One of the most difficult sermons of the year to write is the one to be delivered on Easter morning. The homiletical challenge we preachers face is obvious: the resurrection of Jesus is like the sky above: it really covers everything in the Christian faith. As a result there is a sense in which every sermon all year long has something or another to do with the resurrection and so with Easter. Come Easter morning, then, and it can be a little difficult to find anything “new” that you have not already said before (and have been saying all along).
Still, it’s as important a day as there is for the Church—it actually outstrips Christmas quite easily in importance, which is why you can have a Gospel in the New Testament with no birth narrative of Jesus but you cannot have a Gospel without the climax that just is Easter. But what can one say that is fresh.
Some years back when I was a preacher in a congregation, I was casting about for just that “something fresh” and as I did so, I was pulling old sermon manuscripts out of my files. Back when I was a weekly preacher, whenever I filed a sermon away, I always attached also the liturgy for the service in which the sermon was delivered. For morning services I usually took a red pen and at the top of the liturgy page make a list of the things I wanted to include in the congregational prayer. Typically this list contained events that were coming at the church, global issues currently in the news, and of course a list of those members who were sick or in the hospital.
As I perused my past Easter sermons, I took note of the names on my prayer lists. And I noticed that all but one of them had since died, a few of them having died before ever reaching the age of 60. We prayed for these dear folks at an Easter service once. We prayed to the Lord of life, to the God who has the power to heal and restore, the God who we believe brought back from the dead Jesus Christ, that great Shepherd of us, his sheep. We prayed in faith and in hope, we prayed (some of us) with fervency, fierceness, and maybe even a sense of desperation. And then they died.
The man with lung cancer and the woman with breast cancer, the man with Alzheimer’s and the woman with Parkinson’s died. They died and we rolled them back into the sanctuary in a box, shedding more than our share of tears even as we choked out the words to the Apostles’ Creed and fought our way through the lyrics of “By the Sea of Crystal.” We then went home, feeling sad, but such feelings were nothing compared to the widow or widower who went home to a void so vast they could hardly breathe. Grief, someone once noted, feels a lot like panic. And so some of the members of the congregation I served went home panic-stricken with a grief that made them feel oddly frightened.
Whatever else Easter means, the church has known for almost as long as it has known about Easter that it does not mean people stop dying. The very early church did not realize this right off the bat. That’s why in Paul’s earliest letter (I Thessalonians) you find Paul dealing with what looks to be the shock and sorrow of Christians who, despite their belief in Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of his return in glory, nevertheless watched fellow believers die just like anybody else. Some may have thought that with the power of resurrection life in them they would not die at all. Some may have thought that everyone would remain alive until Jesus came again. Still others may have thought that you needed to be alive yet when Jesus returned if you were going to get transported to heaven.
Whatever they thought, however, the need still to attend funerals shook them up enough as to warrant Paul’s intervention in his first epistle. Paul had some reassuring things to say on this subject, of course, but what cannot be disputed is that the Thessalonians knew what we still know: namely, the stark and stubborn fact of death in our world poses a most difficult challenge to our faith. Maybe we do not always realize it, but when we stand on the lip of an open grave–slit into the skin of the earth like an open wound–and say via the words of the Creed “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” we are committing a most audacious and bold act.
Because there is no doubt in our minds of just how dead the corpse is. Though we don’t like to think about it, we know the decay that is already present. Some years back the New York Times Magazine presented a grim and vaguely gross report on a research institute somewhere down in Kentucky. The doctors and scientists there conduct research on cadavers whose bodies were left to science. In an effort to hone the science that helps police determine the when and the how of murders, these scientists study the breakdown and decay of the human body under the kinds of conditions where the bodies of murder victims are sometimes found—exposed in a woods, stuffed into the trunk of a car, etc. Under many circumstances it flat out does not take long before there is virtually nothing left of us after we die.
Modern morticians are good at making a dead person look reasonably OK yet, but we don’t pin any Christian hope on the relative success of the funeral director’s art. It’s not make-up and rose-colored lights that give us any hope for this loved one’s future. And yet as Christians we proclaim the reality of that future. Before we close out our weekly recitation of the Apostles’ Creed we stake our belief in “the resurrection of the body” and what we mean there is not Jesus’ body but your body, my body, Uncle Sylvester’s body.
There is absolutely nothing about the nature of corpses or about any other aspect of this physical world that provides a basis for that hope and belief. Dead bodies don’t come back on their own. Our only basis was also the apostle Paul’s only basis: Easter. If Jesus was raised from the dead–if God really and truly pulled that off–then we can and will be raised too because the same God who made the first Easter possible has promised it. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive,” Paul sings out in this famous fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians. The first part of that verse is doubted by no one. All of us sons and daughters of Adam die. Entropy, decay, and eventual death are the one constant in the universe on which both believers and non-believers can readily agree.
The proof of Adam’s death is all around us, in every newspaper’s daily Obituary section and even listed on the family tree page of the family Bible (back when people had such family Bibles anyway). In recent decades scientists have even speculated that death awaits the entire physical universe. It cannot continue forever. We know the universe is expanding but that eventually it will either reach an outer limit and so, rubber-band-like, will snap back the other way or it will stretch out and out like a wad of Silly Putty until finally it starts to get so thin, breaks and holes begin to appear. Either way, reality as we know it will die.
In Adam all die, Paul says. No one doubts that much. In Christ all will be made alive. A great many people doubt that. Faith bridges the gap between the death no one denies and the life to come which Christians proclaim.
But if you want to hold onto the faith, Paul says, you must not hesitate and you certainly may not deny it. (You also have the feeling that Paul would not cotton to much mumbling, either!) Because if God cannot do this for Jesus, then he cannot do it for anyone else. And if God cannot do it for anyone else, then Paul says in verse 18 that the Christians who have already died are “lost.”
The Greek word Paul uses there for “lost” is actually a bit darker than it appears in translation. If you “lose” your car keys, there is a good chance you can find them back again. But the overtone of this word is not lost in the sense of misplaced but lost in the sense of destroyed, ruined. If you lose your car keys somewhere in the house, you look for them. If you lose your car keys because you accidentally dropped them in a vat of molten lead, you don’t look for them but recognize that they are irretrievably gone.
If Jesus was not raised, then we cannot be, either, and if that is so–if even God can do no more in the face of human death than watch it happen–then those who have already died ,and one day we ourselves, are just gone. Vanished. But if God could bring Jesus back, he can do it for you as well, and he will.
Faith gives us that hope but also counsels us to humility. Let’s not pretend on Easter Sunday or any time that this is easy to believe or that we have all the details of this sewn up in our minds. For all his confidence Paul himself, a bit later in this chapter, struggles mightily to draw a bead on just what kind of a body we will have after the resurrection. There is much we do not know and will not know for now. As Paul will say in comparing our present bodies to seeds, sometimes you just need to plant a seed to see what will grow.
Some years ago archaeologists in Japan uncovered a tomb estimated to be at least 2,000 years old. Among the artifacts in this tomb was a cache of seeds. Since these seeds did not come in some Burpee’s seed bag with a picture of the plant printed on the label, it was a mystery what kind of seeds these were. They analyzed and pondered them for a very long time until one bright scientist finally made the sensible suggestion of just planting one. So they did and to their wonder the seed was still able to grow, sprouting eventually into a glorious, seven-foot high, eight-petaled white magnolia.
What we are to be in the future we do not yet know. But when Christ Jesus appears, we will be made like him. The scientists in Japan were much taken with their find of seeds in that tomb. What they maybe did not realize is that the corpse in that tomb can, in Christ, also sprout and grow and be made alive once more.
On Easter as at all times, there are dear people whom we miss. After loved ones die, we can still hear their voices, see their faces, remember them so keenly. We remember them. But we are not the only ones who remember them. God does, too. And he has a plan.
It’s called Easter.
In recent years science has developed a branch of study called “complexity theory.” In part this theory recognizes the incredible high-order complexity that attends various systems in the universe, including certainly human beings. What goes into making you the person you are is not just this or that physical and mental feature to your person but also the complex way by which all the components interact. Every person has a few trillion neurons in his or her brain. But complex though each brain is, what makes you unique is the way those neurons are connected, inter-connected, cross-wired, and cross-referenced to each other. It all forms a pattern. But since the number of possible patterns within even a single human brain exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe, it is a cinch no two patterns will ever be alike.
On the old TV series Star Trek the “transporter” is how Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock got around. They would get “beamed” down from the starship Enterprise to the planet below. The premise of this fictional machine is that a computer was able to scan Captain Kirk’s body, memorize every single speck of energy in that body (as well as every single connection and pattern within the body and brain of Kirk), translate the physical body into a beam of pure energy, and then re-assemble the whole kit-n-kaboodle in another place. Of course, scientists admit that it would be impossible ever to develop such a device. The amount of data in just one person could never be analyzed by, much less stored in, any computer. We are, each one of us, simply too complex.
The Christian faith, however, claims that God is able to maintain, store, and re-assemble your unique pattern and my unique pattern and everyone’s unique patterns. We call it the human soul–that unique spiritual core to each person which God is able tenderly to maintain even when the body dies. If God cannot do that, then death is the end. If God can do that, then hope flourishes once again.
Is it a miracle of staggering, mind-boggling complexity? Of course, that’s why we call Easter “the grand miracle.” Christians of all people are not casual about what happened to Jesus. It was not inevitable that he be raised again and it was not automatic. This was no sleight-of-hand trick, no deception, it really happened in a way quite unexpected and exceedingly marvelous.
And it is our hope.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 27, 2016
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 Commentary