodied soul, but everything, physical and spiritual, that has made us who we are, our identity.

This is a justly famous and inspiring passage. But the compilers of the lectionary won’t let us bask in its glorious promise for too long: they want to tease us, bless them. So they shove in, as the Gospel reading, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain – specifically the blessings and the woes. These seem to ask the questions, “What happens to us in the afterlife, and how is it related to the life we have lived on earth?” “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God …. But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.” At once we are reminded of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar at his gate – also found in Luke.  The unnamed rich man finds himself tormented in the afterlife, while Lazarus sits smugly in Abraham’s bosom. The idea of rewards and punishments is deeply embedded in religious folklore.

Consider this charmingly humorous, and splendidly ridiculous, story. Two friends died at the same time, and on arrival were interviewed by St Peter at the pearly gates. He asked the first one if he had led a good and upright life. “Certainly, your saintliness,” he replied: “I’ve been honest, industrious and generally sober.” “Excellent” said Peter, and gave him a marvellously gleaming Rolls-Royce, as his reward.  Turning to the second man, he said, “And what about you?” “Well,” he replied, somewhat sheepishly, “I’m afraid I’ve been very different – I’ve lied and cheated, and been drunk and thoroughly idle.” “Well,” said Peter, “These things happen, and at least you’ve owned up.  You can have this;” and gave him the keys to a Mini. All at once the second man began laughing uproariously. “What’s so funny?” asked the first; his friend replied, “I’ve just seen the Vicar riding a bike.”

This idea that there is a scale of moral virtue, on a ranking of 1 – 10, could be thought to be what Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes implies: there, Jesus spiritualizes them – “Blessed are the poor in spirit …. blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” But, even there, it is not a competition in virtue: rather it suggests that having the right frame of mind and an outward-looking approach to godly living are the important things.

In Luke’s version, Jesus’ words seem starker: blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who mourn; woe to the rich, those who are full, those who can laugh. What do we make of them? G B Caird, in the accessibly written Pelican Commentary, says this: “[These words] are not a general benediction upon misfortune, as though poverty, hunger, grief and public resentment were in themselves guarantees of eternal bliss.” Rather, they should remind us not to be distracted by the lure of worldly wealth and success, from what is of paramount importance, the love of God and our fellow humans. As Caird concludes, “The one thing that Jesus requires in his disciples is an emptiness that God can fill, a discontent with the world which will lead them to the wealth, the satisfaction, the consolation, the comradeship of the kingdom.”

If that sound like something difficult – or even impossible – to achieve, then take heart. For the other great pillar of our faith is the ever-open offer of forgiveness, through our Lord Jesus Christ. As our Evensong creed, The Apostles’ Creed, has it: “I believe … in the Forgiveness of sins; the Resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.”