I Cor. 15:1-11
Samuel Miller has reminded us that, "The last sentence of Tolstoi's classic, War and Peace, is concluded with three dots. The vast implications of that richest of all novels trail off into all the unfinished business of human life. There is no way to write finis, as if it had all come to an end."
And that's the way most of us would like to leave it, our life, the lives of those we love, with no finis, no "The End" - just three dots. . . Isn't it so? For nothing is more characteristic of contemporary Americans than the evasion of death, the single dot at the end which marks the end, period! We have no burning convictions about resurrection or life after death in any Christian sense and at the same time we try endlessly to evade the fact and finality of death.
It is reflected in the language we use. We recoil from using the word, died, and say instead "passed away" or "passed on. " At the funeral parlor we admire the cosmetic artistry of the undertaker who makes the person who has died look "so natural," as we say, as if she were "asleep." The fact that the person is dead, repels us.
So cemeteries have become memorial parks. And we've moved them from the church yard in the center of town, where every time you went to a Baptism with its celebration of birth and rebirth, or to celebrate a marriage with its hope for the future, you walked through the gravestones with their frank and candid reminders of death in the midst of life. Instead we have located the cemeteries off somewhere where we don't have to see them and be reminded of the single dot, the period at the end of every life.
This evasion of death invades even the churches. The only brand new, homegrown religion in America denies the reality of death. The traditional policy of the "Christian Science Monitor" was not to permit the use of the word, death. Even in more traditional Christian churches, it lurks around the corner. One church that I know was investing in a set of paraments, the cloth hangings which decorate the lectern, pulpit and altar or communion table in the traditional colors of the church year. But the minister decided against including the violet hangings, the traditional color for Advent and Lent because, he said, it was too depressing.
Even when we are fascinated by death in its more violent forms, that fascination with death can be an evasion. Robert Neale has drawn a parallel between sexual pornography and the pornography of death. In sexual pornography, with its fascination with filthy pictures, for example, it is a "way of fulfilling a sexual need without being involved with another person." It is essentially an evasion of sex itself. So with death. We are fascinated by the James Bond films and "The Godfather," with their portrayal of violent death, but we remain personally uninvolved with no more genuine human feeling than that of the collector of filthy pictures.
The approach of modern man to death is epitomized by the statement a man once made to his wife: "If one of us dies, I'll go to Paris." Doctors and psychiatrists who have done research on death and dying bear this out. The last thing a person will accept is the fact of his own death. Death happens to thee and thee, but not to me. Three dots, perhaps, but never the one dot. Period. The End.
I frankly don't know why the fathers of the church, years ago, assigned a group of passages for this Sunday in the church year, all dealing with death and resurrection: Elijah and the dead son of a poor widow brought back to life; Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and this earliest account that we have of the Resurrection in Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. But it was a wise choice because this Sunday in the church year comes in the Fall of the year: this year, as it happens, in September. Unlike the Easter celebration in the Spring, when, in April, all is full of promise and hope - the greening, and the buds and early blossoms and thoughts of death are far away - the idea of Resurrection comes easy for us . . . But in September everything bears the marks of death. Even the blazing colors in the trees in New England speak of the end of the year and the coming death of winter.
It reflects the realism of the Bible with respect to death. The biblical writers, unlike modern Americans, took death seriously - and especially with respect to the death of Christ. The oldest portion of the Gospel narratives is the story of the Passion, the events in Jerusalem leading to trial, crucifixion and death. Jesus died. This is the first and primary fact in the Gospels. And apart from that fact, the Resurrection is meaningless. If there is no death, there is no resurrection. That means that there was no eternal spark in the life of Jesus which could not be extinguished. He died and was buried. And very early in the morning on the first day of the week the women brought spices to the tomb - precisely to out-smell the smell of death.
We resist that fact, I know, both for Jesus and for ourselves. We like to believe that he had an "immortal" soul which death could not touch. Just as we like to believe that we have immortal souls which death cannot touch. But that is not the way the Bible reads. For if that is really so, then what does resurrection from the dead actually mean? Where is the miracle? Why did the disciples, scattered, disillusioned, disheartened because of the fact of Jesus' death, suddenly come alive, empowered and overjoyed, and even willing to face death for themselves on the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead? They were hardly celebrating and dying for an immortal soul which death could not touch in any event. No. The great miracle had happened. Jesus had died and was buried. Period. Not three dots. And then - then God had done the unthinkable. He had raised Jesus from the dead and this Jesus had appeared among them. And they staked their lives on that miracle.
Hard to believe? Of course. It's much easier to avoid the fact of death and of a resurrection by believing in some evasion of death like a belief in an immortal soul or even the possible reincarnation of the "soul" in some future life. But the whole New Testament stands or falls on the gritty fact of death and the unbelievable resurrection of Christ from the dead.
Actually we do take death a great deal more seriously than when we merely talk about it. The anxiety of a mother for her child is always tinged with the possibility of the death of the child. And when we love someone, we know that we love at the risk of death. We know that in the depths of our hearts. We really do know that we all live under the sentence of death, from the very first breath knocked into us when we were born.
And we also know that we live in a generation of death, so vast and so horrifying that it scarcely seems real. Auschwitz and six million Jews. Dead. The bombing of London and Berlin and Amsterdam, the streets littered with the dead. The even more devastating bombing of Vietnam and the rice paddies littered with dead. The starving children of Biafra. Dead. Or, closer to home, the weekly toll of the dead on the highways - this very weekend as on every weekend. Dead. We belong to a generation of death.
But then - then we can begin to appreciate the unbelievable miracle of death and resurrection. C.S. Lewis speaks of the Incarnation, the whole story of Christ's life, death and resurrection, as, "this whole, huge pattern of descent, down, down, and then up again. . . this pattern of the huge dive down to the bottom, into the depths of the Universe and coming up again into the light. . . " It all means that Christ knows what it means to live in a generation of death, man's great no to life, and then to accept not the no, but God's even greater yes to death and life.
And what that yes means for us is that Christ is alive now, that he is our contemporary. He is not just a figure in the past, a great teacher, a "master," an age old embodiment of the highest ideals of mankind. He is alive. Now. This moment.
And that could be terrifying, you know. Because then the Christian faith is not something merely moderately important, to take or leave as the mood strikes us. Then all that he said and did is not just back there somewhere; it's all alive and present here and now, at this moment.
That is why the first to experience Christ alive after his death were terrified at first. Now all the past that had been buried in the tomb with him was alive and present again. The betrayal, the denial, the desertion as they had scattered in terror on that Friday afternoon and evening. If they were frightened at what might happen to them as his close followers following the crucifixion, they were even more frightened at the thought that now the past - their past - was all alive again.
But if their shabby past was alive again, so were his promises of peace and joy and abundant life. And above all that, the love that he had lived was alive, even their own shaky attempts to reflect that love were now endorsed, underwritten, underscored. Now they knew: This love for God and for the neighbor, this is all that matters ... ever.
And that's what the miracle of the Resurrection can mean for us too. Christ is alive now. His life of love lives now. At this moment. And any love that we can show to God and the neighbor is all that matters ... ever. And none of it is ever "lost." So Paul writes there at the end of that great passage on the Resurrection, "Therefore my beloved brothers, stand firm and immovable, and work for the Lord always, work without limit, since you know ... (you know!) ... that in the Lord your labour cannot be lost." Even in a generation of violence and death, the love that you live and show is not lost, swallowed up, given over to death.
And that is why you and I cannot ever lose hope. It's written into the very fabric of life and death that God's yes to life and death is the reality by which we can live and hope and live again.
A few weeks ago there appeared an article in the newspapers telling of eight Vista volunteers working in the poverty and filth and squalor of an Indian reservation in the Middle West. Because of the work of these volunteers, things are changing. The filth and squalor and poverty are giving way to decent housing, roads, sewers, educational facilities. The volunteers are helping build a workable future for those who never dared to hope.
That is what the Resurrection is all about in a generation of death: Building a workable future for those who never dared to hope. "Therefore, my beloved brothers, stand firm and immovable and... work without limit, since you know - you know now - that in the Lord your labour cannot be lost."