Monday 15 February 2016

An Affinity for Eternity: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

You can listen to this sermon here:

John 11.14-29

Ecclesiastes 1.1-11  

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth Act 5, scene 5

So says Shakespeare’s Macbeth
          after hearing the news that his wife has died.
And in his despair he strikes right at the heart
          of some of the fundamental questions of life:
                   What does it count for?
                             What is it good for?
                   What, if anything, is its value?
                             Is it all just destined for destruction?
                   Where do we go, if anywhere, when we die?
                             What does resurrection mean anyway?
                   And what, when it comes down to it, is the meaning of life?

Douglas Adams once suggested that the answer
          to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, might be ‘42’;
          but as one who is now 43, I’m not quite sure that nailed it,
          which is almost certainly his point.

But is it really the case, as the teacher of Ecclesiastes puts it,
          that all is ‘meaningless, utterly meaningless’? (Ecc. 12.8)

Was Thomas Hobbs right in his famous description of life
          as ‘nasty, brutish and short’?
Or was he overstating it a bit, philosophically speaking?

Well, here we are, at the beginning of Lent,
          starting our annual journey towards the cross;
setting our faces towards Jerusalem and all that lies waiting there for us…

Now I don’t know about you,
          but this all seems to me to have come upon us rather quickly this year.
I mean, I know that the vagaries of the liturgical calendar
          play seasonal havoc with the dating of Easter,
          and that our Orthodox cousins have a bit more time than we do,
but in our tradition, the gap this year
          between Christmas and Easter seems very short.

The span between Jesus’ birth and his death seems impossibly brief,
          and not only because the Easter Eggs and fluffy bunnies
          were in the shops before the New Year sales were finished,
but because life itself can seem impossibly short.

I already have a growing list of books
          that I’m never going to get round to reading,
and an even longer list of those I’m not going to get to read twice…

And so, I ask again,
          is this really all there is?
An hour upon the stage, and then the curtain call of eternity?

Or is there more to life?

Well I take some comfort from the fact
          that I’m not the first person to ask this…

Others, far more profound than I,
          have wrestled with the meaning of existence as well;
and as we arrive at this point in our sermon series
          on the ‘I am’ sayings from John’s gospel
we find ourselves confronted with Jesus’ own engagement
          with the meaning of life and eternity.

‘I am the resurrection and the life’,
          says Jesus to Martha, in the face of her brother’s untimely death.

And in saying this, he is speaking not only into her own grief,
          but also into a wider philosophical debate
          around the meaning of life in the face of death.

It can seem strange for us,
          because we’re so used to taking it as a given,
but the Jews at the time of Jesus
          were far from unanimous in their beliefs about the afterlife.

Many very religious Jews would have been entirely convinced
          that there was no such thing as an afterlife,
          let alone a future resurrection.

And for those of us who are accustomed to the Christian tradition,
          where we’re often told that the main reason for believing in Jesus
          is so that we get to go to heaven when we die,
the idea of a belief in God that is divorced from a belief in the afterlife
          can come as something of a shock.

But actually, the idea of a future resurrection,
          of some kind of life beyond death,
only enters the Jewish scriptural tradition
          really quite late in the day.

It’s only in those Jewish books
          written in the couple of hundred years or so before the time of Jesus
that we start to find the development
          of the concept of post-mortem immortality.

So, for example, the book of Daniel, written in the second century BC,
          includes the claim that
          ‘Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,
          some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’
                   (Daniel 12:2)
And this provides us with the only clear statement of belief
          in the resurrection of the dead
          in the entire Old Testament.

In fact, the evidence from earlier texts that Daniel
          is that the idea of resurrection is rejected entirely.

For example, the book Job specifically states that
          “mortals lie down and do not rise again.” (14.12)
while a few other places use the language of resurrection metaphorically,
          as an image for the restoration of the nation of Israel,
as we find for example in Ezekiel’s vision
          of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezek 37).[1]

So the reference to everlasting life in the book of Daniel
          is something of an anomaly,
and in its context it is probably best heard
          not as a prediction of life beyond death for the righteous
but rather as a quality of life achieved by the wise
          that endures into eternity.

It’s only really when we get to the Jewish texts
          that come from what’s known as the inter-testamental period;
          the 150 years or so between the finishing off of the Old Testament
                   and the birth of Jesus,
          that we start to get a more developed belief
                   in future resurrection and judgment.

So, for example, there’s a fascinating but little-read book
          known as 1 Enoch,
which goes into some considerable detail about how the spirits of the dead
          are kept in different chambers as they await the day of judgment (1 Enoch 22);
and the book known as ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’,
          actually written much, much later than the time of Solomon himself,
has a view of existence beyond death
          that involves immortal spirits but not resurrected bodies (chs. 2-5).

However, many Jews at the time of Jesus
          held to the older belief that there is no meaningful existence beyond death,
          only, at best, a shadowy existence known as ‘Sheol’
          (cf. Sirach 17.27-28; 30.17; 41.4).

In the New Testament we get something of a glimpse of this uncertainty,
          with Mark telling us that the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection,
          came to question Jesus about it (12.18-27)

You know the old joke?
          The Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection,
          and that’s why they’re sad, you see?

The point, though, is that we need to know something of all this background
          if we’re going to hear Jesus correctly
          when he does speak about resurrection.

Those of us who come from the twenty first century
          are the heirs to a lot of theology, and indeed medieval mythology,
          that comes from our tradition and informs the way we understand things,
but which would have been entirely alien
          to both Jesus and his contemporaries.

So, for example, when Jesus answers the Sadducees,
          escaping their logical trap
                    about to whom a woman, betrothed to seven brothers in turn,
                   would be married to in the afterlife,
          he speaks of God’s commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
                    as something that transcends death.
          But he tells them they’re quite wrong if they think of eternity
                   as some kind of place where people carry on living
                   much as they do in this world.

It’s only really in the decades and centuries following Jesus,
          as Christians reflected on the stories of his resurrection,
that any kind of comprehensive belief in the future resurrection for individuals
          started to emerge as a consistent strand of belief,
and, as with the language we met in the book of Daniel
          is usually tied to the idea of judgment
where the wrongs of this present age are righted,
          and the wicked get their just desserts
          while the righteous get their pie in the sky by and by.

And so we come to Jesus’ astonishing statement to Martha,
          uttered in the face of the death of a beloved friend and brother,
          that in him is ‘the resurrection and the life’.

A Sadducee would have said that Lazarus is dead, gone,
          and to be mourned and remembered before God.
A Pharisee would have said that he had gone to be with God,
          to meet either mercy or judgment.

Jesus says neither.

What he offers, instead, is a radical revisioning
          of human existence in the face of eternity.

Resurrection, the way Jesus embodies it,
          isn’t something that happens ‘at the last day’, as Martha puts it.

This is no vision of some future point in temporal history,
          when the graves will be opened and the dead climb out,
          to roam a re-created earth.

Resurrection in Christ isn’t the Zombie Apocalypse.

Do you know Sir Stanley Spencer’s wonderful painting
          from the period just after the first world war,
of Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard?

Sir Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham 1924–7

Spencer believed that the divine rested in all creation,
          and he saw his home town of Cookham as a paradise
          in which everything was invested with mystical significance.

So in this painting, he makes the local churchyard
          the setting for the resurrection of the dead.

At the top left, risen souls are transported to Heaven
          in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed the Thames.

And in fact, all the bodies rising from their graves
          are contemporaries of Stanley,
                   all very much alive at the time he painted them,
                   and intended to be so.
They are his friends, and they are helping him 'resurrect'
          into a new world of enlightenment he is exploring within himself.

We could spend a long time on this painting,[2]
          but the point Spencer is making is fairly clear:
for him, resurrection isn’t about the future,
          it’s about the present, as people move from death to life,
          as they wake up to a fullness of life
          that transcends the hell of the trenches of the great war.

And so we’re back to Jesus,
          using the language of resurrection in the face of a terrible death,
offering a vision of life that transcends the power of death
          and defeats the ideology of hell.

Resurrection, as embodied in Jesus,
          isn’t some future vision of judgment
          leading to punishment or reward,
with the damned condemned to an eternity of medieval horrors
          and the elect rewarded with eternal adoration and haloes.

Actually, it’s the opposite of all that.

Resurrection in Jesus
          is an eternal quality of life
that transforms the present
          and opens the way to a hopeful future.

Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’,
          he is ‘the resurrection and the life’,
he is ‘the life’, and he offers the way to life,
          by bringing resurrection to bear on the present.

Those who live in fear of the future are released,
          and those who long for a better world are empowered.

One of my favourite pictures of the afterlife is the ‘Last Judgment’
          by Hieronymus Bosch,

It’s a beautiful and terrifying painting,
          depicting the gruesome horrors that await the damned
          and the glories that await the righteous.

The medieval worldview depicted in this painting
          is massively influential in the way we still think of resurrection
          right down to the present day.

And yet, if you ask me to choose,
          I think Spencer is much closer to what Jesus was getting at
          than Bosch ever was.

The life eternal which finds its embodiment in Jesus
          is exactly what he, and it, says it is:
          it is ‘life eternal’.

In the person of Jesus
          is found a transformed quality of existence
where life itself takes on meaning
          in the face of eternity.

Life’s brief shadow acquires eternal value.

In Christ, who is the resurrection and the life,
          life acquires an affinity to eternity.

This is not a promise of future resurrection,
          it is rather the defeat of death in the here-and-now.

Just as Spencer offered a vision of resurrection
          in the face of the horrors of the great war,
so Jesus offers a way through the horror of death,
          to a new world of hope and life.

And it is a vision of life that makes all the difference.

Those who would follow Jesus
          are not called to sit and wait for future salvation.
Rather, they are transformed in the present
          by the renewing of their minds (Rom 12.2),
and are called to participate in the transformation of creation,
          as all things are redeemed into God’s eternal embrace.

The statement that Jesus ‘is the resurrection and the life’
          draws eternity into the present;
and endues the present with the hope of eternity.

Those who inhabit this life eternal
          are called to live life in the love of God and out of love for others.

It is in the focusing of life onto the other,
          that the self-absorption that dominates our existence is redeemed.

Think about Adam and Eve for a moment…

There is no indication in the Genesis creation myth
          that Adam and Eve would have escaped eventual physical death,
          and similarly no indication that death is their punishment.
Rather, the result of their idolatry,
          of their placing themselves at the centre of their world
          and their displacing of God from his rightful place in the cosmos,
was that death became an enemy to be feared
          and a foe to be fought.

The life-eternal,
          that is presented as the original gift to Adam and Eve,
                   and which the story of their fall from grace so vividly mourns,
          is seen to be recovered in Christ, the new Adam.

Jesus brings into being a restored and renewed humanity
          where people experience life in all its fullness.

The enmity with death that has blighted humanity
          since consciousness of our own existence first emerged,
is resolved in the invitation to enter into the selflessness
          of a consciousness renewed by Christ’s own self-giving sacrifice.

By this understanding, witnessing to Christ is therefore not about
          saving people from the eternal fires of hell,
but rather about saving people from the hells of the here and now.

Whether it is the hell of depression or dementia
          or of suffering or homelessness or displacement,
          or any other of the unimaginable horrors
          that confront us with the brute reality of our frailty and mortality…

We are those who, in the name of Christ,
          are called to invite people into life lived in all its fullness,
          into life where death’s darkness is defeated
                   and the light of life inhabits frail flesh.

We are called to bring good news to the oppressed,
          to comfort those who mourn,
          to bind up the broken,
          and heal the sick,
          and proclaim release to those enslaved,
          whether by their own desires or by the actions of others.

For so many people,
          life is simply a death avoidance strategy
          which we are all, ultimately, destined to lose.

We construct our ideologies of health and wealth
          to allay our fears, and deny our mortality,
embracing denial and nihilism in equal measure
          as we seek meaning in life.

We give it up for lent, and then take it back up again for the summer,
          all the while ignoring the one who calls us
          to take up our cross and follow him to Jerusalem
          to journey through death to life eternal.

We may hope that we can do the good we can,
          and get out with grace leaving he world a better place than we found it;
but in Christ, the message of redemption is far more comprehensive.

In Christ, each moment has eternal value.
In Christ, eternity becomes now, and now becomes eternity.
In Christ is the resurrection and the life.

I’m going to close with some words from the recently beatified Oscar Romero,
          the priest who campaigned against poverty, social injustice,
          assassinations and torture in his country of El Salvador.

He said,

"I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection.
          If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people."

For those who are in Christ,
          death is defeated and life is eternal.
Because in Christ, is found the resurrection and the life.

[1] Hosea 6:1-2  "Come, let us return to the LORD; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up.  2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.

Isaiah 26:19-20  Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead. Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past.

See Ernest Lucas, Daniel, 294-5


Unknown said...

One of the challenges imposed on us by the life and death of Jesus is to make our own deaths creative.

Simon Woodman said...

Yes, Geoff, that's very true. 'A good death' is far from straightforward.