The final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, often read at funeral services, has always intrigued me: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”
The question is when Paul wrote “you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” did he mean that our labour in the Lord is not in vain? That is, whatever we do in Christ’s name, whatever, will have eternal significance. This may well be despite every appearance to the contrary.
Last night’s Ascension Day service was very poorly attended but even so the apostle teaches that the work Phil had done in preparing his excellent sermon would not be in vain. But what about the work Andrew Leake is doing to conserve the northern Argentinean rainforest or even, as I wrote last week, picking up litter for Jesus?
Each Saturday Time magazine arrives on the mat and for the edition over Easter its cover story was “Rethinking heaven.” This seven page article featured the thinking of my theological hero Tom Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham and now professor at St Andrews.
12 years ago Wright was practically unknown and now here he is as the most influential theologian in the English speaking world. Phil’s college tutor, an American, described Wright as having superstar status in his native land.
So what’s the secret for his success? His main contribution is rethinking the Bible in terms of its original context and so Time quotes Wright:
“When first century Jews spoke about eternal life, they weren’t thinking of going to heaven in the way we normally imagine it. Eternal life meant the age to come, the time when God would bring heaven and earth together, the time when God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
I guess most Christians, if they think about it at all, imagine heaven as some disembodied place in beautiful soft focus. But this is not what the Bible teaches. We believe in the resurrection of the body, the new Jerusalem. So there will be both difference (because now God rules totally – no evil, no sin, no ugliness) and continuity (it’s still Jerusalem and I’m still me).
So “going to heaven” is a very weak and inadequate description of the Christian hope. For God promises a new heaven and a new earth – and he has already launched this project with Jesus. “God’s Kingdom is not ‘from’ this world but it is certainly ‘for’ this world.”
So what is our hope as disciples of Jesus? To share in his resurrection victory so that we may share in the running of God’s new creation no less.
And here lies the rub. Wright writes: “And all that we do by way of Christian, Spirit-led work in the present is a genuine foretaste of that.” In other words, 1 Corinthians 15:58.
So this world, this present creation is important – for it is not going to be trashed to be replaced by a totally new world. I remember being struck by Wright’s insistence that the sheer beauty and technical brilliance of our bodies’ blood circulation, as designed and made by God, is not going to be binned.
So as I grow as a Christian so another of those haunting verses from scripture begins to make sense, more wonderfully than I could have ever envisaged.
For Paul is right! If indeed whatever we do in Christ’s name – such as catering for Alpha, planting trees in the Gorse Hill Nature Reserve (open day tomorrow) or collecting envelopes for Christian Aid – has eternal significance, then we have sure grounds for standing firm despite everything the enemy may throw at us.
Hence the title of Wright’s first blockbuster book “Surprised by hope!”