I invite your attention to 1 Corinthians 15. We are reading the first twenty verses of the chapter. Those of you who know your Bible know that this is the New Testament’s great chapter on the subject of the resurrection. Paul reflects at some length on the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the relationship between his resurrection and our own, and some other aspects of this marvelous event and its implications for us today.
Two points bear mentioning. The first is how fundamental to the Christian faith the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead actually is. Paul rings the changes on that: without the resurrection there would be no Christian faith, no good news of salvation to proclaim to the world, no Jesus Christ of any significance to anyone else. Everything stands or falls with the fact of the Lord’s resurrection that first Easter Sunday. The second is how categorically Paul rejects any doubt about the historicity of the resurrection. Of course he would have no truck with such doubts because, as he mentions here, he had himself seen Jesus and spoken with him long after his death. The resurrection was for Paul a cold, hard fact. But by this time he had met many others who had likewise seen the Lord alive after his death. He mentioned such people in vv. 5-8. The Christian claim was always an historical claim. This is not some idea — life after death. This was an event in the real world, in time and space. People like you and me who had no expectation whatsoever that the Messiah would rise again — it was part of no Jew’s expectation — had their world turned upside down by the fact that Jesus who died on Friday was alive again on Sunday and they saw him! It was the event that changed the way they thought about everything.
“First fruits” are the promise of the harvest. When the farmer sees the first fruit on the tree or in the field, he knows that his full crop is coming. Christ’s resurrection is the proof that there will be many more resurrections to come. His resurrection was the first fruit, yours and mine will be the full harvest. Notice also the way death is described here as sleeping. Death can be described as sleep only if the dead will someday awake! Death is not literal sleep, of course, but it is sleep in this most important way: it is a state from which a person will someday awake.
My mother died last October 1st, just two weeks after her 89th birthday. Indeed, her birthday, September 16th, was the last Sunday she was in church. Many of you will remember that for more than twelve years, after moving to Tacoma from St. Louis, she sat in that front pew morning and evening on the Lord’s Day. She was small and otherwise hard to spot, but her snow white head of hair made her easier to see from a distance.
But the years took their toll as they will, and over the last several years she gradually lost her memory and, as eating became increasingly difficult, she grew increasingly frail and eventually, as must happen, her strength deserted her. She rallied on that last Saturday night and we enjoyed our last real conversation with her as we stood or sat around her bed, though we did not know then that it would be our last. Finally her breathing stopped mid-morning on that Monday in early October. We knew it was coming and there was certainly nothing unusual about the end of her life. That progress from life to death, from labored breathing to stillness and silence, happens thousands upon thousands of times every day all around the world. I have stood at a number of deathbeds during my life, heard the death rattle and then the silence.
After she died, she lay in bed for an hour or more. A final kiss, a final loving touch, but the body was already cold, the skin pale, the jaw slack. Her faithful caregiver, with the assistance of the Hospice nurse, who had arrived shortly after mother died, dressed her for burial and readied her body to leave the condominium that had been her happy home for those twelve years and more.
My father died more than twenty years ago in St. Louis and, a veteran of two wars, was buried at the Jefferson Barrack’s National Cemetery there. So, after her funeral here, mother was taken to St. Louis where a good number of her family and old St. Louis friends gathered for a graveside service at the National Cemetery. Because she was to be buried with my father in the same grave, a grave that was dug years ago and so was not where the new graves were being opened, we were able to gather around the recently re-opened grave and watch her burial, something that is often not possible at national cemeteries.
Her casket was placed in a vault that rested atop my father’s, the heavy concrete lid was closed, a miniature dump truck filled the hole with dirt, and the workers spread the dirt around and tamped it down with a powerful machine. More dirt was added until it was even with the surface of the ground; the workers raked it, spread grass seed on top and covered it with a pre-fabricated wire and straw mat, fit to the size of the grave. Then the crew left, leaving us standing around her grave. After singing a hymn, we began to scatter, some of us to visit my sister’s grave in the same cemetery. And there my mother lies, next to her husband and not far from her daughter, and there she will lie, for how long no one knows.
Again, this is familiar territory. In my case my brother-in-law, my father, and one of my sisters had died before my mother, though they were carried away by disease rather than old age. Parishioners of this single church have died by the score through the years of my ministry here. I can summon up their faces one by one, however long ago it was that they left us. And no doubt most all of you have similar memories; similar stories of death and burial to tell. One way or another, this experience awaits us all and this end awaits us all. For some it comes early; for many more it comes in old age. But the truth is the same for everyone.
Art is long, and time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
And so it had been for Jesus himself. After thirty years or more of the most consequential life, he was dead that Friday afternoon. The Romans knew their business. People in those days knew death better than most of us do today.
But now let’s think about this. What are your options in thinking about death? Or, put it this way: what do you hope to be true about death? What is going to happen to my mother, or has everything happened already except the slow, inevitable decomposition of her body in the grave? What is the meaning of death? What, if anything, happens to a person when he or she dies? Is there something on the other side? It is a vital question because we are all going to die. You are and I am. Perhaps only in the Christian church will you be so often reminded of this fact. But you may be surprised to learn that the answers given to those questions are as many and varied as they are. We live in a time when it is common to hear that all religions are versions of the same message, that they all lead to God, as it were. But, of course, that isn’t true at all.
Buddhism doesn’t lead anyone to God because it doesn’t believe that there is a God, a personal being who made the world and who cares about human beings. Islam doesn’t lead anyone to God — in some respects it would offend a Muslim if you suggested that his religion did that — because the God of Islam remains and must remain far removed, hidden, an utter mystery, and no one, even the very best and most faithful Muslim, can know what God will do with him or her at the end of the day. Hinduism doesn’t lead to God in any meaningful sense. What it promises its practitioners is extinction after many incarnations.
What various religions offer in the way of life after death are wildly different and contradictory futures. Both Hinduism and Buddhism believe that there is an afterlife. But it is nothing to look forward to. In Hinduism your spirit is reincarnated in another — animal or human — and you begin in that new existence to pay for the bad things you did in your previous life: a version of hell, but in cycles. Buddhism prefers the term “rebirth” to reincarnation, but another consciousness is still saddled with your moral indebtedness and must pay for it. Karma has the last word in both religions — the individual is subject to a cosmic principle of tit for tat — unless you are fortunate enough, after many lives, to find that the good you have done outweighs the bad, in which case you enter Nirvana, which is not heaven, but the end of consciousness. “There is no eternal life and, if there were, there would be no you to enjoy it.”
Islam, dependent for its origins upon Judaism and Christianity as it is, seems at first glance more positive. There is real, human life after death. Allah will weigh each person’s life in the scales. Those who followed Allah and Muhammad will cross a narrow bridge to Paradise; the rest will suffer punishment in hell. But the Paradise of Islam is very macho.
“There is not much for the women. Men will recline on soft couches and rich carpets quaffing cups of drink handed them by huris, or maidens of Paradise.”
Really? But, however faithful you are as a Muslim, you cannot be confident of Paradise. “Feeling safe from the wrath of Allah” is one of the seventeen major sins in Islam. Who knows what Allah will do with you? It is interesting that this note of uncertainty, fundamental to Islam, has been completely overlooked by the jihadists of recent days who promise Paradise to suicide bombers. Islam doesn’t provide that certainty to anyone! [The above from Michael Green, But Don’t All Religions Lead to God? 22, 54-56]
In our country in recent days, atheists have begun to trumpet the advantages of their viewpoint. No life after death, of course. When you die, that’s it. The story of your life has been written, whatever that story may have been. But, they are quick to point out that there is no danger of punishment. Extinction is certainly better than hell, they remind you. That sounds to me a bit like wishful thinking; whistling in the dark. But let them speak.
In a recent piece in the New York Times an atheist journalist mourned the fact that people seem to have the idea that atheists have nothing to say in the face of tragedy and death. Actually, she said, atheism has a great advantage in such situations because
“When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.”
Well, the fact is, only Christians have to answer that question, not all people of so-called faith. That is because only Christians worship a God who is both all-powerful and all-loving an, moreover, has invited mankind to know his nature. Only Christians have to wonder why such terrible things happen when God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that those who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Buddhism and Hinduism have no such God. Islam is not troubled by tragedy because the will of God must remain inscrutable; God will do what he will. Only the Christian God allows his children to cry aloud to him in confusion and grief, precisely because of what they know about him: what they know to be true of his nature and his character, his mercy, his love, his justice, his goodness. But, then, how much of an advantage is it really to believe that you don’t have to explain tragedy. Really, how can anything be tragic if we are only talking about the natural cycle of life and death, of existence and extinction, and of a universe empty of anyone who cares about our lives? The atheist answer to tragedy is to deny that there is such a thing as tragedy. Stuff happens. It doesn’t mean anything. Get over it. Tragedy can only exist in a world where we are convinced certain things should not be!
At the grave, this atheist went on to say, we can say that the dead do not suffer. [Susan Jacoby, “The Blessings of Atheism,” New York Times Sunday Review, Jan. 5, 2013]
But no one should be much surprised that it is cold comfort to be able to say in the face of death nothing more than that it is all over. Not only does it provide no answer or balm to our broken hearts, not only does it utterly fail to satisfy our craving for life or assuage our fear of death, it does not provide a foundation for the cherishing of life, our own or the life of others.
Albert Camus, that profoundly depressing French existentialist of the mid-20th century, once wrote that death is philosophy’s only problem. He meant that you cannot establish a universal, meaningful philosophy of life if you have no answer to the fact of death. To be sure, there are many things about your life in this world that are important to you, many things about the lives of your loved ones, your country, and your world. But no meaningful explanation of human life can be given, no justification for the importance you attach to life, if you do not know what it means to die or what death will bring and particularly if you believe it will bring nothing. What happens to me when I die is the ultimate question; the main thing a human being has to know. This was Camus’ point. And, he meant, if death is the end of everything, if it’s just black extinction, then life has no particular meaning. You’ll have to invent one. That’s what existentialists were all about; thinking up a meaning for human existence.
If death, as the American atheist imagines, is simply extinction — you as an individual cease to exist, your soul is your body and your body simply rots — then pray tell what difference does it make how you live your life in this world? If we are simply organisms that come and go, what does it mean to speak of a meaningful or an important life, of right or wrong, of good or evil? What is the difference really between a mass murderer and a selfless servant of others once they dies? Atheists resent this accusation, but the fact is, not a one of them, throughout human history has been able to justify meaning or morality as real things and not simply personal preferences. What is more, American atheists tend to be passionate about their opinions, their political causes, and their social theories and programs. But if all of that is simply the cogitation of a temporary and evanescent organism, soon to be no more, why should we pay any attention to them and, more to the point, why should we prefer their ideas to those of Muslim jihadists or evangelical Christians? These unanswerable questions explain why there have always been comparatively few atheists.
If death is the end, it is not only the distant future that is lost to us, but the past and the present as well. Simply put, the reason atheism has never beenattractive to most people is that they instinctively realize that it would require them to abandon virtually everything they believe about their lives and about human life in general. They have realized by intuition that without God and without a future, life loses not only hope, but meaning and value.Your grief at the death of a loved one, if there is no God, is simply a biological reflex. Your anger at some injustice is as well. There is no one to arbitrate between right and wrong because right and wrong are nothing but words, they are not real things; they are opinions, not realities. You feel betrayed by someone? What is that? Short-lived animals cannot betray anyone. Betrayal suggests morality, meaning, value, judgment, none of which exists or can exist without God and without a future that transcends death.
It is newsworthy that the new and growing portion of the American population is what is being called the “nones.” “Nones” are people who tell survey takers and census workers that they have no religion. They check “None” as their answer to the question asking for their religious affiliation. But, surprisingly, very few of even the “nones” are atheists. The vast majority of them say they firmly believe in the existence of God. Why? Because they can’t help themselves as human beings. Without God their life would disappear as meaningful existence. They would have come from nothing and would be going to nothing. We know, we all know, that human beings are more, much, much more than carbon-based life forms.
But, what if a person can live again? What if my mother, on some future day, finds herself awake, her body healthy, strong, and beautiful again? What if she stands up there in St. Louis and finds her husband standing next to her with a great smile on his face. What if they embrace in joyful welcome? What if they run to find my sister and discover that they and great multitudes of others have entered a new and everlasting life as human beings? Not as some other creature; not as a principle or an idea; but as the very same human beings they once were, with the very same past, but now remade in moral and physical perfection? What if every human being actually has the possibility set before him or her to live as a human being in perfect happiness forever on the other side of death? What if there really is eternal life?
Is that wishful thinking? Is that pie in the sky? Many have thought so. But the fact is nobody at the time was expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. No one in Judaism at that time had any expectation that the Messiah would die for the sins of the world and then rise from the dead to bring eternal life to those who trust in him. No one in the Greco-Roman world had any idea of resurrection — of the continued existence of the self-same body that we have in this world. That was not an idea current in the religious or philosophical thinking of the Roman world.
No one has found a reason for the sudden appearance of this joyful message in the first century apart from the fact that something had happened that had brought the message of resurrection, of eventual, physical, human life in the world to come to the forefront of the world’s attention. What had happened was that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified on that fateful Friday, was alive again the following Sunday and a great many people saw him. The Christian faith is not an account of ideas; it is the proclamation of events that happened in the world, when first Augustus and then Tiberius was emperor of Rome, when first Quirinius and then Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Palestine.
An utterly unlikely message suddenly captivated the world, a message spread in the first place, by people whose own lives had been radically and unexpectedly transformed by the simple fact that, in defiance of all their expectations, they had encountered the self-same Jesus after his death, not only alive again, but brimming with life beyond what they had seen or known before. No one was waiting for this message, no one among the Jews or the Gentiles; it wasn’t even congenial to their religious and cultural tastes. What changed everything was the fact, the event, the resurrection of Jesus. As Paul reminds us, when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians, from which we read this morning, most of the people who had seen the Lord after his resurrection were still alive. It was the accumulated weight of so much eye-witness testimony that rendered the resurrection a fact of history and placed it beyond dispute in the minds of so many.
Afraid of death as we are; unwelcome as it must be, wouldn’t anyone and everyone welcome this news — of life, perfect human life, your very own life, the continuation of this life forever after the grave — I say wouldn’t everyone welcome this news? Wouldn’t everyone rejoice to know that resurrection is absolutely to be expected in the future because it has already occurred and the one who rose from the dead did it for us? As Jesus had told his disciples, “Because I live, you shall live also.”
But, even if they can’t explain the origin of this message or all the other impressive historical evidence for the fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, many still imagine that it must be pie in the sky. It must be simply the projection of human hopes and dreams; it must be wishful thinking. Perhaps they long for it to be true but don’t dare to believe it.
But, it is not wishful thinking. It would be wishful thinking only if the resurrection were not accompanied by other truth no human being would ever invent for himself or herself. Most people who hear the Christian message do not refuse to believe because they have examined the evidence and are persuaded that the resurrection did not occur. People who make a careful study of such things, have, through the ages, tended to end up Christians.
No, the reason for their skepticism lies elsewhere. They understand that Christ is not only offering eternal life, he is demanding submission and loyalty as is his right as the King of Kings and the Savior of the world. They realize at once that to embrace this message is to accept many truths that seem to them very unwelcome.
- The Christian faith teaches me that I am sinner, seriously and comprehensively selfish, and that I have broken all of God’s commandments with abandon and with little or no regret. So much am I a sinner that nothing short of the ignominious death of the Son of God on the cross would be sufficient to pay the debt of my sins. If to reach the hope of resurrection I must first accept that gloomy assessment of my life, if to rise as Jesus rose requires me to repent of my sins and to humble myself before God and man, strange to say a great many will decline the offer. Pride is deeply fixed in the human heart. A rosy view of oneself is for many, alas, too precious to give up.
- What is more, the Christian message is that only in Christ can men and women find new life on the other side of death. We cannot leap over that chasm ourselves; we must be carried. Our lives depend upon him: his grace, his work, his promise, his power, his presence. That is a further blow to our pride. Many who, all things considered, would be attracted to the promise of eternal life, of resurrection from the dead, lose interest when they learn that for that life, for that resurrection they must beg for another’s help.
- The Christian faith also teaches me that the Lord saved men and women not simply to deliver them to their own pleasures but to restore their lives to moral goodness, goodness as God their Maker defines goodness. To accept the offer of eternal and perfect human life means that I must embrace the commandments of God and strive to keep every one. But for many, the more distant hope of everlasting life is not enough to persuade them to forsake their favorite pleasures and their plan for the enjoyment of life. They would rather live for themselves than for God. God seems distant to them; pleasures of all kinds are near. The Christians they know may tell them that living according to God’s will will prove far more satisfying than living for the pleasures of the moment, but they are not persuaded. They would like to live forever, of course, but pleasures today are hard to give up for still greater pleasures in some distant future.
You see, the Christian faith is not pie in the sky. Far from it. It requires hard things of those who embrace it, so hard that many turn away. As G.K. Chesterton famously remarked, “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting. It’s been found difficult and not tried.” The faith of Jesus Christ does not offer simple solutions to life’s problems. It requires, above all, humility before God and man and submission to the rule of Jesus Christ. That is why so many will not believe even though what is offered is the longing of every human heart: life, life worthy to be called life, life forever, the kind of life we have been glimpses of in this world but only glimpses. And so many live at a venture, hoping against hope I guess that somehow everything will turn out alright in the end. Consoling themselves that they must be alright because so many others they know are doing the same thing. Now that is wishful thinking!
But here is the rub. You are going to die. It can’t be helped. Like my mother, the breath will stop one of these days; probably sooner than you think. You can’t put that off. You can’t avoid it by thinking that it won’t happen. You can’t prevent it, try as you might. As the great Augustine wrote so many centuries ago, “Life is a race to the grave.”
And what then? No, don’t risk something as precious as your life! There is an absolutely marvelous, luminous, breathtaking future awaiting multitudes of human beings who have understood that since Jesus rose from the dead, they can too. Not a venture; not wishful thinking: cold, hard fact, but the happiest fact, the most consoling fact that there is. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Believe in Jesus Christ and await that happy day!