Sermon delivered on Saturday, February 20, 2016 at Maize Manor United Methodist Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; Psalm 23.1-6; 1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; John 11.17-27.
In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Death under any circumstance is hard, isn’t it? But it is especially hard when we are dealing with cancer, a disease that can only charitably be called pure evil. In this case it has struck down a mother in the prime of her life, robbed her of her human dignity as God’s image-bearer, and took her against her will from her husband and young son, along with the rest of her family and friends. There is no good way we can spin this, nor should we try. Her death from cancer is just wrong. There is no justice to be found in it, no goodness. Cancer is truly a wicked disease and Sarah’s death makes us angry and indignant, the way Jesus was when he snorted at his friend Lazarus’ tomb just before he raised him to life (John 11.38) because death is our ultimate enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15.26). 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. In other words, we need to hear a word of real hope today.
And if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you heard that word because 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 Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson, resurrection isn’t a concept, it’s a person, and those like Sarah who are united with Jesus are promised a share in his resurrection when he returns to raise the dead and usher in God’s new world. Jesus’ new bodily existence attests to the fact that we as humans—body, mind, and spirit—matter to God, and that new bodily existence, not death, is our final destiny for all eternity.
Paul talks about the nature of our promised resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15 and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. Paul tells us that unlike our mortal body that is subject to disease, decay, and death, the resurrection body with which we will be clothed will be like Jesus’ resurrected body. It will be a spiritual body, that is, it will be a body 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 cancer to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever our new body 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 world, the new heavens and earth.
When Christ returns to usher in the new creation, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively, and which currently only intersect. Instead, as Revelation 21.1-7 promises, 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 pain or death 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. Given the cancer that ravaged her body, I am sure that as she rests with the Lord and awaits her new body, Sarah is all about this promised future reality living in God’s new world where there will be no pain and suffering.
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 cancer 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. It is this resurrection hope, the promise of new bodily life in God’s new heavens and earth, that we claim today. Our resurrection hope is the only real basis we have for celebrating Sarah’ life today, because without a union with Jesus, none of us have life in this world or the next.
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. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? The promise is mind-boggling. But 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. And if your pain and sorrow are too great so that you cannot hear the promise of resurrection today, hold onto the promise nevertheless until the day comes when you can hear and embrace it. 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 Sarah and she is enjoying her rest with her Lord Jesus until the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies come. And that, of course, is Good News, not only for her, 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.