There’s a quiet cynicism abroad, a loss of hope about the future of the world and of human beings beyond the grave. That cynicism flows from our being brain-washed by advertising, with the deceits of materialism, to disbelieve the teaching of the Bible.
New awareness of other religions has confused our approach to the Bible, as has the publicity given to hypocrisy in the Church. It’s time for us Christians to get ourselves better rooted in our faith, and that’s why I’ve been doing a course on Paul’s letters this summer, hoping it may inspire you to read them for yourself.
What better antidote to cynicism and truth decay than to read one whose writings, next only to those of the Founder of Christianity, teach us to abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13b)?
This morning I want to share about that hope as it is presented by the Apostle Paul as the last of my series giving a taster of his letters geared to encourage you to pick up your Bible and read them for yourself.
They run as follows: After Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts we’ve got Paul’s letter to Rome, his greatest work on God. Then we have the first and second letters to Corinth where Paul founded a church situated on the very bridge between Asia and Europe. The next four I remember using the vowel alphabet – a, e, i, o – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. These are short compared to Romans and Corinthians, especially Colossians which we’ve been following this month in the Sunday lectionary and the reading of which could be good follow up to today’s sermon.
Two letters to Thessalonica in Greece follow, then two to Paul’s assistant Timothy, one to his assistant Titus and then a very short one to someone called Philemon about a runaway slave. The letter to the Hebrews was once thought to be from Paul but that is now disputed.
As we look through these letters we see Christ’s resurrection as their overarching theme and it’s impossible to separate the objective fact of Christ’s being raised from Paul’s subjective experience of it, as you can tell from today’s section of Colossians: when you were buried with him in baptism, Paul writes, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead… God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses.
The God who raised Jesus raises us and the force of Paul’s teaching is enhanced by the well documented change in his own life from persecuting Christians to being Christianity’s greatest evangelist. As I said last month Paul had humble awareness that for God to touch his life in any way at all was an exceptional miracle. I received mercy he writes in 1 Timothy 1:16 so that in me, as the foremost Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience. He saw himself as the least of believers because he’d previously been a leading opponent of Christian faith.
That the resurrection was central to Paul’s teaching is evidenced outside of Paul’s writings in St Luke’s comment in Acts 17:18 that Paul told the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians Chapter 15:21 continuing, as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
In these awesome words Paul maps out the future. It starts with Christ’s being raised which is described as first fruits. Christ’s resurrection impacts believers as it did Paul so we are the harvest as we get made alive in Christ by a spiritual resurrection. Then, either through death, or at the return of Christ, there is to be universal resurrection: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. This moves the cosmos to its own resurrection fulfilment as Jesus Christ, risen Son of God overcomes every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. Paul’s graphic picture ends as Christ on his return with the church presents the redeemed cosmos to his Father. The Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
What wonderful words about the future – God all in all. In Greek panta en pasin literally everything to everyone.
Christianity in Paul’s belief - and it should be in our belief – is the most forward looking creed on the earth. Why? Because it accepts God has invested in the human race and when God invests in anything there will be awesome consequences out of this world.
When you and I look at the future we must put the fulfilment of God’s promises centre stage. That fulfilment may come before or after our death but Paul in either case makes plain the death of a Christian doesn’t take them out of the Church but places them in the privileged place as those who belong to Christ of awaiting Christ’s coming.
When Paul speaks of the future he speaks of it as fulfilling faith, hope and love but also as something not just with a human but with a cosmic aspect. He is inspired to write in Romans Chapter 8 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.
Indeed! So – to summarise - what are the main points for us to bear in mind, to savour in the teaching of Paul about the future.
1 The resurrection of Jesus Christ turned his and can turn our world upside down as it brings a vision of God’s future into our lives right here and now.
2 Baptism is about a spiritual resurrection, a death to cynicism and birth of the positive attitude of faith which acclaims God’s desire to be everything to everyone
3 To live for the return of Jesus Christ is part of that positive attitude we call hope, which is faith looking with expectancy to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.
4 In looking to the world’s future our lives gain significance because even if we die before Christ’s return we hold faith that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
5 Lastly, looking towards God being everything to everyone makes for a change in our own individual future since like Paul you’ll best witness this when God is everything to you
As I finish this four part taster of Paul’s letters I hope it has given you some appetite for Scripture and for filling your mind with God breathed thoughts to counter the negativity of our age.
Meanwhile, looking to the future we celebrate as we always do in Church, a preview of forthcoming attractions for, in Paul’s words, as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you show the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)