A. The convergence of meaning in the Epistle and Gospel
1. The epistle closes with a benediction that says, God “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” This suggests that we set our sights too low in what we pray for and imagine to be possible. St. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter. He did not want his people to lose heart over his sufferings because he understood that God was doing bigger things—things that were beyond the horizon of their thoughts and prayers.
2. The gospel illustrates this. Jesus and his disciples came upon a funeral procession. The widow and her followers might have expected Jesus to join the procession to the grave and comfort the widow afterwards. The rabbi might even provide some benevolent assistance; the departed son was most likely the widow’s sole source of support. But Jesus did exceeding abundantly above all that they asked or thought. He raised the young man from the dead.
B. The importance of the Christian hope of resurrection
1. There is a significant gap between our expectations and what God intends to do. We have challenges and afflictions and we ask God for comfort and temporal help. While God does indeed provide these things—just like all good doctors relieve symptoms—God sees the larger picture; how our current challenges and afflictions contribute to our formation into the image of Christ and, indeed, to our own resurrection. We are stuck in time. God sees how this “momentary affliction is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
2. This is why St. Paul begins the epistle by saying, “I ask that you do not lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which your glory.” St. Paul understood his suffering in the larger context of God’s work in the world and the Christian hope. He understood that God was doing much more than he could ask or think according to the power that was at work in him. This is a pattern for us. When the hope of resurrection becomes our chief aim in life, we can begin to experience our current afflictions in a different way, as parts of the process by which God is raising us from death.
C. Rightly understanding the Christian hope
1. If you ask most Christians what they hope for, they will say that they hope to go to heaven when they die. However, going to heaven to be with God when we die is what the church calls “The Intermediate State.” The New Testament calls the Intermediate State “paradise” (Luke 23:43), or being “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23) or, being “asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). This is a place of rest, comfort and anticipation, but it is not a final state.
2. The Christian hope is that Jesus will do to each us what he did the young man in the gospel: command us to rise from the dead. He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. He will administer justice to this unjust world. He will repay each person according to his works. God’s true children will be revealed. “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). We will be given new bodies, like the resurrection body of Jesus, to live with Jesus in God’s new creation. It for this purpose, to redeem the creation and bring it to its intended glory, that the Son of God became man.
The Bible is clear about our resurrection hope.
a. First Corinthians says, “The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (15:52).
b. First Thessalonians says, “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise” (4:16).
c. Philippians says, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (3:20-21).
D. A diminished hope lowers our sights
1. The biblical definition of death is the departure of the spirit from the body. Thus the fullness of life after death, in the biblical sense, requires the resurrection to undo death. This is what St. Paul expresses in 2 Corinthians 5:4. “While we are in this tent we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed (that is, disembodied), but that we would be furthered clothed, so that what is mortal might be swallowed up by life.”
3. If heaven is viewed as a spiritual and disembodied state, we will have difficulty longing for it. Our tendency will be to cling to life here and view heaven as consolation when we lose this life. However, if our hope is that life in this body will be fulfilled in the resurrection and in the new creation, we can anticipate the future with eagerness, as the place where created life is fulfilled without death, sorry, crying or pain.
E. Our suffering is connected to our resurrection
1. Our current tribulations are part of the process by which we are being prepared for that future state of embodied glory in God’s new creation. Our current tribulations relate to our future resurrection the way Good Friday related to Easter in the life of Jesus. Our sufferings are the birth pangs of the new creation, not the death pains of this world. This is what it means to live “in Christ.”
2. We are not marching to the grave with this fallen world, to be buried and carted off to some eternal and ethereal place of rest—to what Fr. Schmemann called “the cosmic cemetery” (in, For the Life of the World) No! The dead in Christ will rise! Jesus commanded the young man in the gospel, “Arise.” He will come again with glory and command us to come out of our graves in the same manner. As Jesus said in John 6:28, “The hour in coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done the good to the resurrection of life.” For, God “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us.”