>I believe … in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting

The Scripture Lessons
Job 19:20-27
Psalm 16
I Corinthians 15:50-57
Matthew 22:23-33

Thestrals. If any of you have ever watched or read part of the Harry Potter series, you may remember them. Thestrals. It is the name give to the ugly, skeletal, and rather frightening-looking winged horses that pull carriages of students to and from the Hogwarts School. The interesting thing about Thestrals is that most people can’t see them. In the Harry Potter books, students come and go to school led by carriages that seem to move by magic, without any assistance from animal or engine. We later learn that only certain people can actually see Thestrals. Only people who have seen death, who have witnessed its terror – only these people can see the horses. Once Harry Potter had witnessed the murder of his friend Cedric Diggory, he noticed the Thestrals pulling the carriages at school for the very first time.

Now I know that the Harry Potter books and movies are just fantasy, but the story here has some truth to it. Let me ask you all a hard question today: how many of you here have witnessed death? How many here have been present at the moment another human being took their very last breath on this earth? How many of you have had our own, personal brush with death? For some, it happens at or near the very beginning of life. For others, it comes to them in the elder years. For others, it comes at any given point in-between. Death. It is an ever present reality for all who are living; sobering, final, the end of life as we know it. And sometimes, just like in Harry Potter, people who have seen death or tasted it briefly tend to see things that others of us do not see.

Some of you may have heard the comedian and actor, Robin Williams, had heart surgery earlier this year. He had to abruptly postpone upcoming performances of his one-man show, “Weapons of Self-Destruction,” in order to head to a hospital to undergo surgery for an aortic valve replacement. But it was this brush with death, this wake up call for life that had Robin seeing things – seeing life – from a different perspective. As he said in a recent interview: “You literally are opened up, and you really do appreciate the simplest things like breath, and friends … I’ve been calling up all of my friends and saying, ‘Thanks for being there’ … that’s been amazing.”[1]

The theologian, Karl Barth, expressed this same truth – namely, that only people who take death seriously can truly appreciate life. He writes: “Before us lies death, dying, the coffin, the grave, the end. The person who does not take that seriously, that we are all looking to that end; the person who does not realize what dying means, who is not terrified at it, who has not had enough joy in this life and so does not fear its end, who has not yet comprehended life as a gift from God, who has no trace of envy for people who live long and fruitful lives … in other words … who does not truly grasp the beauty of this life … cannot grasp the significance of ‘resurrection.'”[2]

Today we focus on that part of the creed that says “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”We don’t say “I believe in death” – but facing death honestly and openly is clearly implied. Here is the first subversive truth about Christians in today’s world – we do not shy away from death, but are called to face it squarely in the face. Some of you may have noticed the change in funeral services in the 1988 UM hymnal, near the back of the book. The funeral service changed its name to “A Service of Death and Resurrection.” A service of death. This is not morbid wallowing and it is not pie-in-the-sky escapism; it is facing the truth about humanity squarely. We are mortal, not immortal. We are human, not divine. We are creature, not Creator.

Do you grasp how counter-cultural facing this truth is in our culture? The whole world is busy trying to escape death; trying to delay it to the last possible moment. Health care professionals are schooled to see the death of a patient as a failure of imagination that begs the question: “Did we do everything we could?” The recent debate over health care recently took a weird turn towards insanity, when some got up in arms about conversations about the end of life and getting one’s affairs in order. Entire industries, from cosmetics to plastic surgery, spend billions of dollars annually to help people avoid aging, avoid gray hair and sagging skin, avoid anything and everything that might remind us of the truth so many do not want to face – that we are mortal – that our life on this earth is fleeting – that the breaths we inhale daily are numbered – that the moments we have left on this earth are finite.

If facing this truth today, squarely in the face, strikes you as morbid, or as depressing, or as a subject you would rather avoid – then I implore you to stay with me a little longer. You have only heard part of the grand Christian truth. Think with me a moment. Imagine with me a moment. Have you ever stopped to think where the greatest truth about our faith was first proclaimed? In a cemetery! While the world seeks to dance around death, dance around it finality, and dance around its implications, Jesus did the opposite. He picked up a cross and walked straight towards it, one painful step at a time.

The wages of sin is death – so Jesus stepped into the boxer’s ring and went a few rounds with the grim reaper and three days later, Jesus did a little dancing of his own. On the third day, Jesus danced around a cemetery embodying the words Paul would later write to the church in Corinth: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[3] After his death and resurrection, Jesus danced around Jerusalem, popping up for breakfast beside a lake; popping into to an upper room to break bread with “scared-to-death” and “scared-by-death” disciples – and he is still dancing – into hospice rooms, into ICU units, into morgues, onto battlefields, into places that seem dark, hopeless, and final. And Jesus brings one single, one explosive, one powerful, one unforgettable, one amazing, one hope-filled, one all-inspiring word to all such places: resurrection.

One day, some Sadducees came to Jesus, and trust me church, they are still coming today – screaming their same mantra: “there is no resurrection,” there is no life after death, there is no hope on the other side of the grave, there is no day but today, so take your vitamins, submit to your surgeries, make the best of it while you can. And Jesus turns and says to us: Have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? The God, not of the dead, but of the living.”[4] Notice what he didn’t say! He didn’t say, I WAS the God of Abraham. I WAS the God of Isaac. I WAS the God of Jacob. He said, I AM. I STILL AM.

Hear me church. God steps into worship this morning and says to you: I AM the God, not of the dead, but of the living. I AM the God of the blessed virgin Mary. I AM the God of Miriam and Moses. I AM the God of Grandma Flores. I AM the God of Cousin Isabelle. I AM the God of your deceased loved ones, who are dancing with me even now and await with you the day when I will come again in glory: For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.[5]

Church – hear again our confession – we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. No one can talk you into this truth. No scientist can prove it. No philosopher can explain it. It must be believed, in the face of death. It must be believed in the darkest and dingiest of places on this earth. “It needs the witness of the Holy Spirit, the witness of the Word of God proclaimed and heard in Scripture, the witness of the risen Jesus Christ, in order to believe that there shall be light and that this light shall complete our uncompleted life. The Holy Spirit who speaks to us in Scripture tells us that we may live in this great hope.”[6]

And in the meantime? In the rest of our time on this earth? In this space between the here and now and the yet to come? We believe in the resurrection of the body. Not the immortality of the soul, as some would have us believe. And here is the clincher – the implications – the “why does this part of the creed really matter for today, for me, for my life, and my faith.” It is because of this Christian belief, this belief in the resurrection of the body that bodies matter – our bodies – our physical bodies – matter to God and should matter to us. As I heard one person put it recently, we are amphibians – made up of both the material and the spiritual. We can never be reduced to just one or other. We can never JUST be concerned with “saving souls” – as important as that is. We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting – and that belief should affect our days on this earth as much as it affects our life in God for eternity. That belief should affect all of our being in this life and in the next – our body as well as our soul – our mind as well as our spirit.

And the implications are all around us. As Martin Luther King Jr. once declared at a gathering for garbage workers in Memphis:

“It’s all right to talk about long robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, and the [new Durham.]”[7]

I have a word for you today church. Resurrection. When you are standing before the gravestone of your loved one in a nearby cemetery- resurrection. When you are defending the right to life of the unborn – resurrection. When you are seeking to feed the hungry in this life – resurrection. When you are sharing the bread of life to feed the souls of those who do not know God in their heart of hearts – resurrection. When you are advocating on behalf of the widows and orphans for daily food – resurrection. When you are lost in hopeless, despair, and personal darkness – resurrection. Resurrection. Resurrection. Resurrection.

In the words of today’s psalmist: Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices; my body rests secure.[8] Amen.

[1] Interview with Robin Williams by People Magazine: http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20295149,00.html
[2] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 153.
[3] I Corinthians 15:55-56
[4] Matthew 22:23,32
[5] I Thessalonians 4:16-18
[6] Barth, p. 154-155.
[7] Martin Luther King, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of MLK, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington, p. 282.
[8] Psalm 16:9

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