Monday, July 30, 2012

July 15, 2012 sermon--"Death, Thou Shalt Die."

Resurrection—“Death, Thou Shalt Die.”
July 14-15, 2012

Today, in our continuing series on faith questions you were afraid to ask but your kids weren’t, we come to the question of resurrection. Two of the questions that our confirmation students asked in the spring were: “Why did Jesus rise when he died for us?” and “Why was the symbol of God a cross?”  These questions inevitably lead us to deeper questions like, “What exactly are we talking about when we speak of resurrection?” or “Is resurrection the same as coming back to life?”

The last question is the easiest to answer, and gives us a good starting point to work from as well. No. Resurrection is not the same as coming back to life. Turn with me to the Gospel According to John, Chapter 11. It’s the story of the raising of Lazarus. You know the story—Lazarus has been dead for four days, Jesus comes to the tomb and tells him to come out, and he does. What Lazarus experiences is a coming back to life, but it is not a resurrection. His body is still the same, temporal body created from the same stuff as the dust of the earth, and to dust it will once again return. Lazarus is going to die again eventually. The life he receives is not new life, but a continuation of his old life. It is a wonderful gift that he and his loved ones were given, but this is not resurrection as we understand it, or as Jesus experienced it.

So then, if we know what resurrection is not, then what exactly is it?  This is where we turn to our Scripture reading from 1 Corinthians. In a sense, the hope of resurrection is at the center of this entire letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, but it’s here in Chapter 15 where the rubber really hits the road. It sounds as though there were some folks who were denying that there would be any future resurrection, and what Paul does is he both reaches back to the very beginning, to the first 3 chapters of Genesis, while at the same time looking ahead to the end of time, and pulls it all together in his answer to them. Turn to page 935 in the pew Bible, to the very beginning of Chapter 15. This is where Paul begins to lay out his argument. Verses 3 -5 remind the church of what they’ve already been taught, those things that Paul had received from others and had passed on to them: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve.” 

For Paul, it’s of utmost importance that the church understand that Jesus himself was resurrected, and then what that means for us.  Skip to verses 12-19. Paul writes, “12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Those are strong words, and they’re strong for a reason. And this is why Easter is more important than Good Friday. If all the cross was about was Jesus being sacrificed to pay off a sin-debt to God, then Easter is just an afterthought, a way to make sure that God doesn’t stay dead. But if the cross is about more than that, if it’s about God in Jesus taking on the very power of sin, the very power of death, of taking incarnation so far, of taking the idea that God IS with us to the very extreme of even dying the same death we die, and THEN to conquer that death by being raised, then celebrating Easter becomes a celebration of new life, of eternal life. It takes the promise of that final day when all is made new and brings a foretaste of that day to the here and now. And so it’s important that Jesus was not just resuscitated, he didn’t just wake up, because that would make him like Lazarus. As fully God but still fully human, his fully human body would have died again eventually. But that’s not what Paul’s talking about here—this is resurrection. This is a new creation, a new physical reality—in a very real sense, a new body.

On this point there’s been a lot of confusion over time, and the NRSV does us no favors by the way it chooses to translate the Greek. Skipping ahead in 1 Corinthians 15 to where our reading begins in verse 42 on page 936. Paul has begun talking about our own resurrection—what that will mean at the end of time for us. Contrasting our bodies now with what we will experience when all are raised on the last day, Paul writes, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” At the beginning, it all makes sense—our earthly bodies are finite. They’re perishable. They’re prone to weakness, to illness, to pain, to injury. In this life, we deal with things like cancer, or with Alzheimer’s disease, or a myriad of factors that remind us that we are, indeed mortal. We were created, and God saw us and called it good, but as we remind each other each Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The trouble we run into is when our translations have Paul contrasting a physical body and a spiritual body. We think of physical as flesh and bone, and spiritual as…well, spirit. Soul. Whatever it is that we cannot see that is the essence of who we are. The problem with that idea is that it isn’t Biblical. It comes out of Greek philosophy. Plato talks a lot about that sort of idea, but it’s not what Paul is speaking of here.  NT Wright’s incredible book Surprised by Hope is helps make sense of all of this, and it’s important, because so much of what we think we know about faith actually is a product not of our faith at all, but of how our culture has grasped this idea of body vs. spirit, of physical vs. spiritual. Biblically, this stuff is much more earthy, much more tangible, stuff that you can touch and feel and be. The Bible doesn’t separate body from soul, or physical from spiritual. In fact, NT Wright tells us that the Greek word psychikos, which the NRSV translated as “physical,” means nothing close to how we think of “physical” today. The root, psyche, from where we get our word “psychology,” ironically, was the word Greek philosophers used to describe the soul. More important than that though is that “adjectives of this tupe, Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the difference between asking, on the one hand, ‘Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?’ (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, ‘Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?’ (the energy that powers it). [1]  Paul is contrasting the power by which our body lives. In this present life, we are powerless against those forces that make us mortal—illness, injury, decay, and ultimately death. In the resurrection, we are given new life—the word Paul uses is pneuma, God’s spirit, breath, wind. We don’t become spirit—we are given life through the Spirit.

So in verse 50, when Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he doesn’t mean that there will be an end to physical being. The term “flesh and blood” was a common symbolic term. Just as in the Gospel according to John, whenever the writer speaks of “the world,” he doesn’t actually mean the whole world, or the actual soil of the planet, but rather those forces in the world which oppose God, the same kind of thing is at work here. “Flesh and blood” means “that which is corruptible, that which is finite, that which dies, that which is walking toward death.” His contrast isn’t between the physical and the non-physical, but between the physical which dies and the physical which lives forever.

And so resurrection isn’t, as we so often think of it, life after death. It’s really life AFTER life after death. Paul calls Jesus the firstfruits, sort of a downpayment if you will of what we all look forward to at the end. When we die, that is not resurrection. It is a time of rest, a waiting place on the way to the end of time. Jesus said that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places—the word he uses, monai, doesn’t refer to a final resting place “but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.”[2] The hymn For All The Saints captures this idea so well. Turn to hymn 174 in the LBW. Look at verse 6—it speaks of the rest of the faithful servants, the calm of paradise. Then in verse 7, there breaks a more glorious day—it is the end of time, and the saints triumphant rise. The final verse describes the eternal city, the New Jerusalem, as from all corners of the earth come God’s people to inhabit the new creation. The imagery is so amazingly powerful.

And it speaks to what we confess in the Apostles Creed. The ending of the creed goes, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” We profess our faith in the promise that God’s creation matters. That, as Pastor Tobi said on Easter, matter matters. We look ahead to the New Jerusalem, when Revelation tells us that we don’t all get whisked away to some spiritual plane away from Earth, but God comes to us. Heaven comes here. God makes God’s home among God’s people in a new creation that is physical, that is real, that you can touch and taste and see and experience, but that is at the same time eternal. What will that look like? We are given pictures and metaphors of streets paved with gold, of the river of the water of life, of the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations, and all of those pictures point to the future, but they at the same time point to right now, they point to the bread and the wine, very physical signs of Jesus’ presence with us and for us, and they point back to the very beginning when God’s spirit brooded over the waters and God created the heavens and the earth. We’re part of this amazing story of creation and life and new life and eternal life.

One of my favorite poems is a sonnet by John Donne. The official title is Holy Sonnet 10, though most people know it by the title, Death Be Not Proud. It takes what we’ve heard in 1 Corinthians 15 and reminds us of our ultimate hope in the resurrection and our ultimate victory in Jesus.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

[1] NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: Harper One, 2008, p. 155.
[2] Wright, 150.

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