Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; John 11.17-27.
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In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good afternoon. I am Father Kevin Maney, rector of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church located in Westerville where my wife, Dondra, and I live. I am preaching today because Stephanie asked me to. I ministered to her for almost two years as she fought against the disease of cancer that ultimately claimed her life. I do not come to eulogize Stephanie today because even the most eloquent eulogies will not bring the dead back to life. Instead I come to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead because only Christ can and will restore the dead to new life despite all of our unanswered questions, our doubts and fears and anger.
Death under any circumstance is hard, isn’t it? But it is incredibly 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 and daughters, her mother, and the rest of her family and friends. I watched her disease progress as I ministered to her and my heart is broken over it. Our fervent prayers for her healing went unanswered, at least in the way we intended, and this only added to our sorrow. Like the psalmist, we cried out, “Why, O Lord? Why do you stand so far away?” (Psalm 10.1). 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. No family should lose a mother, wife, and daughter at such a young age. Cancer is truly a wicked disease and Stephanie’s death makes us angry and indignant, and rightly so.
Death ends permanently the relationships we cherish most about being human in this mortal life. We can no longer see our beloved, hear them, touch them, smell them or interact with them. Our Lord Jesus also knew this about the evil of Death because he snorted in anger at his friend Lazarus’ tomb just before raising him to life (John 11.38). Death is our ultimate enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15.26). It entered God’s good world as the result of human sin and has inflicted its evil on us ever since. Like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air in desperation and ask why God allows this to happen.
But if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you heard Jesus talk about a breathtaking hope—hope defined as the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—as he gave Martha and us an ultimately 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, which he did, at least preliminarily, in his death and resurrection.
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 Christ. As Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson, resurrection isn’t a concept, it’s a person, and those like Stephanie who are united with Christ in baptism 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, the total package—matter to God, and that new bodily existence, not death, is our final destiny for all eternity. This is what resurrection is about. This is what we celebrate today.
St. 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. St. 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 wicked illnesses and decay 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 raise the dead and 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 Jerusalem, NT code for God’s space or heaven, will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that all forms of darkness and 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. To be sure, this promise of new heavens and earth has not yet been fully realized and so we must wait in hope and faith for our Lord Jesus to return to usher it in. But even if we must wait, the promise of new creation is the only solution that will ultimately satisfy our hunger for justice and life because only in God’s new creation will all the injustices and hurts be made right and evil vanquished. In this case, Stephanie’s life and cancer-ravaged body will be fully restored (what better justice for the injustice of cancer and Death?) and severed relationships caused by death will made whole and complete again, a life of perfect health and happiness that will last forever, thanks be to God!
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 she dies. But as St. 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 Stephanie’s life, because without 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 he 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 and us in our gospel lesson. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? If you do, then act like the resurrection people you are! I don’t know why God allows all the suffering and bad things that happen in this world. I don’t know why Stephanie had to deal with the evil of cancer that she did. I don’t know why she had to suffer so mightily. I don’t know why her family had to be subjected to the heavy burden of caring for their failing wife, mother, and daughter. None of it had to go that way, yet it did.
But I do know this. Stephanie has been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for her on the cross and made fit to stand in God’s holy presence forever. She will be clothed one day with a new body patterned after the body of her Lord Jesus and set free to love and use her talents in spectacular new and old ways that honor God and others forever. I know that on the cross, her sin, along with ours, has been dealt with once and for all. I know that Death will be abolished in God’s new world because Sin will be abolished and Death is the result of Sin. Both will be absent in the new heavens and earth. I know all of this because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.
The promise is mind-boggling. But the God we worship is mind-boggling. After all, we worship the God who has the power to raise the dead and call into existence things that don’t exist (Romans 4.17). 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 with all your might until the day comes when you can hear and embrace it. Because of her faith in Christ who loves her and who has claimed her from all eternity, the doors of heaven have swung wide open for Stephanie and she is enjoying her rest with her Lord Jesus until the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies come in full. And that, of course, is Good News, not only for Stephanie, 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.