November 13, 2016 – “Being the Church: Believing in Life after Death”
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
“Being the Church: Believing in Life after Death”
Today’s sermon is the final one in a series on “Being the Church.” Over the last several weeks, we have been thinking and praying about the precious gifts that we as church possess… aspects of our “being” that we are called to nurture, and steward, and share with the world around us. The list of five characteristics of the church was suggested by the Rev. Emily Bisset, who developed a study and worship series on the topic, but it is not an exhaustive or exclusive list, as if we could not identify and cherish some additional aspects of what it means to be church.
But Emily’s list included “Singing Together,” “Creating Safe Space,” “Welcoming All Ages,” “Loving with Empathy and Compassion,” and finally today’s theme: “Believing in Life after Death.”
You may have noticed, as I did, with the list, that most of the aspects of “Being the Church” were not doctrinal affirmations. It was not a list of things that Christians are supposed to believe in order to be in the group. Instead, it was mostly a list of things that we DO together that make us who we are… singing, welcoming, loving. This final theme, though, does include the word “believing” – “Believing in Life after Death.” But even this aspect of being the church, I would say, is not so much about the believing, but it is about how the believing changes us as people and as a community.
Once again, thanks to the Rev. Emily Bisset for preparing this series, and this morning’s sermon, which I have adapted slightly.
As she was trying to illustrate some of the good practices that the church can offer to the world, and was thinking about death that leads to life, Emily looked up anti-aging products. There are anti-aging clinics, stores, products, systems. We live in an anti-aging obsessed culture, that increasingly keeps talk of death and dying out of the public eye and out of common conversation.
Our society manages the lines between life and death very carefully and we try to prevent one from spilling over into another. Death is now often only the domain of the funeral home – not the home, certainly, and in some places, increasingly, not the church.
And even more than that, funeral directors will tell you that more and more families are choosing not to have funerals or services of any kind at the time of death. They may host a reception, perhaps.
A woman who lives in a seniors’ apartment building attached to a Presbyterian Church lost her daughter to cancer. The minister and a few of the elders went to the funeral home, where there was to be a visitation, but not a service. The stepdaughter of the woman who had died was the only one who spoke. She talked about her stepmother’s life, recalled a story or two, raised her glass in a toast and said, “Thanks for coming. I hope everyone has a good time.” That was all.
We have been talking over the last several weeks about the church, and what the church can uniquely offer society. And on this subject, the church has a tremendous opportunity to be a bearer of both truth and good news.
First, we can be the ones who talk about death. The reality of death. The pain of death. We can talk about death for what it is – resisting the urge to always use softening euphemisms about what has happened. And we can blur the lines of life and death, keeping them connected to one another, honouring them both with the reverence and awe that both deserve.
Second, we, the church, can administer God’s good work of taking the sting out of death. We know, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that God has ultimate victory over death. And, especially at Easter, we rejoice in hearing the words of Scripture, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting?”
On the one hand, it is Christ and Christ alone who takes the sting out of death. And yet, like so many things, God has chosen to entrust good news to us in order that we might live it out, embody it, and tell it to others.
Don’t get me wrong, we cannot take away the sadness and grief of death. Indeed, we should not, as both sadness and grief should be honoured. And we cannot claim to solve the mystery of death. Life and death are both marvelous mysteries – to be handled with great deference and respect.
In a world that fears death so much, and a society that doesn’t like to talk about death, and when we face death’s painful reality, Easter shows us that God doesn’t deal with death by avoidance. God deals with death by going through it. The resurrected Jesus is marked by death – the scars of death are part of who he is.
And so being a person of faith is not about being able to avoid death. It is about trusting in Jesus who shows us that God’s love contains both life and death.
Life is a gift to us – a beautiful, full, rich gift. And through resurrection power, death is also a gift to us – a second mystery – that leads to more love than we can imagine. Nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God.
Jesus embodies both life and death and the two are held together in God’s love. We – and those we love – are held together in God’s love. Life is stronger than death. Love is stronger than death, and we need not fear.
If we have this truth, what can the church do with it for the society in which we live? How are we called to steward the gift of death that leads to life?
Well, we can remind each other, often and in common conversation, not just at funerals, about our faith and what our faith teaches about death. We claim, as one of the central teachings of the gospel this idea that life has victory over death through Jesus Christ.
But simply stating that, or even believing it, is rarely enough. It is kind of like believing that if you speak louder to a person who speaks English as a second language, they will understand you better.
We need be honest with ourselves and each other and our children, in age-appropriate ways, about death even from an early age – and being honest involves admitting our fears, and making room for questions. The church is in a unique position to invite conversation, with all the generations.
In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul is wonderfully playful with the idea of death and resurrection, even while he is very serious about it. He says, “There is a physical body and there is a spiritual body.” The glory of the earthly body is one thing. And the glory of the spiritual body, the heavenly body is another. God did not create just one kind of body that is stamped with God’s image.
We do not know what new body, what spiritual body, we will have – what it will look like, what it will feel like. And so we are invited to imagine and to ask questions.
As we try to imagine it, Paul tells us to think of a seed that we plant in the ground. The new body will grow into something that comes from that seed (which is our earthly body), but is much greater, much more magnificent, much more beautiful than a bare, small, hard seed.
And seeds can grow into tall, strong oaks, and sweet ripe strawberries, and hardy stalks of wheat, and lovely fields of wildflowers.
Paul muses that the spiritual body will be glorious beyond all imagining, impervious to the worries that wrinkle, the pain that scars, the disease that steals memory and speech. The spiritual body is not susceptible to any of that.
And that moment of changing, of knowing, of seeing will be marvelous. Paul says, “We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
Change is part of every kind of life. And sometimes we fear change. But, in God’s love and in the mystery of this gift of life and death that Christ has transformed for us, the change is from glory into glory.
Paul invites us into honest, and even playful, conversation about life and death, that we can have within every generation of the church, not just the elderly, not just those who stand in death’s shadow.
In fact, having the conversation outside of those contexts is a game changer for how we understand and talk about death when it does come. This kind of playful, yet serious approach to death allows us to move into new depths of faith, and it is a crossroads where the world is desperate for honest conversation and for hope.
And that’s what the church has been equipped to offer. It is not about answers: it is about creating a safe place to wrestle with the mysteries of life and death in the context of faith, and trusting that in such wrestling, God will bestow a blessing – the blessing that takes the sting and stigma out of death.
Paul reminds us that: Life is stronger than death. Love is stronger than death. We need not fear, for Jesus Christ has gone before us, opening the way for us into life.
And if that is true – and we live it, rather than just talk about it, it has great implications for how we approach life and ministry.
In our own lives, we are able to take greater risks. We can take chances that might otherwise seem foolish or crazy. We can stand up for what it good, and take a stand for justice without fear. We can take risks for love and in love. We can believe in the power of goodness. We can live bold and beautiful and meaningful lives in faith and through faith, in more different shapes than we can imagine.
Our governing principles and our definition of success will be shaped by things like compassion and forgiveness and hope – and how much of those things we can offer to others. That’s true for us individually, but it also true for us as congregations and a denomination.
If the resurrection is truth – and it is! – we can do what seems impossible, against the odds. Our ministry can be shaped by doing what needs to be done in the world, rather than solely shaped by what seems most feasible or practical.
If the resurrection is truth, then the survival of the church rests not with us. It is not the fear of decline or some striving for relevance that ought to govern what we do as congregations. Instead, we can take risks in our ministry and do amazing things together.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul keeps going after his statement of belief that death has lost its sting, and sums up this whole section on life and death by saying:
Therefore, beloved, live courageously, vigorously, creatively, lovingly, joyfully, faithfully! Live into the mystery and glory of your earthly body, have faith in the mystery and glory of the heavenly body. Go ahead, do God’s work in your life in whatever form and shape that might take. Wear out your earthly body. Play, work, struggle, dance! That is its glory. And do not be afraid, for when you wear this body out, you will get a new body more glorious than the first, to share with others in the joy of God’s company.
And when we talk about that, and wrestle with it, and teach it to our children, we fulfill God’s calling to be the church of Jesus Christ.