No longer subject to the kingdom of death.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  So too, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Romans 6:9, 11

Death no longer has dominion over him. 

The Son of God, who shared our human nature in every way except sin, is no longer subject to the kingdom of death, the kingdom which claims the power of pain and decay over everything in this fallen world.

The good news that Jesus preached can be summed up in the simple-yet-earth-shattering truth that God himself broke into this dominion of death to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God, and did what was necessary to offer us citizenship, to adopt us as sons and daughters of the one who sits on the everlasting throne.

In this fallen world, in the kingdom of death, one thing is certain: everything dies; everything wastes away; everything winds up more scarred, calloused, bruised, wrinkled, and broken than it started out.  John tells us that even the ruler of the kingdom of death knows that he himself will be destroyed – and that’s the point: to bring everything to destruction rather than glory.

Christ proclaimed another Kingdom – the Kingdom where everything in this fallen world is turned on it’s head.  The Kingdom where the latter state is better than the first, where, by grace, we learn to let go more of the dirt and dust, more of the pain and hurt as we mature by faith; the Kingdom where scars and callouses are healed and become signs of God’s glory working in us; the Kingdom where true justice is found not in revenge, not by making things fair, but by letting go, as the one willing offering of the innocent Lamb of God covers all the strivings and failings and best intentions of those who were subject to a twisted kingdom whose goal was death and destruction.

Death no longer has dominion over him. 
So, too, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus
.

We know that no servant can obey two masters. 

We cannot let there be light while we try to hold on to the darkness.  We cannot learn to live and let ourselves be healed and allow God to make us better and better than we were when we began if we choose to decay, if we choose to heap up scars and callouses, if we choose to cling to worldly wisdom gained through a life of pain, if we choose to cling to, if we choose to value that which, at best, grows old and wrinkled, becomes swollen and inflamed, and goes down into the dust of the grave.

We cannot be subject to the kingdom of death and the Kingdom of God; by your words and actions, and all the way down to the core of your being, you will love one and hate the other; when it matters, a choice will be made.

The Good News of the empty tomb, the Good News of a whipped, beaten, mocked, pierced, and spit-upon man walking and talking with those he loves, with each scar now a glorious sign of God’s power to turn the very worst the world has to offer into life and light; the good news in all of that is that we, too, can be made subjects of that kingdom.  Though we’re still within the borders of this kingdom of death, we can be granted citizenship, armed to live as rebels against the world, the flesh, and the devil – even against death itself – equipped by the Holy Spirit to simultaneously get better and worse with age: that God at work in those who are united to Christ in his death and resurrection takes whatever pain, hurt, and decay the world throws at us for our destruction and turns it into His glory, accomplishing His perfect purpose for us in spite of the failings of the flesh, preparing us for life that transforms us from glory to glory in the presence of God.

But we cannot be subject to both kingdoms.  We love one and hate the other. 
We can only serve one, and must rebel against the other.  Each lays claim to our all.

If we trust in God some of the time; if we trust in God’s power as a last resort, only when money and willpower and science and doctors fail – don’t worry, God’s power is sufficient – if we only trust some of the time, we’ve chosen to cling to the dominion of death.

If we live a life of forgiving others, of giving second chances, and third chances, and seventh chances, and seventy times seventh chances, but hold back forgiveness from that one person who did that one thing we could never forgive – don’t worry, God’s mercy is boundless – but, if there’s something you won’t forgive, you’ve chosen to cling to the dominion of death.

If you’ll offer your time or talent or treasure or commitment to the service of the Kingdom of God, but only when it doesn’t conflict with your existing commitment of money or time or energy to things that rust and decay, to things that grow wrinkled and die, then it’s already clear where your allegiance truly lies.

My friends, we must follow Christ, who came to offer citizenship in the Kingdom of God, who came to equip us to live as rebels in this fallen world.

We must follow Him; it’s not a box of envelopes or knowing when to stand or sit or what words to say; we must follow the one who walked out of the grave because he would not be subject to it!  We must follow the one who let go of worldly ambition or wealth and power because he knew it would only chain us down to a dying world.  We must follow the one who let go of revenge for past wrongs, because he knows it only shackles us to the past.  We must follow the one who offered it all, knowing that, in the Kingdom of God, loss is gain, mercy leads to glory, and even the grave itself is the path to victory.

This day, this glorious day proclaims that, if we cling to something that is passing away; we too will pass away.  This glorious day proclaims that if we cling to pain or hurt or wrong inflicted to us, we will live and die in that pain.  But… if we cling to the one who overcame death and the grave, if we cling to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where all things, even death on a cross, work together for the good of those who belong to the Author of Life itself, then, my friends, death no longer has dominion over us, either.  We, too, can go through life knowing that even scars proclaim his glory, and even after this failing dominion of death does it’s worse, we too will rise from the tomb to live in the presence of God forevermore. 

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!

Who needs a Resurrection?

By God’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

As our Easter celebration continues through the 50 days of the Easter Season, today’s lessons give us an opportunity to reflect once more on what it means that our Lord – the Son of God who shared a human body just like ours – would rise from the dead, something, admittedly, very unlike how we have come to expect bodies to act.

After all, even the Lord’s closest companions, those who heard his teachings and saw his mighty works throughout his earthly ministry were shocked on that first Easter day.  Now, they had heard him speak first hand about his death and his promise to rise again; they had heard him speak about the temple – the dwelling place of God on earth – being destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days; they had heard him speak of the deliverance that comes for those who die to self and rise again in the waters of baptism… but even they, conditioned by every other human death ever experienced, walked sorrowing to the tomb to mourn, expecting a lifeless body in a sealed tomb.

And today, of course, we heard that gruesome, even embarrassing account of St. Thomas, that great missionary who took the Gospel East to India, who died for his faith in the Summer of the year 72, who was so shocked at the reports of his 10 closest friends that he demanded to reach out and stick his hand into the gaping wound in Jesus’ side before he would believe that the Son of God had risen from the grave. 

No, even for Jesus’ closest disciples, 1st century Jews who believed that bodies would one day be raised to new life, the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord were far from what their human experience would have led them to expect.

After all, if all the millions of bodies, all the billions who have died in human history stay dead, then what are the chances?  Why should this one body be any different? 

A Resurrected Body: Slim Odds.

Unless, of course, that’s the point.

Researchers tell us that, since about 50,000 BC, there have been 108 billion humans.[1]  If any one of those could have overcome that original sin, that original pride which caused us to miss the mark and land in the dust of the grave rather than in eternity sharing God’s endless life, then none of the events of Holy Week would have been necessary.  If there was any other way that we could overcome the grave, then the willing sacrifice of an innocent son is nothing short of horrific.  Or, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if any other religion offers a solution to death and the grave; if any other philosophy or moral code can actually work, then a loving Father accepting the sacrifice of an innocent Son in order to adopt the guilty as sons and daughters is a horrific thought… that is, unless this 1 was different; unless we believe what we say and sing: that he only could unlock the gate and let us in.

Yes, when we stop to think about it – as we should from time to time – the glory, the Good News that we proclaim in Easter is that something unique happened in that body in which our flesh was joined to God.

Yes, the odds of a body being resurrected are 108 billion to 1. 

But, if we’re true to scripture read through the lenses of faithful tradition and God-given reason, that’s the point: Jesus is the first-fruits of something new; a new creation, the first new shoot springing up from that old stump, onto which we will be grafted if we choose to follow him.  1 in a billion or 1 in a hundred billion is all you need if that one is a new solution, a model, a prototype of what is to come.

And, at the same time, if 108 billion to 1 sound like slim odds for Easter, it’s worth remembering the faith that even modern science asks us to accept.  Secular scientists using the Drake equation tell us that the chances of intelligent life evolving on earth are about 40 trillion to 1, yet none of us doubt that we’re here, in spite of those far slimmer odds.   

No, bodies don’t usually rise from the dead, but it only takes one to chart a new course.  It only takes one tiny spark to ignite a wildfire, and in spite of the destruction a fire brings, it’s new life that springs on the other side.

What does it matter?

Jesus’ resurrection – his body not just resuscitated, but transformed and prepared for eternity – matters precisely because our faith proclaims that he is the firstfruits of a new crop: a branch onto which we have been grafted, joining our flesh to God’s endless life.

It matters, in short, because as we read this morning, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead is our living hope. Our faith is not in good wishes for a better tomorrow, our faith is not that we can make ourselves better people and do some good in the world; our faith is that we have been made heirs to an inheritance, that we will receive life that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading – a life being kept, stored up with God until it is ready to be revealed at the last.[2]

For too long, churches have avoided the topic of resurrection precisely because of the slim odds.  The resurrection of a body isn’t something we see.  And certainly even the Gospels record quite candidly the astonishment of even the most faithful followers.

But if we leave out the resurrection, if we leave out that unique example of Christ as the prototype of God’s future plans, then we’re left without an answer for the hope that is in us, and perhaps even more importantly, we’re left without anything coherent to say about what happens when we die.

For many faithful churchgoers, we’ve come to a point where the most we can say about the death of even the most faithful Christian is, “well, they’re in a better place”.

But the Resurrection tells us that our faith isn’t about disembodied bliss enjoyed in the clouds; in fact, in spite of some of the familiar revival songs of the 1900s and the sentimental poems of sympathy cards, the Bible and even the Creeds are quite clear that Heaven is not our goal.  We don’t follow Jesus so we can “go to Heaven” when we die.

Rather, as Holy Week and Easter remind us, Jesus promises that those who ask for mercy will wait with him in Paradise, will wait in the many lodging places made ready in the Father’s house until that time when death and the grave are finally defeated, and as one generation passes to the next, we receive our inheritance of resurrected life as we, made like Christ, share in his reign over the new Creation, just as we were intended to have dominion over this world before we turned on God and each other.  

We believe in the resurrection of the body – that, as a totally unique event, Jesus returned from the grave with a body unlike any other – a body that bears the marks of suffering, the marks of obedience that make us who we are, but a body that does not tire, does not grow weary, that does not fight against our appetites or our will, and that is made like Him. 

In Easter we proclaim that, though we wear out, though we break down, though accidents and diseases happen, we do not fear the grave because we’ve seen the prototype, we’ve seen the revised plans for what we will be on the other side.

Or, as we read: “though you have not seen him, you love him; even though you do not see Jesus now, you believe in him and rejoice … for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls”.[3]

Souls created to inhabit bodies; bodies that are re-formed, purified, and strengthened as iron refined in a fire,[4] made ready not to play harps on the clouds, but to live, love, and serve in the perfect City of God, the New Jerusalem that is to come.  Bodies no longer of dust, but clothed with immortality, over which the grave has no power,[5] as the gates that were powerless against the Lord of Life are unable to hold those who share in that risen life by God’s mercy and grace.

Yes, the apostles would agree, resurrection is shocking!  But every great revolution starts somewhere, and every world-changing creation seems downright impossible at the start.

But, in spite of the odds, let’s be clear.  This is our faith: Christ rose, so we will rise;  Christ rose in his body, so we will rise in our bodies; Christ’s flesh, born of a woman, was clothed with immortality, as our feeble bodies will be remade imperishable; and in the meantime, the jaws of death being broken, he has prepared for us a place to wait, longing for that day[6] when we will reign with him as sons and daughters of the King.

This is our faith.

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen Indeed.  Alleluia.


[1] https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth/

[2] 1 Peter 1:3-5

[3] 1 Peter 3:8-9

[4] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 18:18

[5] 1 Cor 15:50-54

[6] That is, we can at least say that the martyrs await with longing rather than patiently or without a sense of time; there are differences of opinion as to whether martyros here refers to only those who died, or all “witnesses” whose blood was ultimately shed as the result of sin. 

What happens when we die?

This is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental of human questions.  Every culture, every society that has walked the earth has sought the answer to this question. 

Every person ever born has, at some point, felt the tug of the Holy Spirit drawing them toward the questions of eternity.  Every person has looked at the frailty of life, the loss of loved ones, the declining health of a parent, or the tragedy of a life cut short and, as we were created to do, we all look up and say “there must be more than this”.

What happens when we die?

That is the age-old question that unites all people; a question – a longing – that itself is a part of God’s revelation to us, as he created us for relationship with himself and has revealed his plan for our future through his covenant with Israel, through the prophets, and ultimately in the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Word made Flesh, our Lord.

There is much that has been said about what awaits us after death. 

We live in an age where, as the world grows ever smaller, we come into contact more and more with ideas from other times and places.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of giving us greater understanding, we find ourselves with a jumbled mess, where in the well-intentioned name of peaceful coexistence, our modern culture finds itself not more at peace, but caught up in whatever crisis finds itself trending on Twitter this week.  And the only framework we have left to decipher our fears and concerns is an inconsistent mixture of popular and positive ideas from here and there, ideas that sound good, but in their inconsistency, ultimately fail to answer our deepest questions as this jumble only succeeds in disrespecting and misrepresenting the very cultures and viewpoints they claim to include.

One friend of mine put it this way: replace the hard questions like “what happens when we die”, with what should be an easier question: “what kind of cookies should we make”.  In the past, we knew with confidence where we could find our recipe book, with the answers to the “cookie question”, tried and tested recipes that have been handed down in the family for generations. 

Today, though, it’s as though our eyes have been opened to the vast varieties of cookies possible, but instead of actually committing to any single recipe to try it out, our culture invites us to throw the parts that appeal to us from of all the recipes together into one. 

The obvious problem for anyone who has ever baked is that recipes exist for a reason: baking is a science as much as it is an art.  Recipes exist precisely because, no matter how nice the ideas might be on their own, you cannot simply throw shortbread, chocolate chips, oatmeal, ginger, molasses, peanut butter, dates, marshmallows, raisins, and lemon juice together in a bowl and hope for the best. 

To make a cookie, we need the recipe – a consistent recipe with all its parts, a tested recipe, where the ingredients work together to produce what was intended.

We wouldn’t bake cookies haphazardly.  Yet, for so many, that’s exactly how we attempt to answer the hard questions that life throws at us.

A Recipe

What happens when we die?

The Church, the Body of Christ and his messengers in the world, have been entrusted with a recipe – a tried and true recipe, handed down from one generation to the next.

If we were to read and study our scriptures faithfully, we would find that God has been revealing his plan for us from the beginning.

Unfortunately, and disgracefully, some leaders, claiming to work in the name of Christ and his Church, have hidden the answers to these questions for selfish purposes; it’s no secret that, at various times in human history, the Church has relied on fear of the flames of hell and the unbiblical image of an angry judge to scare people into submission instead of truly addressing that God-given longing for eternity.

What happens when we die?  I’m inviting us today to “stick to the recipe” handed down to us, and appreciate what it actually says as the answer to that question.

No cartoon pitchforks or wings and harps to be found.

The parable we heard today is the most extended teaching of Jesus specifically about what takes place after death. 

It’s a parable, meaning that it is an illustration specifically used for teaching those ideas that would be hard to grasp on their own.

In Luke 16, beginning at verse 19, we hear of two men. 

One is rich – well fed, very well dressed, lived for lavish parties and opportunities to enjoy and display his wealth.  He’s also safe and secure: we’re told his house has a gate, and we can imply from the context that also means he has gatekeepers among his several servants, the poorly paid workers who grow and process his food, who sew and mend his clothes, and who build the things in his house.

The other man is poor; not just living from paycheque to paycheque, but poor.  His name is Lazarus.  He’s suffering from an illness that cripples him and prevents him from working, and he’s now living on the street with the stray dogs as his only companions, but even they betray him as they gather the scraps from the rich man’s trash before Lazarus can get there himself.

Both die – but neither ceases to exist. 

As Christians, we believe that God created humankind for immortality.  That’s what we mean when we say that we were created in God’s Image, that his Likeness is imprinted on our souls.  We believe God created everything that is – and modern science shows us each day just how much more wonderful that creation is, with space extending beyond our wildest imagination, made up of particles so small that we only know they exist by their effects on the world around them. 

And, we believe that, out of that vast creation, God created us to be different – to exist in relationship with him, to have free will rather than raw instinct, so that we could experience the free giving and receiving of Love, which is God’s Nature. 

Both the rich man and Lazarus die – their bodies wear out – but that’s far from the end of the story.

As Christians, we confess every time we gather that we believe in the resurrection of the body.  We believe, as taught by the scriptures, that our bodies, and all creation, matters

This is one of those places where, especially in the modern era, some have been mixing ‘recipes’.  The resurrection of the body was counter cultural in Jesus’ time, and runs counter to the many Greek, Roman, or Eastern philosophies that reject the body and the earth as bad and of no worth.

As Christians, we don’t believe that. The Church doesn’t teach that.

We believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and that he called them “good”. 

We certainly don’t believe that good and evil are equal and opposite powers fighting for control – that’s anything but Christian!  No, rather, God is good.  The problem is not some equal force of “evil”; it’s disobedience and rebellion.

It was in using our free will to serve ourselves rather than return the love shown to us by God that the world became not ‘evil’, but fallen.  God made it and called it good, but disobedience caused it to be stained, corrupted.

Our hope – our eternal hope – is not that God would free us from our bodies and the world.  There are religions that teach that, but not Christianity.  Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is found in God’s promise to restore our bodies: that’s precisely why it’s essential that Jesus was raised from the dead with a renewed body. 

Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is in God’s promise not that we will end up in some disembodied spiritual realm, but that we will be made citizens of a renewed earth, one where those who have accepted Jesus’ offer as the remedy for our corruption, and who share in that resurrected body will live in relationship and communion with him and with each other.

And, until that time, we are told that our flesh rests in hope, and that for the faithful, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

Punishments or Justice?

The experience in the grave is very different for the rich man than for Lazarus.

Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson provides an image, and it’s one worth our attention.

There’s no little red devils with horns and hooves wielding pitchforks – in fact, you can search the scriptures all day long, and you won’t find them anywhere: that’s not what the Church teaches, and it’s not what the Bible says.

What we do see is this: the rich man in the grave (Hades, the place of the dead) is separated from Lazarus who rests in “paradise”, awaiting the last day and the resurrection.  And, the scriptural image is, at least for me, much more powerful than the cartoon devils given to us by false preachers.

The chasm – the walls of the cell, if you prefer – separating the two men are of the rich man’s own devising. 

The wall, the gap separating the rich man from the peace of paradise is the very wall that he himself constructed.

In his life, he did all in his power to separate himself from the plight of the poor.  He paraded around in his new clothes; he was so well fed that the food that he wasted or threw away would have been enough to feed those in need; he built a wall, in the name of safety and security, which also served to guard his eyes from having to face those in need around him. 

But, Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

The great divide that the rich man experiences after death is the reversal of the great divide that he inflicted on others in his life.

It’s not as though this is a punishment unfairly imposed by an angry god who keeps a tally of wrong deeds. 

No.  It’s simply justice.  We reap what we sow. 

We lock away and hoard our treasure now, we find ourselves locked away grasping to what has become worthless in the age to come. 

We celebrate and rejoice, or save and spend at the expense of our brother or sister, and as we hear in scripture, that love of money and the eagerness to become rich result only in wandering from the faith and piercing ourselves with many pains.

Those who take great comfort now, be warned.  “For blessed are those who mourn” now for injustice and wrong; because those who are comfortable, like the rich man, will watch as those who mourned shall be comforted.

Those who take great pride now, be warned: for you shall see the meek inherit the earth.

The Answer to the Question

What happens when we die?

We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.

And as our bodies rest, our eyes are opened and we see the justice of God. 

But, it’s for us to decide, in this life, if we will be those who strive for God’s truth and justice now, who take up their cross and follow Jesus in spite of the persecutions we might face, and who will rest in peace. Or, if we are those who build, inherit, or benefit from walls that have been built, then justice demands that we experience life outside those walls in the age to come.

The rich man said “I beg you to send someone… I have a family, and they need to be warned so they won’t come into this place of torment”. 

No, came the answer. “They have been warned.  If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if one rises from the dead”.

None of us can earn paradise; we’ve all, every one of us, benefited from building chasms between rich and poor, friend and foe, between races and languages and nations. 

Our only hope, then, is to believe the message of the one who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Notes:

This sermon is consistent with how Christians from the Early Church interpreted this parable before the politics and polemics that led to and stemmed from the Reformation. It draws largely on St. John Chrysostom’s Four Discourses on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, particularly discourses 2 and 4.

The idea of “digging one’s own abyss” in interpreting this passage comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection (in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, CUA Press, vol. 58, pp. 232-234); St. Augustine emphasizes the idea of reaping what one sows, or the concept of the equal balance of the scales (“the measure you give is the measure you get”) in this passage in his Sermon on this parable (#367 in his collected works).

Numerous fathers of the Early Church (Justin Martyr, Clement/Pseudo-Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, among others) are sources on the topic of the state of the righteous and unrighteous dead before the return of Christ and the general resurrection.

Anglican bishop and professor N.T. Wright has written extensively on the topic in recent years. His chapter “Purgatory, Paradise, and Hell” in Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008) is a fascinating and accessible study.