|Infant coffins under construction in Uganda|
Death is a disaster. God did not create His beautiful, glorious, awesome creation to be defaced by death. God did not create you and me and all the people of this planet as His images in this place to be marred and destroyed by death. All of us have been touched by death’s destruction. All of us will be touched and ruined and destroyed by death.
Death is the result of human disobedience. Our first parents were created to enjoy God, to enjoy each other, to enjoy the creation. But both the woman and her husband decided that what they wanted was more important than keeping God’s commandment, than trusting God to provide for them and care for them. God had given them everything, everything but the fruit from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Paradise, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God had said, Don’t eat the fruit of this tree, because when you do, you will die. They chose to eat. And when they did, their relationship with God died, their connection with the source of their life died, their relationship with each other was broken and ultimately died, their relationship with creation was broken and died. And eventually their own bodies and souls passed away from walking on this place and they, too, died.
The curse of our disobedience is death. And it’s not just this physical death of a human person. It is the combined brokenness in which we live. Of infants who die in the womb or are murdered by doctors in clinics advertizing 'safe' abortions, and never see the light of day. Of children who grow weak and sick and are taken from the arms of their parents by malaria or dysentery or some other preventable childhood disease. Of the illnesses that strike one here and then one there, and make us weak and feeble. Of the accidents that come from nowhere and suddenly break and bruise us or take us from this life without warning, like the team of young men in Saskatchewan. Or those cancers that kill with long, slow pain. Or the heart attack that stops everything in its tracks. And it isn't just us people. And all around us the whole creation has been dragged by our sin into this terrible circus of death.
|Roadside coffins for sale in Uganda|
The world around us has no useful categories to help us cope with our disaster. We are counseled to view death as a good thing, a natural thing, something we should welcome. And then there are the multitudes who choose to ignore that there is any problem at all, and pretend that death simply isn't going to happen, to them at least.. Others choose to make light of death. And so they call it ‘passing away’, which makes it seem that we are dealing with a mere transition, a going from one state of living in this world to a state of living in some after world. Even many Christians talk about death as if it is no big deal, as if the person who has died has 'gone to be with the Lord' and how much better that is. But it seems like we people, even we Christians, are simply trying to put a brave face on something we either don’t know about, something we don’t understand, or something that actually we are terrified of.
We are right to be terrified of death. Death destroys; it destroys us. Death takes something beautiful, someone created in God’s very image, and destroys that person, rendering them to muck and dust. Death doesn't just destroy our bodies, death destroys our relationships and takes us away from the people and things that are most important to us. I was a pastor for many years and I visited many people who were dying. And here was this person, who not so long ago was strong and vigorous and busy with many things and full of words and ideas, with lots of friends and family, and now they were lying on a hospital bed, they couldn’t even feed themselves, with barely the strength to open their eyes or say anything except nod their head. Death destroys. My mother was afflicted with a long debilitating illness and I watch over several years how this beautiful, active woman, my own mother, became a shell of the person she was. Her body failed her. She physically shrank 8 inches. She became weak and prone to falling. She lost so much weight she was skin over bones. And finally, she got into bed for the last time and never got up again. Death destroys. Death destroys something that was beautiful. Death takes away something that is precious to us. And now my mother is gone. I don’t see her any more. She is not around to enjoy her granddaughters. I can't stop by and enjoy my favorite food. Where she was is now nothing. This is what death does. It kills every single person, and robs the rest of us of those people who are the most important things in our life.
Unlike so many Christians today, nobody in the New Testament makes light of death. Not Jesus. Not the Apostles, Not Paul. ‘Death is the last enemy to be destroyed’, says the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:26). And this is why what Jesus has done today is so very important. Jesus didn’t come simply to save our souls. Jesus didn’t come just to make a way for us to ‘go to heaven when we die’. This would not be a salvation worth anything. And preachers who preach this sort of thing are peddling a false and ignorant hope. That is because we human beings are not just our souls – but God made us both soul and body – that is what it means to be human. That is what it means to be made in the image of God. And when Jesus came to save us, he didn’t come as just a spirit. No, he came as a fully human being, with a real human soul and a real human body. That’s because the salvation we need is not just the forgiveness of our sins, but the deliverance of our soul and body from the power for death. If Jesus just died to save us from our sins, then every single one of us would still not be 'saved', because every single one of us has a very serious death problem that forgiveness does not touch. The salvation that the New Testament announces is not a salvation that sends everyone to heaven. God is doing something bigger, something greater, something jawdropping, something that includes not just us, but the whole of creation That’s why Jesus went to the cross, not just so that our sins might be forgiven, but that by experiencing death and then breaking death’s power by rising again from the dead, Jesus might save us from the power of death as well, so that on the last day we too might share in the power of his resurrection, so that we, too, might be raised bodily from the grave, so that we, too, might live in the new creation, the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth, that we might live the lives we were created to live as men and women created in the image of God and now saved from sin and death by Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.
Christ has risen from the dead! This is unbelievably good news for me and for you this morning. Everything in our old life was leading to death. But Jesus is calling us to follow Him, to live a new life that leads to life. That’s what it means to be a Christian, not just to come to Church, not just to say this or that prayer, not just to 'accept Jesus as my personal savior 'and have my sins forgiven, but to become a follower of Jesus, a disciple of Jesus, to live my life as if Jesus really has risen, and is Lord, and is calling me and you to be his man, his woman, in this place, in this Church. Most Churches are actually houses of the dead because they are full of people who live their lives as if the gospel isn’t true, as if Jesus death and resurrection is irrelevant to the way they actually live their lives. But Christ is not irrelevant to our lives – He is the center that holds all things together. Jesus really did live and do the things we read about in the Bible. Christ really did die on the cross for you and for me. And Christ really did rise again from the dead on that first Pascha morning. And if that’s the case, what should you do? What should I do? This is what St. Gregory Nazianzus says:
‘Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him; yesterday I died with Him; today I am quickened with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him; today I rise with Him. But let us offer to Him who suffered and rose again for us – you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material of earth, that remains here below, and is for the most part always possessed by bad men, slaves of the world and of the Prince of the world. Let us offer ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting…’
St. Gregory the Theologian – Homily on Pascha
People who do what St. Gregory exhorts us to do, people who offer ourselves to Christ, to love him with all our hearts, to serve him, to serve and love our neighbor, to give freely to meet every need, we demonstrate the transforming love of Christ, we demonstrate that we understand the resurrection of Christ, we demonstrate that we are Christians. True Christians.
And that is because resurrection means transformation. Jesus has the power to change our lives. To fill us with his love. To fill us with his hope. With his healing. With his power. So why are there so few people who claim to be Christians actually living as if they have been forgiven, living as if they have been given a new life, living as if God and His Word can be trusted, living as if Jesus really is their Lord? It can only be because they don’t know Jesus. It can only be because they don’t really trust Jesus. It can only be because they love the things of this world more than they love God. How else can we explain why so many Christians, so many churches are just a joke, they are playing a game, they simply are not serious, pretending to belong to Christ while living their life the way they want to.
What about you? Christ is risen! Are you trapped in your fear of dying, in your fear of bad things happening to you? You have maybe lost someone dear to you. Christ is risen! Are you overwhelmed because of all the terrible things that are going on all around us? The sickness, the suffering, the dying, the evil the corruption? Maybe terrible things have happened to you and you have lost hope for your life. Christ is risen! And though it seems otherwise in this world we call home, there will be an end, and death and suffering and evil and corruption will not have the last word. Because Christ is risen! And what about your life? Are you living a life worth living, or are you the slave of your passions, the slave of the world’s way of doing things? Christ is risen! This world will pass away, and all that is true to Christ will remain forever. Maybe you need to repent this morning and come back home to Christ. Maybe we need to rethink whose Church this is and open ourselves to what mission Christ has for us in this place. Christ is risen! And because of this our lives will never be the same. Our Church, if we believe, will never be the same. And our world will never be the same if we live as if this good news, this Gospel that has come to us is really true.
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
A sermon preached this Pascha morning at St. Paul's Orthodox Church, Jepkoiai, Vihiga, Kenya.