4.05.2015 Preaching Text: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:19)
Every Easter it’s a delight to see our beautiful sanctuary festooned with lilies and palms amid a declarative mood of celebration, with the wider community happily gathered within. And because this a once-a-year moment, and you’re a captive audience, it’s the perfect opportunity to preach an at-length sermon. I’m figuring 45 minutes or so…conservatively.
Just kidding! I’m actually planning to take less time in order to permit the widest expression of our Resurrection faith, using not just words, but allowing the many other liturgical elements of worship, including song, prayer, and communion, to do the talking.
Though the theme of Easter is the Resurrection, this isn’t a subject we generally tend to think much about. Only, it seems, when we lose a loved one are we jolted out of our forgetting.
In these moments the question of where our loved one is becomes paramount – in a very personal, practical sense. Is my mother or father, husband or wife, son or daughter, safe and secure? Or has he or she passed into nothingness? As I say, this is a very real and powerful question that takes us beyond mere intellectual or theological speculation and into existential reality.
For Christians the Resurrection is everything. Paul makes this clear in our reading this morning from I Corinthians. In it he reminds us of the centrality of the Resurrection. “…I handed on to you as of first importance,” he writes, “what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins…, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day…”
It is this truth alone “in which…you stand,” he says. Unless, of course, “you have come to believe in vain.” Later he adds these powerful words, perhaps the most powerful in all of scripture: “If for this life only we have believed in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
How we understand the Resurrection has tended toward two false understandings. For one, it has led some to believe that eternal life is a consolation prize awaiting us at the end of our days. This is a common modern misperception of medieval theology. According to this theory, most people were doomed to live a life of poverty and servitude, their only hope a heavenly reward beyond death. It’s that “pie-in-the-sky” sort of thing.
Not content with this admittedly false reading of the gospel, others charged that Christianity had condoned this poverty and injustice, and had failed to take proper steps to remedy the human condition here on earth. Thus the church had blessed the status quo and compounded the unnecessary sufferings of large swaths of humanity.
This, however, leads to another sort of error: the belief that human beings can build heaven right here on earth, rather than, or so the argument went, waiting for consolation in the “sweet bye-and-bye.” With the proper application of human knowledge and science, of idealistic social and political schemes, we can build a world free from evil, sin, and suffering.
Which is pretty much where we’re at today. We unconsciously assume we can perfect the world, though experience as well as the time-honored witness of our biblical faith remain steadfastly unconvinced.
I joked a few weeks ago about a friend who suggested that only women can save the world! Not only is there no evidence to recommend this, of course, but, at its core, the argument assumes that we human beings can create a perfect world here on earth. Despite similar type utopian schemes throughout the ages, we still find ourselves stuck with the implacable persistence of evil, sin, and human suffering.
Or, as the dean of the divinity school I went to once said, “All utopian schemes eventually get mugged by reality.”
So what does Christianity, or, more specifically, the Resurrection offer? What does either have to say about this life and the next?
Over the years I’ve pointed out that the one singular discovery of the Hebrew faith is not the Law, or ethics. And it’s not the belief in monotheism, or one God. Rather, it’s the groundbreaking discovery that not only did God create all that is, but that God is actually involved in all of earthly life. Prior to this (and even after), the gods were thought to have nothing whatsoever to do with the petty concerns of mere human beings!
The Judeo-Christian tradition in fact takes what happens in this life so seriously that it rejects any kind of pie-in-the-sky scenario. Yet at the same time it rejects, somewhat paradoxically, any humanist project that would create heaven here on earth, because it stubbornly insists on the persistence of sin and evil! Which is to say that the present is, inexorably, broken.
So what, then, does the Resurrection actually accomplish?
It’s this: the Resurrection promises a future that is not an immaterial “paradise,” as in pie-in-the-sky thinking, but, as the Book of Revelation puts it, a “new heaven and a new earth,” initiated entirely by God in Christ. In the Resurrection, our perfected future is not a consolation for the life we never had, as Tim Keller puts it, but “a restoration of the life we always wanted.”
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of Tolkien’s characters, after seeing a friend he previously had thought dead, asks, “Is everything sad to come untrue?” The Christian answer is that, yes, everything sad is going to come untrue and will somehow be better for having once been broken and lost.
Keller tells of a nightmare he once had wherein he lost his wife and all his children. Initially, upon awaking, he believed it actually had happened. Then, just as suddenly, he realized it was but a dream. And in this new awareness, his love for his family grew ever more precious for having once been lost but now found.
Fyodor Dostoevski, in The Brothers Karamazov, put it this way: “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
Or as C.S. Lewis once wrote: “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” Amen.