In Life, In Death

Luke 20:27-38
1 Corinthians 1:20-30

One of my favorite movies all-time is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. At the beginning of the movie, Kirk confronts Spoke: "How we face death is as important as how we face life." That's the issue we're going to address today. How the believer faces death.

This is a question that every person of faith encounters-- indeed every human, regardless of having any faith at all. Is this life all that there is? If yes, then that determines how we will live. If no, that also determines how we live! It's the one thing every living person has in common. We all have an expiration date. No one knows when it is. It would be interesting how differently we would live our lives if we did know-- but that's another sermon.

"Lord, if you had come when we called you, our brother would not have died."
"Lord, if you had come when we called you, our brother would not have died."

Two sisters, both in mourning, confront Jesus with their grief and anger in the eleventh chapter of John. Jesus' friend Lazarus has died. Jesus is grieving himself. Faced with the question, Jesus says to Mary, "Your brother will rise again." Now, Mary belonged to a strand of Judaism, shared with the Pharisees, who believed in a resurrection of the dead-- but it was a moment in the future when God would liberate the entire creation. So she said, "Yes, I know he will rise on the last day."

"I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus said. "Everyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. Do you believe this?"

It's the question every Christian believer must answer. "Yes, Lord" she says.

A few months ago I put on my black clergy robe. I stood at the front of the funeral home, manuscript in hand. I had done the preparation, mentally and emotionally, for this day-- the day we would celebrate my grandmother's life. She had lived a full life-- 92 years, married to my grandfather for over 70 years. She had been a faithful believer, and so she faced the end of life with hope. But as I stood there in front of the family and gathered community, I could barely speak her name. I could barely read my words of the manuscript through the tears. Death is powerful. Even though we all have that expiration date, when it comes for us or for a loved one, even someone we didn't know; we still struggle.

Jesus was teaching in the Temple one day when he was confronted by some of the religious authorities. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, but they asked about it anyway, either to trick Jesus or trap him in a theological battle. "So this woman was married to seven brothers..." [not at the same time.] "They all died, leaving her without children. Then she died herself. In the resurrection, which guy is she married to?" They were speaking of the tradition called Levirate marriage, which required a brother to marry his childless sister in law if her husband died. Early Jews, and the Saduccees in Jesus' day, did not believe in a resurrection; they believed a person lived on after death only through the lives of their children.

"You don't get it," Jesus said. In this age people marry and are given in marriage. But in the next age, it won't matter, because everyone will be with God. By the way, you say you don't believe in resurrection, but you believe in the Bible, right? So in the story of the burning bush when God says to Moses, 'I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,' what do you think is going on? They are with God, even though the died. God is God of the living, not the dead."

End of discussion.

Writing from prison, Paul thinks of his congregation at Philippi. He's awaiting trial and a possible death sentence. But he does it without bitterness or fear. He's struggling, not with the possibility of death, but because he sees good in death and in continuing to live. Again, we all have an expiration date; no one knows when it will happen.
I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
Paul wants to continue his work as an apostle, sharing the story of Jesus, but it's also been a long struggle, and he's ready to step in to the next life that is God's will. He's not afraid of death. He's praying for endurance, rather than deliverance. Side note: how often do we pray for deliverance from what troubles us, rather than the endurance to persevere? The issue is: do our lives, whatever we are facing, magnify Christ? Anyway, Paul is afraid he will not have the courage to stand for his faith at trial, so he prays for strength. He wants to be strong, and he wants the Philippians to be strong as well:
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel... For [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

I recently said in small group that heaven was overrated. It caused a couple of people to wake up from their naps! I wasn't saying heaven isn't important; I was saying that too many Christians live as though their earthly lives don't matter. If we are only focused on getting to heaven to be with Jesus, we won't have the attention or compassion to care for those in need in this life-- the ones Jesus ate with, healed, and raised to new life.

Toward the end of our United Methodist funeral liturgy, the pastor prays for the person who has died: "Receive _______ into the arms of your mercy. Raise _______ up wth all of your people." But then it goes on:
Receive us also, and raise us into a new life. Help us so to love and serve you in this world that we may enter into your joy in the world to come. Amen.

The Book of Hebrews says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Brian McLaren in the books says that we say that God is the God of the past, present, and future. The God of the past has brought us to this moment. The God of the present is with us now. The God of the future reaches back and pulls us forward. God is not confined by the boundaries of space and time. So at the end of our lives, the God of the future is bringing us forward into a new life. If God is there in the future, what are we afraid of, again?

The great Christian preacher William Sloane Coffin said this:
Eternal life begins not at the end of time, nor even at the funeral home, but right now; the death that comes is not the death that separates us from God. 'Though he die, yet shall he live.' 'Whoever believes in me shall never die.' St Paul said much the same thing: 'No one lives unto himself alone, and no one dies unto himself alone. If we live, we live unto the Lord; and if we die, we die unto the Lord. So if we live or if we die, we are the Lord's.' The abyss of God's love is deeper than the abyss of death. And she that overcomes her fear of death lives as though death were a past and not a future experience.
In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.