Two weeks ago I attended a seminar given by the Presbyterian Foundation which was meant to help clergy with their financial planning. It might not come as a shock to any of you, but ministers are not financial wizards. We tend to rely on our belief that God is in charge and let it go at that…. so, it is with great patience and love that the Foundation hopes to help us clergy and help God help us. Much like herding butterflies or cats, they try and get us to focus on numbers and other things for which our brains were not wired. The room was filled with people who either looked like deer in the headlights or who just smiled, holding on for dear life to that belief that God is in charge…..
In one of the first lectures, the leader came out with a line which he said should be everyone’s motto. It is, ‘I am not the exception.’ And as I meditated about it I thought it was a great one of which God’s children of all ages should live. We know that from birth and through our teen years we live as though the world revolves around us. We are not so much the exception as we are that from which the whole world is. After that, we tend to see our place in the world and we begin to take short glimpses at mortality, but we learn to live in the world of denial and chose to not think too much about it. As we age our family and friends begin to die and we finally must face death. Our grandparents, our parents, and then our siblings and friends. But, our childlike magical thinking which we thought we out grew, is just latent and under the surface, and it comes back to make things all better. Yes, people die, but not us… at least not until we are very very old and we are different than everyone else because we will be able to work forever, will be healthy in both body and mind, and will finally one glorious night after living a long and healthy life, after we gave reviewed our wills and estate planning, and after we have said we love you to all our loved ones and they have said it in return… well, we will just go to bed and not wake up. Perhaps it isn’t like this for everyone… we know that…..but, somehow it will be like this for us!
But this week I sat in the hospital with a my friend that I have had since kindergarten as she waited to be cleared by her insurance for a liver transplant that would save her life. It was a wild race to see if she would bleed out and die before the transplant happened. The insurance was finally cleared and she had the transplant Friday night and is now in an induced sleep for a few days. Her kidneys are not functioning and they are not sure if they will and we wait to see what her life will be like now. Just this week, she had not updated her will or other paperwork that would help her husband make end of life decisions for her. I hope she has made them now. She always assumed she would be the exception. But she isn’t nor are we. She is facing her mortality and will hopefully be given a chance to live a little longer through modern medical miracles. But, she knows very definitely now, that she is a mortal.
An article in the Atlantic last month talked about an app you can get for your phone called WeCroak that sends the blunt message “Don’t forget, you’re going to die” on your phone at random times five times a day. The idea behind the app comes from a famous Bhutanese folk saying that ‘to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily’. The founders of the app say it will ‘foster happiness’ and ‘cultivate mindfulness’.
The author of the Atlantic article says it is a bit odd, but it has given them courage to do things. Why be frightened of a public speaking engagement when you are going to die? Don’t hesitate to call a friend you have not spoken to for a while and tell them how important they are in your life. After all, you are going to die. Somehow reminding us of our mortality helps us appreciate how precious things are and how silly it is to waste our energy on small worries and complaints.
So… to start out my sermon, I want to make the bold revelation that none of us are the exception. We are all going to die. We should not block it from our living, nor let it control how we live. If anything, knowing we are mortal should help us to see the beauty and wonder in the years that we live. Until, we, at the end, die.
So, the passage I am going to read this morning from 1 Corinthians is not about life… but is about death. Most of the time is worship, we talk about living, how to live as a follower of Christ. But this morning, let’s focus on death. Is there a resurrection and what possibly could heaven be? Listen to the lectionary passage found in 1 Corinthians 15: 12-20 where Paul gives his argument on what happens to us after we die.
Now 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[a] in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.[b]
The people of Corinth to whom Paul wrote this epistle are much like you and me. They are not small town gullible types but worldly and great questioners about their faith. If one of the essential tenants of faith was the belief in resurrection, they were not true Christians. They knew when the physical body died, it rotted and was not something that we wanted to even be resurrected in at all. So some in Corinth doubted the resurrection, and Paul writes his argument for it, linking Christ’s resurrection to ours.
So what does Paul say here?
- If one believes that Christ was resurrected, one must also believe in a more general resurrection of the dead.
- Paul does not give a statement that God only resurrects Christian believers from the dead. Resurrection, being with God after death, is a universal human experience.
- Paul says that belief in resurrection is an affirmation to the whole life of Jesus. Jesus is not just a moral or ethical code to guide us, but the way to understand the paradoxes in faith such as ‘to save one’s life you must lose it.’ You see, only if we believe in resurrection does it make sense to stand with the poor, to seek justice, and to care for the opposed. If we don’t see the results of our actions, we should not concern ourselves with greater goods.
- Resurrection does not mean a resuscitation of a dead body. Paul is only concerned with our spiritual body. The word ‘Appeared’ in Greek that is used when Jesus appeared to Paul in his resurrected state is the word meaning a visionary experience. Bodily Jesus was not there but an apparition. This is important for us who live centuries after Jesus the man walked on earth. The risen Christ is just as available to you and me as he was to Paul. God does not abandon God’s creation. God’s love sees us through death.
Perhaps Paul’s argument still doesn’t help your unbelief. After all, Freud said that we have invented God out of our fears and needs and perhaps afterlife and heaven are a part of that need as well. But any of you who have seen a person transition from life to death knows that something happens. Yes, the body dies. Muscles relax and the body becomes just a shell that had once held the person you knew and loved. The other parts that made the person who they are are not there. The soul and the spirit are gone. I witnessed this time and time again as a hospice chaplain and I am certain Rosemary can attest to it in her ministry as well.
My good friend Jamee Decio who lives in LA as a writer, wrote me a long letter about being with her mother when she died. She said it was a peaceful death as her mom had already gone to sleep and most likely had fallen into a coma. And like some, her death did not happen quickly but first her breathing slowed, and then breathing came more sporadically until it finally stopped. Jamee had been sitting with her mother for those hours willing her to take her next breaths and she felt she was almost making them for her. And then the breathing stopped. And she wrote that at her mother’s last breath, a peace came over her as her muscles relaxed. And then she saw her mother’s spirit in the room. It hovered for a while before it left. Jamee says she has no doubt about what she saw. She had always wanted to believe in eternal life and the last gift her mother gave her was to show her that in death your spirit lives with God.
And, I guess that finally, like all things about our faith, it is our decision on whether or not we believe that the spirit lives on after death. It is a leap of faith that only makes sense to those who have made the leap. Perhaps you are not ready to make that leap? That’s O.K. But, once you accept that there is something after death, the resurrection of Jesus makes sense. Yes, those people witnessed the risen Christ. When we move beyond the rational and the scientific, it opens for us the possibility to witness the wonders and powers of God at work. When we can see with the eyes of faith, we see our lives differently. Our lives on earth are finite, but we live forever with God. Our lives as disciples and the call to ministries to which God points us take on greater significance. The power of the resurrection is the power to transform this life and to bring us to eternal life. Just as Paul said in his argument, the reality of one assumes the reality of the other. And I believe it to be true. Amen.