Sermon delivered on Lent 5A, Sunday, March 29, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; St. John 11.1-45.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we hold the final Scrutiny of our confirmands, where we pray for them and show them our love and support as they continue to grow in their relationship with Christ. As was the case previously, this sermon is aimed primarily at them, although the rest of us really need to hear what our lessons have to say. Specifically I want us to look at what it means to be resurrection peeps.
You recall that two weeks ago we saw that you are to die for in God’s loving eyes. As St. Paul taught us, we know that God became human (or in the language of the NT, God sent his Son) to die for us while we were still God’s enemies and unreconciled to him! God didn’t wait for us to change our ways or end our hostile feelings toward him before he sent his Son to die for us. Then last week we saw why we are to die for (besides the fact that God loves us so much). Christ’s death frees us from our slavery to the power of Sin (although we will all sin occasionally) so that we can once again be God’s image-bearers as God created and intended us to be. As his image-bearers, we shine the light of Christ’s goodness, truth, mercy, and love on a sin-sick world and its people, modeling for them how God wants us to think, speak, and behave as fully human beings, and inviting others to give their lives to Christ as we have. We also saw that because the world is so sin-sick and corrupted, we should expect to get a lot of opposition to living out our faith and proclaiming the truth of the gospel. Consequently, we should be prepared to suffer for Christ because he suffered for us and died to rescue us from permanent death and God’s awful but right judgment on our sin and everything evil in his world that corrupts and poisons his beloved creation and us.
Today, despite the fact that we are still in the season of Lent, our readings point us to the culmination of Lent: Easter, with its joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. If we don’t get the resurrection right, our faith will eventually fold like a bad poker hand, so it is critical for us to look at what it means to be resurrection peeps. We start with our OT lesson and the prophet Ezekiel’s spectacular vision of resurrection for God’s people Israel (you do remember that prophets were God’s spokesmen and women who proclaimed God’s truth to God’s people and often paid a heavy price for doing so because God’s people back then didn’t like hearing God’s truth any more than many of us do today!). While Ezekiel’s vision had more to do with God’s promise to return and restore his people from their exile in Babylon rather than the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns to finish the work he started in his mortal life, we can learn about the nature of resurrection from Ezekiel’s vision because it reminds us that resurrection is all about getting new bodies. Resurrection isn’t another term that refers to life after death (as in dying and going to heaven to live with Jesus) as a spirit without a body. Neither does resurrection mean being alive in some kind of spiritual sense where we remember our dead loved ones. No, resurrection refers to a new bodily existence where our mortal bodies are raised and transformed into immortal bodies and reunited with our souls who have been in the loving and protective care of Jesus during the time between our mortal death and the time he returns to raise our mortal bodies from their graves. As one theologian puts it, resurrection is life after life after death. Given the importance the Bible places on creation and creatures, this should make perfect sense to us. God created creation good and God created humans in his image to run his world on his behalf. Because God values creation so much we are promised God intends to put it to rights again. So when Christ returns to usher in God’s new world, it makes sense that we would have new bodies adapted to that new physical reality. More about God’s new world in a minute. What is critical for us to understand is that when we speak of resurrection, we are speaking of new bodily existence. Bodies matter to God because they belong to God. After all, he sent Jesus to rescue us from all that can destroy our mortal bodies (sin and other kinds of evil). Bodies therefore had better matter to us as well. As St. Paul reminds us, our body is a temple in which God’s Holy Spirit lives (1 Cor 6.19-21). Think about that. What a privilege! That’s why we are to take care of our bodies and not abuse them. One day God is going to raise them from the dead and transform them into immortal bodies! That’s why, e.g., we are being faithful to Christ during this pandemic when we follow medical advice to prevent the disease from spreading.
St. Paul also focuses on the bodily nature of resurrection in our epistle lesson. He tells us that when we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who by his death has taken away our death by breaking Sin’s power over us and promising to raise us from the dead just as God his Father raised him from the dead, we are given the Holy Spirit to help direct and guide us in the living of our days in ways that please God. So even though our mortal bodies die, we are promised new life in the form of new bodies when Christ returns to raise us from the dead. This is the work of the Spirit and it is God’s free gift to us. None of us can earn it nor do any of us deserve it. St. Paul says something remarkably similar in his first letter to the Corinthians. Hear him now:
Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ(1 Corinthians 15.42-44a, 50-57, NLT).
Notice first St. Paul’s emphasis on new bodily existence. Resurrection is about a new physical existence in bodily form. But what does he mean by a spiritual body? Isn’t that the opposite of a mortal body? Well no it isn’t. In the Greek, when St. Paul talks about a spiritual body, he uses the words pneumatikon soma and he uses the words psychikon soma to refer to mortal bodies like we have now. Any time a Greek adjective ends with the suffix -ikon, it doesn’t describe the nature or type of body but rather that which animates or powers the body. So just like our heart and lungs provide animation for our flesh and blood bodies (and when those organs stop functioning our mortal body dies), so St. Paul is telling us the Holy Spirit will power and animate our resurrection bodies so that they become immortal—you can’t kill the Holy Spirit so he never stops animating our new bodies— and equipped to live in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth. Again, notice carefully that St. Paul is not talking about living apart from our bodies. That’s why death isn’t fully conquered until God’s new creation comes in full and our bodies are raised from the dead. While it is true that our loved ones who have died in Christ are alive and their souls are with him now, they are still dead because they haven’t received their new bodies yet. When they do get their new bodies patterned after the body of Christ raised from the dead, death will finally be destroyed, thanks be to God!
Now it is true that we don’t know exactly what God’s new world will look like because it has not yet come in full. But we get glimpses of it in this mortal life when we gather at Christ’s table to celebrate Holy Communion each week and when we live our lives in ways that please God the Father. What we can say with confidence about God’s new world is this. It will be more spectacular than we can imagine (and if we can’t imagine it at all, that’s a problem with our imagination, not the reality of the promise as many claim who don’t believe in the resurrection of the body). But it will be a world where no evil exists because it will be a world where heaven and earth are joined together and evil cannot exist in God’s direct presence (Rev 21.1-8). That’s why believing we are forever washed clean by Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross is an essential Christian belief. Without it, none of us could hope to live in God’s direct presence because we all have sinned and committed evil in our lives. Neither will there be any sickness or death that we have to worry about. Death is abolished at the resurrection. Remember? Nor will there be any sorrow or fear or alienation. We’ll not have to worry if we are loved and accepted because we will know we are, and we will be part of a huge family who will love us and enjoy us as we will love and enjoy them. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and we will get to see them, hold them, talk with them, hear them, touch them just like we did when they were alive in their mortal bodies. We will feel the peace and presence of God all the time and we will be given meaningful work to do as his human image-bearers. We won’t ever worry if God loves us because we will enjoy sweet fellowship with him the way Adam and Eve did before they rebelled against God. Whatever all that looks like, it will be so utterly beautiful that we will want to pinch ourselves and ask if it’s real because it feels too good to be true. Trust me. It’ll be real. Christ himself promises this as we see in our gospel lesson today.
I don’t have the time to explore all this lesson teaches us so I’ll point out three things. First, we read a part of this lesson at Christian funerals and it’s easy to see why. We notice first our Lord’s attitude toward death. Even though he knows that he will raise his friend Lazarus from death, Jesus is so indignant about the evil of death that he snorts in anger at his friend’s tomb (the translation we use says Jesus was greatly disturbed, but that doesn’t really get at what’s going on in the Greek; Jesus snorted in anger and it should therefore be easy for you to imagine him snorting in anger when awful things happen to you). So if you have ever wondered if Jesus wants us to die, there’s your answer: NO!! Jesus loves us and wants us to live with him forever!
Second, we notice that resurrection isn’t a concept. It’s a person and his name is Jesus. If you want to enjoy resurrection life in God’s new world, you’ll only get to do so by uniting yourself with Jesus! Last, we notice that in this story we get an imperfect glimpse of our future. Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave and new life is poured into his friend. This isn’t resurrection in its true sense because we know Lazarus eventually died again and waits along with the rest of us to be raised or transformed with new bodies. But it serves as a preview of what Jesus is going to do in full on the last day when he returns to bring in God’s new world. Bodies matter to God. It’s embedded in the story. Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus’ spirit. He raised Lazarus’ body. So take care of your body because it belongs to the Lord. You’ve been baptized and you are giving your lives to Christ so you have God’s assurance that while you are united with Jesus in a death like his, you will also be united in a resurrection like his when he raises you from the dead one day (Romans 6.3-5).
This is our resurrection hope, my beloved confirmands. This is your hope and future (hope being defined as the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking). Your destiny and future is life, not death. That’s why Christians need not fear opposition or dangers in this life. That doesn’t mean we are to live recklessly. It means that we shouldn’t fear dying because we know that our mortal death is only temporary and that death one day will be destroyed forever by the love and power of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. That makes it easier to be Christ’s light in this world!
But we also know that resurrection is our future hope. It’s not here yet and sometimes in this mortal life (like now) we can become afraid and very anxious. Like the psalmist in our lesson, we cry out in desperation to God and wonder if God’s promises are true, if God really isn’t angry with us. It’s OK to wonder that, my beloved, because we all do from time to time. When we do, we also need to take our cue from the psalmist and remember the promises and mercy of God demonstrated supremely in Christ’s death and resurrection. I personally know the things I have told you about the resurrection of the body are true first and foremost because I know Jesus Christ is raised from the dead! It’s an historical fact and it validates God’s promises in a very powerful way! And so, when I am afraid, I remind myself (with the help of the Spirit) to put all my trust in Christ by remembering he is raised from the dead and is alive at God’s right hand so that he hears my cries and knows my fears. I give thanks that because I belong to Jesus through my baptism and faith, imperfect as the latter is, I can trust his promises about the future and I am calmed and sustained by my resurrection hope and future. May you also learn to embrace that hope in the living of your days.
But I want to go even further than that. Our resurrection hope and future is so fantastic that you, like the rest of us, will need to spend a lifetime asking God to show you how he wants you to live out your resurrection faith in your life starting today. Whatever that looks like, it will surely involve pointing others to your crucified and risen Savior who loves you dearly and on whom your life is founded and your eternal future in God’s new creation is made secure. Remember, you are resurrection peeps no matter what comes in this mortal life of yours. You can stake your life on it because you know Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and he calls you to be his forever. Can there be any better hope than that? To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.