A sermon on Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, 51-58, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
If it all seems a bit unbelievable, that’s alright. The message of Easter – the news that Jesus had beaten death and walked out of the tomb – struck the people who had known Jesus and traveled with him for years as unbelievable as well. They had even heard him announce on several occasions that he was going to be crucified, buried, and raised to life again and still, when the women returned from the empty tomb to report that two angels had appeared to them and said “He’s not in there anymore – he’s on the loose in the world again,” the eleven dismissed it as “an idle tale” and for the most part returned to their moping (Luke 24:11). They had seen what had happened to him – granted, from a safe distance. First the thugs employed by the chief priests and then the thugs serving in the Roman peacekeeping force had made a complete mess of him. Then they nailed him up on a pair of planks between two other unfortunates and that was that. Game over. No bonus round.
It was difficult for the eleven to question what seemed, based on all observable evidence not only from that week but throughout their whole lives, to be the basic fact of life: death is the end. Alright, so maybe Jesus gave a few people a “bonus round,” like that widow’s son in the village of Nain, or that daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, or Jesus’ own friend Lazarus, which was all pretty impressive, but all of them were just going to die again anyway. Jesus could sneak a little extra time from Death for some people, but there’s no beating Death in the end.
It wasn’t long at all, however, before the disciples were confronted personally with the Risen Christ. He didn’t quite look like himself – at least, a pair of disciples didn’t recognize him as they walked for perhaps seven miles together from Jerusalem to Emmaus, until he broke bread at a table with them. In John’s Gospel we find Mary Magdalene by the empty tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, until Jesus calls her by name. When he showed up in the midst of the eleven and their companions (and in John’s Gospel he just shows up among them in the middle of a locked room), the disciples weren’t sure if he was real or a ghost, until he told them to poke him and give him some food. It took a while for it all to sink in, because it was just so hard to believe, after seeing the triumph of Death all around them for all their lives, that they knew someone who really had defeated Death, who now lived a life, in a body, over which Death had no more power. They still took another fifty days to process all this before they started preaching – and living – the implications of it all.
The Apostle Paul, who also had the benefit of getting turned around by an encounter with the risen, glorified Christ, knew a great deal about living the implications of it all. Indeed, if he was going to prove faithful to God’s commission to him to proclaim Jesus as the risen Lord he would have to be willing to live the implications of following a resurrected Lord, which simply meant living now as if he was going to live forever.
Now, I’ve typically heard the expression “living like you’re going to live forever” applied to people doing stupid things, like taking unnecessary risks for the thrill of it, or putting a great deal of energy into work while allowing relationships with spouses or children to pass one by or to suffer for lack of investment, or just plain wasting precious time that one will never get back – but some day will desperately wish one could get back. Living mindful of the fact that we will indeed, one day, die can be a path to living wisely during the span of this mortal life. It can help us reflect on how to make the most of any given day in terms of pursuing what gives greatest value to our lives rather than allowing ourselves just to “kill” time, which is a kind of prolonged suicide. It can help us prioritize wisely, which usually means prioritizing people. (I wouldn’t take back a single hour that I spent playing with our boys, for example.) It can even help us stop investing ourselves in conflicts and concerns over the “little things” because we know that pouring any more of our limited time into such matters is just sending good money after bad.
More often, however, it seems that living mindful of the fact that we will indeed, one day, die leaves us vulnerable to living in a selfish and, sometimes, even cowardly manner. We find ourselves thinking more of what we are getting out of life, and making sure that we get what we want out of life, even if that means giving up on a spouse who no longer makes us happy; even if that means spending 97% of our after-tax income on preserving the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed; even if that means getting behind public policies that hurt other people but are alright because they protect our interests. We are no longer motivated by virtue. The good of the other, whom we are to love as we love ourselves, is no longer the primary guiding value. Instead, we are seduced into an ethic of satisfying our own desires to the point that we are willing not only to withhold help from, but to cause harm to others to do it. This is how Death makes us its slaves. This is how Death asserts its control, its power over us. This is precisely that from which Jesus died and rose again to free us.
If we are going to follow Jesus all the way, we need to discover an Easter faith. We need to understand that Death is not the wall into which we slam at the end of our lives; Death is not a mirror that should keep us looking only to this life and looking out to get all we can out of this life. Death is a door – one that Jesus has knocked off its hinges. We need to hear Jesus this morning, standing outside his tomb with the round stone rolled back again, saying: “I died, and look! I’m alive now for all ages to come – and I hold the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). Only if we hear him say this and trust him, that he can and will unlock our tombs, will we be able to follow him when obedience, when gratitude, becomes costly. Only then will we trust him enough to give away our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel, believing his word that it is only such people who will ultimately make their lives secure.
Paul understood all of this very well. What we do not see in Paul is an attempt to have things both ways – a secure, comfortable life now and just enough of Jesus to have some insurance in case there’s something after death. What we see instead is a complete re-ordering of life with a view to fulfilling the call that Paul understood God to have placed on his life – to announce God’s Son throughout the nations that made up the Roman Empire (Gal 1:15-16). He took up an essentially itinerant life, a hard trade that required, however, only a few tools that could easily be carried as he moved from city to city, and hostility from everyone who felt threatened or betrayed by his proclamation of a crucified blasphemer as the Messiah of Israel, who loved Gentiles every bit as much as Jews, and would soon return to upset the entire Roman order.
Paul provides this summary of the downside of his life as a missionary and church planter:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:25-28, NRSV)
And all of that happened to him before the really bad stuff – his four years of imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome and his eventual execution under Nero. He can rightly say: “If we’ve hoped in Christ only for this life, we’re of all people the most wretched” (1 Cor 15:19). If there’s no resurrection from the dead for me, why have I been doing all this? As Paul says just a few breaths later,
“Why do we put ourselves in harm’s way every hour? It’s like I’m dying out there every day! If I faced down people in Ephesus who were like wild animals, what did I gain from it? If the dead aren’t raised” – if this life is all there is – “then let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:30-32).
I wonder to what extent we spend our lives hedging our bets. To what extent do we insulate ourselves from the possibility of ending up like Paul – the loser both here and hereafter because we failed to get all we could out of this life in the hope that Easter faith was real, perhaps to find out in the end that it wasn’t real. This is, however, precisely the posture against which Jesus warned: “those who seek to make their lives secure will lose them; those who spend their lives for my sake and for the sake of the good news will secure them” (Matt 16:25).
Paul understood that one had to go “all in,” to live now like people who were assured of living forever, and not hedge one’s bets. Pastor Stephen Abur of Darfur, Sudan, understood this as well. He continued his work of preaching Christ in open-air evangelism and building up a congregation of believers there despite having received multiple death threats from Muslim zealots, enraged that former Muslims were embracing Christianity. Enough Sudanese Christian leaders had turned up dead for Stephen and his family to treat the threats as credible, yet they persisted in their witness and in their work. In the still-dark hours of the morning of March 2, 2018, Stephen, his wife, and their two daughters were found butchered (the reports say “like livestock”) in their house, after their attackers had set fire to the church building in which over a hundred converts, who had been disowned by their own families, were living.
Theirs was an Easter faith. They continued to live as people who would live forever, for whom Death might hold some apprehension, but not fear, such as might cow them into silencing their obedient witness to the Lord who loved them and gave himself for them. And as I hear more and more such stories of our sisters and brothers around the globe, I think, more and more, that our best response is not: “Well, I’m certainly glad that we live here where that sort of thing doesn’t happen” or “Thank God we don’t have to face anything like that.” I don’t think anymore that God calls for that degree of Easter faith from one family or person and calls for much less Easter faith from another family or person. No, I have begun to hear this: “If they faced death with that kind of an Easter faith, how should we live life with an Easter faith to match?”
If they were willing to give their all on this side of death to continue the witness and work of Christ, sure that their Lord held the keys and would unlock death for them, and putting their all into advancing their Lord’s interests in Darfur, what would it look like for us to give our all on this side of death to advance our Lord’s interests both here and throughout the world? Should I feel lucky that my faith journey doesn’t require such sacrifice as is required of others, and go back to enjoying my normal American life with all of its trappings? Or should I start reorganizing my normal American life more radically so that, maybe, my living will bear the same kind of witness to an Easter faith as the Abur family bore in their dying? The essential question that Easter places before us is this: will we go on living for the sake of the enjoyment of this life, witnessing to the power of death, or will we live like people who are going to live forever, proclaiming by our selfless actions and courageous witness, “Death, where is your sting? Death, where is your victory?” (1 Cor 15:54b).
The “good news” of Easter is not merely that Jesus’ story has a happy ending. It’s the assurance that Jesus’ resurrection is the first of many: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits from among those that sleep” (1 Cor 15:20). Where there are “first fruits,” the full harvest is not far behind. Christ’s resurrection turned the tomb into a womb. It may swell now as its burden grows with each new death, but at the time of deliverance new life will burst forth as the dead are brought forth by God to live anew (Rev 20:13). The chief point of 1 Corinthians 15 is that you can’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus without also believing in your own. And when you truly believe in your own resurrection, you will be free to give yourselves away for the good of others like people who have an endless supply of life – for you know that you really are going to live forever.