Not for This Life Only
Sunday, March 27, 2005
I Corinthians 15: 12-24
John 20: 1-18
decade after the first Easter, when the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the
Sometimes we suppose that people who lived thousands of years ago were more credulous than we are today...that somehow it was easier for them to believe in miracles and signs and wonders and resurrections than it is for us today. But this is not necessarily true. In fact, when it comes to death, those who lived in the time of Jesus were more aware of death and its reality and its finality than most of us are today. In those days, loved ones didn’t die in hospitals or care facilities. They died at home. It was not funeral directors but family and neighbors who anointed their bodies and prepared them for burial. Bodies lay in their own beds in their own homes until they were buried. Loved ones watched with their own eyes and felt with their own hands what happens to the human body after death. It was no easier for the people of Jesus’ time to believe in resurrection than it is for us today.
Only a few years after the first Easter, there were already Christians who loved Jesus and who loved Jesus deeply, but could not buy the notion of Jesus’ resurrection or theirs. This should be some consolation to us – 2000 years later – in this age of incredulity in which we live.
One of my seminary professors Leroy Rouner a couple of years ago edited a book of interfaith essays on the topic of life after death.[i] In his introduction to the book, he lets out the secret that if you were to poll theology professors from mainline Protestant seminaries on the question of life after death, he believes that the majority would find the idea to be intellectually difficult to accept.
I know that in a congregation as well read and as thoughtful and free-thinking as ours, that there are some of us here this morning who have difficulty believing in resurrection, especially our own resurrections and our life after this life. And the first thing I want to say this glorious Easter morning is that, if this is true for you, if you find the idea of your own resurrection intellectually difficult to believe, there is a place for you in God’s story and in God’s plan, because you have been part of the church of Jesus Christ since day one. You have served God and Christ faithfully throughout the centuries. You have given yourself to be martyred when the times have required it. You have served Christ with great faithfulness and sacrifice. And you need not be ashamed.
However, the word of the Apostle Paul to us this morning – those of us who have intellectual difficulty believing in our own resurrections – the word of the Apostle Paul is the word of sadness and pity for us, because we miss part of the joy of Christian discipleship. We let the limits of our imagination and understanding get in the way of receiving the full gift of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
tries to tell the Christians at
First, that our hope in Christ is too large to be limited to one lifetime. Our hope in Christ is too large to be contained in one lifetime.
like the strange man of faith Annie Dilliard had as a neighbor when she lived
on a remote island off the
We are like that – part of a great and seemingly impossible experiment to teach a divided humanity how to love, a violent humanity how to live in peace, a selfish humanity how to share. And no one of us in our lifetime will see more than a tiny glimpse of the hope that we live by or understand the full scope of what God is managing to do through us. So we baptize generation after generation. We teach them, as best we can, the hope that we have received in Christ. We confirm them in the faith, and trust them to live out this hope in their generation and place in ways that exceed our understanding and then to pass it on to the generations to come.
But the Apostle Paul insists that we are not just heroes and martyrs who sacrifice ourselves for a hope that we will never participate in. He insists that we are part of the glory yet to be. Our faith is not a celebration of faithfulness in the face of defeat, generation after generation, but a confident hope in the victory of love in which we will participate. Our faith is not the story of a righteous death, but the story of life and life more abundant and life eternal in which we share.
I don’t know the technology of it, and neither did the Apostle Paul, but he believed that God has not asked us to give ourselves for a reality in which we will not participate. When war is finally ended, we will participate in eternal peace. When hunger is finally ended, we will feast at the table where all humanity is fed until we are full. When racism and sexism and heterosexism and ability-ism and all the other isms we don’t even have a name for yet are finally ended, we will share in the new world of acceptance and love. When all of the religions of the world have finally come to realize that each one of us sees only in part and the whole of God is greater than any of our partial sight, we will share in that new life of full and true worship.
Those of us who have gone before us will share in a reality they have never imagined, and those of us who live now and who will soon die will share in a glory that is beyond our imagination now. We are not heroes and martyrs; we are victors with Christ in the love of God. And we participate in the world that is yet to be.
The second thing that the Apostle Paul says to those of us who in our time and age find it difficult to believe in our resurrection – the other thing he says is that the work of Christ in us is greater than our lifetimes.
God has begun a work in each and every one of us which is greater than one lifetime can contain, and death will not end its completion. When the theologian Jurgen Moltman was asked to speak on the topic “Is there life after death?” he concluded by saying: “I believe that God will complete the work which [God] began with a human life. If God is God, even violent death cannot stop God from doing so. So I believe that God’s history with our lives will go on after our deaths, until that completion has been reached in which a soul finds rest.”[iii]
This is what, even with my incredulous mind, I am sometimes almost able to grasp on my better days – that God has begun something in my heart and in my life which is not near completion yet. And it is so strong and powerful that, on my better days, I can grasp that even death will not stop it.
Sometimes congregations laugh when I say this, but this is why I am attracted to the idea of purgatory or reincarnation or something like it. Because I don’t believe that God will give up on me or on you, even after we have died. The most powerful thing in my life has been the growth of the love of Christ in me and I can’t help but believe that that is stronger than even death itself.
I believe there are men and women, even some I have known, who have died racist, but who aren’t racist anymore. I believe there are men and women, some of whom I have know, who have died addicted to greed, who aren’t greedy anymore. I believe that there are those who died hating themselves because the society taught them to hate themselves, who love themselves now. I don’t believe that the work of God in our life is ended by death until we have become like Christ and can rest in him.
think, either, that this is merely about you and me as individuals. I think
this is about us, as the
There is something heroic, I think, about those followers of Christ who, from the very beginning, have followed Christ even when they were unable to believe in their own resurrection. Even when they had no hope for themselves personally, they were still able to follow Christ.
But our faith does not call us to be that strong. Our faith does not call us to be heroes and martyrs. Our faith invites us to trust our lives, to give our lives to a God who will care for us for ever, a God in whom we will live even when we have died. The great hope is that our pride, our pride in our own intellectual grasping, our pride in our own need to figure things out and to make sense – the hope is that that pride will not keep us from receiving the joy and the good news of this Easter.