He Keeps On Rising
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
This morning I would remind you that Easter is not just a day--it is a season. The lectionaries, those lists of so-called official scripture lessons for the entire church year, refer to these Sundays after Easter as the 2nd Sunday of Easter, the 3rd Sunday of Easter. They do not say the 2nd Sunday after Easter--it's the 2nd Sunday of Easter
The Easter season goes on. The Risen Christ is not to be observed only in one Sunday of glorious celebration and joy. It goes on. Christ is risen, but He keeps on rising.
It is something akin to the on-goingness of Spring. The freshness of growth doesn't burst for one day and then recede again into dormancy.
In the mid 1980s, the Rev. Patrick White was my associate minister here. He left to become the founding pastor of a growing church in Godfrey, Illinois, and later went on to our National Association Congregational Church in Allegan, Michigan. In one of his Godfrey newsletters, he included a charming and inspiring double haiku he authored. It reads:
Green the grass, Ripe the bud, Yellow the flower. Blue the sky, Beautiful the butterfly, RISEN THE LORD!
It is one of those smiling testimonials of recognition that the on-goingness of life, love and beauty are indeed allied to the continuing Easter of a Christ who keeps on rising.
But we must continue to recognize the continuing.
Two men walk down a road; their destination, a town called Emmaus. They have heard the news that their master has eluded the death that they witnessed the two days before. They have heard about an empty tomb. As they walk along, a stranger joins them and asks what it is they are talking about. And they explain the astonishing news of the rumor that Jesus lives.
You know the story. The stranger is the risen Christ and he interprets to the two men the meaning of the prophecies of scripture. They invite him to stay with them that evening, and it isn't until they are dining together that they recognize him. And in their excitement, they rush back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven disciples that 'The Lord is risen indeed!' They began the continuation of the greatest message ever told.
We have our Christian faith today precisely because of this great theme of continuance. And it continues even after death. Death cannot stop the Easter continuance.
The heart of our whole nation was warmed by the bravery of Ryan White, that 18 year old Indiana boy who had been gradually dying of AIDS over the past 5 or 6 years. We followed the story of his rejection by the school of his hometown. They wouldn't let a boy with such a horrible infection enter their classrooms. He was rejected--a kind of modern day crucifixion for him and his family. As you know, the family moved to another town where they would accept him, and he became the instrument by which a whole nation learned that AIDS victims did not have leprosy, that they can be accepted in normal human relationships, and their waning lives can be made somewhat easier by that general acceptance.
The time came when Ryan White could survive no longer. I believe there was a winsomeness about him that knew his death would not be the end for him. I choose to believe that a resurrection has taken place along the lines that Paul describes in our scripture lesson this morning.
For many, the word "death" is a hateful word. That's a human idea, but not a Christian idea--for the Christian idea is that death is a lovely word. It is a lovely word precisely because of that empty tomb we continue to celebrate,
When the Apostle Paul said, "O death, where is thy victory, O Death, where is thy sting?" he was saying that now that his master had conquered death, it had no more victory, no more sting. Death had lost the contest forever for all of us who believe that Jesus the Christ won that contest for us.
Two Sundays ago, when we all said together, 'Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!' we were saying "Death, do your worst, you are nothing, and I can lick you with one hand tied behind my back, because I have a friend who showed me you are nothing. So I am not afraid of you anymore. In fact, I can even say that you are beautiful because you are a vehicle to that perfect world, that place beyond, which Jesus said He had prepared for me. Now that you, death, are both nothing and beautiful, the pressure is off; I am now free. I can proceed to live my life to the fullest.
As parents we remember when our children asked significant questions. I recall driving my son to school many years ago when he asked the big question about death. And I told him that if I had to check out of this life tomorrow, I would have to do so with gratitude for the life given to me. I've been given much in this world. It may be old theology but I think it's good theology. If you have received the power of the Christ message of personal salvation, then death is not to be feared, for you have conquered it. This is exactly why I begin every funeral service with the phrase, "We are here today to celebrate the victory of life over death."
It really doesn't matter when you encounter death, because your sting of life is much "stingier" than the sting of death. I'm sure most of us are not afraid of death itself; it's the process of dying we fear.
When those early apostles went out to do their missionary work, they preached up a storm. About what? Their message was not the Golden Rule, not the Ten Commandments. It was not even so much the teachings of Jesus. It was the Resurrection theme. Christ is Risen! And they saw to it in their early preaching that He kept on rising.
The resurrection told those early Christians that life goes on after death. That was a new concept to them. Those Jews who became our first Christians had been brought up to believe that after death there was nothingness. They went to a place called Sheol after death. Sheol has been wrongly translated as Hell. Sheol was the abode of all the dead. It was a land beneath the world where the dead lived a shadowy and ghostly existence, without strength, without light, cut off from people and from God. The Old Testament is full of this bleak, grim pessimism about what happens after death.
The Greeks of that day, on the other hand, had a different idea about death. The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul but certainly not the resurrection of the body. For them, the immortality of the soul meant the obliteration of the body, its complete extinction and dissolution.
Seneca said: "When the day shall come which shall part this mixture of divine and human, here, where I found it, I shall leave my body; myself I will give back to the gods."
Epictetus wrote: "When God does not supply what is necessary, He is sounding the signal for retreat. He has opened the door and says to you, 'Come!' But whither? To nothing terrible, but to whence you came, to the things which are dear and kin to you, to the elements. What in you was fire shall go to fire, earth to earth, water to water."
At our funerals today, when we say this body returns to the earth from whence it came, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we are paying tribute to the Greek idea of death and the immortality of the soul.
So for the Greek, when a man died, his body simply dissolved into the elements of which it was made. But the divine spark returned to God and was absorbed in the divinity of which it was a part. Immortality lay precisely in getting rid of the body. For the Greek, the Resurrection of the body was unthinkable. Personal immortality did not really exist because the power which gave people life was absorbed again in God, the source of all life.
Well, I hadn't intended this to be a lecture on the Jewish-Greek religious-philosophical controversy, but I'm in too deep now, so I'll have to finish it off.
So, there were three conflicting concepts. First, the Jewish idea that denies both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, with both going to Sheol. Second, the early Christian idea that the body will be fully resurrected in flesh and blood for ongoing life in that next world. And third, the Greek idea that the body disintegrates and the soul rises up to blend in with a mass soul of divine nature, without any retention of individual personality,
Are you ready to give that back to me on a pop quiz? The ushers will now pass out the blue books for the exam in "Forms of Immortality 101."
But we owe much to the Apostle Paul. He it was who brought together these ideas so that Christianity could adapt itself to the Greek world. He wanted to retain the idea that we do not lose our individual personalities in joining that afterlife; that you will still be you and I will still be I; but, of course, it could not be in these same bodies--I'm at the point where I say I certainly hope not. I've got to do better than this! And yet, we could not wholly accept the Greek idea that the body was evil, the shackle, the handicap, the prison-house of the soul.
Paul could not accept the Greek contempt of the body. He believed in the resurrection of the whole person. What that life will be like, no one can say. The Christian belief is that not part of the person but the whole person will rise again. There will be some kind of a body. Everything of the body and of the soul that is necessary to make a human being a person will survive, but, at the same time, all things will be new, and body and spirit both will be very different from earthly things, for they will be divine. Who can possibly describe them?
Now, friends, that's Hallelujah talk. Christ's resurrection points directly at us, each one of us, in special ways, in various ways.
The fact that Christ is risen can result in such a dedication to a cause that even the prospect of death is no deterrent. And it's alright if your cause is simply shining forth as an exuberant, fulfilled person of faith, without any sense of having to cure all the ills of the world.
I like the story of the young man of radiant faith at one of those English country estate weekend house parties back in the Victorian era. The famed Thomas Huxley was a guest at that elegant manor house--Huxley, the great agnostic of the biting wit. When Sunday rolled around, several people prepared to attend church. Huxley did not plan to go, of course, but he approached the young man saying, "Instead of going to church this morning, would you be willing to stay with me and tell me what this Christian faith means to you?"
The young man was chagrinned. He said, "Why, Dr. Huxley, if I were to talk to you about my faith, you could demolish my arguments in two minutes. I'm just not clever enough to argue with you." And Huxley gently replied, "I don't want to argue...I just want you to tell me what this Christ means to you."
The young man stayed behind and told Thomas Huxley of his faith in the risen Christ. And when he had finished, there were tears in the old agnostic's eyes. "I would give my right hand", he said, "if I could believe that." Indeed, had the young man attempted to use quick wit and clever argument, Huxley probably would have demolished him. But his simple declaration of faith had done it. For him, the risen Christ had kept on rising. And he had warmed the heart of a man who was ordinarily stone cold on religion.
You see, we really can't worry about what tomorrow might bring. 'Tomorrow' is a dangerous word! It can become the watchword of the postponed life. Resurrection people are today people. We know that the empty tomb is not about waiting around to die so we can go to heaven; it's about starting to live now so that heaven is but the extension of an active pilgrimage well begun.
And let it be a pilgrimage that places you on the mountaintop. You forget to be cautious and may be vulnerable to death. Your cause makes you forgetful of fear, so you forget yourself into immortality.
And so the great movement of love goes on, laughing at death, because not only is Christ risen--he keeps on rising.