May 4, 2010

Resurrection and the Reading of Old Books

I can't tell you how many so-called Christian funerals I've attended in which the distinctly Christian hope of bodily resurrection has not been preached.  This always saddens me, and I seldom now expect to find a funeral sermon which looks expectantly for the resurrection.  The message is usually one extolling the wonder of how the deceased has "gone home" to a place "beyond the veil."  The emphasis is usually on departure from the body rather than bodily resurrection.  Let me say that I absolutely affirm that when a Christian brother or sister dies, he or she is presently with the Lord, which, as Paul says, is far better (Phil 1:23; cf. 2 Cor 5:8).  But the biblical writers never propose this disembodied and post-mortem state as the ultimate Christian hope.  Rather, the post-mortem state with Christ is a temporary holding place where the believer awaits the post-post-mortem state of resurrection with Christ.  The one who is in union with the resurrected Christ ought always look forward to the ultimate realization of that union, namely sharing the bodily resurrection.  The all-important emphasis on resurrection seems to be finding its way back into much of American Evangelicalism, but the fact that resurrection has not yet become pervasive in our corporate thinking is lamentable.

In light of the current state of things, old books that strongly emphasize important (and presently neglected)doctrines can become quite refreshing.  One such book is Athanasius' On the Incarnation, which I recently reread for the first time in several years.  As I read, I was overcome by the pervasiveness of resurrection in Athanasius' thought on the incarnation of God in Christ.  The doctrine shows up on nearly every page.  To show that I'm not overstating the importance Athanasius attributes to the doctrine, he says, "The supreme object of His (Christ's) coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body" (22, italics mine).  For Athanasius, the resurrection of Christ and of his people is the great goal of the work of the Son of God. 

The importance of resurrection for the fourth century Alexandrian bishop makes sense if one understands the supreme human problem as Athanasius did.  He articulates the human problem as corruption leading to death, "Instead of remaining in the state in which God created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion" (4).  The curse is epitomized in God's declaration to Adam that should he eat of the forbidden tree, "[He] shall surely die" (Gen 2:16).  For Athanasius, this is an ongoing state of corruption and death.  So because it is "monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption," the only solution is resurrection (6).

The work of Christ can only be understood in light of the human problem.  Christ offered himself on the cross in place of sinful humanity to rescue them from corruption.  He was raised bodily from the dead to defeat death, overturn the original curse, and extend the everlasting life of resurrection to all who have been joined to him through faith.  The cross is the means to the end of resurrection.  Thus, Athanasius can say, "The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body."

Modern Christians (and preachers in particular) would do well to read through some ancient texts like On the Incarnation.  This will help us to avoid the narrow-mindedness which is inevitable if we only read modern books.  As C. S. Lewis says in his introduction to On the Incarnation, "The only palliative (to such modern narrowness) is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can only be done by reading old books" (5).  Athanasius' old book provides a refreshing reminder that the ultimate Christian hope is to share in Christ's bodily resurrection.  If we are to be Christian, this axiom must shape our preaching. 

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