Sermon delivered on January 24, 2015.
Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; 1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; Psalm 23.1-6; John 11.17-27.
In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today I want to speak a real word of comfort and hope to you because you have had to endure a long and painful journey as you watched an evil disease rob Deidre of her humanity and ultimately her life. And even when death ends prolonged suffering, it can still make us angry and indignant, the way Jesus was at Lazarus’ tomb (cf. John 11.38) because as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, death is our enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed. Death robs us of our human dignity and it separates us from our loved ones, at least for a season. But O how long that season can be! And like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air and ask in desperation why God allows this to happen.
But if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you notice that Jesus gave Martha and us a much more satisfactory answer to her “why” question about evil and death. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, echoing Psalm 23, he acknowledged that while evil and death still exist in God’s good but fallen world, he had come to destroy their power over us. That is why Christian funerals are so important. They serve to remind us that for those who are in Christ, evil and death do not have the final say because of God’s great love for us expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul reminds us in his letters to the Romans and Colossians, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh so that we could be reconciled to him and enjoy life and peace in the way God intends for us (Romans 8.1-3; Colossians 1.20-21). God’s love for us in Christ is so great that even death itself cannot separate us from it or from God’s life-giving presence.
We see tangible signs of God’s love for us in Christ in two of the symbols that are part of today’s service. First, we see the lighted paschal candle by Deidre’s urn. It is the great visible symbol that reminds us of the pillars of cloud and fire that represented God’s presence with his people as he led them out of their bondage to slavery in Egypt and remained with them during their wilderness wanderings despite their stubborn rebelliousness (Ex.13.20-22; Num.14.13-16). This reminds us that even in death, the ultimate exile, God continues to be with Deidre and that God always remains faithful to us, even when we do not always remain faithful to him. We can therefore trust his promise that on the cross Jesus has conquered sin and death and that resurrection and new life in God’s new creation is Deidre’s destiny (and ours), not death.
But how do we know this? How can we really trust the cross of Christ? Because of Jesus’ resurrection about which we will speak in a moment. The resurrection is why the Church has never looked at Jesus as a failed Messiah but as a victorious one, and the light of the paschal candle also serves to remind us of Jesus’ victory over death and the new life it promises for those like Deidre who live and die in him. Of course we will celebrate a foretaste of that new reality she is now enjoying when we partake of it at the Eucharist in a few minutes.
Second, we note that Deidre’s urn is covered by a pall with its emblem of the cross. This too reminds us that when Deidre was baptized she was buried with Jesus in a death like his so that she could also be raised with him and share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-5). This reminds us that while her mortal body has died and will be buried, even now she is in the direct presence of the Lord of life as she awaits her new resurrection body (cf. Phil 1.23; Luke 23.43).
Paul tells us about the nature of our promised resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15 that we read today and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. Unlike our mortal body that is subject to disease, decay, and death, Paul tells us the resurrection body with which we will be clothed will be patterned after Jesus’ resurrected body. It will be a spiritual body, that is, it will be animated and powered by God’s Spirit instead of being animated and powered by flesh and blood. This means that our new body will no longer be subject to all the nasty things like Alzheimer’s to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever that looks like—and surely it will be more beautiful and wonderful than our minds can comprehend or imagine—it will be impervious to death and suited to live in God’s promised new creation, about which our NT lesson speaks.
When the new creation comes, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively, and which currently only intersect. Instead, as the writer of Revelation reminds us, the new heavens will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that evil will be banished and we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever. There will be no more sorrow or sickness or suffering or death or pain or evil of any kind. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and get to live forever with our new body and limitless new opportunities to be the humans God created and always intended for us to be. For folks like Deidre and her family who have had to deal with the affliction of Alzheimer’s and all the evil inherent in the disease, I cannot think of a better hope to embrace than the resurrection of the body and the new creation.
Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense. You don’t love a person for an entire lifetime and then not grieve her loss when an evil disease like Alzheimer’s claims her. But as Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we are to grieve as people who have real hope and not as those who have none at all because we believe that Deidre shares in Jesus’ final victory over evil, sin, and death and will share in his bodily resurrection when our Lord returns in power. If you are not able to hear this truth right now, please do store it for another day and revisit it when you are able because you will find that your hope in the resurrection is the only thing that can really heal you of your grief and hurt.
I want to close by telling you a story that powerfully sums up our Christian hope.
In 1989 Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria died. She was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia—one of the last members of the storied House of Habsburg. Her funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, “Who seeks entrance?” The herald answered, “Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.” From within came the response, “I do not know this person.” The herald tried again, saying, “This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia.” The same reply was heard: “I do not know this person.” The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, “Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal.” The doors swung open.
And so we return to Jesus’ question to Martha in our gospel lesson. Do you believe that he is the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that those who believe in him will live even though they die? The promise is mind-boggling. But as we have seen, the God we worship is mind-boggling. Jesus’ promise that he is the resurrection and the life is ours, not because we are deserving, but because of who God is, the God who created us to have life with him forever and who is embodied in Jesus Christ raised from the dead. That is why we can rejoice today, even in the midst of our grief and sorrow. Because of her faith in Jesus who loves her and who has claimed her from all eternity, the doors of heaven have swung wide open for Deidre and she is enjoying her rest until the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies comes. And that, of course, is Good News, not only for Deirdre and her family, but also for the rest of us, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.