Autoplay audio is here.
Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany – February 17, 2019
On Sunday, June 16, 2013, I had just finished attending a district United Methodist Annual Conference orientation session in Charlottesville and was halfway home to the parsonage in Crozet, driving through the tiny village of Ivy, when my phone rang. It was my wife Tracy who informed me that I needed to come directly home, that her father had called with devastating news, and that she needed to immediately leave for Baltimore.
The news was that Tracy’s mother Nancy Crittenden was in Maryland attending a bridal shower for one of her great-nieces when she tripped on a step, lost her balance, and injured her head so severely that she was airlifted to the trauma center of the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where the following Wednesday afternoon, she would succumb to her injury less than an hour after life support was removed. She was sixty-five years old.
On that day, Tracy would remain with her father Jon, and I drove back to Virginia to pick up my two daughters Ellen and Claire from another family in our church, drive them to the parsonage, sit them on the couch in the front room beneath the picture window and break their hearts with the kind of news they had never heard before about a member of their family.
Jon and Nancy had spent most of their marriage in Northern Virginia, but had retired to Staunton in 2003, which was where the service was to take place. Tracy, her sister Stephanie, Jon, and I met with the funeral home to make the arrangements. The night of the viewing, Jon and I decided it would be best for the casket to be closed, trusting that Tracy and Stephanie would understand.
The night of the viewing came and Tracy, Ellen, Claire, and I crossed the mountain to join the multitude who would come to pay their respects. Yet before the guests arrived, Tracy took our then four-year-old Claire over to the closed casket to try to help her process what was happening: “This is where grandma is, Claire. Grandma is in here.”
Claire grew silent for a moment before furrowing her brow, pointing at the casket and asking, “This is heaven?”
You mean to tell me I have come to church every week of my life, and this is it? I thought it would be much bigger.
A very short lifetime in the church had made it quite conceivable for Claire to believe in the resurrection of the dead. Her problem was not theological, but practical: how on earth does everyone else fit in there?
For Paul in this morning’s text, the matter was quite theological indeed, as he dives into a question that helped divide the Jewish parties of the Pharisees and the Sadducees in his own day: what happens to us after we die? For the Sadducees, the answer was “Nothing.” For the Pharisees, on the other hand, the answer was “resurrection.” Paul was raised and educated as a Pharisee, so the resurrection of the dead had always been a part of his worldview. His “road to Damascus” theophany with the risen Lord Jesus would have, in some ways, dramatically confirmed what he already knew to be true.
Thus, what he does in today’s reading is deal with the “so what” of the resurrection of Jesus. What does it matter for me? What does it matter for you? What does it matter for the church? What does it matter for the world? For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth seems to serve two broad purposes. The first is that it gives us the hope of eternal life for people like us. Paul writes “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.” So then, it stands to reason that since Christ has been raised, that resurrection extends to the rest of us, to people like you and like me. Again, Paul writes “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”
The second of Paul’s purposes served by the resurrection of Jesus is that his resurrection is God’s validation of all Jesus said and did. In verse fourteen, he writes “and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his opponents would attempt to discredit him by asking, in essence, “Who does he think he is?” They would ask by what authority did he forgive sins, and by what authority did he cast out demons, and by what authority did he interpret scripture? For Paul, Jesus’ life and teachings are validated by his resurrection from death; even his condemnation and execution on the cross is vindicated by the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead.
So what does any of this mean for us, and what has it to do with the church today?
First, the resurrection of Jesus and the promise that his resurrection means resurrection for us tells us exactly the kind of God we have— the kind of God we worship in the church, the kind of God we preach and teach in the church, the kind of God whose ethical teachings shape our life together in the church, the kind of God to whom we have entrusted our very lives.
This promise of a resurrecting God is gospel; it is good news because it means that ultimately our lives and our life together in the church is not merely about us, as if our lives were nothing more than the sum of our education, our wealth, our social standing, our prestige, or any other pedigree that we can strive to obtain. It means that our lives, our worth, our accomplishments, or what others say about us, good or bad, are not the sole determiners of who we are. When it comes to death and resurrection, it is not about your LinkedIn page or the hard-earned honors in those wooden frames on your walls.
When it comes to death and resurrection, it really is not about who we are at all. It is about who God is, and in today’s very messed up world where every institution on earth including the Christian church seems to be somehow letting us down, that may be the best news of all.
A fairly common way to see this play out is to hear a kindhearted, compassionate clergyperson deliver a very well-meaning but not-so-great funeral sermon. Preaching often mirrors the values of the culture into which it is spoken, yet good preaching challenges those values, as Paul’s entire fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians challenged a culture who lacked resurrection faith. As such, good preaching, the preaching we are all striving for, throws open the door in a darkened room and floods it with God’s bright and marvelous light, enabling us to see ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, our world, even death itself in the radiant light of the one who conquered it forever.
So the well-meaning but not-so-great funeral sermon goes something like this: the deceased was a good person, kind and generous to everyone. He worked here, she went to school there. She accomplished this, he loved to do that. It was a good life, well-lived, and now some variation of that life is continuing in heaven.
Now, you may not be aware of this kind of preaching because you have been blessed by seventeen years of outstanding funeral sermons by the Rev. Stephen Coleman, but it does happen.
So then, the best and most faithful funeral preaching, that which all pastors strive for, exists in that light-flooded room, filled with God’s radiance, and that life we have gathered to both mourn and celebrate is seen only by the power of God’s light, such that we may perceive that all that made this life good, all that made this life worth remembering, all that made this life worth sharing, and all that made this life worth celebrating is now held in hands both crucified and risen. When our legacy becomes dim, when the honorifics are forgotten, when the wood-framed accomplishments are taken off all the walls, and there is nothing left but God, it was God who designed that life well-lived, it was God who created it, it was God who redeemed it, and it is God who resurrects it, doing for us in Jesus Christ what we could never have done for ourselves.
Perhaps the simplest way for you, for me, and for the church to discern that we have set our respective bar too low is by asking ourselves these questions: does the Christian faith, and does my Christian discipleship make sense without the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Did Jesus Christ have to raise from death for what I believe about God, and about this world to be true?
Since the resurrection of the body stands at the very core of the Christian proclamation, the implications of this belief touch every area of our life together and our ministry to on another and the world, without it, the Christian faith becomes little more than a well-meaning set of platitudes, a simplistic moral code, hardly worth following.1
Yet in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, we can begin to make sense of difficult, even paradoxical teachings of our Lord. What sense would it make for us to stand with the poor, the oppressed, or the outcast if not for the resurrection of the one who stands with such people and instructs us to do the same? Without the resurrection of Jesus, how could we make sense of teachings about losing one’s life in order to gain it? Without the resurrection, how could we trust that our sins are truly forgiven when we pray our prayer of common confession, or that our Lord meets us when we gather at his table with bread and wine, or that Christ will be uniquely present with our children throughout their lives when they receive the waters of baptism.
Without the resurrection of Jesus, how could we ever dare to stand in this space surrounding the heartbroken grieving and sing hymns of praise and pray prayers of hope?
To be very clear, the promise of resurrection is much more than a mere opiate for those who mourn. It is very the center of our proclamation as the church, the center that makes everything that radiates from that center possible, even the things that are difficult, even the things that seem impossible to us.
One night, as Jesus was preparing for his own death and resurrection, he gathered with his disciples and gave them what is called his Farewell Discourse, words that we United Methodists love to use at services of death and resurrection. There are these words in that discourse that we use very early in the funeral service, where Jesus says to his disciples, where he says to us “Because I live you also shall live.”
I believe that in many ways, Paul’s words for us this morning are a reply to that promise, a call to really, truly, fully, live. Not to live as we are dying, but to live as a people without fear, trusting that the very worst thing has been taken off the table, trusting that all of this time and all of this ministry and all of this discipleship are not in vain, for as Christ rises from death, he takes us with him, which is freedom and good news for this life, and not merely the life to come.
Each month, I gather with an interracial group of clergy from around the Richmond area at Love Center of Unity Full Gospel Church, International for a ministry known as Pastors for Pastors. Convened by LCU Bishop Larry Branch, this group gathers for honest, vulnerable conversation about church, ministry, race, and ways in which we can tear down the walls that divide the body of Christ. It is one of the most important things that I do in my ministry in Richmond.
Last Monday, we were discussing the state of race relations in this country, especially as it is manifest in the current crisis in our commonwealth. When it was my turn to speak, I felt called to be optimistic, and to speak of three of my favorite topics: God, hope, and Duke basketball. Here is what I mean:
On November 6, 2018, very early in the season, the undefeated Duke University Men’s Basketball Team demolished the normally strong and quite competitive University of Kentucky by a score of 118-84. For the next week, sportswriters and alums like me were asking aloud this question: Is this the greatest team in the history of college basketball?
The wins continued against Army, Eastern Michigan, San Diego State, and Auburn. And then, on Wednesday, November 21, 2018, the supposed (maybe) best team in the history of college basketball lost to Gonzaga University.
The next day, our Director of Music Ministries Daniel Banke, who also graduated from Duke asked me what I thought of the loss, and here it is: it was a good thing, a “strategic loss” that would get these young men’s heads out of the clouds and their feet on the ground, a loss that would teach them that they more vulnerable than they believe and not as good as they were told they were.
Sisters and brothers, I believe that our nation is living through its “Gonzaga moment.” We lived under the rubrics of political correctness, we elected an African-American President, and we felt pretty good about ourselves. Yet, in our recent history, hate crimes have increased, the shootings of unarmed African-American men have increased. White supremacist groups are more active and visible than they have been for some time, and so on, and so on. Everything seems to be falling apart.
But I am a person of hope because I am the disciple of a hopeful gospel. As such, I believe that America’s “Gonzaga moment” can be a “strategic loss,” one from which we learn some humility and grow in God’s grace. We are not as good as we have led ourselves to believe. The hard and narrow road before us does not end at the crest of the next hill, but carries on for many miles. There is more work to be done, much more work.
And yet, we are not a people without hope. We are not a people without hope because we are the people of the resurrection. We are the people who proclaim light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of failure, truth in the midst of falsehoods, justice in the midst of inequality, unity amidst all of our division.
We do this because we are the people who have seen God’s resurrection even in the midst of death.
As such, we are not merely a people high on an opiate of our own concoction for dealing with death. We are the people of the empty tomb who have seen God’s vindication over death. And because we are the people who believe “[that since] the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in [us], he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in [us].” Our God has set us free from the power of the fear of death, liberating us, releasing us to truly live. Because Christ lives, we shall live, because we live, there is hope for the world, for “the good news of the Kingdom [will] judge, redeem, and reform the sinful social structures of our time.”
So then, “Why church?” In an age of such tremendous sin and brokeness walking hand-in-hand with the twins who are cynicism and doubt, it is quite clear that the world could use some resurrection right now. The world could use some new life right now. And who is better equipped to stand up to the forces of evil and death than those of us who have known God’s victory over them, who believe in God’s power over evil, and who gather and scatter each week in God’s name as a people whose very life is unity in the midst of diversity and love for the world Christ died and rose to save? Who is more empowered to speak life in the midst of death than those whose foundational belief is that eternal love wins and that death forever dies? Who is better equipped to bring hope to a hurting, dying world than those of us who trust in the power of God’s love such that it is the victor over all the things that oppress us?
If Christ’s church will not be who transforms this world for good, then who will?
“His glories now we sing, who died, and rose on high, who died, eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die.” He lives with us still for the sake of this world, until all flesh knows the hope of resurrection, until all peoples’ darkened rooms are flooded with nothing less than the radiant light of heaven.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
- Lewis F. Galloway in Feasting on the Word Year C, Advent Through Transfiguration, Kindle Edition.