The Apostle Paul tackles a sticky subject today. It appears that the church at Corinth had serious questions as to what the resurrected body would be like. "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" As we realize that this was new theology-- nobody had risen from the dead before or since Jesus-- and, in fact, the Jewish religion considered dead bodies unclean, the questions seem logical. But Paul is not so understanding. He calls them fools for asking this question.
Today, I want us to look at our views of death and resurrection. Death is not a subject that our society seems to want to consider. We have euphemisms for the word. She didn't die, she “passed away”, he “departed this world”, she “slipped away,” or he “lost his battle”. Less polite, they “kicked the bucket” or “gave up the ghost.” We seek to soften the harsh truth of death. Another way to soften the idea of death is to make jokes about it. And you know I'm not above doing that.
We laugh, we use euphemisms, we avoid the subject... but the truth is, we will each die. We are all part of the ultimate statistic – ten out of ten die. And nobody is arguing that in Corinth. But what they want to know is what happens after death. I like the translation of Eugene Peterson in The Message. “If you look at this question closely, you realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing.” Paul began by calling them fools and now he says this question is absurd. Paul wasn't always the most diplomatic in his dealing with his churches. But he was adamant in his defense of the truth of the resurrection... and of Christ's victory over death.
A few verses earlier, Paul introduced the questions of the meaning of death, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Jesus defeated the power of death but as long as we remain in the body, death remains a part of life. And so we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, do well to consider our own mortality. We should consider the journey that we all will take and especially how it affects how we are living today.
I ran across a quote from an old Judy Holmes sermon... ten years ago because she referenced Ariel's fifth birthday. Here's what she said, “We have an unknown quantity of days on earth; yet we often behave as if our days are infinite. We huff and puff about inconsequential things. We get stuck in the daily mud and forget to look up.” If nothing else, when we consider life after death, we should be reminded to make the most of our time on earth; to look up and see God's hand in our lives. As Christians, we believe that eternity begins when our relationship to Jesus Christ begins. So we are not living only for the sweet by and by. We live each day with an awareness of and a desire to follow our Lord; not some day in heaven, but today, here on earth. Live this gift of life you've been given by God.
Here's an anonymous poem I want to share:
There was a very cautious man,
Who never laughed or played.
He never risked, he never tried,
He never sang or prayed.
And when one day he passed away
His insurance was denied.
For since he never really lived,
he never really died.
That is nonsensical, of course. But it does point out that life is meant to be lived, not simply lived out. But as we've said, dying is a part of living, and to live well, a person should be prepared for death. From a Truman poem, “a people who does not know how to die, will not know how to live either.” The people of Corinth wanted to prepare for dying, but they were asking the wrong questions. The right question is not “how doe the resurrection work?” It should be “how do we become part of the resurrected people?” And that means knowing the one who has the power to overcome death's curse. And that of course is Jesus.
But Paul did give an illustration to help the Corinthians understand death and resurrection; he used a seed. From The Message “We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different.“ We don't know what life after death will look like. There has been no substantiated return from death since Lazarus and nobody interviewed him. Reports of near death experiences are largely hopeful, but not definitive. Death remains a mystery. Even Paul couldn't explain it fully, but by faith, we don't need the full story. One of the most helpful things I've read is a story sent to me by one of my sisters years ago. I bring it up from time to time as it brings me much comfort as I face death in hospice care and funerals.
A sick man turned to his doctor as he was preparing to leave the examining room. He said, “Dr., I am afraid to die. Tell me what lies on the other side.” The Dr. answered simply, “I don't know.”
“You don't know? You are a Christian man and you can't tell me what's on the other side?”
The Dr. was holding the handle of the door and from the other side came the sound of scratching and whining. The Dr. opened the door and a dog sprang into the room and leaped on the Dr. with an eager show of gladness. Turning to the patient again, the Dr. said, “Did you notice my dog? He'd never been in this room before. He didn't know what was inside. He knew nothing except that his master was here and when the door opened he sprang in without fear. I know little of what is on the other side of death. But I do know one thing...I know my master is there and that is enough.”
Jesus our master; our savior, our friend, is on the other side of death's door. We don't know the whole story of what heaven will be like, just that we can be there by grace through faith. Jesus too used seeds in talking about life after death, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus was speaking not only of our death's, of his own impending death. A death that, while tragic at the time, turned into our reason to have hope in the face of death. For the death of Jesus was not the end of the story. He was buried in the earth, like the grain of wheat. But the grave could not hold him. Like the wheat in the spring, he rose up and his resurrection bears much fruit. That fruit borne in the resurrection is why we believe that Jesus is waiting on the other side of death's door. And so these pictures of our resurrected bodies are a promise we can hold on to without knowing every detail.
Finally, another passage from Eugene Peterson, “This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body—but only if you keep in mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! The corpse that’s planted is no beauty, but when it’s raised, it’s glorious.” Paul tells us that our resurrected bodies will be glorious, powerful, eternal. Does this tell us all we want to know? No. What we need to know is that Jesus is the way. I think it is helpful to keep the picture of that dog and the Doctor in our minds-- we don't know what is on the other side, but Jesus is there and that is enough. As you contemplate death, contemplate Jesus walking with you through that valley, taking your hand, leading you home. That's what we need to know about death, Jesus is there, Jesus is with us. Amen.
Precious Lord, Take My Hand 404 PH