Sermon: Death Before Life
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15: 12-17
Date: April 1, 2018
Consider these stats: According to some recent polls only about 64% of Americans believe in the resurrection of Christ. And even more telling – about 25% of active church members don’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. In fact, consistently the polls show that a lot more people believe that the crucifixion happened then believe in the resurrection. Most of us are much more willing to accept Jesus as a martyred Messiah, then we are the Living Lord. When I first realized that Easter this year fell on April Fool’s day, I thought, “oh my, the religious skeptics are going to have a field day with this. But then I realized that for many, Easter is always in a sense April Fools’s day, because many consider anyone who really believes in resurrection already a fool. I read one article about the odd timing of Easter this year, did you know that this is the first time since 1945 that Easter fell on April 1st? And the writer said this: If you believe in Easter the world says you are a fool. The world has no problem with celebrating Easter as a holiday but they laugh at you if you celebrate it as a holy day. They don’t mind the Easter bunny, but they scoff at the Easter Redeemer.
But you know, after all these years, I have come to realize that people don’t really believe in the empty tomb, not because they can’t accept resurrection but rather because we humans can’t really accept death. Now you may be thinking that’s crazy but think about it. Think about how much money and effort are spent in our society trying to prevent death from coming. For instance, we spend billions of dollars on research and the latest drugs – trying to wipe out deadly diseases like cancer and heart disease and stroke and Ebola, and even the flu. The efforts of our doctors and medical scientists are directed towards prolonging life, rather than accepting death. I read the other day that doctors are beginning to test a vaccine that they hope will keep people from ever contracting cancer in the first place, much as the polio vaccine did when some of us were children. Today some cancers that were a sure diagnosis of death a few years ago are treated as a chronic illness. There have been so many advancements in the treatment of heart disease, that if it is detected in time with some lifestyle modifications and the right medication and maybe a stent or two in the arteries, people like me can live a long and productive life. In Jesus day, the average life span for a male was between 35-45 years old. Today it’s close to 80. By the year 3000, it is projected that the average person will live to be 120 years old. The ultimate goal of medical science is to reduce death to a chronic illness and then eventually wipe it out entirely. Most doctors and scientists refuse to accept death. Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Isn’t that why we go to the doctor in the first place?
And in the eyes of popular culture it seems we never really die. Oh we may physically die, but through digital media we stay alive. Recently Facebook has been embroiled in scandal for not protecting the privacy of it’s users. And this breach of trust has spawned a movement of people trying to delete their Facebook accounts. But they are discovering what people who have tried to delete the accounts of loved ones who have died, already know. It is a long and arduous process to delete a Facebook account. Many have decided it’s not worth it. So in the eyes of Facebook, their loved ones are still alive. Perhaps you have gotten those notices that one of your Facebook friends that passed away several years ago is celebrating a birthday. And sometimes those dead accounts get hacked and I will get a friend request from persons who have long since passed. I guess Facebook users never die, they just don’t post as much. And though my mother passed away more than three years ago, she lives on on the lists of robo callers and junk mailers. We still receive phone calls for her from people and lot’s of mail offers. You would think for instance that AARP would be constantly updating their lists, but we still get reminders from them that her membership has expired. Boy has it ever. And I have lost track of the number of calls and letters we have gotten for her wanting her to either sell her time share or refinance it. Now she never had a time share. In fact my father thought they were a huge scam, so I have no idea how she got on that list. She’s been offered numerous credit cards, reverse mortgages, additional life insurance, extended warranties on a car that she sold probably five years before she died. The other day she got an invitation to one of these retirement seminars at a local restaurant. But I think my favorite to date came just a couple of weeks ago from one of the new senior assisted living complexes that are popping up all over Lexington. On one side in Bold Letters it said: Have you been thinking about a change of address? And then on the flip side it gave all the amenities available at this particular place. It sounded nice but the amenities paled in comparison to those she is experiencing at her current address.
But as a culture we have a hard time accepting a persons death. New life? It seems like there are always going to be those trying to cash in one our old one.
And the same is true for many faithful persons. When we are confronted with the reality of death, our first instinct is to fight it. We gather around our dying loved ones and we pray for a miracle to happen that would prolong the life of our loved ones, when the true miracle is not prolonged life, but rather new life. Not that we live longer, but rather we live forever. But so many can’t accept the miracle of resurrection because we can’t accept the reality of death. But here’s the thing that the events of Holy Week tell us, and that is there cannot be Life with out death. If there had not been a Cross, there would have never been an empty tomb. If you came this morning not sure about the truth of the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord, let me ask you, how are you with the Cross and the martyred Messiah.
And most of the Jews in Jesus day did not believe in resurrection either. The Marys that went to the tomb on that first Easter morning, were not going there to witness a miracle. They were going to anoint the body of Jesus, in essence to prepare the body for death, not new life. The spices they brought were intended to hasten decomposition, not bring about reanimation. It never occurred to them that Jesus would be resurrected. Even after they discovered the tomb was empty, they assumed that the body had been stolen. “They’ve taken the dead body of Jesus and we don’t know where they’ve hidden it.” No concept that Jesus could have been resurrected. They didn’t understand what it was. They didn’t believe in it.
And the Disciples, after the news came to them that Jesus had died on the Cross, they retreated to the Upper Room to hide, fearing that the same fate awaited them. But they didn’t go there to plan for life with the resurrected Jesus, but rather to contemplate life without Him. How would they leave the city undetected and where could they go that was safe. Perhaps if they went back to their old life among all those nameless, faceless Galileans the authorities would stop looking for them, leave them alone. But then Mary came with word of His resurrection, and Peter and John ran to find the tomb empty. And life became a lot more complicated. After all, it is so much easier to follow a dead martyr then it is a living God. Dead martyrs require so little from us but living God demand our lives. If they were going to be His disciples, if they were going to continue to follow, there would need to be death before life. Before the empty tomb, comes the Cross.
And even after all that happened on that first Easter, the early Christians struggled to embrace resurrection. There were many who believed that the accounts of resurrection were really just healing stories that had gone one step too far. Look at Lazarus they would say. The first stories talked of Jesus bringing Him back to life. But some said, that’s not what happened at all. Lazarus was never dead. He was ill to the point of death. Just like Epaphroditus had been. And Hezekiah. And the Centurians servant. Lazarus some said had been put in the tomb by mistake. It happened more than you would think in Ancient Israel. Jesus didn’t raise Him to life, he had simply prolonged his life. He healed him. And the same was true of the Temple Officials little girl. She hadn’t been dead when Jesus arrived, even though the mourners were already there. Some even put the words in Jesus’ mouth: “she’s not dead, she’s just sleeping.” No death. No resurrection. And so immediately the rumors began to fly to explain what happened to Jesus. One was that His followers had stolen the body and hidden it, so that they might spread this rumor of His resurrection. After all, if you could offer the promise of eternal life think how many would follow. For most the greatest fear we have, is the fear of death. If you can take that out of the equation with the promise of resurrection, who wouldn’t follow. The greatest evangelistic tool that the church should have is the belief in resurrection. New life. Eternity. But the greatest sticking point is that before eternal life there must be earthly death. And we just can’t accept death.
Ironically Rabbi Saul, who was a highly educated Pharisee, believed in Resurrection. Now the Pharisees were a Jewish sect who believed in the resurrection of the dead. In fact, Saul not only believed in Resurrection but it was the very reason he feared and hated the Christians, whom he called the people of the way, so much. You see, of all of the heresies that the Christians proclaimed that threatened the very foundations of Judaism, resurrection was the worst. Imagine what would happen, he reasoned, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ became generally believed. How many of the Jews would flock to the People of the Way then. Resurrection was the ultimate hope, the answer to both their spiritual and political questioning. So Rabbi Saul set out to silence these disciples before the word spread too far to be contained. And so around the year 33 A.D., 2-3 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Saul set out to Damascus in Syria, where there was a large congregation of these people of the way, with death warrants in hand, intent upon destroying the movement before it really got started. But as the story goes, when he was still outside of the city, Saul was confronted with the resurrected Jesus and the very thing that he feared would happen to others, happened to him. He began to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Saul is first blinded by the light, but Paul is empowered by the light. Is it too far to say that Saul died on that road, only to be resurrected as Paul. I love how Luke describes the encounter. Saul says: “Who are you, Lord?” Now the way that Saul asks indicates I think that he really knows who it is because he uses the term “Lord”. Not a more secular address like “sir” as you might greet a stranger. Or a more Jewish Term like Messiah or Son of God. Or even Savior. Instead he uses the most common term that these People of the Way use for Jesus. “Lord.” In the New Testament, Jesus is called Savior 24 times but He is called Lord 433 times. You see Jesus went to the Cross as Savior, but He came out of the tomb 3 days later as Lord. In a recent poll, 9 out of ten Americans said they believed that Jesus was Savior, but only 3 in 10 believe Him to be Lord. Paul had never met Jesus before. He hated Him. He was intent on wiping out His followers. And yet the first thing he calls him is “Lord.” For Saul you see, there was death before life. And years later He would reflect on the moment when he wrote to the Romans: If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
And then having realized this was the resurrected Lord, Paul asks the question of resurrected faith, “Lord what do you want me to do.” You see, the Cross is all about what Jesus does for us. But the empty tomb is all about what we do for Him. Death before life.
And so his traveling companions led Paul into Damascus and tended to Him and the very ones he had come to kill came to him and baptized him. And his sight was restored. And then he went to the Synagogue that had authorized his murderous trip in the first place. But instead of reporting on his progress in wiping out the people of The Way, he assumed the seat of Moses and said simply: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, risen from the dead, and He is Lord.” His fear of Resurrection had become his life long witness. And he wrote to the Corinthians: 12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
Death before life.
A doctor tells the story of one of his patients, an elderly Christian woman by the name of Edith who believed in Easter and in fact celebrated it every day. Every time she met someone she would introduce herself the same way. She would say: My name is Edith Burns. Do you believe in Easter?” No matter where she was, that was always her way of meeting people. The first time she came to his office for a check up, his nurse had taken her to the exam room and Edith had greeted her in that way. My name is Edith Burns. Do you believe in Easter?” The nurse was caught off guard and said something about egg hunts with her children and going to church and dressing up in pretty spring clothes. But Edith persisted. She told her what Easter was really all about and then she asked her again, “Do you believe in Easter?” And the nurse had begun to cry and she said, “Yes, I believe.” Every time Edith had an appointment, she would make it her practice to come early, so she could “meet” as many people as possible and ask them about Easter. Then one day Edith came early for an appointment and when the doctor walked in he saw Edith going all around the waiting room introducing her self and asking her Easter question. When it came time for her appointment, the doctor called the nurse in and said to her, “Don’t call Edith back just yet. I think there is one more person who needs to know about Easter.” When they finally brought Edith back, the Doctor gave her from sad news. “Edith, I don’t know any other way to say it. Your tests came back and you have cancer and there’s nothing we can really do about it. You’re not going to live much longer.” And Edith began to laugh. “Doctor why are you so sad? You have just told me that I am going to soon see my Lord and my husband and so many friends. You have just told me I will soon be celebrating Easter forever, but you are having a hard time giving me my ticket to heaven. Doctor, don’t you believe in Easter?” “But” she went on. “I think this means that I am going to need to come to your office twice a week so I can see your other patients. You have so many that need to know about Easter.” But as it turned out Edith didn’t come twice a week. She came every day and usually brought her lunch so she could stay all day and introduce herself to the patients as they waited to see the Doctor. Then one day, right after Christmas, the Doctor got a call from the hospital. One of his patients, Edith Burns, had been brought to the ER and needed to be admitted. She had listed him as her attending physician and wanted him to come and admit her to the hospital. And so he went and the first thing she said to him was: God told me to move my Easter story to the hospital but they won’t let me in unless you admit me. And then she said: “I am very near home so would you please have them put me in a room where I will have roommates that I can introduce myself to before I go.” And every woman that came to share that room with her and every nurse and staff member that came to tend to her was greeted with: “My name is Edith Burns. Do you believe in Easter?” And flowers and cards came pouring into the hospital from people all over who claimed Edith as their spiritual mother. And that whole oncology floor was transformed. When people came on the floor they were greeted with Happy Easter. They even started calling Edith – Edith Easter. Lives were transformed. All except one. The head nurse -Phyllis Cross. She had been an army nurse and was hardened over by life. She refused to even go and see Edith and made it clear she didn’t want anything to do with that religious nut in room 824. But then one morning two of the nurses that normally attended Edith called in sick and the only one left to care for Edith was Nurse Cross. But when she walked into Edith’s room, she wasn’t greeted in the usual way. Edith looked at her, gave her a big smile, and said: “God loves you and so do I, and I have been praying for you.” And Nurse Cross said to her: “Well you can stop praying for me you religious nut.” But Edith said, “I will continue to pray for you, and I have asked God not to take me home until you come into the family.” To which Nurse Cross replied: “Then you will never die because that will never happen.” But every time Phyllis Cross came into her room, Edith would greet her with “God loves you and I love you. And I have been praying for you.” Finally one day, Nurse Cross came into Edith’s room and was greeted with those words, and she said to Edith, “Why is it that you ask every one else if they believe in Easter, but you have never asked me.” And Edith said, with tears in her eyes, “I have wanted to, but God told me to wait until you asked me.” And then she reached out her hand and said “My name is Edith Burns. Do you believe in Easter?” And then she picked her Bible up off her lap and read to her the story of the death and burial and resurrection of Jesus. And when she had finished she took Phyllis Cross’s hand and she said: Phyllis do you believe in Easter? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is alive and wants to live forever in your heart?” And crusty old Nurse Cross began to cry, and she said: “I want to believe. I want Jesus in my heart.” And as Edith prayed Phyllis Cross invited Jesus into her life and was saved. Two days later, Nurse Cross came into Edith’s room and Edith said: “Phyllis do you know what day it is?” And she said, “Why yes, Edith, it’s Good Friday. The day Jesus died on the Cross.” But Edith looked at her and smiled and she said, “Oh no, Phyllis, for us every day is Easter because Jesus is alive, not dead. Happy Easter Phyllis?” Two days later was Easter and on her way to the oncology floor, Nurse Cross stopped at the gift shop and got an Easter Lilly for Edith. But when she walked in the room she wasn’t greeted in the usual way. And as she walked to her bed, the nurse could tell that Edith Easter had died. And that now she would truly live forever. That’s the Easter story. Death before life. And Phyllis Cross lifted her face to heaven and with tears streaming down her cheeks she said: Happy Easter Edith. Happy Easter.
And then she turned and left the room and when she stepped out in the hall she saw two student nurses standing in the hall and she walked up to them, reached out her hand and she said: My name is Phyllis Cross. Do you believe in Easter?”